Who Was Emperor Norton? San Francisco History Bits
Dateline: San Francisco, California
The year was 1859, and a San Francisco eccentric by the name of Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself to be Emperor. "What's that?" you say... Well, read on; it's an entertaining story, and one I'm sure could happen, "only in San Francisco." (Or at least, in the San Francisco of 1859, just ten years after the start of the famous gold rush.)
With the gold flowing out of the Sierra-Nevada range, and business doing well, San Franciscans of the day were in a beneficent mood, and willing to put up with the shenanigans of this self-proclaimed "emperor."
Joshua Norton was a strange character, who originally had several businesses, most of which prospered, but a failed speculation in imported rice did him in, and he ended up on hard times.
It was his indomitable spirit and active imagination that led him into a spot in the history books.
An Impoverished Norton Becomes Emperor
His downfall came at the hands of the supreme court, which ruled against him in a lawsuit over the failed rice fiasco, and he filed bankruptcy. He ended up living in a small rooming house, and never recovered financially.
That did not stop him from dining at the finest restaurants in town and attending all the fine cultural events, all for free.
In the spirit of the times, the citizens of San Francisco humored him, and went along with his charade which began with his proclamation:
At the peremptory request and desire 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 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., 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.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.
A few years later, he would add, "Protector of Mexico" to his grand title.
Re-enactment of Norton's Proclamation
His Own Currency
Some called him a crackpot; others insane, but he was nonetheless widely admired and humored in his eccentricities.
He even issued his own currency to pay for his meals. Restaurateurs took it as a matter of pride to have served him, and took to hanging placards reading,
"By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I of the United States"
They would gladly accept his self-printed money, which was made up in denominations ranging from fifty cents to ten dollars.
Norton was an honored guest at plays, where a seat was always reserved for him. He did not have to request that; you simply did not open a play without reserving a seat for His Majesty.
To be paid by a note from "The Emperor's Treasury," was regarded as an honor, and establishments would often frame these.
A Ten-Dollar Note
Emperor Norton saw the government as corrupt, and no doubt it was, on many counts. (Are things so different today?) He thought Congress should be abolished, and issued a royal edict, calling for the Army to forcibly remove the members of congress. (They ignored his request.)
His dissatisfaction with government no doubt stemmed from his loss of the lawsuit which caused his bankruptcy.
Though most of his requests, orders, and edicts were ignored, the citizens nonetheless delighted in his brand of political activism. He would parade around the City in a donated uniform, "inspecting" the streets, the cable cars, and what have you, and any faults he found were duly reported to the police or the supervisors.
So loved was he, that when his original uniform began to look worn and decrepit, the board of supervisors provided him with a new one.
His many pronouncements were always published in the newspapers of the day, (though some papers were suspect of inventing some for their own purposes).
Businesses considered it an honor to be paid by a note from the "Emperor's" own treasury.
Whatever his eccentricities, some of his proclamations were realized in years long after his death.
Two of the things he called for were a bridge across the bay, and a tunnel under the bay.
Both were realized, first the building of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1933, and in 1969, the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which does, indeed, travel in a tube (Norton's "tunnel") under San Francisco Bay.
End of an Era
Sadly, the end of the reign of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States and Protector of Mexico, came in a way rather unfitting to such a noble character.
On January 8, 1880, He collapsed on a street corner in the rain, on his way to attend a lecture, and was dead before help could arrive.
The San Francisco Chronicle headlined, "Le Roi et Mort." (The King is Dead.)
It was estimated that over thirty thousand lined the streets for his funeral procession.
It was a different era; a more sentimental and tolerant time, such as we shall likely never see again.
Go on a Tour With The Emperor Himself!
Walking tour of San Francisco, showcasing the favorite haunts of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I.
Address: 333 Post St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Closed Monday through Wednesday,
Thursday 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 2:30 – 5:30 pm
Saturday 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 2:30 – 5:30 pm
Closed on Friday and Sunday
Website: Emperor Norton Tours
© 2014 Liz Elias