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Joshua Abraham Norton: Emperor of the USA
Kevin Cutler

Commercial Street
Photo: Kevin Cutler
In a city known for its colorful history, perhaps no character is more bizarre than Joshua Abraham Norton, more commonly known as Emperor Norton. During his “reign”, the eccentric emperor was one of the city’s most popular figures. His self-generated currency was widely accepted throughout the city, and his multiple “decrees”—including his order that the US Congress be dissolved due to its corruption and incompetence—were accepted with tolerance and humor. Though his claims to royalty—not to mention his sanity—were questionable, and his influence extended only as far as the good nature of those around him, Emperor Norton was treated with great respect in San Francisco and is fondly remembered to this day. There is even a movement to name the new eastern section of the Bay Bridge after the emperor. Only in San Francisco.

Norton was born in London in 1819, and spent much of his youth in South Africa where his family amassed considerable wealth. In 1849, with the Gold Rush raging in California, Norton moved to San Francisco. He soon became one of the young city’s emerging power brokers as a rice merchant, earning about a quarter of a million dollars by 1853. An attempt to corner the rice market in 1854, however, precipitated a downslide in Norton’s fortunes. Norton had purchased all of the city’s rice, hoping to capitalize on the competitive vacuum.
Unfortunately, two Japanese ships full of rice unexpectedly pulled into the harbor, undercutting Norton and ruining him financially.

Norton disappeared for a period after the rice debacle, vanishing amidst the squalor along San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast. He finally reemerged in spectacular fashion, handing the following note to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin:

“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 past nine years and ten months 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 the 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.”

Though the representatives never came, Emperor Norton nevertheless conducted himself with regal bearing henceforth. Norton claimed to have been born into the Bourbon family, and that the Bourbons had given the infant Joseph to Norton’s mother in an effort to protect him from assassins and mobs. In conversation, Norton would frequently discuss the physical similarities between himself and France’s Charles X, keeping a miniature portrait of the emperor on hand to illustrate his claim. Norton believed that America would benefit from the strong hand of a benevolent emperor, citing the bipartisan strife and gridlock of Congress as evidence of democracy’s ills.

624 Commercial Street
Photo: Kevin Cutler
Norton typically strolled about town in either a Union or a Confederate civil war uniform, with a saber at his side, a beaver cap on his head, and an umbrella in hand. He would conduct daily inspections of the police, as well as watch over public property. Norton was also prone to wax philosophical, giving lengthy lectures to anyone who would listen.

San Franciscans took the Emperor’s presence in stride, and proved to be accommodating hosts for his royal highness. When his uniform wore out, the Board of Supervisors gave him a new one. Many of the city’s theaters allowed Norton and his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, free admission to all performances. His boarding house on Commercial Street—at which the Norton registered himself as “Emperor, living at 624 Commercial St”—was paid for by Norton’s Mason buddies. Even Norton’s personally minted currency—featuring his image—was accepted more often than not at local establishments. And it was not uncommon to see plaques bearing the words “By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I” on the walls of San Francisco restaurants and taverns.

Norton was perhaps most famous for his peculiar edicts, such as the following indictment of “Frisco” as slang terminology for San Francisco:

Emperor Norton Bridge
Photo: Kevin Cutler
“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.” (1872)

Presciently, the Emperor also made frequent calls for a bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco,

“The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient: that a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and then to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco.”

Naturally, Norton’s ideas were taken with a grain of salt, though many were quite visionary. The Emperor proposed the formation of a league of nations, for example, as a means of ensuring worldwide peace. He also encouraged the research and development of flying machines, and suggested the creation of a world religion to foster greater understanding among humankind.

It is Norton’s humanity that perhaps endears him most to modern San Franciscans. The Emperor frequently took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden, and was known for his progressive views towards immigrants. On one occasion, Norton confronted a rampaging crowd of hooligans bent on waging a pogrom against San Francisco’s Chinese population. Faced with overwhelming numbers, Norton simply stood in
the middle of the street with his head bowed silently in prayer. The crowd soon lost momentum and dispersed.

Emperor Norton died in 1880, leaving behind several walking sticks, newsclippings, numerous letters to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and over a million shares of stock in a worthless gold mine. The beloved Emperor’s funeral cortege was two miles long and was attended by more than 10,000 people. His unique character was allegedly the model for “The King” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. More recently, San Francisco city supervisor Aaron Peskin drafted a proposal to name the under-construction eastern span of the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton. It is hard to imagine any other major American city even considering this resolution, though it would undoubtedly make Emperor Norton proud.

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