Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates – The Imperial Government of Norton I

Posted on 5/21/2013

In 1859 a self-proclaimed, penniless, US Emperor continued to live the good life and became a beloved member of the San Francisco community.

On September 17, 1859 Joshua Abraham Norton, resident of San Francisco, California, became the first and only emperor of the United States of America. Emperor Norton I enjoyed a 21 year reign, then on a dark and rainy night on a San Francisco street he collapsed and departed this life. The Emperor’s obituary was printed on the front page of every San Francisco newspaper, and as many as 30,000 people from all walks of life attended his funeral. He died penniless. How could a man with such a high social standing die broke?

Norton immigrated to San Francisco from South Africa in 1849 following the death of his father. With $40,000 from his father’s estate he made an entry into the real estate market, and eventually branched out to other businesses. His businesses quickly amassed Norton a fortune of around $250,000. But, unfortunately, after a poor investment in Peruvian Rice and many failed court cases, his fortune was gone and his property had been foreclosed on.

Norton fled San Francisco and disappeared for a couple of years. When he returned he was described as being “insane, or at least highly eccentric”. More than likely the loss of his fortune had affected him greatly. Shortly after his return he proclaimed himself Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, and Protector of Mexico. His proclamation was printed in all San Francisco newspapers and he instantly became a local celebrity.

Utterly penniless, Emperor Norton I enjoyed nightly dining at the city’s finest establishments and balcony seats at every major play and musical. How did a broke self-proclaimed Emperor do this? It is simple, since he was Emperor he just issued his own notes…and the people recognized them. The Emperor’s notes became an accepted piece of local currency in San Francisco, much like other types of scrip notes (merchant scrip etc.).

If one looks carefully enough walking the streets of San Francisco, brass plaques outside of doors declaring “By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States” can still be seen. These plaques depicted restaurants where the Emperor could spend his self-issued currency.

Emperor Norton I issued his Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates in denominations ranging from 50 cents to $10. These bond certificates were printed on standard banknote paper, were hand dated, hand signed and serial numbered. Although the print quality was low, these quickly became popular souvenirs with tourists. They were sold along side Emperor Norton I postcards and dolls. In fact, these notes are still very popular with collectors and ranked #100 on the list of 100 Greatest American Currency Notes.

Essentially what the Emperor had done is establish his own currency, backed by no guarantee or standard (reportedly, no one ever tried to redeem the bonds for their fictitious 7% interest) and it was widely accepted in a large city. A 1933 issue of The Numismatist even ran a story on these exceedingly popular notes.

Emperor Norton I may not have been a legitimate political ruler, but the people loved him (it is reported that all police officers would salute him on the street) and his legacy continues to live on. In 1980 the City of San Francisco even held ceremonies to honor Emperor Norton I on the 100th anniversary of his death.

These Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates are physical remnants of the story of one of America’s most interesting, eccentric and lesser known figures. Exceedingly rare, these bonds represent a magnanimous American.

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