After going bankrupt in 1858 owing to a failed attempt to control a commodities market in San Francisco, Joshua A. Norton proclaimed himself “His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
Despite having lost his mental equilibrium, Norton enjoyed a twenty-two-year “reign,” during which he used his celebrity status to trumpet San Francisco’s virtues and to recommend improvements. Local newspapers published his “decrees,” which included a proposal—far-fetched in its day—to build a suspension bridge between Oakland and San Francisco, thus connecting the East Bay to the city.
As this photograph shows, Norton often wore a navy commodore’s costume and a silk hat with feathers. Period publications described Norton as “the gentlest, most inoffensive, and most agreeable monomaniac that ever lived.” It was reported that thirty thousand people attended his funeral, a testament to his extraordinary popularity.Mayo Foo, researcher at the National Portrait Gallery, recently discussed Joshua A. Norton at a Face-to-Face portrait talk. This circa 1870 portrait by Henry Bradley and William Rulofson is on view at the Portrait Gallery, in the exhibition “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845–1924,” on the museum’s second floor.
Listen to Maya Foo's Face-to-Face talk on Joshua A. Norton (7:04)
The Face-to-Face series take a break during the month of December and resumes in January. Be sure to check our events calendar for upcoming events and talks.
The NPG's Maya Foo at the entrance to "Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits of the American West."
Joshua A. Norton / Henry Bradley and William Rulofson / Albumen silver print, c. 1870 / The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley