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Emperor Norton

Entry Author: Peter Moylan

Links to chapters:

Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the Gold Rush

Norton's World Collapses
The Birth of Emperor
The Emperor's Reign Begins
The Newspapers Role in Creating the Emperor
The Real Life of the Emperor
Source of the Madness
The Emperor as a National Character
Madness or Genius?
Le Roi Est Mort

To today's San Franciscan, the name "Emperor Norton" conjures up images of a colorful, but homeless street person, accompanied by a couple of dogs, who ordered bridges to be built and governments dissolved; an insane man revered by the San Franciscans of the late 19th Century. His story is far more complex than most San Franciscans know.

The real Emperor - Joshua Abraham Norton - is one of contradictions and myths. He was rational man who could speak about any intelligently about politics and science, was a great chess player, and was quite inventive, but believed he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He issued proclamations, collected taxes, attended sessions of government, rode free on public transit, had free tickets to theater, and sold his own currency; but lived day to day as a pauper in raggedy clothes. He was a successful businessman who lost a fortune as the result of a business deal gone badly and ultimately lived off the kindness of San Franciscans, but owned no dogs and was never homeless.

The contradictions start at his very birth. There is a record of the birth of a Joshua Norton to a John and Sarah Norton in Priorslee (now Telford), Shropshire, England (147 miles northwest of London) on January 17, 1811[1]. However, Norton is a common surname in England.

In 1820, John and Sarah Norton and their three children were among a handful of Jews emigrating with 5,000 British to Algoa Bay, South Africa. John Norton was a leader of the Jewish community. They were called the 1820 Settlers and were instrumental in the creation of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Norton's biographer, William Drury, wrote that John Norton told immigration officials that Joshua was 2, which would have placed his birth in 1818. Others claim he was born in February of 1819, but no evidence supports that date. Based on events in his later life, it seems that 1818 is the most likely year of his birth.

In 1841, the family moved to Cape Town, South Africa. Norton started his own business, but in 18 months was bankrupt. He went to work as a clerk in his father's ship chandlery. By 1848, his mother, and two brothers, and father had died. To Joshua went his father's estate, worth about $40,000.

In 1849, Norton was lured, as hundreds of thousands would be, to San Francisco by the dream of fortunes to be made in the Gold Rush. Norton did not seek his fortune in the hard gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills; instead he would try to make his fortune in real estate and business. He signed into the William Tell House as Joshua Abraham Norton, international merchant.

Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the Gold Rush

Joshua Norton & Company, General Merchants, was founded in a cottage made of adobe bricks at Jackson and Montgomery Streets, which Norton rented from a miserly old man named James Lick [2]. He bought a ship anchored in the Yerba Buena Cove, the Genessee, to store his own merchandise and rent space to others for storage, a common use for ships abandoned in San Francisco by crews headed to the gold fields.

In 1851, his adobe cottage [3] burned in a major fire. Norton relocated to a substantial granite building at 110 Battery Street, which housed the offices of several of influential people, including the British Consul. He hobnobbed with San Francisco's business and social elite. He was a charter member of the Occidental Lodge #22 of the Freemasons.

He acquired parcels on three corners of Sansome and Jackson Streets, on which he opened a cigar factory, a small wood-framed office building, and a rice mill. He purchased a few lots by Rincon Point, where the value increased dramatically when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company built a passenger terminal and warehouse nearby. And he bought several lots that were to be developed by Harry Meiggs on North Beach.

Norton's World Collapses

By 1852, Norton's assets were estimated at $250,000, about $5 million today, and he saw the opportunity for more. China was the main supplier of rice to California, until a famine cut off shipments. Scarcity drove the price from four cents per pound to 36 cents. At the Merchant's Exchange, where commodities were bought, sold and traded, the mercantile bank Goddefroy and Sillem was agent for the Ruiz Brothers, who owned a ship called The Glyde, in the harbor with 200,000 pounds of rice from Peru. Willy Sillem pulled Norton aside, showed him a handful and told him he could buy it all and corner the rice market for only 12½ cents a pound, or $25,000 for the whole shipload. At 36 cents a pound, he could gross $72,000, nearly a 200% profit.

