Joshua Abraham Norton (February 4, 1818 – January 8, 1880), known as Emperor Norton, was a citizen of San Francisco, California, who proclaimed himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States" in 1859.
In 1863 he took the secondary title of "Protector of Mexico" after Napoleon III invaded the country.
Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa.
He sailed west after the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, arriving in San Francisco possibly in November 1849.Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice to sell in China due to a Chinese rice shortage.
He bought rice at 12 cents per pound from Peruvian ships, but more Peruvian ships arrived in port which caused the price to drop sharply to 4 cents.
He then lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his public prominence faded.
He re-emerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States.
Though Norton received many favors from the city, merchants also capitalized on his notoriety by selling souvenirs bearing his name.
"San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton," Norton's biographer William Drury wrote, "not Norton off San Francisco."Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented.
Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.
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.
Upwards of 30,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral.
Norton has been immortalized as the basis of characters in the literature of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris and René Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.