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Emperor Norton, San Francisco’s Most Beloved 19th-Century Eccentric

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Wikipedia // Public Domain

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.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

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.” 

1870 Census via familysearch.org // Public Domain

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.”

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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