On December 22, 1852, he put $2,000 down, with a contract to pay it all in 30 days. The next day, a ship full of Peruvian rice sailed into San Francisco, followed by several more ships in less than two weeks. The rice on these ships was of far superior quality to that on the Glyde. The price of rice crashed to three cents a pound. Norton tried to nullify the contract on the grounds that he was misled by Willy Sillem - the rice on The Glyde was inferior to the sample shown him. The Glyde's owners sued Norton for payment of the $23,000 due. For the next 2½ years, they battled in court, racking up enormous legal bills. In 1855, the court ruled for The Glyde's owners.

And now, the gold rush was over - the flow of gold dust had become a trickle. There was glut of everything in San Francisco; prices crashed, cargoes rotted on the wharves; the real estate market collapsed, businesses were closing, banks were failing, bankruptcy was common. San Francisco herself was near ruin. And so was Norton.

The bank foreclosed on his North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf properties. He had to sell his businesses and properties on Sansome and Jackson at a huge loss. Then he was accused of embezzling funds from a client. All he had left was his Rincon Point properties to use as collateral for a loan to settle the matter.

He was no longer invited to the parties of the social and business elite. His membership in the Freemasons was cancelled for failure to pay dues. He went from living in the finest hotels to run-down boarding houses of the working class.

On August 25, 1856, a brief notice appeared in the Bulletin newspaper - "Joshua Norton, filed a petition for the benefit of the Insolvency Law. Liabilities $55,811; assets stated at $15,000, uncertain value." In 1857 and 1858, his name appeared on occasion in the Daily Alta in advertisements as a "commission agent," brokering sales of barley, coffee and linseed oil. The City Directory showed that by 1858, he was living at 255 Kearny, a boarding house of the working class that would not have been the home of the successful businessman.

The Birth of an Emperor

Norton I. Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico.

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley
Click here for larger view


19th Century Americans saw their nation as a burgeoning empire, reflected in San Francisco by the Empire House Hotel, Empire Saloon, Empire Brewery, Empire Oil Works, and the Empire Fire Engine Company #1.

But to Norton, America's Republican form of government was one of inefficiency, corruption, self-interest. How could America be an empire if its leaders were elected? He admired the English monarchy; the British Empire. In 1852, he had casually remarked to a friend: "If I were Emperor of the United States, you would see great changes effected, and everything would go harmoniously."

In 1859, everything was not going harmoniously. California was caught up in the great debate over slavery that would lead to the nation's darkest hour - the Civil War. In a fiery speech in Sacramento attacking abolitionists, California State Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry denounced and ridiculed United States Senator David C. Broderick, political boss of San Francisco. Broderick was outraged, and called Terry "the damned miserable wretch," which outraged Terry. In California's last formal duel, Terry shot Broderick dead.

On September 17, 1859, climbed the stairs of 517 Clay Street to the office of the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper. George Fitch, editor of the Bulletin, was sitting at his desk when a man he described as "neatly dressed and serious looking" handed him a piece of paper. The next morning, Fitch ran a headline: "Have We An Emperor Among Us?" and printed the following proclamation.

"At the pre-emptory 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 last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the 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 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."

It was signed: "Norton I, Emperor of the United States."

The Emperor's Reign Begins

But in San Francisco, the reign of Emperor Norton I was to begin. Less than a month later, on October 12, the Bulletin published his next proclamation under an excited headline: "Another Ukase from Czar Norton - Congress Abolished. Take notice, the world! His Imperial Majesty, Norton I, has issued the following edict, which he desires the Bulletin to spread to the world. Let her rip."

"It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of government - in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of."

Two weeks later, Norton abolished the California Supreme Court for a perceived slight to His Majesty.

