Emperor Norton, San Francisco’s Most Beloved 19th-Century Eccentric
Americans are famously testy about submitting to unelected rulers. But for a period in the 19th century, San Francisco boasted its own emperor. Residents are so proud of him, in fact, that he remains a symbol of the city even to this day.
Joshua Abraham Norton was mostly likely born in England in 1818. While he was still young, his parents moved the family to South Africa, where his father sold shipping supplies. By the time Norton was 29, he’d lost his parents and both brothers, but he’d gained a considerable inheritance. When he arrived in California in 1849 to capitalize on the gold rush, he was worth $40,000—more than $1.1 million today.
Norton set out to become a tycoon, and for a time enjoyed a considerable fortune as well as a reputation as a member of the city’s elite. But his ambitions eventually became his undoing. In 1852, a famine in China had driven up the price of rice. With the price of the grain in the U.S. having increased 800%, Norton bought a 200,000-pound shipment of rice from Peru. Unfortunately for Norton, not only was the Peruvian rice of inferior quality, but within a week of that ship’s arrival several other ships bearing loads of Peruvian rice flooded the market. Norton might have recovered—he’d prospered in several different businesses before this scheme—except he sued the man who’d tipped him off about the shipment, leading to a drawn-out and costly court case that reached the California Supreme Court, which ruled against him. The bank foreclosed on many of his real estate holdings, and Norton declared bankruptcy.
We don’t know for sure whether what happened next was because Norton experienced a mental break or whether he simply decided to embrace an eccentric lifestyle. All that's certain is that on September 17, 1859, Norton delivered the following proclamation to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin:
“At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States."
These demands weren’t entirely unreasonable for the time, with secession in the air and abolitionists losing patience with inaction. The editor of the Bulletin, perhaps recognizing gold where he saw it, published the self-styled Emperor Norton I’s edict.
Readers, predictably, couldn’t get enough of him. Norton began appearing throughout town, dressed in cast-off military regalia (both Union and Confederate), including a beaver hat with ostrich feathers and a ceremonial saber. He dissolved the union, appointed himself “Protector of Mexico,” and issued statements about how to improve both the city and the nation. He spent his days walking through the streets, inspecting the realm and demanding taxes. Luckily for local institutions, he often accepted a hot meal as payment.
In some ways, Norton’s proclamations were an early example of what we now call clickbait. While he continued to issue some proclamations (more on those below), editors would also write their own, knowing it would sell more papers. Theaters and restaurants reserved prime seats for Norton, knowing that his presence or endorsement would attract visitors. As early as the 1850s, he began appearing as a character in comic operas, novels and cartoons. Mark Twain, who worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Daily Morning Call at the time, reportedly found in him inspiration for “the king” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Wherever Norton appeared, audiences eagerly followed. The 1870 census lists his occupation as “emperor.”
Yet for all that businesses and publications exploited his image and his presence, Norton continued to live modestly. He sold imperial bank notes to tourists for income, and was described as an earnest, intelligent, and politically engaged man. An apocryphal story asserts that Norton, who was raised Jewish, despised certain types of racism when he saw it: During one anti-Chinese riot, he allegedly inserted himself between the two sides and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters simply left.
Some of Norton’s acts seem remarkably prescient. One of his verified proclamations decrees that a bridge be built joining San Francisco to Oakland, which at the time residents thought could eclipse San Francisco as the major rail hub of the West. The Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, precisely where Norton recommended. And long before San Francisco became a mecca for hipsters, Norton could be seen riding through town on a fixed-gear bicycle. He was also a staunch defender of the city, instituting a $25 fine (about $500 today) on anyone who dared abbreviate its name to “Frisco.”
Whether he was acting under a delusion or just gaming the city, Norton lodged himself firmly in San Francisco’s mythology. When he died of a stroke in 1880, an estimated 10,000 people saw him laid out at the city morgue—though some claim as much as 13 percent of the city’s population, or 30,000 people, paid their respects before his burial. Today, Norton is a patron saint to Discordians, and several micronations honor him with a holiday on January 8, his death date. There are Emperor Norton tours in San Francisco, led by costumed interpreters; chocolatier Ghirardelli used to serve a special named sundae in his honor. He’s appeared in pop culture everywhere from jazz bands to the TV show Bonanza to comics (including both a brief starring turn in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and tributes from cartoonist Kate Beaton).
His only run-in with the law as emperor—an arrest for lunacy by a rookie patrolman—prompted such outrage that when the chief of police released Norton, he also issued an apology, ordering that all police salute Norton as he passed. "The Emperor Norton has never shed blood,” wrote the Daily Alta California. “He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line." In the end, Patricia Carr may have stated Norton’s relationship to his fans and with himself most elegantly of all: Though he is named as an emperor, she wrote in American History, “There are no quotation marks on his tombstone.”