On this day in 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton named himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States.” He is generally remembered as Emperor Norton. In 1849, he inherited what would be well over a million dollars today. So he left his home in South Africa and moved to San Francisco. He went into business. And he did okay. He invested in real estate and greatly increased his fortune.
But then, he saw an opportunity to corner the market on rice in San Francisco. China had placed a ban on the exportation of rice. So he bought a huge amount of rice from Peru — worth roughly one-tenth of his entire fortune. But it wasn’t all the Peruvian rice that was being brought to San Francisco. So instead of rice prices going way up, they plummeted — to a quarter of what Norton bought them for. But instead of just taking his licks and moving on, he decided to fight.
He tried to nullify the contract. And he had some success in the lower courts — probably because they were easier to buy off. From 1853 to 1857 he fought the sale, all the way to the California Supreme Court, where he lost. Along the way, he lost his entire fortune. He filed for bankruptcy in 1858. And in 1859, having decided that the United States was a failed enterprise, he announced that he was emperor:
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.
He became something of a pet to the city. He didn’t have any real power, but he has taken care of — financially and emotionally. He issued his own currency, which people accepted even though it was worthless. And he was generally listened to seriously, as when he dissolved Congress later that same year. He was also very protective of his adopted city. In 1872, he issued the following edict, “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.” He seems like a real life Ignatius J Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces.
After a 21 year reign as the most harmless emperor in history, he died. Wealthy businessmen chipped in and provided him with a fine funeral, and it is estimated that as many as 10,000 people attended — at a time when the population of the city was less than a quarter million. He was a truly remarkable man.