Norton then learned Virginia governor Henry A. Wise had sent radical abolitionist John Brown to the gallows for his attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Norton didn't approve of Brown's actions, but stated: "the said Brown was insane and that he ought to have been sent to the Insane Asylum for capturing the State of Virginia with seventeen men." So, Norton Fired Governor Wise and replaced him with John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was otherwise occupied with the job of Vice President of the United States.

In the first week of 1860, Congress convened in Washington in clear violation of Norton's edict of October 12. Norton ordered General Winfield Scott, "Commander-in-Chief of the Armies … to clear the hall of Congress." General Scott had been Commander of the Armies 15 years earlier in the Mexican American War. He was now 74, and was not in Washington D.C., but in the Washington Territory, negotiating with Canada over ownership of islands off the coast near the border.

Having twice called for a meeting on February 1 "of the interested parties" at Platt's Music Hall, Norton was frustrated when the hall burned to the ground just a few days earlier. Norton rescheduled the meeting for February 5 at the Assembly Hall, at Kearny and Post Streets. The Bulletin, sensing a great story, urged folks to get there early for a good seat. Perhaps seriously, perhaps in jest, the Bulletin wrote: "take a chair, a blanket or two, an umbrella, a pile of sandwiches, a bottle of something … be ready, when the time comes, for the squeeze. Wednesday is going to be a great day for California." But when Emperor Norton arrived at the Assembly Hall, the doors were locked; the hall dark; nary a soul was there.

The Bulletin did publish Norton's entire prepared speech, talking about the problems that faced the nation, part of which said: "Taking all of these circumstances into consideration, and the internal dissensions on Slavery, we are certain that nothing will save the nation from utter ruin except an absolute monarchy under the supervision and authority of an independent Emperor."

In July 1860, Norton ordered the Republic of the United States to be dissolved for an "Absolute Monarchy." His proclamation read:

"We are certain that nothing will save the nation from utter ruin except an absolute monarchy under the supervision and authority of an independent Emperor."

In 1869, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties. King George III would have been proud.

As early as 1861, Norton's legend was growing. Norton the First, a play, debuted on a San Francisco stage. While he probably would not have wanted to attend that play, one of the best seats at the theaters was always reserved on opening night for Norton. Playgoers applauded and the orchestra played a fanfare upon his arrival, escorted to his seat by the manager.

When Napoleon III, nephew of the first Napoleon, invaded Mexico in 1863, the Emperor added a new title: "Protector of Mexico." There is no evidence Norton ever stepped foot in Mexico.

Politicians courted him; to show him disrespect would be to lose votes. In 1867, policeman Armand Barbier made the mistake of arresting Norton for vagrancy. The desk sergeant pointed out that Norton had $4.75 and a key to his room at the Eureka Lodgings in his pockets. To save face, Barbier charged Norton with lunacy.

Under a picture of Norton in his full uniform, the Evening Bulletin wrote: "In what can only be described as the most dastardly of errors, Joshua A. Norton was arrested today. He is being held on the ludicrous charge of 'Lunacy.' Known and loved by all true San Franciscan's as Emperor Norton, this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty's loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage. Perhaps a return to the methods of the Vigilance Committees is in order.

"This newspaper urges all right-thinking citizens to be in attendance tomorrow at the public hearing to be held before the Commissioner of Lunacy, Wingate Jones. The blot on the record of San Francisco must be removed."

The Alta wrote: "The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line."

Police Chief Patrick Crowley released Norton, with his apology, and from then all police officers would salute Norton when he passed them on the street.

The Newspapers Role in Creating the Emperor

While the Bulletin stayed true to Norton's actual proclamations, The Daily Alta California quickly realized a potential bonanza. Unlike today, most cities had several fiercely competitive newspapers - San Francisco had at least five [4]. Anything that made a good story sold papers and Norton was the quintessential good story.

Albert Evans, editor of the Alta, quickly realized a potential bonanza. Known as Colonel Mustache for his flamboyant facial hair, Evans began printing phony proclamations, some clever, some silly, attributed to Norton, designed to generate laughs or ridicule. They were written in a style clearly lacking Norton's precision and logic. Others occasionally fooled the editors with proclamations presumed to be from Norton to push political or other points of view.

