Norton, Joshua

Norton, (Joshua Abraham) “Emperor”

(?1819–80) legendary eccentric; born in England or South Africa. Nothing is known of his life before he arrived in San Francisco along with others from around the world in the wake of discovery of gold in 1848. But it appears that he had at least spent some time in South Africa and that he arrived as a relatively successful businessman; instead of trying to make his fortune by prospecting, he apparently turned to speculating in rice, a valuable commodity at the time, but ended up losing everything. This evidently drove him into some delusional state if not outright madness and he is said to have vanished for awhile. What is known for sure is that in 1857 he reappeared in San Francisco wearing a costume suspiciously like France's Napoleon III's, and announced that he was "Emperor Norton." For the next 13 years he paraded around the city in his uniform, issuing "proclamations" and official-looking banknotes (which were honored in some restaurants) and appearing at many official functions. Still an "open" frontier town, San Francisco tolerated him with good humor, and when he died, thousands showed up at his funeral. Numerous books, plays, and musical dramas have been written about him, the most notable being Henry Mollicone's opera, Emperor Norton (1981).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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