Joshua Abraham Norton (left) never settled for defeat. When the world kicked him down, he got back up again. He fascinated writers, including Mark Twain, who, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, modeled his royal imposter, the King, on Norton. – True West Archives –
In 1849, Joshua Abraham Norton, born in England around 1818, arrived in San Francisco, California, from South Africa with a $30,000 inheritance and dreams of business successes. Those dreams came true.
He developed not one but many successful ventures—a retail store selling gold-mining supplies, a cigar factory, a rice mill and real estate. By 1855, his fortune was estimated at more than a quarter of a million dollars.
But then came one disaster after another, and he stood to lose it all. He spent three years and most of his money trying to save his fortune. A hard-nosed banker named William T.
Sherman, who would command greater fame during the Civil War, foreclosed the mortgages on Norton’s real estate holdings. A depression hit. His commodities inventories rotted. He failed in the stock market.
He lost his friends among San Francisco’s elite. In 1858, he declared bankruptcy—and then suddenly, he disappeared.
Nine months later, a disheveled stranger appeared in San Francisco. He wore a rumpled U.S. Army uniform, but carried himself with a royal demeanor. In 1859, he presented the San Francisco Bulletin editor the following notice, which he “respectfully requested” be placed in the next edition:
This plaque commemorating “Emperor Norton I,” hidden away in storage, notes Norton’s decree for a bridge over San Francisco Bay. Residents are hoping to convince the legislature to add “Emperor Norton” to the name of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge by 2018, the 200th anniversary of Norton’s birth. – Courtesy Nagle at en.wikipedia –
At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States
The editor ran the notice, thinking that it might increase newspaper sales. For the next 21 years, Norton I ruled as emperor, and the people of San Francisco received him as such, addressing him as “Your Majesty.” Businessmen gave him free meals and a special seat at public events. The California legislature always reserved a seat for him.
He issued various proclamations, including ones abolishing Congress, firing U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, and ordering construction of a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. Newspapers printed his pronouncements. He even issued his own imperial currency.
He conferred on loyal businesses the endorsement, “By appointment of Norton I, Suppliers for His Royal Majesty.”
Robert Louis Stevenson made Emperor Norton (shown) a character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker. His stepdaughter, Isobel Osbourne, remembered Norton in her autobiography as a “gentle and kindly man” who “fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being ‘let him be Emperor if he wants to.’ San Francisco played the game with him.” – Courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley-POR 1 –
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton I collapsed dead at the intersection of California Street and Dupont. Ten thousand mourners attended his funeral. The newspaper ran a banner headline: “Le Roi Est Mort” (The King is Dead).
But Emperor Norton I lives on. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote him into their novels, a plaque in San Francisco honors his prognostication of the bridge linking that city to Oakland. He was beloved in his day and is a tourist curiosity in ours. The King is dead. Long live the King.
Dennis Peterson is the author of Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. He lives in Taylors, South Carolina, and previously wrote American history textbooks for BJU Press and served as a senior technical editor at Lockheed Martin.
- Historical Essay
- by Chris Carlsson with additions by Michael Whitson
Emperor Norton: he banned the use of “Frisco” to refer to the city of San Francisco. It is a misdemeanor punishable with a $25.00 fine.
photo: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA
|Emperor Norton I is among the most unique and celebrated characters of San Francisco's early history. A failed gold rush-era businessman fallen into madness, he was nonetheless adopted by the press to become a beloved civic mascot and the city's first genuine tourist attraction. Referring to himself as Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, Norton issued several decrees, both surprising and inspiring, including the first proposal for a transbay bridge and tunnel, and a calling for the abolition of the nickname “Frisco.” The acceptance and celebration of his existence is a touching early example of San Francisco's legacy of eccentricity and whimsy.|
Emperor Norton I, was born Joshua Abraham Norton in 1819 and lived his early childhood in South Africa. By 1850 he arrived in San Francisco as a young man, and soon made a tidy fortune trading in goods in the burgeoning San Francisco market.
As Yerba Buena cove was filled in, auctions were held for “made-ground,” during which Norton acquired three of the four corners of Sansome and Jackson.
He also bought a couple of water lots near Rincon Point, one of which was occupied by an abandoned brig, which he converted into a warehouse.
When a good part of the city was burned to the ground on May 4, 1851, Norton made a killing when his stores of goods at Rincon Point avoided the conflagration. Within a few weeks the first Vigilante Committees was born to mete out “justice” to the alleged arsonists, and Joshua Norton was a charter member.
Norton's business life continued along smoothly enough until December 1852, when his rice mill had been dry for weeks due to the Chinese crop failure.