One writer who sympathized with the Emperor was a reporter for the Daily Morning Call named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later to be known by the name Mark Twain. Twain would from time to time include Emperor Norton in his column. He wrote of Norton: "O dear, it was always a painful thing for me to see the Emperor begging, for although nobody else believed he was an emperor, he believed it."

Reporters learned very quickly that associating Emperor Norton with a restaurant or a clothing store would generate free publicity for the merchant and free food and clothing for the reporter. And businesses quickly learned that a bribe to the editors could also get you some publicity if Emperor Norton was involved. One haberdasher gave Norton an old hat that was no longer in style so he could advertise in the papers: "Gentleman's Outfitters to His Imperial Majesty." Restaurants claimed Emperor Norton as a patron. A tavern posted a window sign that said "Fine wines and spirituous liquors by Appointment to his Majesty, Norton I." Rarely did the generosity extend beyond a single instance.

The Real Life of the Emperor

In reality, Norton was now living off the kindness of his former business acquaintances and Freemasons. He was bone thin, with raggedy clothes. Norton would take their help of the occasional 50 cent piece for lunch or rent, but to save face, he simply referred to it as a tax, and recorded his tax collections in a notebook. He then began to visit local businesses, as often as monthly, to collect taxes, which some gave out of fondness for the Emperor.

Unlike a certain fabled emperor, this Emperor had clothes - but these were hardly the clothes of an emperor. He wore all manner of well-worn uniforms given to him by the Army at the Presidio or purchased from the auction houses along Pacific Street on the old Barbary Coast. On informal occasions Norton would wear a soft hat called a kepi and a coat of either blue or grey; he was after all, the Emperor of all the States.

For formal occasions, he had built himself an outfit of a stained and worn a Union officer's coat, enhanced with epaulets of tarnished gold and a boutonniere in the lapel, a tall beaver hat adorned with ostrich plume, a cavalry sword on his hip and an twisted knotty wood walking stick with ornate handle and a silver plate engraved Norton I, Emperor U.S. When it rained, he carried a tri-colored Chinese umbrella.

In 1863, Norton took a room in the Eureka Lodgings, a flophouse at 624 Commercial Street, between Montgomery and Kearny [5]. He paid 50 cents a night for the next 17 years. His room was nine-feet by six-feet, with an iron cot with rickety springs, a chair, a sagging couch with soiled upholstering, a washbasin, and a night table. There was no closet. He hung his clothes on "ten-penny" nails in the wall. Logically, he was attracted to royalty. Lithographs of Queen Victoria of England, Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Empress Carlotta of Mexico, and Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon the III graced his squalid walls.

The official United States Census taker in 1870 recorded the presence of Norton. In the column marked occupation was the entry: "emperor." In the column that explained why Norton was not eligible to vote, the census taker chose the option of "insane."

His days followed a regular pattern. He would dress in his uniform, pay the daily rent, and walk next door to the fancy Empire House hotel to read the newspapers. He then walked a block and a half to Portsmouth Square, where he would spend the afternoons on park benches with his friends. "He carried a dignified and regal air about him, but was seen as a kind, affable man, inclined to be jocular in conversation. He spoke rationally and intelligently about any subject, except about himself or his empire," wrote his biographer, William Drury.

In Norton's day, it was rare for a Chinese person to be in Portsmouth Square, but one of Norton's constant companions was Ah How. The Daily Alta called him Norton's Grand Chamberlain. Norton abhorred the treatment of Chinese, decrying the immigration laws that denied entry to a man because of the color of his skin. He demanded that the laws prohibiting Chinese from testifying in court be repealed. When a mob threatened a few Chinese, he broke through the crowd, spoke the Lord's Prayer and said "we are all God's children."

When Old St. Mary's church bells signaled noon, Norton headed to Martin & Horton's on Clay near Montgomery or the Bank Exchange [6] for his "free" lunch, which anyone could have for the price of a drink. Norton didn't drink, but Martin & Horton's gave him meals for the free publicity.

