He was going to corner the rice market. There was a shortage of rice in San Francisco and he, well, he knew people.
Unfortunately, the day “his” ship arrived in port with a delivery of rice, every other ship that arrived that day also had a full load of rice. The shortage was suddenly over, but Joshua Norton was the only man waiting for his ship to come in who had invested his entire fortune—possibly as much as a quarter-million dollars—on that one shipment. He declared bankruptcy.
He began to file legal proceedings and lawsuits against every institution that he could think was to be blamed for his misfortune, from banks to the United States of America itself. Finally, he declared himself Emperor of the entire continent, America and Mexico. He had probably gone insane in his frustration and endless effort, but no man found greater riches.
When he died in 1880, his loyal subjects, the people of San Francisco, even made sure to put on his tombstone, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
In 1859, a few years after his abrupt bankruptcy, Joshua Norton, at one time a humble citizen, strode into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and requested (demanded) that a proclamation be printed: “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens … I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” The newspaper printed it—as a joke—but when he saw it in print this only confirmed in “Emperor” Norton’s mind that he was indeed Emperor. He began to act like it. San Franciscans slowly began to act like he was their Emperor, too.
For the next two decades, citizens of San Francisco treated him with deference and respect: Restaurants reserved seats for him (and his dogs—or any dogs that he adopted on the spot that day and decided looked hungry); the banks issued fake currency that only he could use, and businesses always accepted this money from him; the newspapers printed on their front pages the many decrees that he delivered to them to print and, when they noticed that sales spiked for those editions, they sometimes published fake decrees composed by their editorial writers to pump up sales; businesses that he “approved of” received personal seals of approval from him, which they displayed proudly in their shop windows. He walked the streets wearing one of many self-designed uniforms and military-style hats. He carried a sword that was noticeably dented and rusted. Every so often, real military officers at the Presidio would supply him with a clean, new uniform.
Among his many decrees: one outlawing political parties and a prescient one requiring that a bridge be built where the Golden Gate Bridge ultimately was built several decades later.
When famous people of the day showed up in San Francisco, the powers-that-be made certain that Emperor Norton was included among the members of the official welcoming party.
Some fantasized that he was secretly a millionaire, which may have explained some of their deference to him, but when he dropped dead on a street corner, only five dollars was found on his person and only a few dollars more were found in his room, which was in a local flophouse. A special fund was established to pay for his funeral. More than 10,000 turned out to mourn him.
Many people have written articles and volumes about the adventures of Emperor Norton I, so there is little anyone can add to the legend. But it is a legend about friendship and caring for our fellow human being more than it is about madness. He was a very rich man, indeed.
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Wow! The first graf or so, I thought, maybe this is one of Mark’s (rare, but they do exist!) fiction pieces. I’d never heard of Mr. Joshua Norton until now. It is a fascinating life story and I like how you’ve turned it to good rather than negative, because I’m feeling quite a bit cynical today (and of late), so it really just felt good to read this. Bravo, my writer-friend!
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Thank you for this much-needed punch in the arm, Leigh! Cynicism abounds sometimes.
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I love this story! Truth really is stranger than fiction.