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Norton I / Emperor of the United States

Norton I / Emperor of the United States

William Drury

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Joshua Abraham Norton (February 4, 1818 – January 8, 1880), known as Emperor Norton, was a resident of San Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself "Norton I., Emperor of the United States". In 1863, after Napoleon III invaded Mexico, he took the secondary title of "Protector of Mexico". Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa. Leaving Cape Town, probably in late 1845, he arrived in Boston, via Liverpool, in March 1846 and San Francisco in late 1849. For the first few years after arriving in San Francisco, Norton made a successful living as a commodities trader and real estate speculator. However, he was financially ruined following a failed bid to corner the rice market during a shortage prompted by a famine in China. He bought a shipload of Peruvian rice at 12 cents per pound (26 ¢/kg); but more Peruvian ships arrived in port, causing the price to drop sharply to three cents per pound (6.6 ¢/kg). He then lost a protracted lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his local prominence faded. Norton did not disappear from the scene completely. However, he dramatically "reset" his relationship to the world around him in September 1859, when he proclaimed himself "Emperor of the United States". Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in some establishments that he frequented. Some considered Norton to be insane or eccentric, but residents of San Francisco and the city's larger Northern California orbit enjoyed his imperial presence and took note of his frequent newspaper proclamations. Though Norton received free ferry and train passage and a variety of favors, such as help with rent and free meals, from well-placed friends and sympathizers, the city's merchants also capitalized on his notoriety by selling souvenirs bearing his image. "San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton," Norton's biographer William Drury wrote, "not Norton off San Francisco". On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral.[8] Norton has been immortalized as the basis of characters in the literature of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris, René Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, Neil Gaiman, Mircea Cărtărescu and Charles Bukowski.
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