His afternoons would be spent in the libraries of the Bohemian Club, Mercantile Institute and Mechanic's Institute, reading books, playing chess exceptionally well, and writing proclamations on the Institute's handsomely engraved stationery. San Franciscans learned to ride the new "two-wheeled buggy" at a velocipedestrian school at the Mechanic's Pavilion. Someone took a picture of Norton riding a velocipede. He did not think the image befitted his imperial rank, and decreed that the sale of the picture be prohibited.

In the evenings, Norton went to debating societies, lectures and theater. One wag said that in San Francisco, you could see "Henry V" on stage and Norton I in the balcony.

Norton believed he had certain responsibilities as Emperor, so he visited schools and went to church every Sunday - Old St. Mary's one week and the First Unitarian Church another. On Saturday, he went to Temple Emanu-El. He told the Reverend O. P. Fitzgerald: "I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn."

California was so split over the Civil War, even preachers espoused one side or the other from the pulpit in their Sunday sermons. He said "I disapprove political preaching … The preachers must stop preaching politics, or they must all come into one State Church. I will at once issue a decree to that effect."

He rode free on all the city's ferries and streetcars. Leland Stanford, President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave Norton a free pass in California to offset his reputation as a greedy "robber baron." Norton used that free pass to attend sessions of the state legislature, sitting in the first row of the visitor's gallery, occasionally rattling his cane in commentary; and to review military troops around the Bay Area. When he tried to board the riverboat Yosemite for Sacramento in 1866, he was outraged that he was not allowed passage without a ticket. He sent a proclamation to the Alta ordering a blockade of the Sacramento River until the situation was set right.

Source of the Madness

There was one subtle irony that no one seemed to notice. Most royalty use the first name - Queen Mary, King Charles, Queen Victoria. But he was Norton the First. Indeed, after Norton first declared himself Emperor, he never used Joshua again.

In the late 1860s, Nathan Peiser had just arrived in San Francisco and was looking for a room. Peiser walked into the Eureka Lodgings, Norton's home of several years. In the hallway, Peiser saw Norton in his uniform. It would prove to be an incredible coincidence. Peiser knew Norton; he had met him 25 years earlier when Norton was still a clerk in his father's chandlery in Cape Town, South Africa. Peiser had spent almost a year with the Nortons recovering from injuries sustained when his ship was destroyed in a storm. Norton also recognized Peiser. In Norton's room they had the normal conversation of two people who had not seen each other in a quarter century. Peiser told the Vallejo Chronicle of their conversation.

Peiser recalled that 25 years earlier, Norton showed no interest in his father's religion; in fact, there was an incident where Norton disrupted his father's prayers meeting. Norton's first words to Peiser in 25 years were: "Why yes, Nathan, I distinctly remember you and the correction I received for raising a disturbance at a Jewish prayer meeting."

Then, Peiser asked Norton why he called himself Emperor and wore a uniform. Norton's demeanor suddenly changed. He went to the door, looked in the hallway, then locked the door. Whispering, he imposed a vow of silence on Peiser and revealed that he was not the son of John and Sarah Norton. He was of royal blood, a member of the Bourbon family of Kings who ruled France from 1589 until the French Revolution ended the reign of Louis the Sixteenth in 1793.

Many children of French royalty fled to England in the Revolution for safety, protected in the homes of commoners. When the Monarchy was restored under Louis the VIII in 1814, the newspapers were full of wild stories of people claiming to be forgotten heirs of royalty. The French credited England with helping to restore the Bourbons. Honored, many Brits gave their children French names.

Norton's parents had named their first son Lewis (not Louis), their third son was Philip and their second daughter Louisa. Although none of the other six [7] Norton children, including Joshua, had French names, the young Joshua was convinced he was a royal given to the Norton family and his Jewish name was a clever way to protect the boy from assassins.

