The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Emperor Norton, Schizophrenic. Or Not.

Emperor Norton, c.1878.  Photograph by Bradley & Rulofson studio, 429 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. Collection of the California Historical Society.

Emperor Norton, c.1878. Photograph by Bradley & Rulofson studio, 429 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. Collection of the California Historical Society.


San Francisco is one of a handful of cities in the United States — New York and Los Angeles are others — of which it is said: "This is a place where people come to reinvent themselves."

Emperor Norton is held up as an exemplar of this idea.

But what were the roots of his reinvention?

There are those cynics who believe that the persona of "Emperor Norton" probably was an act perpetrated by Joshua Norton on the people of San Francisco and others.

By "act," they mean scam.

But most who have attended carefully to the Emperor's story agree that the figure of Emperor Norton was the creative expression of a person, Joshua,  who probably suffered from some form of mental illness.

In other words: "Emperor Norton" could have been an act without its being a scam.

Here's how we concluded our recent piece researching the evidence for Joshua Norton's whereabouts and activities for the few years from his declaration of bankruptcy in 1856 until a year or so after his declaration of Empire in 1859:

[T]he available evidence points to a narrative in which, most likely, the eventual Emperor remained a resident of San Francisco from his arrival until his death — his momentary "disappearance" from the city directories explained by a moment of depressive reclusiveness in which he found himself for much of 1859 and 1860.

It would seem ironic, indeed, if such a moment — such an essentially anti-social personal crisis — was the backdrop  for Emperor Norton's bold, eloquent announcement of himself and his claims.

There may be an explanation for that, too.

The intended suggestion here is that there may have been a causative relationship between (a) Joshua's depressive crisis and (b) his projection of "Emperor Norton" onto the public screen,  specifically, that — to some significant degree — Joshua may have become Emperor as a way of dealing with his crisis.

According to the conventional wisdom, the name for this connection between interior Joshua and exterior Emperor — and the name adopted by William Drury in his respected 1986 biography of the Emperor — is schizophrenia.

The claim is that Emperor Norton was, as they say, a "high-functioning schizophrenic."

But does schizophrenia fully — or even actually — explain what was happening here?

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In 1997, Joel Gazis-Sax penned an essay, "The Madness of Joshua Norton" (link here) that remains one of the most perceptive interpretations of Emperor Norton — and one of the most powerful critiques of responses to the Emperor during his lifetime and since.

Two years later, in 1999, Gazis-Sax wrote a short piece, "Diagnosing Norton," which  sought to come to grips with exactly what we mean when we say that Emperor Norton was mentally ill.

Gazis-Sax is very careful to point out, in sidebar text that accompanies his commentary, that he is "not a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist." But he offers a compelling and thought-provoking analysis, which is excerpted at length here [emphases added].

[NOTE: The word being used below is "histrionic" — not "hysterical." These are two different words, with different origins — 150 years apart — and different etymologies. "Histrionic," the earlier word, basically means "theatrical," whereas "hysterical" means "excitable."]  


William Drury weighs the evidence and concludes that Norton was probably schizophrenic. Drury holds for this because Norton believed himself to be Emperor of the United States. Missing from Drury's and other's accounts of the Emperor, however, are the audible and visible hallucinations which are the hallmarks of the schizophrenic personality. Norton insisted he was Emperor, but no one has documented evidence that he saw monsters where there were none, believed that people were out to assassinate him (unlike his rival Dr. Willie Coombs), made reckless sexual advances (he could take "no" for an answer), received telepathic messages, or heard the angels singing as he walked down the street. Without these things, I suspect, most therapists would hesitate to make the diagnosis of schizophrenia for Norton.

So what was his problem? Was he faking it?

I believe that Joshua Norton truly felt the pain of mental illness. He clearly invested a great deal of time in his creation of an Emperor of the United States and made his living from him. He seemed to his observers in touch with reality, except that he called himself "Emperor." After his financial ruin, he lived in shabby conditions, wore threadbare clothes, and suffered weight loss. Several people commented about how he'd let himself go. He was unable to work or to concentrate. Still, he maintained a creative impulse and could rouse himself from his sadness to speak and to act.

My guess is that Joshua Norton suffered from major depression, which accounts for his neglect of his person, his work, and other necessary aspects of his life. He fought this using the mechanism of what psychologists call a "histrionic* personality." By his dress, by his manner, by his attendance at public gatherings and church services, and by the publication of his proclamations and other documents in the city's newspapers, he kept himself at the center of attention. When he acted the role of the Emperor, people looked at and listened to him and he was able to earn for himself a modest living. His schtick enabled him to keep going after the stunning defeats he suffered during the 1850s. It negated his pain.

For this conclusion to be valid, we must find evidence of the personality disorder before Joshua Norton turned thirty. One compelling piece of evidence comes from the testimony of Nathan Peiser who spoke of the young Norton disrupting a Jewish prayer meeting. Though Peiser does not describe what Norton did, it brought the affair to a halt and a scolding from Norton's father. The joker wants people to look at him and it appears that the habit of drawing attention to himself through off-color behavior came to Norton before he went to San Francisco. We must also remember Norton's reaction when he met Peiser, by chance, several years later. He expressed immediate recognition of his fellow Jew and recalled the prayer meeting in the same sentence. Peiser's account suggests that Norton did not hallucinate: he did not turn Peiser into someone else or forget who he was. Many years later, Joshua Norton recollected the shame of what he'd done back in Cape Town; and, perhaps, too, he felt embarrassed because Peiser had caught him doing something like it again. 

If Norton's problem was a histrionic personality disorder compensating for depression, the reaction of the community exacerbated it. Newspapermen, merchants, tourists, and friends rewarded his imperial shenanigans with publicity, some small privileges, conversations and gifts of money and inconsequential items. On one hand, this allowed him to make a living, force any thoughts of suicide out of his head, and lead a creative life. It also made him a prisoner of the town, unable to recover and make a life for himself that was better than that he lived, His efforts to support pioneer aviation, the construction of the Bay Bridge, and safety features for railroads and street cars may have been attempts to break free. Because San Franciscans had been trained to laugh at their Emperor, they just laughed more. Only a few compassionate souls such as Mark Twain realized that the Emperor was more than a crackpot. The Imperial proclamations demanding better clothes and a better place to live show that the Emperor was quite aware of his miserable situation and wanted out. The public received this as more silliness and so, to the end of his life, every night, Norton returned to the dingy flophouse room that served as his cell.


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