• Katlyn Roberts

Mark Twain vs. the Emperor of the United States

The story of an Americana darling and his living shadow.


Mark Twain portrait via the UC Berkeley Library. Emperor Norton portrait via emperornorton.net

I’m mad at Mark Twain right now.


If you follow along with my writing (and you can do so here), you’ll know I’m a massive Twain fan. His stories combine history, travel, and humor, which is totally my vibe. But Twain’s a problematic hero to have. I mean, the man once said that he wanted to dig Jane Austen up and “beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”.


What the hell? You know, you can be a real asshole sometimes, Clemens.


Twain’s other famous beef pisses me off even more, though. Twain hated Emperor Norton.


Unless you’ve lived in San Francisco, you probably weren’t aware the United States was once ruled by an Emperor. (No, I’m not talking about Trump, but I won’t be surprised at all when he barricades himself inside the oval office the minute he’s voted out.)


I’m talking about Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.


Joshua Norton in about 1851, at the height of his wealth. Collection of The Society of California Pioneers.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born to wealthy Jewish parents in England in 1818. The family moved to South Africa when he was very young, then sent Joshua off to San Francisco at the start of the gold rush (1849) to throw his money around at stuff and see if it turned into more money. It did. He quickly became one of the richest and most well-respected investors in the game.


In 1852, famine in China had made rice a steamy commodity, so Norton bought an entire rice shipment at a ridiculous price, hoping to corner the market. Several days later, a ton of other rice shipments docked at port and the prices plummeted. Norton lost everything. He was forced to sell his land, declare bankruptcy, and move into a poorhouse. Remember when San Francisco had housing for poor people?


Nobody heard from Norton for years. Some say he left town for a while. Some say he was simply hiding away in shame, watching all of Netflix and ignoring calls from his mom. All we know is, in 1859, he resurfaced with the following message —


“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.”
— NORTON I., Emperor of the United States. (He would later add “Protector of Mexico” to his title)

The papers printed the declaration for a laugh and the people ate it up. What the hell had happened to Norton? Was it a descent into madness? Was he cooking up a scheme? Or was he simply choosing self-love over self-flagellation? (The original “Yaaas, Queen!”) This was all highly debatable, as we’ll discuss later, but it appears most people decided to assume good intentions.


Officers at the nearby Presidio military base gifted him an old uniform with official-looking epaulets and a sword holster and the Emperor quickly became the most recognizable face in town.


Rare portraits of Emperor Norton via emperornorton.net

(To read the rest of this article, check it out where it was originally published on Medium.)

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