The Death of Emperor Norton I

By Brad Dison

This past week or so, we have all been overwhelmed by information on the royal family due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This brought up the memory of the mostly forgotten Emperor Norton I whose full name was Joshua Abraham Norton I.

The emperor’s reign began in September 1859 and lasted just over two decades. Emperor Norton issued his own currency and proclamations and collected taxes from his subjects. “The emperor would have been a noteworthy figure anywhere,” one newspaper reported. He was described as being “modestly pretentious,” “sensible and intelligent upon most subjects, and a gentleman always.” He was a large-sized man, “whom the cares of the government had rendered round-shouldered. On the top of a royal head of hair… he wore an old-style high hat from which waved a plume, stolen against its will from some stray white rooster. His eyebrows were heavy, and overhung small, piercing eyes. The emperor was always dressed in a dark blue uniform, closely buttoned to the three upper buttons, which were left loose to show the rich linen he wore. A broad piping of red ran down the seam of his trousers.” When the emperor needed a new tailored uniform, he personally collected the amount required from his willing subjects. Even his personal tailor paid a share.

While most of us grumble about paying even the slightest tax, his subjects were willing, even happy, to pay the emperor’s taxes. Emperor Norton never took more than he needed, and he only collected monthly taxes from those that he graced with his presence. In exchange for paying the monthly taxes, some restaurant owners in his capital city provided him with free meals. Having the emperor dine with them was good for business and they, the businesses, received bragging rights. Emperor Norton was most interested in the events which occurred in his realm. When a political or financial dispute arose, Emperor Norton personally acted as mediator, never taking sides, until both parties were satisfied. The emperor formalized the agreement between the parties with an official decree or proclamation which he signed, “Norton I.”

On State occasions, Emperor Norton wore a ceremonial sword. Even on these occasions, the emperor always had his trusty cane in hand. His cane was such an individuality that “every resident and visitor of his [capital] city knew it by heart.” A carved serpent was coiled around the cane’s central stick. The serpent’s head and neck formed the cane’s crook. Some of his subjects claimed that they could tell the emperor was approaching by the unique sound the cane made as it tapped on the sidewalk with each step he took. Rather than taking a royal carriage, Emperor Norton happily walked the streets of his capital city among his subjects. “No person ever passed him on the streets … without noticing him. If they did not know him at first sight they always asked, and invariably found out.”

All good things must come to an end. On January 8, 1880, the 61-year-old emperor was walking unmolested among his loyal, loving subjects when he suddenly collapsed. People immediately rushed to the emperor, but before anyone could render aid the emperor slipped from this world into the next. Newspapers reported that he died of apoplexy, which most often refers to stroke symptoms that occur suddenly. Emperor Norton’s subjects were immensely saddened by his death. Businesses moved the emperor’s photograph from its place of distinction to their front windows. Unfortunately, Emperor Norton left no heir. He had one true love. On numerous occasions, Emperor Norton proposed marriage to Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but she married Prince Albert instead. With no proper heir, the title and position of emperor of his realm died with Norton.

Emperor Norton’s obituary said, “There never lived a more eccentric character …than that very Norton. He was a patron of the arts, sciences, operas, free lunches, and, in fact, anything that was good and noble, not excepting the synagogue nor the feasts of all creeds and nationalities, since he was the embodiment of a free pass, and never paid a cent for anything except his lodging, the coin for which he received from his loyal subjects, on whom he levied for contributions monthly.” As not to overtax his subjects, the emperor had not set aside funds for his own funeral. The citizens of his capital city so loved the emperor that they collected one final tax in his name, which his subjects happily paid, for an elaborate funeral and casket for the emperor.

Emperor Norton’s subjects “humored his whim by paying the royal assessments he levied for the support of his imperial person.” The emperor’s realm existed … only in his mind. His capital city was San Francisco, California. Emperor Norton I was the first, and only, albeit self-proclaimed, “Emperor of the United States.”

1. The Petaluma Courier, January 14, 1880, p.2.
2. The Evansville Journal (Evansville, Indiana), January 21, 1880, p.4.
3. The American Israelite (Cincinnati, Ohio) February 13, 1880, p.p2.

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