San Francisco can proudly boast more than its fair share of eccentrics, but few can rival Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of these United States” and “Protector of Mexico”, for their presumption, bravado and, at times, visionary genius.
Born (somewhere) in London, England sometime between 1814 and 1819, he spent his early manhood in South Africa, serving as a colonial rifleman. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 with $40,000 to his name and quickly acquired a fortune of $250,000 from real estate. However, he lost it all when his attempts to corner the market for imported Peruvian rice (China had banned the export of their own) backfired spectacularly. Lengthy litigation resulted in the Supreme Court of California ruling against him, forcing him to declare bankruptcy in 1853.
He fled San Francisco, only to return several years later, a changed man. Embittered, and many might argue, severely mentally disturbed, by his earlier experiences he spent the next twenty years perpetuating a one man campaign to denounce and dissolve the nation’s political and financial infrastructure.
On 17th September 1859 he issued letters to the city’s newspapers declaring himself “Emperor of these United States”, adding that:
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton……….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 Feb. 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”.
On 12th October he formally dissolved Congress. Amongst his numerous subsequent decrees were an invocation to the Army to depose the elected officials of Congress, the ordering of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor” and a proposal to Abraham Lincoln that he should marry Queen Victoria to cement relations between the U.S. and Great Britain.
And on 12th August 1869 he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties (now there’s a thought)!
One portentious pronouncement would have struck a chord later, not only with legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, but many other San Francisco residents:
“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abonimable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanour, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars”.
Irrespective of his mental state, Norton was, at times, a real visionary and some of his “Imperial Decrees” demonstrated great prescience. He urged the formation of a League of Nations and forbade conflict between religions. Most dramatically, he called persistently for a suspension bridge or tunnel to be built connecting San Francisco with Oakland, both of which eventually saw the light of day with the constructions of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Transbay Tube in 1936 and 1974 respectively.
Each day, the “Emperor” would leave his “Imperial Palace”, a minute room in a boarding house at 642, Commercial Street, to walk the streets in a grand blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets, a beaver hat embellished by a peacock feather (his “dusty plume”) and a rosette. He was rarely seen without his cane or umbrella as he inspected the condition of the cable cars and sidewalks, the state of public property and even the appearance of police officers.
Many cities would have persecuted, ridiculed or, at best, humoured him. But this was San Francisco in the full flush of post-Gold Rush glory, and the citizens loved and revered him. He was welcomed at the best restaurants, enabling the owner thereafter to erect blass plaques proclaiming “(b)y Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”. Balcony seats were also reserved for him at local theaters where he was cheered on arrival.
He was alleged to have been accompanied often by two stray dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, local celebrities in their own right, which he supplied with food scraps from the free lunch counters that he frequented. When Bummer died Mark Twain wrote: “He died full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas”.
After an over-zealous young police officer had been soundly reprimanded for arresting him, and subsequently been granted an “Imperial Pardon” by Norton himself, all police officers made a point of saluting him when they met in the street.
Now, he could not be a true Emperor without coining his own currency, and his “Imperial Government of Norton” notes, which ranged from 50 cents to 10 dollars, were accepted in many establishments in the city. And when his uniform started to deteriorate, the Board of Supervisors bought him a “suitably regal replacement”.
On the evening of 8th January 1880, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary’s Church as he was on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. He died before medical attention could arrive.
The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). He had died in abject poverty. His funeral, two days later, was a sad, dignified event, honoured by the attendance of the Mayor and the playing of a military band. Upwards of 30,000 people, a seventh of the entire population of the city at the time, lined the streets to pay their respects to the two mile long funeral cortege. The City of San Francisco paid for his burial.
Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, amongst others, paid homage to Norton by modelling characters on him in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wrecker respectively.
But perhaps his, and his adopted city’s, finest epitaph is that provided by Stevenson’s stepdaughter, Isobel Field, who wrote that he “was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being “let him be emperor if he wants to”. San Francisco played the game with him”.
There can be few lives that better personify that much-quoted phrase “Only in San Francisco”.