Emperor Norton (c.1818-1880) is both a legend and an historical figure. It’s not always easy to tell where one begins and the other one ends.
This much we know about his birth: Joshua Abraham Norton was born to Jewish parents, John and Sarah Norton, in the Kentish town of Deptford, England, which now is part of London. The precise date has been trickier to pin down. Most likely, though, he was born on 4 February 1818. (For much more detail on this, see our essay, "Joshua Abraham Norton, b. 4 February 1818," part of our Emperor's Birth Date Research Project.)
Two years later, in 1820, young Joshua and his family — parents, older brother Louis and younger brother Philip (who was born en voyage) — sailed from London to South Africa, where his father established a successful ship’s chandlery.
A half-dozen more siblings were born over the next decade. But, by 1848, Joshua’s parents and his two nearest siblings, Louis and Philip, had died. Joshua was left with his father’s estate.
In 1849, with Gold Rush fever burning, Joshua found his way to San Francisco, arriving with about $40,000.
Sources differ as to whether this "original nest egg" was composed solely of Joshua's inheritance or whether perhaps, en route from South Africa, he paused for several months in Brazil or Peru and engaged in business activities that enabled him to build on a smaller bequest.
In any case, the final leg of Joshua's journey counted him as one of seven passengers aboard the German ship Franzeska, from Hamburg, which lumbered into San Francisco Bay on 23 November 1849. He quickly established Joshua Norton & Company, a real estate and importing concern, and within a few years had parlayed his $40,000 into $250,000. He was a member of all the right clubs and committees. He was invited to all the right parties. He stayed in the best hotels. He had access. He had arrived.
Then, in late 1852, Joshua Norton took some bad advice. When a famine in China created a shortage of rice, driving prices up 900%, Joshua was presented with an “opportunity” to corner the market by buying — at 12½ cents a pound, as opposed to the prevailing 36 — a shipload of Peruvian rice in San Francisco harbor.
He put his money down, with a contract for the rest. Had things gone as planned, Joshua stood to make a very handsome profit indeed. But, the next day, and then over the next two weeks, several more shiploads of rice arrived from Peru — all of superior quality to what Joshua had bought. The price of rice plummeted to 3 cents a pound. Suddenly, his good deal looked very, very bad.
Joshua sought to void his contract, on the grounds that he had been misled. The matter was tied up in litigation for nearly three years — at great personal cost.
Finally, in 1855, the court ruled against Joshua. This ruined him financially; he filed for insolvency in 1856 and, by 1858, was living in a Kearny Street boarding house whose accommodations were decidedly below the style to which he had become accustomed at the decade’s outset.
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Later that year, history goes dark as to Joshua’s whereabouts. But he re-emerged in the pages of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin newspaper, with the following Proclamation published on 17 September 1859:
At the peremptory 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 Emperor of these U.S., 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.
It was signed: “Norton I, Emperor of the United States.” In 1863, when Napolean III invaded Mexico, he added the title “Protector of Mexico.”
Over the course of a 21-year “reign” that ended with his death in 1880, Emperor Norton continued to urge those political reforms that he felt were necessary to secure the general welfare and, as he put it, to “save the nation from utter ruin.” Proclamations calling for the abolition of Congress and the dissolution of the two-party system seem remarkably contemporary in 2016. (He is said also to have called for a League of Nations, but we've not yet been able to source that.)
Predictably, given the scenario — “Man suffers financial calamity, proclaims own Majesty” — questions about the Emperor’s sanity trailed him. His biographer, William Drury, argues that, in fact, there was no single “snap” between 1852 and 1859, before which he was completely “normal” — but, rather, that there were signs of “the Emperor to come” well before Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco.
As to what happened after September 1859, the travel documentarian Timothy “Speed” Levitch puts it this way: “Some say he’d gone mad; others say he’d gone wise.”
Indeed: Most often using his preferred modus of the newspaper Proclamation, Emperor Norton called for many things that were well ahead of their time.
- He worked for religious tolerance, refusing to give his imprimatur to any one church or synagogue but, rather, attending them all; and he prohibited the enforcement of state Sunday Laws, which discriminated against Germans and Jews.
- He supported women’s right to vote.
- He demanded that African Africans be allowed to ride public streetcars and that they be admitted to public schools.
- He commanded that the courts allow Chinese people to testify in court; and he pronounced that “the eyes of the Emperor will be upon anyone who shall counsel any outrage or wrong on the Chinese.”
- He proclaimed, with respect to Native Americans, that all "Indian agents" and other parties connected with frauds against "the Indian tribes" were to be publicly punished before as many "Indian chiefs" as could be assembled together.
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One of the more whimsical Proclamations attributed to the Emperor is held as Writ by many San Franciscans, to this day. Evidence of the decree's authenticity remains elusive: The earliest citation of the text we've found so far is in David Warren Ryder's highly romanticized and unsourced account, San Francisco's Emperor Norton, published in 1939, nearly 60 years after the Emperor's death. Moreover, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "linguistic" wasn't even coined and in use until at least the mid 1840s. But he is said to have declared:
Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.
