That Time A Bankrupt Businessman Declared Himself Emperor Of America

For many years, Joshua Norton was a successful 19th-century businessman. Then he lost his entire fortune trying to take over San Francisco's rice market. Here's the story of how his fortunes flipped around one final time and made him Emperor of America.

In response to this call for your take on history's most fascinating figures, Kinja-user jedibugs supplied us with this brief bio of San Francisco's self-declared emperor.


Emperor Norton, as he soon became known, was particularly noted for the proclamations he would regularly issue (one of the earliest of which gave him his own title, of Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico in 1858). But the exceptional part of the story isn't so much about Norton himself, who (of course) had no power to declare himself in power over either America or Mexico, proclamations or not. The exceptional part of the story is how the city warmed to him in response:

Emperor Norton I, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico.

For all that he knew, he ruled the United States of America benignly for almost 30 years because the people of his Capitol City, San Francisco, played along and humored him all that time.

He had his own treasury notes that were accepted all over the city, his proclamations were printed in the local paper, he ate for free at local restaurants, his loggings were provided free of charge and the police saluted him when he walked the streets of the city.

Though he was little more than a vagabond, as many as 30,000 people are reported to have attended his funeral. His gravestone bears the legend: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico — without the use of any quotation marks. And there is currently an effort going to rename the Bay Bridge in his honor, as he thrice proclaimed that such a bridge should be built in that very spot, though he would not live to see it even begun.

In addition to featuring prominently in local history analogies, he also made his way into a number of fictional works, notably as the inspiration for Mark Twain's character King in Huckleberry Finn and, more recently, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman. You can also check out this particularly delightful interpretation over at Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant.

Image: Emperor Norton / UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library


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