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Joshua Abraham Norton (c. 1819 – January 8, 1880), the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen ofSan Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States and subsequently “Protector of Mexico”.
Born in England, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving abequestof $40,000 from his father’s estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing inPeruvianrice.
After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his “order” that theUnited States Congressbe dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge crossing and a tunnel to be built underSan Francisco Bay(which both happened long after his death in the form of theSan Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridgeand theTransbay Tube). On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton’s legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writersMark Twain,Robert Louis Stevenson,Christopher MooreandNeil Gaimanwho based characters on him.