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 of Jewish parents (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 amassed a fortune of $250,000, primarily from real estate but also from speculating in commodities. 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 two decades 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 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 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 telegram proposal to Abraham Lincoln that he should marry Queen Victoria to cement relations between the U.S. and Great Britain. He also thought nothing of issuing orders too to the German Kaiser and Russian Czar.
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 natives:
“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 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.
Another proclamation ordered that a huge Christmas tree should be erected in Union Square. Duly accepted, it has stood there ever since.
Each day for more than 20 years, 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 brass buttons, gold-plated epaulets and royal purple sash, 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. 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.
Many cities would have persecuted, incarcerated or, at best, ridiculed him for being insane. 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, where he would dine for free, enabling the owner thereafter to erect blass plaques proclaiming “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.
Front row balcony seats were also reserved for him at local theaters, including the Opera, where he was cheered on arrival. His active involvement in civic affairs even led to him being granted a reserved seat in the visitors’ gallery of the State Senate, from which he was occasionally invited onto the floor to speak on matters close to his heart.
He was alleged to have been accompanied often – including at the theatre – by two mongrel dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, local celebrities in their own right, whom he supplied with food scraps from the free lunch counters that he frequented. Lazarus died after being run over by a truck of the same fire company – Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 – that Lillian Coit revered and subsequently befriended. When Bummer died shortly afterwards, allegedly of a broken heart, Mark Twain wrote: “He died full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas”. Their fame led to them posthumously being depicted in Life in San Francisco, a comic opera.
Now, he could not have been a true Emperor without the right to coin his own currency, and his “Imperial Government of Norton” notes, all bearing his royal image and ranging from 50 cents to 10 dollars, were accepted wherever he did business. Every day he used one of his own fifty cent bills to pay for his lodgings. And when his uniform started to deteriorate, the Board of Supervisors bought him a “suitably regal replacement” and the city charter was amended to permit Norton to collect $30 annually for its replacement and repair.
On the evening of 8th January 1880, after completing his daily rounds of the city, 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 and Pacific Club paid all his funeral expenses.
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. Seventy years after his death, the Chronicle sponsored an annual treasure hunt in his name.
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”.
More, in the words of John C. Ralston, a “tourist attraction in his own time” than a “significant historical figure”, there can be few lives that better personify that much-quoted phrase “Only in San Francisco”.
Emperor Norton Lives! Not only does he conduct walking tours of his empire but he maintains an excellent Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Emperor-Nortons-Fantastic-San-Francisco-Time-Machine/104510419615984