Transcript No. 1894
January 6, 2000
EMPEROR NORTON OF SAN FRANCISCO
By Robert Leonard
On January 8, 1880, a man fell dead on the streets of San Francisco.
He was so mourned that flags were flown at half staff and 30,000 people
attended his funeral. For this was Norton the First, Emperor of the United
Joshua Norton wasn't always an emperor. In 1849, he came to San
Francisco, where he established himself as a merchant. During the Gold
Rush, food and supplies were expensive, since everything had to be
And no merchant was as successful as Joshua Norton. He and his
partners began to buy cargoes from consignees even before the vessels
arrived in port. This gave Norton much greater control over the market.
In 1852, he built the first rice mill on the Pacific Coast. People began
to call him a genius and greet him on the street with a "How are you,
But late in 1852, Norton overreached himself. He tried to corner the
supply of rice, but failed and was ruined. After many lawsuits, he was
forced into bankruptcy.
The years of litigation and his sudden poverty finally affected his
mind. He once walked into a San Francisco newspaper office and handed over
a notice proclaiming himself Norton the First, Emperor of the United
States. Remembering Norton's past kindnesses, the people of San Francisco
humored him in his delusion from then on.
Friends paid his expenses for several years. A Masonic Lodge paid the
rent on his rooming house "castle," and the city government bought military
uniforms for him. During these years, Emperor Norton supported himself by
spending "Bonds of the Empire," which he had printed himself. These notes
have Norton's portrait and signature. They're quite rare today . . .
giving us just a brief glimpse of one of San Francisco's more colorful
Today's program was written by Robert Leonard. "Money Talks" is a
copyrighted production of the American Numismatic Association, 818 N.