07 September 2013


Emperor Norton I
How many South African visitors to San Francisco know about that city's connection to South Africa? Very few! Norton the First was Emperor of the United States of America, from the day he proclaimed his ascension to the throne on 17 September 1859 to the day he collapsed and died on 08 January 1880.

Joshua Abraham NORTON in London, England circa 1818, son of John NORTON (a farmer) and Sarah NORDEN, a Jewish family. The family immigrated to South Africa as part of the 1820 British Settlers, sailing on the La Belle Alliance as members of Willson's Party. The party boarded La Belle Alliance at Deptford. After more than a month's delay due to the ice-bound Thames, the ship sailed from the Downs on 12 February 1820, arriving in Table Bay on 02 May 1820, and finally in Algoa Bay on 26 May 1820.

John NORTON born circa 1794 in Deptford, Kent, England.
Died 20 August 1848 in London, England.
Married in England in 1815 to Sarah NORDEN (born 1796 in East Smithfield, London, England; died 07 December 1846 in Grahamstown, Cape; daughter of Abraham NORDEN 1758–1840 and Abigail ADEL)
1. John Lewis or Louis born circa 1816 in Watford, Hertfordshire, England; died 08 May 1846 in Grahamstown, Cape. Married Kate WHITNALL. He was amongst the first students to attend the South African College (now the University of Cape Town) in 1829. He was killed in the 7th Frontier War (March 1846 – December 1847).
2. Joshua born circa 1818 in Deptford, Kent, England; died 1880 in San Francisco, California, United States of America
3. Philip born 28 March 1820 at sea; died 16 April 1847 at Kromme Park, Fort Beaufort, Cape. married Anne Mary OGILVIE circa 1839.
4. Esther born circa 1822
5. Benjamin John born circa 1823. Married MULLER.
6. Henry born circa 1825
7 Selina Jane born circa 1827. Married Donald Hume MACCLEOD.
8. Abraham born circa 1828 in Grahamstown, Cape; died 01 July 1835 in Grahamstown, Cape
9. Mary Ann born circa 1828. Married William KNIGHT.
10. John Louis born circa 1830 in Grahamstown, Cape; died 05 July 1906. Married Anna Margaret ERASMUS.
11. Louisa born circa 1833
12. Elizabeth born circa 1835

Joshua grew up in Port Elizabeth, then known as Algoa Bay. In 1825 he attended John HANCOCKS's school in Grahamstown. In 1844 he owned Gingerbread Hall near the Baakens River. He later left Port Elizabeth and joined his brothers John and Benjamin at their Cape Town business.

Joshua joined the gold rush in California, arriving in San Francisco in November 1849 aboard the steamer Hurlothrumbo. This voyage makes him the only person who was both an 1820 Settler and a San Francisco 49er. The gold-seekers were called "forty-niners" in reference to 1849. He was 30 years old and had a small fortune of $40 000 from his father's estate. He soon got involved with property and an import brokerage. Four years after arriving, he had $250 000 of capital built up. Sadly, he lost his fortune when he thought of another venture.

Emperor Norton I
China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to increase. When Joshua heard that the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 91 000 kg of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25 000. Shortly after he signed the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru, causing the price of rice to fall sharply. Joshua tried to void the contract, stating that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of the rice. From 1853 to 1857, they were involved in litigation. Although Joshua won in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against him. The Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay his debt. He declared bankruptcy in 1858. It is believed that the bankruptcy led to a mental disorder in Joshua. He left San Francisco, returning a few years later with his edict which he issued to the people of San Francisco:

"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."

The editor of the San Francisco Bulletin published the edict and the people of San Francisco took their new Emperor to heart. Joshua later added "Protector of Mexico" to the title.

Norton the First was a stocky, bearded figure and dressed as royally as he could. His uniform included a blue Army coat with gold epaulettes and brass buttons; a beaver hat with a peacock feather; a cane and a sword. The uniform was given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. When his uniform became tatty, the City Council voted for a special fund to buy a new uniform. He was called on to inspect military cadets at the University of California, marched at the head of the annual Police parade, and he had special seats at concerts and plays. He dined for free in San Francisco's best restaurants. He was allowed free public transport. He would spend time inspecting the condition of the city's sidewalks and cable cars. The City Council allowed him to issue and sell bonds to his subjects for 50c to $10. The bonds were printed for free by the City Council. The city's banks and businesses honoured these bonds and they happily paid the 25c taxes that Joshua levied from time to time. Crowned heads of state around the world received telegrams from him, and many replied.

