Born in England, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. After the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, he sailed west, 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.
After he lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton's public prominence faded. He reemerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States. He had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though some considered him insane or eccentric, citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland, and a corresponding tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay. Long after his death, similar structures were built in the form of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube, and there have been campaigns to rename the bridge "The Emperor Norton Bridge".
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. Nearly 30,000 people packed 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 writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris and Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.
Norton's parents were John Norton (d. August 1848) and Sarah Norden, who were English Jews. John was a farmer and merchant, and Sarah was a daughter of Abraham Norden and a sister of Benjamin Norden, a successful merchant. The family moved to South Africa in early 1820 as part of a government-backed colonization scheme whose participants came to be known as the 1820 Settlers. Most likely, Norton was born in the Kentish town of Deptford, today part of London.
Pinning down Norton's exact date of birth has proved difficult. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, "following the best information obtainable," cited the silver plate on his coffin which said he was "aged about 65," suggesting that 1814 could be the year of his birth. But Norton's biographer, William Drury, points out that "about 65" was based on nothing more than the guess that Norton's landlady offered to the coroner at the inquest following his death. In a 1923 essay published by the California Historical Society, Robert Ernest Cowan claimed that Norton was born on February 4, 1819. However, the passenger lists for the Belle Alliance, the ship that carried Norton and his family from England to South Africa, indicate he was two years old when the ship set sail in February 1820. The February 4, 1865, edition of The Daily Alta California newspaper included an item in which the Alta wished Emperor Norton a happy 47th birthday, indicating that his birth date was February 4, 1818 (not 1819, as Cowan claimed)—a date that would line up with the Belle Alliance passenger listing from two years later. Moreover, when Cowan quoted the 1865 Alta item in his essay, he used an altered version in an apparent attempt to advance his claim of an 1819 birth date. Furthermore, persistent online claims for an 1819 birth date, which can be traced to the early years of the Internet, are of doubtful provenance.
There are oft-repeated historical claims that Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco on a specific vessel, the Franzeska, on 23 November 1849; that he arrived with $40,000, in whole or in part a bequest from his father's estate; and that he parlayed this into a fortune of $250,000. None of this is substantiated by contemporaneous documentation. What is known is that, after Norton arrived in San Francisco, he enjoyed a good deal of success in commodities markets and in real estate speculation, and that by late 1852, he was one of the more prosperous, respected citizens of the city.
In December 1852, Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four to thirty-six cents per pound (9 to 79 cents/kg). When he heard the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or twelve and a half cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.
Shortly after he signed the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru, causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton's debt. He filed for bankruptcy and by 1858 was living in reduced circumstances at a working class boarding house.
By 1859, Norton had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself "Emperor of these United States":
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.
The announcement was first reprinted for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. Norton would later add "Protector of Mexico" to this title. Thus commenced his unprecedented and whimsical 21-year "reign" over America.
In his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree formally abolishing the United States Congress. In it, Norton observed:
...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.
Norton ordered all interested parties to assemble at Platt's Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 to "remedy the evil complained of".
In an imperial decree the following month, Norton summoned the Army to depose the elected officials of the U.S. Congress:
WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.
Norton's orders were ignored by the Army, and Congress likewise continued without any formal acknowledgement of the decree. Further decrees in 1860 dissolved the republic and forbade the assembly of any members of the former Congress. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America persisted throughout his reign, though it appears he eventually, if grudgingly, allowed Congress to exist without his permission. Hoping to resolve the many disputes that had resulted in the Civil War, in 1862 Norton issued a mandate ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as "Emperor".
His attempts to overthrow the elected government having been ignored, Norton turned his attention to other matters, both political and social. On August 12, 1869, "being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm", he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties. The failure to treat Norton's adopted home city with appropriate respect is the subject of a particularly stern edict that often is cited as having been written by Norton in 1872—although evidence for the authorship, date or source of this decree remains elusive:
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.
Norton was occasionally a visionary, and some of his Imperial Decrees exhibited profound foresight. He issued instructions to form a League of Nations, and he explicitly forbade any form of conflict between religions or their sects. Norton saw fit to decree the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience by the authorities:
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 Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.
The intent of this decree, unlike many others, actually came to fruition; construction of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge began on July 9, 1933 and was completed on November 12, 1936. The construction of Bay Area Rapid Transit's Transbay Tube was completed in 1969, with Transbay rail service commencing in 1974.
Norton spent his days inspecting San Francisco's streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.
During the 1860s and 1870s, there were occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Riots, sometimes resulting in fatalities, took place. During one incident, Norton 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.
Norton was loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest restaurants in San Francisco; restaurateurs took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances declaring "[by] Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States". Norton's self-penned Imperial seals of approval were prized and a substantial boost to trade. No play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton.
A rumor started by the devoted Norton caricaturist Ed Jump claims he had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, which were also San Francisco celebrities. Though he did not own the dogs, Norton ate at free lunch counters where he shared his meals with the dogs.
