Joshua Abraham Norton
San Francisco investor and speculator
Eccentric businessman down on his luck.
Norton was born in England in 1818 and immigrated with him family to South Africa in May 1820. South African genealogies suggest his parents were John Norton (d.1848) and Sarah Norden. Sarah was a daughter of Abraham Norden and a sister of Benjamin Norden, a successful Jewish merchant.
Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father’s estate. He enjoyed a good deal of success in the real estate market, and by the early 1850s had accumulated a fortune of $250,000.
Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four to thirty-six cents per pound. When he heard the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or twelve and a half cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.
Shortly after he signed the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru, causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857 Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton.
Lucas Turner and Company Bank recently foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay his debts.