Unique Figures in History – Joshua Norton

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This is the first of what I am hoping to be weekly articles on figures in history who lived their lived their lives in a unique and/or interesting way. While these might not be figures of any great historical importance it is fascinating to study those who marched to the beat of their own drummers.

Unique Figures in History - Joshua Norton

Emperor Norton I

The picture above is of a man named Joshua Norton, or as he declared himself, his imperial majesty Emperor Norton I of the United States of America. Norton was born in England in 1819(though 1814 is indicated in his obituary) and his parents moved to South African shortly thereafter.  Shortly after their deaths he moved to San Francisco and for a time was a successful business. A bad investment, however, followed by protracted litigation, saw him declare bankruptcy in 1858.

Feeling that the political and legal system in the United States was inadequate he distributed letters to various newspapers on September 17, 1859 declaring himself the ‘Emperor of these United States’ and commanding all state representatives to present themselves. For the next twenty-one years he ‘issued’ a variety of imperial proclamations for congress to disband, for a bridge to be built between San Francisco and Oakland, for the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to ordain him emperor, and for the word ‘Frisco’ to be forbidden under penalty of fine.

Norton spent his days wandering the city in an elaborate uniform, given to him by officers of the United States Army, ‘inspecting’ things like cable cars, sidewalks, and restaurants. He also attempted to keep the peace between different groups within the city; the most famous example involved him standing between anti-Chinese rioters and their intended targets saying the Lord’s Prayer until the crowd dispersed without violence. He was also known to give philosophical exposition to the public and he issued his own currency to pay his debts, which became a popular tourist souvenir and was accepted in local shops. Norton collapsed and died on January 8, 1880 while on his way to give a lecture at the California Academy of Science. Those who went through his possessions discovered that he had about $2.50 to his name.

Fame During his Lifetime

After his self-proclamation, Norton became a local celebrity in San Francisco. Though poor, he ate at the best restaurants in the city, whose owners took the opportunity to hang up plaques recording that Emperor Norton favored their establishment. These plaques and his seals of approval were known to boost trade. Theatrical performances reserved a box for him on their opening nights. When Norton’s original uniform became shabby the San Francisco Board of Supervisors bought him a replacement. He was also the subject of much tabloid gossip, with people speculating on his true parentage, namely whether he really was royalty, and whether or not he was involved with other monarchs, such as Britain’s Queen Victoria.

In 1867, a policeman arrested Norton and committed him to treatment for mental disorder. The public outrage which resulted saw his near immediate release with the police chief himself saying “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line[being a ruler].” Norton ‘pardoned’ the policeman who had arrested him and from then on all police officers were ordered to salute him as he passed by.

Though he died in poverty, the Pacific Club, a San Francisco businessman’s association, established a funeral fund for him. His funeral on January 10th is said in some sources to have been attended by 30,000 people(San Francisco’s population at the time was 230,000) and that his funeral cortege was 2 miles long. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at the expense of the city. The San Francisco Chronicles published his obituary on its front page the day after his death which was headlined as ‘Le Roi est Mort’(the king is dead).

Posthumous Fame

Though most of Norton’s decrees were ignored, several of his decrees, including building a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland did eventually come to pass in the 20th century. His eccentric life has become a source of inspiration to some, most notably being identified as the patron saint of the religion of Discordianism. Norton has been referenced, or characters based upon him have appeared in, numerous works of literature including ones by Robert Louis Stephenson and Mark Twain. Twain had lived in San Francisco for a time and based the character of King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Norton.

I became familiar with the story of Emperor Norton from his appearance in issue #31 with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, called “Three Septembers and a January.” In this issues Dream of the Endless enters into a bet with his siblings Desire, Despair, and Delirium whether he can keep Norton, having gone bankrupt, out of their realms until the time he was claimed by their elder sibling Death. Notably, Delirium says of Norton that ‘his madness keeps him sane’ and Death calls him her favorite of all the kings and emperors she has met(and she’s met them all). “Three Septembers and a January” is one of my favorite issues of The Sandman and is well worth reading.

Unique Figures in History

I am hoping to continue this and do an article every Friday concerning people in history who have done unique and interesting things such as Joshua Norton. As such I welcome any suggestions you may have for figures that you feel lived their lives in some interesting or unique way.



Gaiman, Neil(writer); Shawn McManus(illustrator). “Three Septembers and a January” in The Sandman vol. 6: Fables and Reflections. #31(October 1991), Vertigo Comics.

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