In 1867, a policeman named Armand Barbier arrested Norton to commit him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens and sparked scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered Norton released and issued a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Crowley wrote "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Norton magnanimously granted an Imperial Pardon to the errant policeman. All police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
Norton did receive some tokens of recognition for his position. The 1870 U.S. census lists Joshua Norton as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street; his occupation was listed as "Emperor". It also noted he was insane. Norton also issued his own money to pay for his debts, and it became an accepted local currency in San Francisco. These notes came in denominations between fifty cents and ten dollars; the few surviving notes are collector's items. The city of San Francisco also honored Norton. When his uniform began to look shabby, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors bought him a suitably regal replacement. Norton sent a gracious thank you note and issued a "patent of nobility in perpetuity" for each supervisor.
Norton was the subject of many tales; one popular story suggested he was the son of Emperor Napoleon III, and that his claim of coming from South Africa was a ruse to prevent persecution. Another popular story suggested Norton was planning to marry Queen Victoria. While this claim is unsupported, Norton did write to the Queen on several occasions, and he is reported to have met Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Rumors also circulated that Norton was supremely wealthy—only affecting poverty because he was miserly.
A number of decrees that were probably fraudulent were submitted and duly printed in local newspapers, and it is believed that in at least a few cases, newspaper editors themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society maintains a list of the decrees believed to be genuine.
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed 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 California Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed and "the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital." Norton died before a carriage could arrive. 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"). In a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that, "[o]n the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life". The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
It quickly became evident that, contrary to some rumors, Norton had died in complete poverty. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up a single gold sovereign, then worth around $2.50; his collection of walking sticks; his rather battered saber; a variety of headgear (including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and another cap suited to a martial band-master); an 1828 French franc; and a handful of the Imperial bonds he sold to tourists at a fictitious 7% interest. There were fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine.
Initial funeral arrangements were for a pauper's coffin of simple redwood. However, members of the Pacific Club, a San Francisco businessman's association, established a funeral fund that provided for a handsome rosewood casket and arranged a suitably dignified farewell. Norton's funeral on Sunday, January 10, was solemn, mournful, and large. Paying their respects were members of "all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast". Some accounts say as many as 30,000 people lined the streets, and that the funeral cortège was two miles (5 km) long. San Francisco's total population at the time was 230,000. Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco.
In 1934, Emperor Norton's remains were transferred, as were all graves in the city, to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Colma.
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 Joshua Norton.
Robert Louis Stevenson made Norton a character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker. Stevenson's stepdaughter, Isobel Osbourne, mentioned Norton in her autobiography, This Life I've Loved. She said that Norton "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."
Since 1974, there has been an annual memorial service at his grave in Colma, just outside San Francisco.
In January 1980, ceremonies were conducted in San Francisco to honor the 100th anniversary of the death of "the one and only Emperor of the United States".
The Emperor's Bridge Campaign, a San Francisco-based nonprofit launched in September 2013, works to honor the life and advance the legacy of Emperor Norton.
He is considered a patron saint of Discordianism.
A park in the Republic of Molossia is named "Norton Park".
In 1939, the group E Clampus Vitus commissioned and dedicated a plaque commemorating Emperor Norton's call for the construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, via Yerba Buena Island (formerly Goat Island). The group's intention was that the plaque be placed on the newly opened San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge itself. This was not approved by the bridge authorities, however; and, sometime shortly after World War II, the plaque was installed at the Cliff House. In the 1990s, the plaque was moved to the Transbay Terminal. When the Terminal was closed and demolished in 2010, as part of the project to construct a new Transbay Transit Center, the plaque was placed in storage, where it remains.
There have been two recent campaigns to name all, or parts, of the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton.
In November 2004, after a campaign by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, then-San Francisco District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors calling for the entire bridge to be named for Emperor Norton. On December 14, 2004, the Board approved a modified version of this resolution, calling for only "new additions"—i.e., the new eastern span—to be named "The Emperor Norton Bridge". Neither the City of Oakland nor Alameda County passed any similar resolution, so the effort went no further.
In June 2013, eight members of the California Assembly, joined by two members of the California Senate, introduced a concurrent resolution to name the western span of the bridge for former California state Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. In response, there have been public efforts seeking to revive the earlier Emperor Norton effort. One effort, an online petition, was started in August 2013 and calls for the entire bridge to be named for Emperor Norton. This petition has received coverage from local media.
The Emperor's Bridge Campaign is carrying forward the bridge-naming effort. The Campaign is using the example of numerous California state-owned bridges that have multiple names to call for an "Emperor Norton" name simply to be added as a second name for the Bay Bridge, rather than for the bridge to be renamed altogether. The organization is exploring the possibility of offering state ballot proposition to this effect in 2018, the 200th anniversary of Emperor Norton's birth.