Rice had climbed from 4 to 36 cents a pound, so when Norton was offered an entire shipload of 200,000 pounds of Peruvian rice at 12.5 cents, he jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately, a dozen more ships full of rice followed that ship into port, flooding the market and driving the price down to 3 cents a pound. Norton lost everything and never recovered.
After eight years of increasing poverty amidst the rising tension of the impending civil war, Joshua Norton seems to have snapped, at least in one key respect. He declared that he was the Emperor of the United States, and within a year or so he added the title of Protector of Mexico. His lunacy is worth some retrospection however.
- Norton I: Emperor of the United States
- photo: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA
After all, Norton spent the next 20 years of his life slowly becoming an icon and widely loved mascot of San Francisco. He lived an oddly dignified life, participated in the daily life of the city, appeared at numerous theatrical and operatic openings, lived very frugally in his various rooms, and caused no one any harm.
In fact, as William Drury argues in Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Dodd, Mean & Co., New York: 1986), Emperor Norton brought wealth to San Francisco far beyond what he derived from the city himself.
Emperor Norton was San Francisco's first and foremost tourist attraction! When the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, San Francisco merchants could taste the money to be made from luring tourists to the city.
Emperor Norton, a “bummer” in many eyes (a pejorative term for homeless or vagabond at the time), was adopted and turned into a wildly popular local character by the local press. It started with the Bulletin, where Norton I appeared one day late in 1859. He hand-delivered the first imperial declaration to George Fitch, the Bulletin's editor.
“At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., 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 the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity. —NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”
When Lincoln won the November 1860 election and the south seceded over the following months, men all over the country were acquiring uniforms, and Emperor Norton was no exception.
He was never seen again without his uniform of bulky epaulets, a plumed hat, and a large sword on his hip. When he realized that his earlier declarations had gone unheeded, Norton issued more decrees.
By mid-summer 1860, he was becoming more assertive:
WHEREAS, it is necessary for our Peace, Prosperity and Happiness, as also to the National Advancement of the people of the United States, that they should dissolve the Republican form of government and establish in its stead an Absolute Monarchy;
NOW, THEREFORE, WE, Norton I, by the Grace of God Emperor of the Thirty-three States and the multitude of Territories of the United States of North America, do hereby dissolve the Republic of the United States, and it is hereby dissolved; And all laws made from and after this date, either by the National Congress or any State Legislature, shall be null and of no effect.
All Governors, and all other persons in authority, shall maintain order by enforcing the heretofore existing laws, and regulations until the necessary alterations can be effected.
Given under our hand and seal, at Headquarters, San Francisco, this 26th day of July, 1860.
The most oft-repeated stories about Emperor Norton are about how San Franciscans accepted his self-designated status, and allowed him to eat anywhere without paying, to receive free clothes from the city, and to be given preferential seating at stage and musical openings.
For many years Norton ate at various bars where full meals were provided free to drinking patrons (e.g.
Martin & Horton's, where a Brandy Smash cost a quarter and a free meal was included, with soup, boiled salmon, roast beef, bread and butter, potatoes, tomatoes, crackers and cheese), but there are few known cases of the Emperor indulging in a restaurant meal at all, let alone without paying.
The city's Board of Supervisors was petitioned for a suit of imperial clothes, but ignored his entreaty. In fact, Norton generally went about in shabby, second-hand uniforms, both of Union and Confederate colors (he thought it best to maintain his neutrality so as to be able to help mediate a settlement).
Perhaps equal parts genius provocateur and mentally ill, Joshua Abraham Norton re-invented himself from a failed businessman into an outlandish yet popularly accepted imperial figure commanding the streets of San Francisco.
Rather than using the stage as his vehicle Norton simply presented in public as royalty at all times.
Responding to widespread corruption in general and the atrocities of the Civil War in particular, Norton issued a mandate in 1862 ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor”.
In the first of countless proclamations that were to follow Norton wrote:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these 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 U. S.; 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 such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States
Emperor Norton paraded daily through San Francisco's streets in an elaborate, imperial way. In addition to his military uniforms, he also wore a beaver top hat adorned with a large peacock feather, a rosette, and often added to his regal bearing with a ornate cane or umbrella.
He 'acted' on his frequent proclamations by regularly “inspecting' SF streets, public infrastructure, as well as the behavior of police. He often provided elaborate, impromptu discourses on the problems he observed on SF's streets as well as larger contemporary issues.
One of his more memorable city 'inspections' happened during an anti-Chinese riot that frequented the poorer districts of San Francisco at this time.
