7 Bizarre Facts about the only Emperor of the United States of America

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First and only Emperor of the United States, Joshua A. Norton in full dress uniform and military regalia, c. 1875. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many people probably think that the United States left Kings and Queens behind after signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Well… they would be partially correct. America has not had an official monarch since the first 4th of July, but it did have a self-proclaimed Emperor: Joshua Norton, an eccentric San Francisco resident in the 19th Century. Here are some facts about our little-known Emperor that will surprise you… or even warm your heart!

1. Before he was Emperor, Joshua Norton was a successful businessman.

Not much about Emperor Norton’s early life is known, but a few details are agreed. He was born near London, United Kingdom, around 1820. After living in South Africa as a young boy, he arrived in San Francisco sometime in the 1840s or 1850s. Shortly after arriving, he became a wealthy respected businessman in the growing California city, operating businesses ranging from a general goods store to a cigar factory

2. Rice led to the downfall of Norton’s fortunes

Being the successful businessman that he was, Norton saw an opportunity when the Chinese government placed a ban on rice exports in 1852. With prices of rice soring in San Francisco and California, Norton invested much of his wealth in a shipment of Peruvian rice, hoping to make back his money tenfold when it arrived in California. Unfortunately, other merchants had the same idea, and soon the city was flooded with ships laden with rice from Peru. With so much of his money tied up in now dashed hopes, Norton’s wealth was gone. Such a traumatic experience likely led to his decision to cast aside normal society and adopt his new role as America’s Emperor.

3. Newspapers thought the entire thing was a joke

In 1859, Norton decided he was tired of the way that the United States was being run. How fair was a society where a man’s luck could run out so quickly? To fix this situation, Norton wrote a letter to several local newspapers containing the proclamation of his Imperial rule. Emperor Norton I was proclaimed. Despite his very real and fervent belief in his role, the local newspapers treated the entire thing as a prank. However, the decision to publish this proclamation would give visibility to the “man who would be king”, marking the beginning of his 21-year reign over the nation that did not recognize him.

Emperor Norton I, also known as Joshua A Norton in c. 1871. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

4. He banned the Democratic and Republican Parties 

In 1869, Norton, sick and tired of news reporting the fighting between Democrats and Republicans in Congress (which he had ordered abolished in 1860), issued a new proclamation to his subjects, in which he banned both of the leading political parties. This was done to relieve Americans of “the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm.” While, like many of his other proclamations, this edict was ignored, in today’s political environment perhaps some of us wish we had heeded our visionary monarch of old.

5. He took a stand against racism

San Francisco adopted the Emperor as one of their own. Norton was quickly ushered into restaurants, where he dined for free; in theaters, where there was always a seat reserved for him; and, after being arrested for vagrancy, the citizens of San Francisco protested until he was released and apologized to. 

However, others in San Francisco were not as welcome as the eccentric Emperor. The large Chinese population of San Francisco was seen as a threat by the white majority, with many fearful of the Chinese stealing their jobs from under them. Persecution of the Chinese citizens in California and across the United States was common in this period, ultimately including the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited any further immigration of China (an act which was not entirely done away with until the 1950s).

Emperor Norton, however, was a fervent believer in the equality of all of his subjects. At a rally of the Workingman’s Party, a vehicle for anti-Chinese sentiment, the Emperor made a surprise appearance and took the stage. Condemning their actions, he ordered the crowd to disperse. Though he was unsuccessful in stopping the rally, his words were repeated in newspapers across the region.

cartoon called The Three Bummers showing famous stray dogs Bummer and Lazarus begging for scraps from Emperor Norton, c. 1860s.
A cartoon called The Three Bummers showing famous stray dogs Bummer and Lazarus begging for scraps from Emperor Norton, c. 1860s. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

6. He predicted the future 

Among Norton’s various edicts was one ordering the construction of a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland in 1872. The proclamation read “WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge… also for a tunnel…” This proclamation, unlike many of his other edicts, ended up being carried out indirectly. The Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, while the Transbay Tunnel opened in 1974. These projects followed similar routes to those in Norton’s original proclamation, and this did not go unnoticed by the citizens of San Francisco.

Inspired by their old Emperor’s words, a movement began to rename the Bay Bridge the “Emperor Norton Bridge”, in honor of the monarch who had presciently called for its constructions over sixty years before its was created. Though the city has been slow to heed their calls, the movement is very much alive today, still hoping that the Emperor’s memory will be honored.

7. His funeral was a massive event

All good things must come to an end, sadly, and in 1880 Emperor Norton collapsed in the street and passed away before medical help arrived. A survey of his belongings revealed that he died in abject poverty, with less than ten dollars to his name. Due to his poverty, the city was originally determined to bury him in a pauper’s coffin.

However, the citizens of San Francisco resisted the idea of their beloved Emperor being buried in such a common way. Coming together, they provided the requisite funds for a funeral befitting a sitting monarch. 10,000 people of all classes lined the streets, while the 2 mile-long funeral procession made its way to the cemetery. 

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