Simanaitis Says

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THE STORY of Joshua A. Norton, aka Emperor Norton I of the United States, is offered as historical entertainment here in two parts, today and tomorrow. You are free to identify any parallels (or differences) you like with the life of Donald J. Trump. I stress that, not unlike many Trumpian claims, some of the following may not be true. But there’s enough substantiated fact to make for a fabulous tale.

Joshua Abraham Norton, c. 1818–1880, British-born American, self-proclaimed Emperor Norton I of the United States from September 17, 1859 until his death, recognized by contemporaries as a harmless lunatic. Image from, to my knowledge, the best documented source.

Joshua was born to English parents of Jewish heritage around 1818 (some say 1814) in Deptford, now part of London. (Tidbit: In 1593, playwright/intelligence agent Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a pub brawl in Deptford,)

The Nortons moved to South Africa in 1820 as part of a government-backed colonization scheme, the 1820 Settlers, sort of a “Make the South African Cape Great (for Whites).”

Upon deaths of his mother, in 1848, and father, in 1849, Joshua came to America to make his fortune. He arrived in San Francisco in 1849, just in time to take advantage of the California Forty-Niner Gold Rush.

San Francisco, c. 1849. Image from

Indeed, showing more deal-making ken than the average prospector, Norton made his living as a businessman, not a miner. According to Wikipedia, “There are oft-repeated historical claims that Joshua Norton … arrived with $40,000, in whole or in part a bequest from his father’s estate; and that he parlayed this into a fortune of $250,000.”

However, Wikipedia continues, “None of this is substantiated by contemporaneous documentation. What is known is that, after Norton arrived in San Francisco, he enjoyed a good deal of success in commodities markets and in real estate speculation….”

Joshua Norton, c. 1851. Image from

In 1852, a Chinese famine caused a ban to be placed on its export of rice. What with scads of Chinese immigrants in the western U.S., Norton figured he could exploit a coming food shortage and bought up a Peruvian shipment of 200,000 lbs. of rice, at around 12.5¢/lb.

However, several other ships carrying Peruvian rice beat Norton’s shipment to San Francisco, and the price of rice plummeted to 3¢/lb.

Norton tried to stiff the deal with protracted litigation. The case made it to the Supreme Court of California, where Norton lost, big time. He filed for bankruptcy and, by 1858, was living in a working-class Kearney Street boarding house.

Pause here for some schadenfreude?

This may have been when Norton went loopy. Tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll learn about his self-proclamation as Emperor Norton I of the United States of America. And, also of the whimsical responses of the people of San Francisco. Rest easy, generally a good time was had by all. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. jlalbrecht64
    December 8, 2017

    I had a friend/acquaintance/it’s complicated who moved as a child from England to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the same way the Norton’s moved to South Africa about 140 years prior. Some interesting stories there.

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This entry was posted on December 7, 2017 by in And Furthermore... and tagged .
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