He was the self-proclaimed Emperor of the USA. He was a failed rice investor. He proposed tunnelling under San Francisco Bay – and bridging over it. He was a madman. And 30,000 people paid tribute to him on his death. He was Joshua Abraham Norton.
To use his full title, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I was actually not American, but English-born. He grew up in South Africa and moved to San Francisco aged around 30.
An ill-fated attempt at investing in Peruvian rice production squandered his family fortune – an inheritance of about $40,000 from his father – and Norton spent a few years away from San Francisco.
When he returned, his legend really began…
‘Emperor of these United States’
By September 1859, he had taken to writing to the press, calling himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and, later, Protector of Mexico.
The newspapers published his letters for comedy value – and, weirdly, Norton was allowed to live for 21 years claiming the title, until his collapse and death on a San Francisco street corner in January 1880.
A Meagre Majesty
Despite living two decades as Emperor Norton I, Norton never regained his fortune – his fans believed that poverty was an affectation, and that he secretly had vast wealth stashed away, but upon his death it became apparent that this was not the case.
Norton died with just a few dollars on his person, and only a few dollars more were found at his home, along with an eclectic collection of personal affects that included fake Imperial bonds he was known to sell to tourists at a supposed rate of 7% interest.
However, he lived a life of finery – theatres reserved balcony seats for him on opening night and restaurants allowed him to eat for free, as an Imperial seal of approval from Norton was a major boost for business in San Francisco at the time.
After an ill-judged arrest in 1867 (on a fairly justified suspicion of suffering from a mental disorder), Norton actually received a full apology from the city’s police force – and was saluted by police officers in the streets from then on.
Death and Dynasty
Following his death in 1880, Norton was honoured by local press under headlines declaring “The King is Dead” and, unlike those early comedic articles, the reports this time were tinged with genuine sadness.
San Francisco businessmen’s association the Pacific Club contributed to the funeral fund, and Norton’s redwood pauper’s coffin became a rosewood casket befitting to his Imperial stature.
On Sunday, January 10th, 1880, two days after his death, His Imperial Majesty and Protector of Mexico Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton I was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery in a ceremony paid for by the City of San Francisco, and at the end of a funeral procession reported to have been attended by 30,000 local residents – more than one in eight of San Francisco’s inhabitants at the time.
His impact may have reached even further than his own lifetime, however – Norton had lobbied for a bridge over San Francisco Bay, and a tunnel under it.
The Transbay Tube was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, opening to passengers in 1974, and plans for the future of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system could yet see the Transbay Tube accompanied by further submerged tunnels.
But it’s the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, built in the early 1930s, that honours Norton’s memory perhaps more than any other landmark.
Constructed more than 50 years after Norton’s death, the Bay Bridge brought his vision of a crossing between the two communities to fruition – and a plaque on the bridge’s Transbay Terminal reads: “Pause traveller, and be grateful to Norton 1st, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, 1859-80, whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay.”