The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

Homing in on the Emperor's Birth Date?

The exact date of Joshua Norton's birth long has been a matter of speculation. Educated guesses have ranged from 1815 to 1819 and, occasionally, even earlier. 

In a 1923 article about Emperor Norton, published in the quarterly of the California Historical Society, Robert Ernest Cowan pinned the date rather precisely at 4 February 1819. But he didn't offer any backing for his claim. 

Obviously, those making arrangements for the Emperor's reburial in Colma, in 1934, went with 1819, as that's the date on the headstone there, which was created for the occasion.

But later biographers — Allen Stanley Lane in 1939 and William Drury in 1986 — put the Emperor's birth a year earlier, in 1818. Drury added an important piece of evidence: He uncovered immigration records showing that, upon the family's arrival in South Africa from London in May 1820, Norton's father, John, told the South Africa immigration clerk that young Joshua was 2 years old.


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All of this is preamble to the wonderful discovery made yesterday by Joseph Amster, who plays Emperor Norton for a living (see Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine) — and who also happens to serve on the Board of the Campaign.

Combing through microfiche of old San Francisco newspapers at the San Francisco Public Library, Joseph stumbled across an item on the front page of the 4 February 1865 edition of the Daily Alta California. Here's what it said:

HIS MAJESTY'S BIRTHDAY.His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Mexico, commences his forty-eighth year Saturday, February 4th, 1865. Owing to the unsettled questions between His Majesty Maximilian I, El Duque de Gwino, the Tycoon, the King of the Mosquitos, the King of the Cannibal Islands et al., the usual display of bunting by the foreign shipping and public buildings will be omitted on this occasion.


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"Commences his forty-eighth year" would mean that Emperor Norton was turning 47 in 1865 and thus that his birth date was 4 February 1818.

Certainly, a February 1818 birthdate lines up with his father's report to the immigration clerk that, when the family arrived in South Africa in May 1820, Joshua was 2.

Is it possible that Robert Ernest Cowan got "February 4" from the Daily Alta item but then just got the math wrong on the year and nobody ever challenged him on it?

Whatever is the case, it's worth taking the Alta's 1865 account very seriously indeed, given that it was published contemporaneously.

What a commentary, though, that the Alta was so precise about Emperor Norton's age and birth date in 1865 but that, by the time he died in 1880, nobody could do any better than his landlady's visual guess that the Emperor was "about 65."


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You can view the Emperor Norton item as it originally appeared in the Daily Alta California, via the scan of the edition at the California Daily Newspaper Collection.

It's on the front page, column 1, "City Items," item number 6 >>> right here.

Thank you, Joseph, for this terrific find!


For more on our Emperor's Birth Date Research Project, please visit the project page here


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