The truth is, all of the accounts of this Proclamation, starting with Ryder's, are unsourced. But, even without offering sources, some are bold enough claim that it was published in 1872.
One thing that Emperor Norton did that year for which there are sources: He set out the original vision for what we now know as the Bay Bridge. With three newspaper Proclamations in January, March and September of 1872, the Emperor called for the survey and construction of a great bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco via Goat Island (today called Yerba Buena Island).
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Emperor Norton was a man of contradictions — on the fringes of society yet right in the thick of it.
He read the leading newspapers every morning. Often, in the afternoons, he went to a library to continue his reading; to write Proclamations; and — if it was The Mechanics’ Institute — to play chess. In the evenings, he could be seen at public lectures or debates. And he often attended the proceedings of the state legislature, in Sacramento.
In all of these ways, the Emperor kept himself well-versed in the national and local issues of the day. Indeed, his Proclamations — which could be visionary — were elegantly written and crisply argued.
But he lived as a pauper, eeking out his existence, from 1863 until his death, at the Eureka Lodgings, a three-story boarding house at 624 Commercial Street, where his 50-cent-per-day accommodation — often paid for through the beneficence of former business associates — consisted of a 6-by-9-foot room sparsely furnished with a rickety cot, a sagging couch, a night table and a wash basin. Closet not included.
Next door, at the Morning Call newspaper, worked a young journalist in the summer of 1864 — Samuel Langhorne Clemens, soon to be better known as Mark Twain — who became one of the Emperor’s most empathetic observers.
A photograph of the Eureka Lodgings — which appears to have closed between 1880 and 1881 — has proved elusive. But this c.1900-1905 photo shows the Morning Call building, now with a different anchor tenant, and — peeking in at the left — the four-story Salvation Army building that was constructed on the Eureka site next door in 1883. The Salvation Army building also can be seen in this earlier c.1888 photo; it's next door to the Empire House, the boarding establishment — a small "step up" from the Eureka — where, in the Empire's reading room, the Emperor read the morning papers.
It appears that, sometime just before the 1906 earthquake, the A. Lietz Company — a maker of precision nautical and surveying instruments — constructed a new building on the Morning Call site and that, when the Salvation Army building on the Eureka site next door was destroyed in the quake, Lietz acquired the Eureka site too. In 1918, Lietz built an annex on the Eureka site — the building at 640/648 Commercial, in this 1918 photo.
Briefly, between 1933 and 1942, the fine arts printer Grabhorn Press occupied the Lietz annex. Indeed, in 1990, the Eureka site became a public open space initially named Grabhorn Park. A decade later, the space was renamed Empire Park. Today, one can visit the space — at 648 Commercial Street — and remember the Emperor who once lived there.
Despite the Emperor's meager living arrangements, he had a strong sense of imperial style and decorum. He wore a regimental uniform — sometimes Union, sometimes Confederate; often a well-worn “hand me down” donated by the U.S. Army base at the Presidio — and carried a great gnarled walking stick. For formal occasions, he embellished his basic ensemble with oversized gold epaulets, a sword and a beaver hat with an ostrich plume.
In his lapel, he wore a carnation — usually a gift of a day-old blossom, too withered to sell, given him by a sympathetic florist.
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To supplement charitable contributions of money, food, rent and personal effects — which, to preserve his dignity, he called “taxes” — the Emperor eventually took to printing and selling his own scrip, in denominations of 50 cents to 10 dollars.
The scrip — payable at 7 percent interest in 1880 — routinely was honored in San Francisco.
The fact that the city humored such an eccentricity says much about Emperor Norton and much about San Francisco.
But the Emperor wasn’t just humored. He was beloved.
Theaters reserved some of their best seats for the Emperor on opening nights.
When the Emperor’s uniform and hat became tattered, San Francisco’s city government — the Board of Supervisors — bought him new ones.
To be sure, accommodating Emperor Norton in these ways also was “good for business.” A play called Norton the First had opened in San Francisco in 1861 — just two years after he declared himself Emperor. The 1870 census listed the Emperor’s occupation as “emperor.” By the 1870s, he was being referenced in newspapers across the country and was regarded locally as part of the tourist trade. Shops even sold plaster figurines of the Emperor.
But an incident in 1867 revealed signs of genuine local affection for Emperor Norton.
When an overzealous policeman, Armand Barbier, arrested the Emperor for vagrancy, and then — when that proved bogus — for “lunacy,” newspapers sprang to the Emperor’s defense.
The Bulletin editorialized:
In what can only be described as the most dastardly of errors, Joshua A. Norton was arrested today. He is being held on the ludicrous charge of “Lunacy.” Known and loved by all true San Franciscan’s as Emperor Norton, this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.
Just as pointedly, the Daily Alta newspaper wrote:
The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. 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.
The police chief, Patrick Crowley, released the Emperor and apologized.
Thereafter, police officers saluted the Emperor when he passed them on the street.
