Among the 307 new settlers for the Cape of Good Hope, who came ashore in Algoa Bay from the British transport Belle Alliance early in 1820, was a small Jewish boy from London, and aged nearly two years old. Joshua Abraham Norton born February 4th 1819, son of John and Sarah Norton, who accompanied his family to this wild and far-off region, by a strange chance, forged a unique link between South Africa and the United States. Those 4,500 emigrants, from England, Scotland and Ireland, came to the Cape in consequence of the distress prevailing in the Old Country after the Napoleonic Wars. Downing Street, untroubled by their inexperience and lack of equipment, welcomed them as human buffers against the Xhosa’s across the Border. Though many learnt farming through bitter experience, John Norton turned towards the newly-founded settlements, first of Grahamstown and later of Port Elizabeth, where he built up a business as a ship-chandler and merchant. But here too, life was hard, as young Joshua discovered when, after leaving school, he joined his father’s firm.
A perculiar man
In 1842 he was left in charge of the Port Elizabeth activities of Norton and Co., while his father moved his business to Cape Town, in partnership with another Jewish 1820 Settler, Benjamin Norden, and within another two years Joshua had joined them there. Disappointed with the Cape, John Norton returned to England in 1848, and died soon after. Norton and Co. went into bankruptcy and young Joshua began to look round for something new.
Not many months had passed before exciting reports penetrated even to the Cape, of gold discoveries in California. Before coming to California he had been for some time a member of the Cape Mounted Riflemen
Being unmarried and without other ties, Joshua Norton decided to join the stream of Forty-Niners. In November of that historic year, having first worked his way from Table Bay to South America, he landed at San Francisco.
His early years on the Pacific coast seemed well to justify his emigration from the Cape, for, starting as a commission agent; Norton rose to be a merchant, one of the most prosperous in the State. Then, in an ill-omened moment, he entered into a speculation in rice, which, coupled with the onset of a slump, landed him once again in the bankruptcy court. By November, 1856, Joshua was ruined.
This was the turning point in his life. Brooding over his misfortunes, he conceived the idea that they were mainly due to defects in the Constitution of the United States, to the reform of which he began giving his attention. Among the major changes he favoured was placing the whole country under a monarch, an Emperor for choice. Regarding the proposal as a harmless eccentricity, Norton’s friends nicknamed him “Emperor”, and because his brain was giving in, he willingly accepted the title.
I quote Dr Louis Herrman of Cape Town, who has done much research on this subject: “The delusion of greatness or grandeur is well-known to be common in some forms of insanity. There was, however, one aspect of Joshua Norton’s case that was fantastically uncommon. It was the acceptance of his delusion by the entire sane inhabitants of the city of San Francisco over a period of 20 years.”
By tacit agreement, officials, businessmen, civic dignitaries and ordinary men and women treated this strange little man from the Cape of Good Hope as though he really was Emperor of the United States! Typical of this attitude was the proclamation published in the “San Francisco Bulletin” on September 17, 1859:
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now, for the last 9 years and 10 months past, of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different states of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city, on the first day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is labouring, and thereby cause confidence to exist both at home and abroad in our stability and integrity.
Norton the First
Emperor of the United States.”
Entering the spirit of the proclamation, the newspapermen as well as their readers had no objection a few weeks later to publishing further edicts from the same source.
“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage now existing throughout the Union is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violations of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not the protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expenses of Government – in consequence of which we do hereby abolish Congress, and it is hereby abolished; and we order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st of February next, and there to take the effective steps to remedy the evils complained of.
Emperor of the United States.”
When events, soon to culminate in the outbreak of the Civil War, caused a meeting of Congress, he issued an even stronger notice, again published throughout California.
“Whereas a body of men calling themselves the national Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th October last, declaring the said Congress abolished:
Whereas it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW THEREFORE we do hereby order and direct Major-General Scott, the Commander-in-Chief of our armies, immediately on receipt of this our decree to proceed in force and clear the Halls of Congress.