During one of those anti-Chinese 'demonstrations' Norton placed himself between the rioters and the Chinese designated for imminent violence.
He then bowed his head and recited the Lords Prayer until the rioters left without hurting anyone.
Norton was nearly universally accepted by San Franciscans. Local restaurants often placed brass plaques at their entrances announcing “[b]y Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.” Norton's self-created Imperial Seals of Approval were highly cherished by restaurants and resulted in a considerable increase in business for those that displayed them.
All major plays and musical performances reserved free balcony seats for him for fear that his conspicuous absence would doom their run. Norton had the habit of levying spontaneous taxes in which he would walk into a business and politely announce an imperial assessment of several million dollars but then would easily acquiesce to only a couple of dollars or a cigar and depart happily.
He has also been generally thought to have had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, but this is a myth.
The dogs were widely known vagrants in San Francisco, and thanks to an Edward Jump cartoon depicting Emperor Norton and the two canines dining at the same banquet table, the myth was spread that the beasts were his.
But it was precisely this cartoon that turned Norton emphatically against the dogs, since it was terribly undignified to be associated with a dog called “Bummer.” But the endearment Norton enjoyed from San Franciscans was quite similar to that showered upon the famous dogs.
Norton managed to survive almost 20 years by taxing bankers and the wealthy with whom he came in regular contact at bars and clubs, usually about 50 cents per collection. In 1870 he began selling his own scrip in 50 cent, $5 and $10 dollar denominations, redeemable in 1880 with 7% interest. These notes became tourist souvenirs as much as anything else.
When he died only eight days into 1880, he was spared from having to back them up with “real money.” A small industry surrounded the Emperor, marketing small figurines, photographic postcards, and many local merchants and restaurants displayed signs attesting to their status “by appointment of Norton I.
” News of the Emperor traveled around the country, and even overseas.
Norton's insanity didn't deter his creative mind from addressing itself to several technical issues of the day. During his reign, Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car, and Norton I issued an edict urging improved safety mechanisms for the new-fangled technology, in particular a better system of gripping the underground cable than the large screw with which it began.
Norton is also known for having been the first to propose a Bay Bridge and an under-the-bay tunnel. His decree in the Pacific Appeal of March 23, 1872:
The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient:
I. That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and thence to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco. . .
Another decree on September 21, 1872:
WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via
Norton I, Emperor of the United States
Joshua A. Norton So much has been written about Emperor Norton, and interest in this ninteenth-century character continues into the twenty-first century.
Many of the “decrees” attributed to Norton I were fakes; written in jest by newspaper editors at the time for amusement, or for political purposes. Those “decrees” listed here were, we believe, actually issued by Norton. September 17, 1859 – Joshua A. Norton, who lost his money in an attempt to corner the rice market, today declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
December 2, 1859 – Norton I dismissed Gov. Wise of Virginia for hanging John Brown and appointed John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky to replace him.
February 1, 1860 – Decree from Norton I ordered representatives of the different states to assemble at Platt’s Music Hall to change laws to ameloriate the evils under which the country was laboring.
July 16, 1860 – Decree from Norton I dissolved the United States of America.
October 1, 1860 – Decree from Norton I barred Congress from meeting in Washington, D.C.
- February 5, 1861– Norton I changed the place of his National Convention to Assembly Hall, Post and Kearny, because Platt’s Music Hall had burned.
- September 17, 1861 – A new theater, Tucker’s Hall, opened with a performance of “Norton the First,” or “An Emperor for a Day.”
- October 1863 – Death of Lazarus, Emperor Norton’s dog.
- February 14, 1864 – Norton I arrived in Marysville to join the celebration of the opening of the railroad.
- November 11, 1865 – Mark Twain wrote an epitaph for Bummer, the long-time companion of Lazarus.
January 21, 1867 – An overzealous Patrol Special Officer, Armand Barbier, arrested His Majesty Norton I for involuntary treatment of a mental disorder and thereby created a major civic uproar.
Police Chief Patrick Crowley apologized to His Majesty and ordered him released. Several scathing newspaper editorials followed the arrest.
All police officers began to salute His Majesty when he passed them on the street.
July 25, 1869 – Decree from Norton I that San Franciscans advance money to Frederick Marriott for his airship experiments.
August 12, 1869 – Decree from Norton I dissolved and abolished the Democratic and Republican parties because of party strife now existing within our realm.
December 15, 1869 – Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, left San Francisco to seek his yearly tribute from the legislature and lobbyists. He inspected the new capitol during the gala ball celebrating the buildings’ inauguration.
