In the history of San Francisco no character has ever stood out more than Joshua Norton. He was born in England and spent most of his life in South Africa. In 1849 he received a large inheritance and sailed for San Francisco with a dream of supplying Peruvian rice to the California Territory. In the years that followed, Norton’s rice venture failed and an unsuccessful lawsuit drove Joshua out of San Francisco and out of his mind. He returned a year later and he had clearly gone insane from the strain of the loss of his business and his holdings.
In 1859, Joshua Norton sent a declaration to several California newspapers which read: “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 San Francisco, Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States……..”
Norton I, Emperor of the United States
Emperor Norton later added to his title, “Protector of Mexico,” and declared that there would no longer be a need for a legislature. He then abolished Congress as well as the Democrat and Republican parties. He established a fictional Treasury and was in the habit of fining people for various “crimes.” The money was to be used for the construction of a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. No one ever paid his fines, but in a strange twist the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was completed in 1936 and bears a plaque with his name.
It was widely known in San Francisco the Joshua Norton was mentally ill and penniless. However, Emperor Norton I was well received at restaurants and events around town. Restaurant owners would place brass plaques above the door of their establishment welcoming Emperor Norton. Dressed in a uniform given to him by Army officers from the Presidio and sporting his brass tipped cane, Joshua Norton’s eccentric behavior lasted for twenty-one years with his decrees continuing until he fell dead on California Street in downtown San Francisco on January 8, 1880. He was buried two days later and an estimated 10,000 people attended his funeral.