Norton told Peiser that he kept the name Norton out of love for the man who adopted him, but that the title of Emperor was rightfully his. Indeed, Norton claimed that Queen Victoria had presented his uniform. Peiser told Norton that he thought he was crazy. Norton replied: "and so do a good many others."

The Emperor as a National Character

Norton's fame would spread throughout the U.S. in the 1870's. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 connected America from Atlantic to Pacific, reducing a six-month journey by wagon or ship to only seven days. Now San Francisco was a tourist destination. Many knew about the Emperor from travel books and newspapers. When journalists from newspapers throughout the United States arrived to see and write about the city, they were unimpressed with the zoo at Woodward Gardens, or the seals and sea lions by the Cliff House. They preferred to write about Emperor Norton.

In 1876, Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, visited San Francisco and asked to meet the Emperor of the United States. They met at a royal suite at the newly opened Palace Hotel and talked for more than an hour. In 1876, Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, visited San Francisco and asked to meet the Emperor of the United States. They met at a royal suite at the newly opened Palace Hotel and talked for more than an hour. Dom Pedro never let on whether he realized that the United States really didn't have an emperor.

Benjamin Lloyd, in his book Lights and Shades in San Francisco let the tourists know that "He will talk very readily upon any subject, and his opinions are usually very correct, except when relating to himself. He is more familiar with history than the ordinary citizen, and his scientific knowledge, although sometimes mixed, is considerable."

Several cities tried to lure him away by sending him a gift of his favorite implement - a walking stick. Portland, Oregon sent an especially elaborate one called the Serpent Scepter, with a mahogany handle carved in the shape of a human hand grasping a snake.

But the press was also ridiculing his threadbare clothes. The Evening Express in Los Angeles called His Majesty "a walking travesty upon San Francisco's shoddy spirit." The local press, stung by the criticism, raised an outcry and the Board of Supervisors voted to buy the Emperor a new white beaver hat and officers coat.

Norton began issuing promissory notes that he called "Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates" in denominations of 50 cents to 10 dollars. He sold them to tourists and locals alike. Norton inscribed the notes with a promise they would be due and payable with 7% interest in the year of 1880. Of course, no one believed that. The real value was in the signature - a great souvenir of a visit to San Francisco.

And now just about every store in San Francisco had a sign saying "By Appointment to Norton I," and merchants made a killing selling picture postcards of the Emperor, Emperor Norton dolls complete with plumed hat, Emperor Norton cigars with his portrait on the label, and colored lithographs suitable for framing. One of the most popular items was a decade old lithograph of Norton standing at a buffet table, with two dogs looking longingly at him for a few scraps. It would become the source of the greatest myth of Emperor Norton.

By law, San Francisco destroyed stray dogs. But the Board of Supervisors adopted two as beloved city mascots: Bummer and Lazarus. They had but one notable quality - happily killing rats in a city teeming with them. They were rewarded with tasty morsels at the local taverns. Like Norton, they most enjoyed Martin & Horton's.

Edward Jump was a promising artist who earned a living drawing pictures for newspapers and magazines. Jump sold his drawing, called "The Three Bummers," to local merchants, who placed them as posters in their windows. Norton saw it in the window of a stationery store, and became enraged. One report has it that he broke the window with his cane and destroyed the drawing; another report has the window broke his walking stick.

When visitors asked merchants the story behind the drawing, it made far more sense to create that myth that Bummer and Lazarus were Norton's dogs, a myth that most San Franciscan's still believe today.

Madness or Genius?

But his madness did not always hide his genius. Because the Transcontinental Railroad's western terminus was Oakland, many feared that Oakland would eclipse San Francisco as the major city of the west. The Emperor had a solution. He issued this proclamation in 1872:

"The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient: I. That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island and thence to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco. II. That the Central Pacific Railroad Company be granted franchises to lay down tracks and run cars from Telegraph Hill and along the city front to Mission Bay".

How prescient was Emperor Norton? 64 years later, the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge opened, a suspension bridge that passes through what we today call Yerba Buena Island, but in 1872 was Goat Island. The double decked freeway that once lined the Embarcadero from the foot of Broadway (at the base of Telegraph Hill) south to Mission Bay was officially part of the bridge!

The Central Pacific may have terminated in Oakland, but the destination markings on the trains said FRISCO. Norton didn't think that was very dignified for a city named for St. Francis. In 1872 issued the following edict:

"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."


Old Emperor Norton in 1876

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.
Click here for larger view

And now it was time to think about what had been missing all these years - an Empress. He was about 56 years old in 1874 when he became infatuated with a 16 year old high school girl graduate named Minnie Wakeman, who was described as "a tall, beautiful creature who had lovely dark blue eyes with fringed lashes and long curls that were the admiration of the whole school."

Norton wrote her a note that said: "My dear Miss Wakeman. In arranging for my Empress, I shall be delighted if you will permit me to make use of your name. Should you be willing, please let me know, but keep your own secret. It is safer that way, I think." He signed it - "Your devoted loving friend, The Emperor." Unfortunately, Norton received a note thanking his majesty for graciously thinking her worthy of his attentions, but informing him that she was already engaged, which was true. There would be no Empress for the Emperor.

Le Roi Est Mort

The evening of January 8, 1880, was cold and rainy, as January days are so often in San Francisco. The Emperor was walking up California Street towards Nob Hill to attend the regular monthly debate of the Hastings Society at the Academy of Natural Sciences. As he neared Old St. Mary's Church, Norton staggered a bit, then slumped to the sidewalk. The reign of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, expired with his final breath.

As a crowd gathered, the police moved his body to the city morgue. His clothes were as disheveled as always, and he had only a few coins on him - a gold piece worth $2.50, $3 in silver, and a French franc dated 1828, bearing the face of Charles X, France's last Bourbon king. He had a bundle of his 50 cent imperial treasury notes, dated for repayment in 1890. He intended to exchange these notes for his original notes, due and payable this very month, which he could not have honored.

He also had telegrams from the Czar Alexander II of Russia that said "we approve heartily and congratulate you" on his impending marriage to Queen Victoria. Another from the President of the French Republic said, "we understand that Queen Victoria will propose marriage to you as a means of uniting England the United States. Consider well, and do not accept. No good will come of it." These were, of course, hoaxes, an example of some people having fun at the expense of the Emperor.

The next morning, the headline in the Chronicle screamed: "Le Roi Est Mort" (The King is dead). The Alta California printed a 34-inch story on the same day it devoted all of 38 words - a mere 4-lines of type - from the inaugural speech of George C. Perkins, newly elected Governor of California.

The leading papers of Cleveland, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, and Portland, reported his death. The Cincinnati Enquirer devoted 16 inches, under a headline that said, in part, "An emperor without enemies, a king without a kingdom, supported in life by the willing tribute of a free people."

At his home in Hartford, Connecticut, Mark Twain read of the Emperor's death in the New York Times. He sadly wrote to a good friend, fellow acclaimed novelist, and Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells: "What an odd thing it is that neither Frank Soulé, nor Charley Warren Stoddard, nor I, nor Bret Harte [8], the Immortal Bilk, nor any other professionally literary person in San Francisco has ever 'written up' the Emperor Norton.

10,000 people came to see Emperor Norton lying in state at the morgue. Jimmy Bowman, of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. "The visitors included all classes from the capitalist to the pauper, the clergyman and the pickpocket, well dressed ladies, the bowed with age, and the prattling child."

James Eastland, President of the Pacific Club, was one of the leading businessmen who knew Norton in the early, prosperous years. They were both members of the Freemasons. Eastland could not envision Norton buried in a pauper's grave. He raised all the money deemed necessary from his club for a funeral fit for an Emperor and burial at the Masonic Cemetery [9].

A funeral cortege followed Norton's body from the morgue to the cemetery that was two miles long. As they lay his body into the ground, the world grew dark with that phenomenon of infrequent occurrence, a total eclipse of the sun.