- December 16, 1869 – Decree by Norton I demanded that Sacramento clean its muddy streets and place gaslights on streets leading to the capitol.
- August 1, 1870 – Norton I was listed by the Census taker with the occupation of “emperor,” living at 624 Commercial St.
- September 21, 1870 – Decree from Norton I that the Grand Hotel furnish him rooms under penalty of being banished.
- March 23, 1872 – Decree by Norton I that a suspension bridge be built as soon as convenient between Oakland Point and Goat Island, and then on to San Francisco.
September 21, 1872 – Norton I ordered a survey to determine if a bridge or tunnel would be the best possible means to connect Oakland and San Francisco. He also ordered the arrest of the Board of Supervisors for ignoring his decrees.
January 2, 1873 – Decree from Norton I that a worldwide Bible Convention be held in San Francisco on this day.
March 18, 1873 – David Belasco made his stage debut at the Metropolitan Theatre playing Emperor Norton in the play “The Gold Demon.”
January 8, 1880 – Norton I dropped dead on California St. at Grant Ave. He was on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
January 9, 1880 – Headline in the Morning Call: “Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
January 10, 1880 – Norton I was buried today at Masonic Cemetery. The funeral cortege was two miles long. 10,000 people turned out for the funeral.
- June 30, 1934 – Emperor Norton I reburied in Woodlawn Cemetery by citizens of San Francisco.
- January 7, 1980 – The city marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its only monarch, Emperor Norton, with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets. Emperor Norton chronology from Gladys Hansen’s San Francisco Almanac ©1995 Chronicle Books
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The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor of US
BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, the man who declared himself emperor of the United States: Joshua Norton. Here are Steve Ember and Robert Cohen with the story of Emperor Norton.
STEVE EMBER: The small city of Colma, California is just a few kilometers south of San Francisco. Many people visit the city each year to see the burial place of one very unusual man in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. These visitors come to see a memorial stone placed on his grave.
The writing on the stone says in large letters , “NORTON THE FIRST, – EMPEROR OF THE UNITED STATES AND PROTECTOR OF MEXICO.” Under this, in smaller size letters, is, “Joshua A. Norton Born Eighteen-Nineteen. Died January Eighth, Eighteen-Eighty.
ROBERT COHEN: Anyone who has studied American history knows that the United States is a democracy. The president and other political leaders of the United States are elected to office by the citizens. There is no royal family, no king, and no emperor.
Yet, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself to be Emperor of the United States on September Seventeenth, Eighteen Fifty-Nine.
He sent an announcement to the newspapers of San Francisco saying he was Emperor Norton the First of the United States and the Protector of Mexico. The newspapers did not publish it.
STEVE EMBER: Many people in San Francisco knew Joshua Norton. He was born in England in Eighteen-Nineteen. He moved to San Francisco from South Africa. He arrived with a lot of money. He later lost all his money in a very bad financial deal. His many friends knew that this greatly affected him.
Joshua Norton no longer was the same man. Most of his friends believed the shock of losing all his money had taken away his ability to reason and to live in the real world. Poor Joshua Norton was not dangerous or violent, but he no longer knew what was real and what was only imaginary.
ROBERT COHEN: Soon after he declared himself to be the Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton began wearing blue military clothing. A soldier at the army base in San Francisco gave him the gold colored buttons and gold cloth. It made his uniform seem as if it belonged to a general, or perhaps a king, or even an Emperor.
Emperor Norton the First soon became the best known man in San Francisco. He always wore his uniform and a tall hat. When people saw him they would show the respect given a king…or emperor. Emperor Norton usually did not have any money.
But he did not need any. If Emperor Norton went to an eating place, he was served a meal – free. If he needed something little from a store, that was also freely given. Sometimes he paid with his own kind of money.
It was paper money with his picture on it.
Many stores began placing a small sign in the store window. The sign said, “By Appointment to his Majesty, Emperor Norton the First.” The sign meant the store or eating-place had been approved by the Emperor of the United States. Stores that had the signs noted that their business increased.
STEVE EMBER: Emperor Norton began sending royal orders…called decrees…to the newspapers of San Francisco. The newspapers began publishing them. Many people thought they were funny. Some people bought the newspapers just to read about the latest decree from the Emperor of the United States.
Many of the decrees, however, made people think. For example, Emperor Norton said that Governor Wise of Virginia was to be removed from office by royal decree. Emperor Norton said this was necessary because Governor Wise had ordered the death by hanging of John Brown. John Brown was a rebel who had tried to start a war to free slaves.