The Emperor's $10 note
During the 1860s and 1870s, there were occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Riots took place. During one incident, Joshua allegedly positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets. With a bowed head, he started reciting the Lord's Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident.

On 21 January 1867, Officer Armand BARBIER arrested Joshua for involuntary treatment of a mental disorder, which led to a major public uproar. Police Chief Patrick CROWLEY apologised to Joshua and ordered him released. Several newspaper editorials followed the arrest. After this, police officers began to salute Joshua when he passed them on the street.

The Emperor lived in a boarding-house on Commercial Street. He appears in the city's census of August 1870, listed as having the occupation of "emperor" and living at 624 Commercial St. He had two dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. They were with him constantly, even in church on Sundays. Lazarus died in October 1863, and Bummer died in November 1865. Mark TWAIN worked next door to Joshua's boarding house and saw the man most days, and wrote an epitaph for Bummer.

Bridge plaque
In 1872 Joshua issued an Imperial Proclamation ordering the construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and a tunnel under the Bay. When the bridge was built in the 1930s, a plaque was attached that read: "Pause, traveler, and be grateful to Norton I, whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay". In 2004, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors endorsed naming the bridge's eastern span after Joshua, but the Oakland City Council refused. Today a resolution to name the span after former San Francisco Mayor Willie BROWN is making its way through the State Legislature.

On the evening of 08 January 1880, Joshua dropped dead on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary's Church, while on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline "Le Roi est Mort" (The King is Dead).

Members of the Pacific Club, a San Francisco businessman's association, started a funeral fund which paid for a silver and rosewood coffin and a dignified farewell. Joshua lay in state in a black robe, starched shirt and black bow tie. There were thousands at his funeral procession to Masonic Cemetery on Sunday, 10 January. The original tombstone was a simple cross with the name Joshua NORTON and his dates. On 30 June 1934, he was reburied at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. This gravestone reads: "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Joshua A. Norton 1819-1880". Adjacent to his plot is one marked "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton" - another mystery?

Joshua died in poverty. A few dollars in small change were found on him when he died. At his boarding house room on Commercial Street, the following items were found: one gold sovereign; his collection of walking sticks; a saber; hats (including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and a band-master's cap); an 1828 French franc; and a few Imperial bonds he sold to tourists. His letters to Queen Victoria were also found, along with 98 stock shares in a defunct gold mine.

Many of the decrees attributed to him were written in jest by newspaper editors or for political purposes. Amongst those believed to be genuine include the following:

17 September 1859 – he declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

02 December 1859 – he dismissed Gov. Wise of Virginia for hanging John BROWN, and appointed John C. BRECKENRIDGE of Kentucky to replace him

01 February 1860 – he ordered representatives of the different states to assemble at Platt’s Music Hall to change laws to do away with the evils under which the country was labouring

16 July 1860 – he dissolved the United States of America

01 October 1860 – he barred Congress from meeting in Washington, D.C.

25 July 1869 – he ordered San Franciscans to advance money to Frederick MARRIOTT for his airship experiments

12 August 1869 – he dissolved and abolished the Democratic and Republican parties because of party strife

16 December 1869 – he demanded that Sacramento clean its muddy streets and place gaslights on streets leading to the capitol

21 September 1870 – he decreed that the Grand Hotel furnish him rooms under penalty of being banished.

23 March 1872 – he decreed that a suspension bridge be built between Oakland Point and Goat Island, and on to San Francisco

21 September 1872 – he 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.

02 January 1873 – he decreed that a worldwide Bible Convention be held in San Francisco on this day

Mark TWAIN modelled the character of the King in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on Joshua. Robert Louis STEVENSON made him a character in his 1892 novel "The Wrecker". Stevenson's stepdaughter, Isobel OSBOURNE, mentioned Joshua in her autobiography "This Life I've Loved". She wrote that he "was a gentle and kindly man, and 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."

Joshua is considered a patron saint in the religion of Discordianism.

The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper used to run "Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt" competitions in the 1950-60s. It was run in the Spring and included a proclaimation that Emperor Norton had buried a treasure somewhere in San Francisco. Clues would appear in verse, becoming more cryptic over the weeks. The prize was $1000. After the closing date, the paper would reprint all the clues and what they meant.

On 07 January 1980, the city marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its monarch with lunch-hour ceremonies. Every January, Clampus Vitus (an organisation of history buffs) holds a parade from Joshua's grave to Malloy's Tavern. Today, there's a petition to name the bridge "The Emperor Norton Bay Bridge."