The Insane Saga of Joshua Abraham Norton, The 'Emperor' of the United States

The United States of America proudly declared its independence from monarchal rule - but the country has had one notable weird royal. Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Believe it or not, his story only gets more intriguing from there.

Norton was an unlikely candidate for American rule. He was born in England in 1818 and grew up in South Africa, and only came to the United States after the deaths of his parents in the 1840s. He enjoyed a few prosperous years as a businessman in San Francisco, but then his fortunes took an unexpected turn for the worse. After a protracted legal battle and a declaration of bankruptcy, Norton was angry enough with the American political system to declare himself emperor.

Emperor Norton is known as America's only emperor, even though he had no actual powers, despite attempting to disband Congress and fire the Governor of Virginia. In reality, Norton was merely Emperor of San Francisco; the residents of his adopted hometown humored him to the point of accepting his worthless currency and saluting to him as they passed him on the street. Norton enjoyed his legendary status until his death in 1880, and popular culture continues to celebrate this eccentric figure.

  • His Declaration Was Published In The San Francisco Bulletin

    His Declaration Was Published In The San Francisco Bulletin
    Photo: I, BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    In 1859, Norton sent a letter - a proclamation, if you will - to the San Francisco Bulletin, and the newspaper published it as a lark. His declaration read:

    "At the peremptory request and desire 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 last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., 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 Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. 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."

    Prior to this, Norton was sued for trying to control the local commodities market (in rice), along with several of his fellow businessmen. It's believed that the lawsuits and the loss of all of his money made Norton lose his mind. He began having delusions of granduer, and started calling himself the Emperor of California in 1853.

  • He Listed His Occupation As Emperor In The 1870 Census

    He Listed His Occupation As Emperor In The 1870 Census
    Photo: Notwist / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A new United States census is taken every 10 years in order to gauge population growth and track changes over time, among other things. The census usually asks for a person's age, address, and occupation. In 1870, Norton listed his occupation as "emperor" and his age as 50. The census taker noted that he was insane, and his status was listed as "vote denied."

  • He Created His Own Currency

    He Created His Own Currency
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Norton not only declared himself Emperor of the United States, but he had his own currency made up to prove it. The money, emblazoned with the words "Imperial Government of Norton I," was essentially worthless. Norton had a local printing press make it for him, and there were no valuables backing it up.

    However, that didn't stop local businesses from accepting it. A special bronze plaque on the outside of a shop ,stating "By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States," meant that the store took Norton's currency - but only from Norton himself.

  • He Fired Virginia's Governor And Disbanded Congress

    He Fired Virginia's Governor And Disbanded Congress
    Photo: Various / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Norton's imperial decrees were meaningless, as he didn't have the power to enforce them. But that didn't stop him from making them. Norton once announced that he had abolished the United States Congress, and claimed that General Winfield Scott would march to Washington with some of his men in order to take care of those in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

    Right before the Civil War began, Norton declared that the Union would be dissolved and replaced with a monarchy, led by himself. He also officially fired the Governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, after Wise had John Brown and his men executed.

  • He Was Arrested For Insanity In 1867

    He Was Arrested For Insanity In 1867
    Photo: Edward Jump / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1867, a member of the San Francisco police force, Armand Barbier, arrested the city's beloved eccentric. Barbier first arrested Norton for vagrancy, and then for lunacy, which, by all accounts, was a charge that might have stuck.

    A number of local newspaper editors and citizens jumped to Norton's defense, stating that the man may have been a bit crazy, but he was harmless. As one paper memorably put it, "The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line."

    In response, the chief of police insisted that Norton be let go, then formally apologized to him.

  • Policemen Saluted Him On The Street

    Policemen Saluted Him On The Street
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After his arrest for lunacy in 1867, members of the local police force treated Norton with respect. They would salute him when they passed him on the street, and let him walk around with his sword, even though carrying such a weapon was potentially dangerous.

    Norton was given a special chair at the main police station, where he would go to mention ordinances that weren't being followed. The police even let him lead their annual parade through the streets of San Francisco.