Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Strange Case of Joshua Norton

Today I want to talk a little bit about a man you may or may not know, who, in many ways epitomizes the Gold Rush era for me. His rise to riches and fall into poverty were spectacular, but regardless of his station in life he stirred the hearts of San Franciscans.

His name is Joshua Abraham Norton. Born in England he grew up in South Africa where his father made a considerable fortune as a merchant. Upon his father's death,  Joshua inherited about $40,000, (which in today’s currency would be about $1.2 million.) He quickly jumped on a ship for San Francisco in 1849, where he became a successful businessman, making and profiting from extensive real estate investments. He saw a chance to make a big killing by cornering the rice market during the Chinese rice famine when the price of rice in San Francisco soared to 36 cents a pound. He bought an entire shipload of 200,000 pounds of rice already on the ship Glyde, en route from Peru in San Francisco harbor for $25,000, or about 12.5 cents a pound.
Unfortunately, just after he signed the contract, several other ships loaded with rice sailed into San Francisco Bay. The price dropped to 3 cents a pound and Joshua found himself with a big loss. He tried to get out of the contract, claiming he’d been misled about the quality of the rice. After long court battles he lost, and the banks started foreclosing on his real estate holdings to pay his debts.
In would appear his losses weighed heavily on his mind. He disappears from view for a few years, but in 1858 he was living in the Exeter Lodging House, a working class boarding house. Then, on September 17, 1859 he issued letters to San Francisco newspapers proclaiming himself Emperor of the United States.

Let’s listen to what the Emperor said in his declaration: “At the peremptory request of the people of the 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 United States; 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 alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring…”

Emperor Norton issued many other decrees during his 21-year reign.  On Oct. 12 1859, he issued a decree formally abolishing the United States Congress. Among his other decrees included one calling on the army to “clear the halls of Congress”, another abolishing both Republican and Democratic Parties and a third ordering the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco. Does that sound familiar?

Wearing a blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets donated by the officers at the Presidio, and a beaver hat with a rooster feather in it and a rosette, Emperor Norton was frequently seen walking the streets of San Francisco with two loyal dogs “Bummer” and “Lazarus”, inspecting the public works. For two decades the people of San Francisco loved his eccentricities. He often dined for free in some of the city’s best restaurants whose proprietors welcomed him for the publicity value. Subsequently he also took the title “Protector of Mexico”. In the census of 1870 he was said to be 50-years-old, residing at 624 Commercial Street. His occupation was listed as “Emporer”. It was also noted he was insane. But was he?

On January 8, 1880 he collapsed and died in front of Old St. Mary’s Church on the corner of Dupont and California streets. Nearly 30,000 San Franciscans attended his funeral. He left a legendary legacy that lives on to this day. There was even a campaign to rename the Bay Bridge the Emperor Norton Bridge.

Although details of his life story may have been forgotten, Emperor Norton was immortalized in literature. Mark Twain, who resided in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton's public life, modeled the character of the King in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on Emperor Norton.

You can read more about San Francisco in the Gold Rush days of the 1850s in my new historical novel Their Golden Dreams available on Kindle and

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