The Original San Francisco Eccentric
A nineteenth century gold rusher built a fortune, lost it all, then declared himself Emperor of the United States — and got all of San Francisco to play along.
Illustrations by Anna Haifisch
'The Emperor is Dead' screamed the front-page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 9, 1880. "On the reeking pavement," the ensuing obituary lamented, "in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States, departed this life."
If you were to believe the history books and the immigration records, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in 1818 in the London borough of Deptford to parents John and Sarah. Two years later, he and his young Jewish family disembarked from the vessel La Belle Alliance at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa as part of the group now referred to as the “1820 Settlers” — Africa’s first British colonialists.
But if you were to instead believe the dubious final words of the man himself, Joshua Abraham Norton was a crown prince to the throne of France; the grandchild of royal refugees who had fled from the blood-soaked guillotines of the revolution; …