“The Emperor of these United States”

When the going gets tough, the tough declare themselves Emperor. Or so it seems for Joshua Abraham Norton, who on September 17, 1859, published the following declaration in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin:

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of these United States.”

Norton was born in London in 1818, but lived from babyhood through his late twenties in Cape Town, South Africa. By 1849, when he learned of the discovery of gold in California, he was already in business for himself and had received a comfortable inheritance from his parents. By November of that year (in time to be a true Forty-Niner) he had arrived in San Francisco and quickly made somewhat of a success of himself as a commission merchant. He bought real estate, operated the first cigar factory, and opened the first rice mill in the city. An unsuccessful attempt to corner the market on rice, as well as downturns in the local economy led him to bankruptcy (and very possibly dementia) in 1858, less than a decade after his arrival in the city.

However, it was only a year later that Norton reappeared on the scene in his new role as imperial leader, becoming a prime tourist attraction and generally endearing himself to residents of and visitors to San Francisco. He issued regular pronouncements and decrees calling for, among other things, abolishing the Congress of the United States, by force of the U.S. Army if necessary. As Emperor, he issued paper money “bonds” in denominations from 50¢ to $100, which he used as currency (generally accepted) in the local economy.

After 20 years, on January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton’s reign came to an end when he collapsed on a downtown San Francisco corner. His obituary was printed on the front pages of local newspapers and it is said that over 30,000 people attended his funeral.

While most of the “bonds” issued by Emperor Norton are long gone, it is believe that 25 to 35 remain in collectors’ hands. It is a rare occasion when we offer one for sale, however we do note that we offered the three examples shown here in a single sale. That was the John J. Ford, Jr. Collection, Part XX, which we sold in October 2007.


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