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Perhaps San Franciscans’ fondness for Emperor Norton can be explained, in part, by the fact that, in addition to his holding forth with Proclamations on weighty matters of state and human rights — and despite his own circumstances — he never lost sight of their most basic, everyday needs.
If the Emperor felt that taxes or water rates were too high; or if he found, on his regular rounds, that the streets or streetcars were not being properly maintained, he issued Proclamations on these things too. (Never mind that the edicts rarely were carried out.)
Starting in 1880, and every year since, a grand tree has stood in San Francisco’s Union Square during the holiday season — the first such public Christmas tree in the country. Legend holds that it was Emperor Norton who decreed the start of this tradition.
One of the most charming anecdotes about the Emperor holds that the phrase “queen [or king] for a day” originates with him; that he regularly issued this patent of nobility to those — especially children — who had done him a good deed or who just seemed to be having a bad day and needed cheering up.
In short, he was kind. And he had the common touch.
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On the rainy evening of Thursday 8 January 1880, the Emperor headed out to attend the regular monthly debate of the Hastings Society, at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
As he finished climbing the last block and reached the southeast corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Avenue) — just across the street from the Academy — the Emperor collapsed and died.
The next day, under the front-page headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”), the San Francisco Chronicle memorialized him this way:
The similar death of the first citizen of San Francisco, or the highest municipal officer of the city, would not have caused so general a sensation as that of the harmless old man whose monomania never distorted at least a heart which was wholesome, and hardly affected a mind which had once been of the shrewdest, other than in the method of his sovereignty of the United States and Protectorate of Mexico….Norton I rises up the exact peer of the haughtiest King or Kaiser that ever wore a crown. Perhaps he will rise more than the peer of most of them….Through his harmless proclamations can always be traced an innate gentleness of heat, a desire to effect uses and a courtesy, the possession of which would materially improve the bitterful living princes whose names will naturally suggest themselves.
On Sunday 11 January, the day after the Emperor’s funeral, the Chronicle had this to say:
His funeral took place yesterday afternoon from the undertaking establishment at No. 16 O’Farrell Street. All the afternoon the remains lay in state in the rear room of the Morgue. Thousands flocked thither for a last look at the man whose peculiarities of mind, garb and person had rendered him familiar to all.
The man of imaginary majesty…narrowly escaped burial in a plain redwood box. Some people…have unkindly surmised that his hallucination was simulated, and that he had adopted his strange life as a cover of a miserly hoard of unaccountably-acquired wealth. When his effects were searched it was found, as his best friends knew, that he had no means.
On his person was found five or six dollars in small change, which was all his store. He has no personal effects of any value, and but for the kindly remembrance of people of means who knew Norton and had business relations with him many years ago when he was a citizen of substance and standing, he would have had a pauper’s funeral at the city’s expense. A subscription paper to procure a funeral fund was drawn up and taken to the Pacific Club where the sponsors soon had all the money they deemed necessary….
After the autopsy Friday the body was prepared for burial. It was clothed in black robe with a white shirt and black tie, and placed in a neat rosewood casket, trimmed handsomely but without elaboration. The general interest felt in the deceased was soon manifest. Early in the afternoon of Friday people who remembered the singular old man kindly, many of them gratefully and affectionately, began to call and ask to be allowed a last glance at the familiar face….
Early yesterday morning the stream of visitors to the bier began. By 7 o'clock quite a number had dropped in, some of them laborers who had got off the car on their way to the shops, to take a last look at the remains of one whom none remembered save with kindly feelings; others were business men who stopped on their way downtown for a similar purpose. Soon the number began to increase and there was a steady stream of people pressing through the office to the little back room where the remains lay in state taking a last glance at the features and filing out at the side exit to make room for the constantly-increasing throng of visitors. By noon there were hundreds of people gathered on the sidewalk waiting their turn. Policemen were called in to regulate the entrance.
The visitors included all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast, however, the garb of the laboring man predominated.
History records that at least 10,000 — as many as 30,000, according to some accounts — attended the Emperor’s funeral cortege, which stretched for two miles.
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Five years later, Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the character of “the King” is modeled on Emperor Norton.
The Emperor appears as himself in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1892 novel The Wrecker, written with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.
In 1934, as part of San Francisco’s great cemetery eviction, Emperor Norton’s remains were moved from his original resting place in the city’s Masonic Cemetery to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, a few miles south of San Francisco. A ceremony that included full civic and military honors, and the placement of a new headstone, was attended by thousands.
Thirty years later, in 1964, José Sarria (1922-2013) — a drag performer who in 1961 had become the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States — adopted the persona “Empress of San Francisco, José I, the Widow Norton” and secured a burial plot adjacent to the Emperor’s, where he is buried with a headstone that echoes the original.
Emperor Norton’s grave is a pilgrimage site, one that holds a special place of honor for a number of groups — including the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus; the Discordians; and members of the Cacaphony Society — who claim him as a patron saint.
The legend continues.