That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head

Shannon Quinn - October 1, 2018

In the 1860’s, the United States was on the brink of civil war. In the midst of all of this uncertainty and anxiety, one man living in the San Francisco Bay area was trying to keep everyone together. His name was Joshua Abraham Norton, and he declared himself the Emperor of America. He held the American flag proudly, waving it as if his life depended on it. As the lovable crazy guy in town, citizens of San Francisco thought this was hilarious, and they decided to go along with it.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head

The Emperor of America Wasn’t Even American

In the United States, there is a rule that the president must be a natural-born citizen. Joshua Abraham Norton could never grow up to be the president, because he was actually born in London, England. His parents were merchants who eventually moved to Cape Town, South Africa and lived in a small community of Jewish people.

As a young man, Joshua Norton attempted to start his own business, but it completely failed, so he started working for his father, instead. In the 1840’s, a series of tragedies began to fall on the Norton family. Both of his brothers died, so when his father passed too, he inherited the entire fortune from the trade business.

He decided that the California gold rush would be a great opportunity to make some money off of people who were becoming newly rich. When he arrived in the United States, he decided to start his own merchant business, like his father. He owned a ship, and rented out space to people who were trading goods out of the San Francisco Bay. He became an 1880’s equivalent of a millionaire, and he continued to move his money in and out of investments in products that he believed were doing well. At the time, rice was a huge commodity, so he thought he could put all of his money into it.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head
Newspaper headlines wrote about Norton’s fall from grace. Credit: Flickr

Joshua Norton was able to meet some of the richest people in San Francisco, and he was invited to nearly every party. He finally made a name for himself. Little did he know that his rice investment would plummet. He lost everything. News of his failure was front page news, as citizens of San Francisco relished in the fall of a wealth businessman. He was penniless, and disappeared from fine society into obscurity.

Some believe that losing millions of dollars practically overnight was enough to make him go insane. After years of disappearing from the limelight, he suddenly emerged from the darkness. In 1859, he wrote a declaration that was published in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin: “At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” He also declared himself the official “Protector of Mexico”.

He did not disappoint his public. The next day, Emperor Norton dressed up in a military uniform from a nearby base. Instead of a crown, he wore a top hat that was decorated with colorful feathers. Everywhere he went, he graciously greeted his “subjects”.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head
Modern-day Emperor Norton impersonators recreate what he was doing back in the 1800’s. Credit: SF Fundcheap

He Was a Catalyst for Political Debate

Even though this all seems crazy from the outside, Norton may have actually been a genius who knew how to get the public’s attention. During the Civil War, California was on the side of the Union, but it subscribed to the idea of an American “Empire”. A lot of the town businesses were even called “Empire”, like The Empire Hotel and the Empire Brewery. Norton was just the first guy to actually stand up and declare himself the Emperor.

It seems as though Joshua Abraham Norton knew that if they wanted to prevent the United States from falling apart during the Civil War, people needed to start talking openly about their issues if there was any hope that they could stick together. He strongly disagreed with how Congress was running the country, and he felt as though the country deserved much better. Even if he was penniless and homeless, Norton decided that his life was not going to waste. He wanted to make an impact on American people in the only way he knew how.

He spent nearly every day in the library doing research on various political topics and current events so that he would have an educated background on the subject he was prepared to talk about. Then, he would walk into the center of San Francisco and very literally give a soap box speech about what he believed was the correct solution to an existing problem.

If someone challenged or disagreed with his beliefs, they would get into a friendly debate with one another. He did not mind if his opinion was different than someone else’s. He just wanted the citizens of San Francisco to see what it was like to have a friendly debate that didn’t end up in bloodshed that tore the country apart.

One day, the local police arrested Emperor Norton for vagrancy and lunacy. He kept insisting that he was “The Emperor”, but of course, they thought this was just the ravings of a mad man.

When citizens of San Francisco found out that he was put into the local jail, they were outraged, and demanded that he be released. All of the local newspapers printed stories insisting that they free “His Imperial Majesty”.

When the police realized that not only was he telling the truth about being elected Emperor, but that he was also incredibly popular, they gave him a royal apology. They dropped all charges and set him free. The Chief of Police ordered all of the officers to stand in a line and salute him as he left the jail, and he was greeted by a crowd of screaming and cheering people.

The members of a local Masonic lodge took pity on Norton after this point. They gave him a place to sleep, and he sometimes stayed in boarding houses for 50 cents a night. Local restaurants would hear his speeches, and offer him free food. The State of California gave him a special VIP card that guaranteed he could ride the trains and the San Francisco cable cars for free for the rest of his life. If he wanted to attend a play or an opera, he was given a free seat in the VIP box. Dressed in his full royal regalia, the Emperor could look down like a true king. In his own way, the people actually did begin to accept him as a sort of leader. Artists began to make statues and paintings that were inspired by Emperor Norton.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head
Emperor Norton’s funeral for his dog, Lazarus was such a big deal, it was turned into a cartoon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many historians say that if it were not for his friendly and intellectual approach to being “Emperor”, he would not have lasted very long. But people truly did love him. He began to take care of two stray dogs who he named Bummer and Lazarus, and they became sort of like like his little sidekicks that followed him around.

Years after he took his oath to lead the US and protect Mexico, one of his dogs, Lazarus, passed away. A huge crowd of people gathered to listen to Emperor Norton give a heartfelt and emotional eulogy for the dog as he explained why he was the greatest canine in the world. The scene was sketched into a political cartoon, and published in the newspaper, where Emperor Norton was dressed like the Pope, and the crowd was hanging on to his every word.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head
This plaque honoring Emperor Norton hangs on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Norton Was a True Visionary

Many of Emperor Norton’s suggestions on how we could improve society were actually valid, and he was way ahead of his time. For example, he was the one who declared that the city needed the Bay Bridge, but it was not actually built until the 1930’s. When it was finally built, a plaque was placed on the bridge with his portrait and his two dogs on either side. “Pause, traveler, and be grateful to Norton I. Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, 1859-80, whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of the San Francisco Bay.”

When he was alive, he stood up for all of his beloved “citizens”, no matter where they came from. He defended the rights of Chinese immigrants, and advocated for women’s rights. He even said that there needed to be desegregated public transportation and school systems. He encouraged African Americans to begin fighting for their civil rights almost 100 years before it would actually happen.

One day, a gang of angry white men were attempting to beat up a Chinese immigrant. Emperor Norton saw this happen, and threw himself in front of the Chinese man, spreading his arms like a shield. He began screaming The Lord’s Prayer at the top of his lungs; “OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN, HALLOWED BE THY NAME…” When the mob told him to move, and asked what in the world he was doing, Norton continued to scream the prayer in their faces. No one wanted to be on the front page of the newspaper for punching the beloved Emperor Norton, or maybe they realized it’s not a good idea to fight a crazy person. So they walked away. Norton could stop screaming, and help the Chinese man return to safety.

That Time a Guy Declared Himself the Emperor of America Will Leave You Scratching Your Head
This cartoon titled “The three bummers” showing Emperor Norton and his two loyal dogs getting free food. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of his life, Norton happily provided for this man and his dogs in exchange for his vigilante justice and words of wisdom. When he died, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of San Francisco during his funeral, which surely rivals the deaths of real kings and queens. He inspired several different authors to write characters that were based on him. Today, tourists visiting San Francisco can go on an Emperor Norton Walking Tour, where a man dressed up as the late great leader can guide you through the city.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Self-Declared American Emperor That Everyone Loved. Dan Peleschuk. Ozy.

The Forgotten Emperor of The United States And Protector of Mexico, Norton I. Emily Upton. TodayIFoundOut.