New Perspectives on THE WEST
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Kearney, Denis
Lane, James H.
Lee, John D.
Lewis, Meriwether
Looking Glass
Lovejoy, Julia Louisa
"Mark Twain"
Marshall, James
Meek, Joseph
Miles, Nelson A.
Mulholland, William
Norton, Joshua
Polk, James K.
Quantrill, William Clarke
Red Cloud
Reno, Marcus
Roosevelt, Theodore

Photo of Joshua Abraham NortonJoshua Abraham Norton


The self-declared "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico," Joshua Abraham Norton was one of the most picturesque figures in California history. Norton was born in 1818 or 1819 in London, England, but was taken almost immediately to South Africa, where his parents had decided to move to seek their fortune. In 1849, having failed in business ventures in South Africa, the already psychologically unstable Norton moved to San Francisco, one of the thousands who rushed there hoping to strike it rich.

Norton soon became a commodities merchant, and for several years achieved a large measure of financial success -- enough to be invited to join the elite San Francisco Vigilance Committee. But in 1853 his failed effort to corner the local rice market put him into bankruptcy. And his bankruptcy, in turn, seems to have driven him insane. Six years later, in 1858, he announced that:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.

Over the next twenty-one years, Norton cut a striking figure as he roamed the city in a European-style military uniform with a plumed top hat and a sword at his side. Norton caught the attention of Samuel Clemens, then working as a newspaperman in San Francisco. Years later, Clemens -- by that time the celebrated writer known as Mark Twain -- would reveal that he had based the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn on the eccentric Joshua Norton.

The real Norton, however, died in 1880 on the streets of San Francisco, homeless and abandoned by his former business colleagues and friends, thirty thousand of whom attended his funeral.

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