177: Emperor Norton I of The United States and Protector of Mexico


Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Norton I in uniform. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On this date in 1859, Joshua Norton of San Francisco, declared himself Emperor of the United States.

Here are some facts you may not have known about Emperor Norton the First.

He was born Joshua Abraham Norton, in about 1818 in what is now a part of London, and moved with his parents  to South Africa around the age of two. After receiving $40,000 from his father’s estate — the equivalent of $1.1 million today — Norton moved to San Francisco, where he proceeded to lose his fortune speculating on Peruvian rice. After suing the rice dealers, Norton declared bankruptcy in 1857 and was forced to live in a boarding house.

On September 17, 1859, angry at the American legal and political systems, he proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States,” and directed representatives of each state to assemble in San Francisco to change the laws of the country. On October 12, he issued a decree abolishing the United States Congress, and later commanded the army to take the Capitol by force. These orders were, of course, not taken seriously. However, the people of San Francisco loved the penniless Emperor, and he frequently ate in the best restaurants in town and had reserved seats for plays an musical performances.

On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed and died. He was about 62 years old. His death was front-page news in San Francisco. Members of the Pacific Club arranged for a rosewood casket and funeral service. Reports say as many as 10,000 watched the funeral procession. In 1934, all of the city’s cemeteries  were moved out of the city, and Norton was reburied in Colma, California under a stone inscribed “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Our question, what character from Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was based on Emperor Norton?

Today is also Constitution Day in the United States, Heroes’ Day in Angola and Teachers’ Day in Honduras. In the United States, it’s unofficially National Apple Dumpling Day and National Monte Cristo Sandwich Day. It’s the birthday of musician Hank Williams (1923), author Ken Kesey (1935), and explorer Reinhold Messner.


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