Norton had moved to San Francisco from South Africa sometime around the end of 1849 and, within three years, had amassed a significant fortune as a result of shrewd real estate investments and various commodities deals.
A famine in China, leading to a ban of rice exports at the end of 1852, led to Norton’s purchase of an entire shipment of Peruvian rice. The cost of rice rose as a result of the lack of Chinese imports, and he hoped to benefit from this. However, numerous other rice shipments from Peru arrived shortly after he signed the contract and the market value of his own purchase plummeted. These losses, combined with the cost of a court case that eventually ruled against his attempt to void the contract, forced him into bankruptcy.
Frustrated by what he perceived as the failings of the American political and legal system, Norton declared himself Emperor on 17 September 1859. The San Francisco Bulletin printed his decree in full, sparking media interest that led to him becoming a celebrity in the city. Norton often dined for free and received theatre tickets in return for the publicity that his imperial seal of approval would provide.
Norton maintained the role of self-declared Emperor until his death on 8 January 1880. Within this time he added the additional title of “protector of Mexico”, and issued a range of decrees ranging from the abolition of the United States Congress to the imposition of a fine for anybody who referred to San Francisco as “Frisco”. Although these decrees were ignored, a bridge and a tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland, both of which he called for in 1872, were eventually opened in 1933 and 1974 respectively.