Entry Author: Peter
Links to chapters:
Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the Gold
Norton's World Collapses
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. 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
Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the
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 . 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  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
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
I. Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico.
The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley
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
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
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
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
"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 . 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 .
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
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  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
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
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  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
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
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."
Emperor Norton in 1876
The Bancroft Library. University of California,
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
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
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
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 , 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 .
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 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."
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.
 - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Norton
 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
 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.
 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
 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.
 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."
 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.
 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."
 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
Emperor Norton, Mad Monarch of Montgomery Street - Allen
Stanley Lane - 1939, the Claxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell,
Emperor Norton of San Francisco - William M. Kramer, 1974,
North B. Stern, publisher, Santa Monica (Kramer - California
State University Northridge, 1974)