It was 150 years ago today that the beloved San Franciscan character, Joshua A. Norton proclaimed himself Emperor Norton I.
On September 17, 1859, the San Francisco Bulletin published a statement announcing that Joshua Norton, a formerly wealthy businessman from England, had proclaimed himself to be “Emperor of these United States.” He also named himself Protector of Mexico, apparently at the request of a majority of citizens.
This first statement was followed by a series of other statements from Norton, abolishing forms of government that he thought to be corrupt, and proposing new changes in the Bay Area. Norton’s second statement abolished Congress because it was fraudulent and corrupt. He also abolished political parties and even requested to have a bridge built from the city of San Francisco to the city of Oakland.
It has been said that this statement, along with so many others issued in the Bulletin on behalf of Norton was simply written for the amusement of the editors. But what began as a joke soon turned Norton into a beloved figure in San Francisco and began a 21-year tradition of intrigue and admiration.
Joshua Norton was born in England and came to California from South Africa, during the ’49 Gold Rush, where he soon became a wealthy businessman. This fortune was lost, though, in his attempt to conquer the market in imported rice from Peru. After disappearing for a few years, he came back as Emperor of the US, which began the legacy that still lives on today.
Everywhere he went, Norton was treated like the Emperor he claimed to be. He wined and dined at the finest places without having to pay a dime, visited the State Legislature in Sacramento, and was even given a uniform by the Presidio of San Francisco.
At the age of 61 in January of 1880, Norton collapsed and died in front of the Old St. Mary’s Church on California Street. Though initially buried at the Masonic Cemetery, Norton’s body now lies in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.
To commemorate Norton’s Legacy, Emperor Norton will be featured in an exhibit called “Think California,” done by the California Historical Society. The exhibit will open on September 25th and will display seven different themes, one of which covers the Californian immigrants of the Gold Rush.
Location: California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., San Francisco
Admission: $3 adults; $1 seniors, children younger than 6 and students with student identification; free to members.
Hours: Noon to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays