1874 $0.50 Emperor Norton Note PMG VF30

A rare note from San Francisco’s legendary Emperor Norton.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in South Africa on February 4, 1819. In 1849, he emigrated to San Francisco, where he became a successful businessman. However, a poorly timed gamble on rice during a shortage of the grain bankrupted him, leading to an apparent mental breakdown in the late 1850s.

In 1859, Norton notified several newspapers that he was declaring himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, issuing declarations about a variety of subjects, including the formation of a League of Nations. Dressed in an outfit cobbled together out of a surplus uniform, top hat, and ostrich plume, Norton became one of San Francisco’s most colorful characters. In the 1870s, he began issuing "Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates" in denominations ranging from 50¢ to $100. Perhaps two or three dozen pieces have survived to this day, but their popularity has earned them a spot in Whitman’s 100 Greatest American Currency Notes.

Many of the surviving Norton Notes are well work, exhibiting holes and repairs. The present piece is among the finest extant, with a bold signature and wholesome paper.