Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States.”
Born in England, Norton immigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father’s estate. He lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice. After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco.
He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Norton spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets. 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.” Such “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.
On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton.