An odd tale about an eccentric old timee entrepreneur.
Today I found out about the largely forgotten colorful benevolent dictator of the United States and protector of Mexico, Emperor Norton I.
His Imperial Majesty Joshua Abraham Norton I was born between 1811 and 1818 in England. Records of his birth date vary considerably, but it’s likely that the latter date is the correct one. His family immigrated to South Africa when he was quite young, where his father headed a small Jewish community. As a young man, he initially attempted to run his own business in Cape Town but quickly went bankrupt and started working at his father’s ship chandlery instead.
By 1848, Emperor Norton had suffered some severe losses: his mother, father, and both of his brothers had died. With no other family, Norton inherited all $40,000 of his father’s estate and was eager to search for a new beginning. The lure of the American Dream, and the Gold Rush in particular, drew Norton to San Francisco. He was eager to find his fortunes, though he wasn’t interested in mining the gold fields; instead, he started a successful merchant business and rented out space on a ship he’d purchased for storage.
Just a few years after he arrived in San Francisco, Norton was doing extremely well with assets estimated to be worth around $250,000 (about $6.5 million today). He had added to his collection of businesses a cigar, a rice mill, and an office building. But his good luck didn’t last for long.
A famine in China cut off rice shipments, sending the price of rice skyrocketing from 4 to 36 cents per pound. Norton saw an opportunity to make even more money when Willy Sillem told him about a ship carrying Peruvian rice. If purchased, Norton would be able to undercut the market significantly as he could get the shipment of Peruvian rice for just 12.5 cents per pound, nearly 1/3 the going rate.
Unfortunately, after putting a $2000 deposit on a ship load of rice that would cost him $25,000 in total, more and more Peruvian ships carrying rice sailed intoharbor. The price of rice dropped down to 3 cents per pound, meaning Norton would not only not make a profit, but lose a significant amount of money in the process. He tried to nullify the contract on the grounds that Sillem had misled him. The incident resulted in a twoand a half year court battle with the outcome in Sillem’s favour—Norton had to pay the remaining $23,000.
At this point, Norton was near ruin. The bank foreclosed on several of his business and properties, he was no longer able to stay at ritzy hotels, the social elite wanted nothing more to do with him, and to top it all off, he was in court again accused of embezzling funds from a client. By 1859, the once-wealthy merchant who had it all was living in a working-class boarding house, down on his luck and seemingly incapable of any upward mobility.
But that isn’t the American way. When you’re living on your last dollar and have nothing left to lose, what do you do? Declare yourself Emperor of the United States, of course.
You see, Norton had long been critical of the United States government and was a fan of the British Empire. He felt like America was run on corruption, inefficiency, and self-interest, and that wasn’t just because of his own losses. In 1859, California was caught up in the great slave debate which would eventually lead to the Civil War, and San Francisco’s economy as a whole wasn’t doing great as the Gold Rush died down. Norton remarked to a friend that things would be going a lot more smoothly if he was in charge.
It’s the kind of statement no one expects to be acted upon, but Norton was a stubborn—if unconventional—man and decided to do something about it. On September 17, 1859, an unusual story was published in the San Francisco Bulletin:
“At the pre-emptory 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 last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the 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 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.”
Settlers in the United States colonies did consider themselves to be part of a type of Empire; in San Francisco alone, there were buildings like the Empire Hotel, the Empire Brewery, and the Empire Fire Engine Company, among others. However, no one had yet been so bold to declare themselves Emperor.
It would have been easy enough to fob him off as a mad man, but the San Francisco Bulletin continued to publish his demands and edicts. Norton I called for the dismantling of congress and the abolishment of the Supreme Court. He fired Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise for sending John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame to the gallows- Norton was staunchly for equal rights for all. But he couldn’t leave Virginia without a Governor, so he replaced him with John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was also known as the Vice President of the United States at the time.