Face-to-Face: Joshua A. Norton

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Maya Foo: Joshua Abraham Norton was one of the first eccentrics in California, and in the history of the West.

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He was born in England in 1818 and his family moved to South Africa two years later in 1820, to the Cape of Good Hope near Algoa Bay.

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Earlier in 1814, Britain had annexed the Cape colony and by 1820 there were around 5,000 British settlers there and the Nortons were among the first people in South Africa.

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His father was a farmer and a merchant, although little is known about Norton's early life. His father's death in 1848 prompted Norton to sell the family business and he moved to San Francisco in 1849 with $40,000 from his inheritance.

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He invested mostly in real estate and commodities. He mainly wanted to make money off of the miners and the gold fever in the San Francisco Bay area.

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He opened a general store at Montgomery and Jackson streets and he also opened a cigar factory, an office building, and a rice mill.

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He actually opened the first or built the first rice mill on the Pacific coast. He tried to corner the rice market due to the influx of Chinese immigrants who were there to help build the railroads.

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By 1852, his assets were worth around $250,000 which is around $5 million in today's money, but he shortly thereafter went bankrupt due to delayed shipments of rice and lawsuits with former business partners and importers which led him to file bankruptcy in 1856.

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The banks foreclosed on his properties and he went from being a socialite to being almost destitute.

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And this is really when his life became interesting.

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In 1859 he proclaimed himself as the emperor of the United States in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper and from this point on he was referred to as Emperor Norton the first.

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The newspaper continued to print Norton-

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Maya Foo: Norton's proclamations and edicts including when he abolished the California Supreme Court because he had felt slighted by them.

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Also when John Brown, who was also in the exhibition "Faces of the Frontier", was hanged for leading the attack at Harpers Ferry,

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Norton disagreed with the Virginia governor Henry Wise's decision.

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Norton thought that John Brown was insane and should have been sent to an insane asylum instead,

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and he was so upset that Norton fired Governor Wise and appointed John C Breckinridge of Kentucky in his place even though Breckinridge was then busy being the Vice President of the United States.

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In 1862, Norton decided to expand his title to Protector of Mexico when Louis Napoleon invaded that country.

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And his title from them on became Norton the First Emperor of the United States and the Protector of Mexico.

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His popularity increased and politicians courted him in order to gain public favor and votes.

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He was so popular that rival newspapers began printing fake proclamations attributed to Norton and businesses decided to cash in on this Norton mania and they realized they would get good and quick publicity if Norton was involved.

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In one instance a haberdashery gave Norton an old and out of style hat so he could reference Norton in his ads and the haberdasher became known as the Haberdasher to the Emperor.

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Restaurants also tried to do this and they had the Emperor's Wine List if they offered him one glass of wine and usually the favors did not extend past one- one time.

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Norton lived off the kindness and charity of others and he would only accept money from people under the guise that he was collecting taxes from them.

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He would remind them that the imperial treasury was in need of funds.

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His clothing on formal occasions, as seen in this photograph, included a Union officer's coat, tarnished gold epaulettes, a beaver hat with a ostrich plume, and a cavalry sword. And he usually carried a wooden cane.

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Maya Foo: cane with him as well.

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He visited different churches every Sunday even though he was raised in the Jewish faith,

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so he wouldn't show favoritism towards any religion or church in San Francisco.

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In 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed, people came to San Francisco to see the emperor and journalists reported on Norton. His reputation was known nationally at that point.

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And he became so popular that other cities like Portland, Oregon tried to lure him away by sending him walking sticks which was his favorite accessory to try and lure him away.

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Stores made a lot of money selling Norton merchandise. There were dolls and photos and tourist trinkets.

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And around this time Norton also began issuing bonds frequently, as well as notes and IOUs, all of which became souvenirs for tourists.

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A couple years later in 1872, he issued possibly his most well known proclamation which was that a suspension bridge should be built from Oakland to Goat Island, which is now Yerba Buena Island, and then on to San Francisco.

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The- everyone thought this was a crazy idea and who would ever want to build a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco and that was just ridiculous but the Bay Bridge was completed in the 1930s.

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His intelligent ideas were often followed by insane actions, shortly after issuing this proclamation, he decided that he didn't like the term "Frisco" when referring to the city so he issued an edict declaring that people would be fined and the money would also go to Norton if they used this word.

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There is no doubt that Norton was an intelligent man; he had some brilliant and forward looking ideas.

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Many believe that Norton's bankruptcy caused him to suffer a nervous or mental breakdown and contemporary diagnoses range from paranoid schizophrenia to eccentricity.

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He had also claimed that he descended from the royal Bourbon line.

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Whatever his condition may have been, he was a colorful character in the history of the West. He suffered a stroke in-

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Maya Foo: in 1880 and it was reported that tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral, which is really just a testament to his popularity, locally and nationally.

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His reputation was so well known that Mark Twain based his character, The King, in Huck Finn on the Emperor.

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As I said before, Norton was one of the first California eccentrics and he shows that the West attracted a diversity of backgrounds.

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The West was perceived as a land of great opportunities where you could literally reinvent yourself, as Norton did.

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A- an obituary in the Chicago Tribune, I thought sort of summarized Norton very nicely and they said "indeed there seems so much method in his madness that it was at times difficult to realize that he was not of sound mind".

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Thanks for coming to my Face-to-Face talk and please stay tuned for next week's Face-to-Face which will be given by Franklin Odo who will speak about the Daguerreotype "Seated Man with Chinese Servant". [[applause]]