Emperor of the United States.”
In those anxious months when the very existence of the United States was at stake, Norton’s pronouncements, ordering John Brown of Harpers Ferry to be confined in an asylum and removing from office Governor H. A. Wise of Virginia, culminating in July 1860 in an order dissolving the U.S.A. afforded a welcome touch of light relief.
No longer satisfied with merely issuing orders, Joshua Norton dressed himself in a semi-naval uniform and with dignity went about his affairs in San Francisco. As he entered a theatre the audience would rise, and neither there nor in public conveyances was he ever asked to pay. At his request printers produced paper “currency”, which kindly shopkeepers accepted in payment for his needs.
Determined to put an end to the wicked government of Mexico, Norton assumed the title of its “Protector” in 1860 and, when the American Civil War broke out, called upon the clergy of the various churches, including the Jews, to help him restore peace.
“He was kind, pleasant and affable,” wrote the American historian, A. C. Lane. “Except on the subject of his fancied Empire, he talked rationally. Everybody liked him – old folks, young folks and children.”
Famous men who were his friends include Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bret Harte and Henry George.
One strange incident occurred in 1866 when Nathan Peiser, of Cape Town, found his way to San Francisco, and taking him to task, asked for an explanation of his behaviour. “Behind locked doors,” Dr Herrman tells, “swearing him to secrecy, Joshua informed his friend of the mystery of his royal birth. He was not really John Norton’s son, he said, but a changeling, and really heir to the throne of France, Queen Victoria being his cousin. He had retained the name Norton out of love and respect for his Jewish foster-father. He was the sovereign ruler of the United States.”
So popular was Joshua that in the State Legislature of California, the sittings of which he was in the habit of attending, a bill was once actually introduced to award him a pension! Though the measure did not go through, he always had enough to live on, and when some ignorant official had him locked up as insane, there was such an outcry that he was straightaway released.
With his visits to schools and institutions of learning, in which he showed great interest, he was for several generations’ part of Californian life. Shortly before his passing, Robert Louis Stevenson in The Wrecker, which he wrote with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, left a literary monument to him.
“Of all our visitors, I believe I preferred Emperor Norton, the very mention of whose name reminds me that I am doing scant justice to the folks of San Francisco. In what other city would a harmless madman, who supposed himself Emperor of the two Americas, have been so fostered and encouraged? Where else would even the people of the streets have respected the poor soul’s illusion? Where else would bankers and merchants have received his visits, cashed his cheques and submitted to his small assessments? Where else would he have been suffered to attend and address the exhibition days of schools and colleges? Where else in God’s green earth, have taken his pick of restaurants, ransacked the bill of fare, and departed scatheless?”
“They tell me that he was even an exacting patron, threatening to withdraw his custom when dissatisfied …”
Robert Louis Stevenson describes his appearance – “a portly, rather flabby man, with the face of a gentleman, rendered unspeakably pathetic and absurd by the great sabre at his side and the peacock’s feather in his hat.” Thus attired he visited a friend of the author’s.
`I have called to remind you, Mr Pinkerton, that you are somewhat in arrears with taxes,’ he said with old-fashioned, stately courtesy.
“`Well, Your Majesty, what is the amount?’ asked Jim, and when the figure was named (it was generally two or three dollars) paid on the nail …”
The New York Times reported that he “dropped dead at the corner of California and Dupont streets, in that city”. He was on his way to a scientific conference.
When the old man passed away in 1880 there were 10,000 people at his funeral, including every section, rich and poor, the cost being paid by the Pacific Club, of which in his days of wealth he had been a member. When in 1934 the cemetery had to be moved there was a public ceremony at which leading citizens and detachments of troops did him honour and at which an impressive stone memorial was unveiled, with the inscription:
EMPEROR OF THE UNITED STATES
PROTECTOR OF MEXICO
Joshua A. Norton
Acknowledgements: Stars & Stripes in Africa by Eric Rosenthal published by Nasionale Boekhandel