I, JOSHUA NORTON, EMPEROR
Summer is frigid in San Francisco, fog draping the city like a sopping cold blanket. “The coldest winter I ever spent,” Mark Twain wrote, “was a summer in San Francisco.” By summer’s end, the city needs comic relief. And on September 17, 1859, the fun began with a 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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.”
Within days, a strange man walked city streets. He carried a knobby cane, wore a beaver hat with peacock feather, and stopped often to issue decrees. He ended each proclamation by declaring himself “Norton I, Emperor of these United States.” Soon he was adding, “and Protector of Mexico.”
New York would have locked up such a man. L.A. would have let him roam and roast. Washington, DC might have steered him toward Congress. But in a muddy, hilly outpost that the Gold Rush had turned into a den of sin and speculation, San Franciscans hailed “our Emperor, our Emperor forever!”
By 1860, the Emperor Norton was a celebrity. Soldiers gave him a uniform, blue with gold epaulettes. In full military dress, with hat and cane, he strode the streets inspecting public works, keeping an eye on cops, and just being imperial.
Soon restaurants and theaters were giving “Our Emperor” meals and box seats. “His face is a free ticket for him to sit in all places of amusement and public gatherings,” one observer noted. The Emperor returned the favor by drawing crowds, and by issuing decrees that newspapers were happy to print. The Emperor Norton decreed that:
— Congress be dissolved
— Protestant and Catholic churches acknowledge him as emperor
— the office of president be terminated
— his previous decree having been ignored, General Winfield Scott should march to the nation’s capital and “clear the halls of Congress.”
He was fun, he was news, but was he sane? San Franciscans speculated, especially when his backstory emerged. Joshua Abraham Norton had been born in England, raised in South Africa. He came to the city with other ‘49ers and made a fortune in real estate and commodities.
Then in 1852, he tried to corner the market on rice. He lost it all, including lawsuits that went to the state Supreme Court. And he may have lost his mind. By 1858, he was holed up in a boarding house. What followed was either lunacy or a most American rebirth. No one, not even the great writers then working for San Francisco newspapers, ever knew.
Mark Twain, whose newspaper office abutted Norton’s ramshackle room, found the Emperor fascinating. “Although no one else believed him Emperor,” Twain wrote, “he believed it.” Twain later used Norton as the model for the delusional King in Huckleberry Finn. Ambrose Bierce, of “Devil’s Dictionary” fame, disagreed. “Who shall presume to question the sanity of a mind that for twenty-three years enabled its body to live in luxury and idleness without physical or mental toil.”
Insane, perhaps, but some of the Emperor’s decrees made sense. Abolish Congress? An idea whose time has come! Slap a 25-cent fine on anyone “heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco’”? All for it. And then there was the bridge.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936. But back in 1872, the Emperor Norton decreed “that a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and thence to Telegraph Hill.” Six months later, the Emperor decreed that a tunnel be built under the bay. The tunnel now carries BART, the Bay Area’s subway.
In his final years, the Emperor supported himself by selling his own bonds on the street. San Francisco, meanwhile, made the former commodities tycoon a commodity himself. Tourists bought Emperor Norton postcards, dolls, cigars. . . “San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton,” Norton’s biographer wrote, “not Norton off San Francisco.”
On a rainy night in January 1880, the Emperor was striding up a hill when he collapsed, clutching his chest. Days later, he lay in uniform in a rosewood casket donated by the city. Ten thousand people filed past to pay their respects. His funeral cortege stretched for two miles.
Today in San Francisco, the Emperor’s name graces an inn, a bar, a walking tour, and products from chips to cookies to craft beer. Last February, City Hall was lit golden to honor his 200th birthday. And The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign is lobbying the state to rename the Bay Bridge.
Some say America is a heartless place, a country of “dog eat dog.” The next time you think so, consider the Emperor Norton. To celebrate madness is itself insane. But to cherish eccentricity, to honor rebirth, to mock the powerful — these, as the Emperor Norton showed us, are the “request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States.”