Emperor Norton: A fascinating character, a self declared monarch

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in England to Jewish parents around the year 1818. He died in his early 60s in poverty, in San Francisco, a place he declared himself to be Emperor in 1863.

From the beginning, his family background, the move from London to America, via a period in South Africa is clouded in mystery. There are very few facts surrounding Emperor Norton’s life and reading the intricacies of it is captivating. However, he seems to have been a kind and lovable figure, whose eccentricities were tolerated due to his affable nature.

The facts that are known about him relate to the business he set up in his 30s as a real estate and importing concern. Joshua Norton & Company, speculated on the price of commodities such as rice. Rice, it turns out, was his downfall.

In a few short years after he arrived in San Francisco in 1849, he became a prosperous trader. He was seen in all the right places, attended all the parties and was friends with all the right people. Until a bad investment had disastrous consequences. Insolvency followed and precipitated the depression and subsequent descent into eccentricities, culminating in Joshua declaring himself Emperor of San Francisco.

Until his death in 1880, over a twenty year reign, Emperor Norton made many proclamations and aimed to expose corruption and fraud. He wanted political reform and a better society for all citizens to live and prosper in.

He spent his whole reign living in a boarding house and unfortunately died in destitution, with various friends contributing money for his funeral.

Here at Coade, we find the history and story behind Emperor Norton fascinating and have very much enjoyed finding out more about him. We were commissioned by a private client in San Francisco to make a bust of this legendary figure. We have been sculpting him over the last few weeks and will share the finished work with you once it has been fired.

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