Emperor Norton’s decree said John Brown had tried to capture the state of Virginia with only seventeen men. That was evidence, Emperor Norton said, that John Brown was mentally sick and should have been put in a hospital for treatment.
Emperor North said John Brown never should have been executed. Many people in San Francisco agreed with Emperor Norton. The execution of John Brown was one of the many issues that led to the American Civil War.
Life & Legend | The Emperor Norton Trust
Over the course of a 20-plus-year “reign” that ended with his death in January 1880, Emperor Norton continued to urge those political reforms that he felt were necessary to secure the general welfare and, as he put it, to “save the nation from utter ruin.” Proclamations calling for the abolition of Congress and the dissolution of the two-party system seem remarkably contemporary in 2020. (He is said also to have called for a League of Nations, but we've not yet been able to source that.)
Predictably, given the scenario — “Man suffers financial calamity, proclaims own Majesty” — questions about the Emperor’s sanity trailed him.
His biographer, William Drury, argues that, in fact, there was no single “snap” between 1852 and 1859, before which he was completely “normal” — but, rather, that there were signs of “the Emperor to come” well before Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco.
As to what happened after September 1859, the travel documentarian Timothy “Speed” Levitch puts it this way: “Some say he’d gone mad; others say he’d gone wise.”
Indeed: Most often using his preferred modus of the newspaper Proclamation, Emperor Norton called for many things in the 1860s and '70s that were well ahead of their time.
- He was an adversary of corruption and fraud of all kinds — political, corporate and personal.
- He was a persistent voice for fair treatment and enhanced legal protections for immigrants and racial/ethnic minorities.
- He demanded that African Africans be allowed to ride public streetcars and that they be admitted to public schools.
- He commanded that the courts allow Chinese people to testify in court; and he pronounced that “the eyes of the Emperor will be upon anyone who shall counsel any outrage or wrong on the Chinese.”
- He proclaimed, with respect to Native Americans, that all “Indian agents” and other parties connected with frauds against “the Indian tribes” were to be publicly punished before as many “Indian chiefs” as could be assembled together.
He was a religious humanist and pluralist who favored church-state separation and warned against the dangers of of puritanism and sectarianism, refusing to give his imprimatur to any one church or synagogue but, rather, attending them all. And he prohibited the enforcement of state Sunday Laws, which discriminated against Germans and Jews.
He supported women’s right to vote.
He was a defender of the people's right to fair taxes and basic services, including well-maintained streets, streetcars, ferries and trains.
He was an exponent of technological innovations that enhanced the public welfare.
:: :: ::
One of the more whimsical “proclamations” attributed to the Emperor is held as Writ by many San Franciscans, to this day. Evidence of the decree's authenticity remains elusive.
So far, the earliest citation we've found for the text — see our essay here — is in David Warren Ryder's highly romanticized and unsourced account, San Francisco's Emperor Norton, published in 1939, nearly 60 years after the Emperor's death. In this self-published book, Ryder claims that the Emperor declared:
Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.
Usually overlooked, in addition to the absence of a source for this “proclamation,” is an etymological question.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “linguistic” wasn't coined until at least the mid 1840s, when Joshua Norton was approaching 30.
Moreover, a review of newspapers from this period suggests that the word did not come into any kind of regular use until some decades later.
For the record label, see Emperor Norton Records.
“Joshua Norton” redirects here. For the artist, see Joshua Norton (artist).
Self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States
Emperor NortonNorton I, Emperor of the United States, photograph, c.1871–72BornJoshua Abraham Norton(1818-02-04)February 4, 1818Deptford, Kent, EnglandDiedJanuary 8, 1880(1880-01-08) (aged 61)San Francisco, CaliforniaTitleSelf-proclaimed “Emperor of the United States”, “Protector of Mexico”Parent(s)John NortonSarah Norden
Joshua Abraham Norton (February 4, 1818 – January 8, 1880), known as Emperor Norton, was a citizen of San Francisco, California, who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859. In 1863 he took the secondary title of “Protector of Mexico” after Napoleon III invaded that country. Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa. He sailed west after the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, arriving in San Francisco possibly in November 1849.
Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice to sell in China due to a Chinese rice shortage. He bought rice at 12 cents per pound from Peruvian ships, but more Peruvian ships arrived in port which caused the price to drop sharply to 4 cents.
 He then lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his public prominence faded. He re-emerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States. Though Norton received many favors from the city, merchants also capitalized on his notoriety by selling souvenirs bearing his name.
“San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton,” Norton's biographer William Drury wrote, “not Norton off San Francisco.”
Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented.
Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.
On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral.
 Norton has been immortalized as the basis of characters in the literature of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris and René Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.