In 1934, San Francisco closed all its cemeteries to make more space for the living. Norton was re-interred with civic and military honors at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma.

Throughout San Francisco there are small tributes to Emperor Norton. A group called E Clampus Vitus, established to help widows and orphans of gold and silver miners, created a plaque to honor him that was originally in the Cliff House, but now is on the entrance on the Transbay Terminal on Mission Street. They also celebrate his birthday every year with a great party by his grave. The Harbor Emperor is a ferry with a carved Emperor Norton masthead, there is an Emperor Norton Inn, and a few other sites bear his name.

Emperor Norton is remembered in literature. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain created the character of "the king" based on Norton. Robert Louis Stevenson included Norton as an actual character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker.

The stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, Isobel Field, wrote about Norton in her book entitled This Life I've Loved: "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."

Author's Note:

The vast majority of the material for this Encyclopedia entry is drawn from William Drury's biography, "Norton I, Emperor of the United States." To the author's knowledge, there is relatively little original source material available other than the newspaper entries contained in the biography. The only original research the author did for this entry was to do an internet search of genealogy records for the Norton family in England and the 1820 Settlers in South Africa. The author exchanged an email with a Norton family member in South Africa, who indicated that she did not have any information on Joshua Norton.

[1] - see

[2] Though Lick dressed in rags, his riches would one day build Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton in Santa Clara County and bring the Conservatory of Flowers to Golden Gate Park.

[3] In 1853, a 3-story brick and concrete building would be constructed on the same site for Lucas, Turner and Company Bank. William Tecumseh Sherman ran the bank from 1853 to 1857. Nicknamed "Sherman's Bank," the building is still there today, part of the Jackson Square Historic District. Sherman became the general made infamous by his march to the sea in the Civil War that resulted in the burning of Atlanta.

[4] Daily Alta California (1849-1891); Daily Evening Bulletin (1855-1929); Daily Morning Call (1856-1965);The Daily Morning and Evening Chronicle (1868-present); and the Daily Examiner (1865-present)

[5] Tiny Grabhorn Park is there today, next to the Pacific Heritage Museum, which is in the building that was the first San Francisco Mint and later a Sub-Treasury Building. Bret Harte worked as a secretary in the mint. The Morning Call was located next door, where Mark Twain worked.

[6] The Bank Exchange was located where the Transamerica Pyramid is today, in a building known as the Montgomery Block (1853-1958), and nicknamed the "Monkey Block."

[7] Lewis and Joshua Norton were the only two children John and Sarah Norton had when they sailed to South Africa in 1820. Phillip was born on board the ship. The Nortons' would have six more children in South Africa.

[8] Frank Soulé was, along with John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet, the co-author of the 1855 Annals of San Francisco, a history of San Francisco from its discovery by Spanish settlers through 1855, including biographies of many leading characters; Charles Warren Stoddard became a special correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1873 traveling the world and in 1880 became co-editor of the Overland Monthly; Bret Harte was a prolific short story writer best known for stories of the Gold Rush, "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat."

[9] In 1934, San Francisco closed all its cemeteries to make more space available for the living. His casket was relocated to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma. He would not be forgotten. He was re-interred with civic and military honors. The San Francisco Municipal band played, the 3rd Battalion of the 159th Infantry fired 3 volleys in salute, and a bugler played taps.


Emperor Norton, Mad Monarch of Montgomery Street - Allen Stanley Lane - 1939, the Claxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho

Emperor Norton of San Francisco - William M. Kramer, 1974, North B. Stern, publisher, Santa Monica (Kramer - California State University Northridge, 1974)


In 1820, John and Sarah Norton and their three children were among a handful of Jews emigrating with 5,000 British to Algoa Bay, South Africa.
In 1849, Norton was lured to San Francisco by the dream of fortunes to be made in the Gold Rush
Emperor Norton died January 8, 1880 in San Francisco


> Bummer and Lazarus
> Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company


+ Emperor Norton
+ Highlights from the Emperor's reign


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