On September 17th, 1859, several newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area received letters from a man named Joshua Norton. Enclosed was a declaration that he, at the request of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, was declaring himself to be Norton I, Emperor of the United States. In fact, he was just an ordinary man determined to become something more bold than anything he had ever known. In the process, he became undoubtedly the coolest homeless person ever.
Born in England in 1819, Norton moved to South Africa with his family at a young age. At the age of thirty, he inherited $40,000 from his father’s estate and moved to San Francisco. Over the next several years Norton became a successful businessman and real estate developer, amassing a fortune of over $250,000 – about $6.6 million in today’s dollars. Then, he saw an opportunity for even greater wealth.
At the time, China was facing a rice famine caused by the Taiping Rebellion and had banned the export of all rice. This caused the price of rice to skyrocket overnight. Norton then heard of a shipment of rice arriving soon in Peru, and thinking that he could control a large amount of the supply that was to be available in San Francisco, bought the entire shipment. Unfortunately, several other rice ships arrived from Peru shortly after, causing the price of rice to plummet and his investment to be worthless. Norton would spend the next several years in litigation trying to void the contract, but the judgement was made against him; in 1858, bankrupt and mentally exhausted, he left the city.
Upon his return, he was mentally unstable, and sent this now famous declaration to local papers:
“At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”
After this, he received widespread attention and became something of a legend. He would dress in full imperial regalia scrounged from local army officers, and preside over “official” ceremonies in the city. And what’s more, the people of San Francisco loved him. He was completely broke, but regularly ate at the finest restaurants in town; imperial “seals of approval” were posted above restaurants that he frequented and became prized possessions. Theatre companies would always reserve box seating for him at any performance. There was even money printed in his name that became acceptable tender at many of the places that he frequented.
Speculation about his “reign” could be found even outside of San Francisco; many thought that he planned to marry Queen Victoria, while others thought he was a felon escaping prosecution in South Africa. Unfortunately, Emperor Norton I collapsed in the streets and died before he could receive medical attention on January 8th, 1880. After his death, he became a beloved figure in both literature and local lore; Mark Twain even based the King character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Norton. Today, he is still remembered by residents of the San Francisco Bay area as one of the most colorful citizens in their city’s history.