Heritage Server > Story Bank > San Francisco History > Emperor Norton I,...
by R. Bruce Hughes
Saturday Evening Post, August 11, 1945

America worked, played, and prospered during the 1850’s and ‘60’s quite unaware that she was ruled for 21 years by an Emperor!

Sometime, perhaps a thousand years from now, archaeologists groping for the history of this age will find his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, a short way out of San Francisco, inscribed: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880.

There it will be to baffle those who will have read of Senators and Presidents, Supreme Courts and popular elections, who believe what all the books will say about the triumph of democracy in America.

Of course, historians will not accept the discovery of this disillusioning fact in the same light as the few remaining San Franciscans who recall His Majesty’s brilliant uniform, his imperial decrees, his roguish yet lovable affectations of grandeur; who paid taxes into his Royal Treasury; who fed him and his two inseparable dogs.

In time, the researchers may decide that all but forgotten epitaph is the last remaining honor to the world’s greatest humorist or its greatest failure, or both.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in England in 1819, and spent the early part of his life on the west coast of Africa. He was a plain man in monarchial England; it took the professedly democratic America to elevate him to a King.

The beginning of his reign was yet some years off when he arrived in San Francisco aboard the Dutch steamer Franzika in November, 1849, not to hunt for gold, but to rule an Empire.

If the story of his later life is full of excitement and charm, his early New World life was equally eventful. A broad, newly constructed merchandise store soon bore his name, and he quickly ran his original capital of $40,000 to more than a quarter million dollars.

Norton then set out to capture the growing city’s rice market, essential to the vast numbers of Chinese brought into the area as cheap labor—and except for the arrival of three rice-laden ships from the Orient might well have succeeded.

The bottom fell out of the market and the vast quantity of rice he had bought in anticipation of rising prices was worthless. This with a fire which in 1853 destroyed his store sent him into temporary oblivion.

Four years later he reappeared, not in the somber garb of a merchant but resplendent in a brilliantly colored, but somewhat ill-fitting blue uniform complete with matching cap, a red band up his trouser legs, gold epaulettes, and a goldnobbed cane. Later he wore a beaver skin cap with a huge scarlet feather sent from a subject in Oregon.

Perhaps it was one of those days when the editor was really ready to go out and bite a dog when on Sept. 16, 1857, Norton’s first proclamation appeared in the evening Bulletin, stating that he had acceded to the wishes of a "great majority of the citizens" and had assumed the emperorship of the State, claiming his reign was sanctified by a grant from the State Legislature. A bloodless coup!

For a week he was the sensation of the ribald, bawdy, showy, horny-handed and ostentatious elements of the town. Then as suddenly his popularity waned when a check for $.50 bounced, but his old merchant friends let it be known they would be responsible for simple debts.

With the passing months, the city came to accept him as an institution, just another one of the strange characters familiar to all during the roaring ‘fifties and ‘sixties.

Then in 1859 a serious problem arose. A friend pointed out that his reign was illegal—that California was a State of the United States. Norton’s keen mind perceived the logic, and he nobly solved the whole issue on September 17, 1859 by proclaiming himself Emperor of the whole United States!

Some years later when our Sister Republic to the south beseeched him "to rule over her," he added to his already impressive title the after thought Protector of Mexico, but he soon dropped it, saying nobody could bring order to such a troubled state.

As far as can be determined, no one ever questioned his rule. Indeed, upon promulgating tax regulations, he collected twenty-five dollars in one day from his loyal subjects, giving in return His Royal Bonds payable in gold coin at four percent interest.

Less humble royalty might have demanded hordes of servants and elaborate housing, but Norton was quite content to frequent the free lunches of the day and maintain a simple room at a boarding house.

Should anyone doubt his royal prerogatives, however, he was quick to issue an imperial decree, setting forth his views on such subjects as politics for women, high taxes, excessive water rates, transportation, lighting, or other pressing problems of the day.

Once when denied free transportation by the Steamship Company to a meeting of the State Legislature up the river at Sacramento, he ordered a Coast Guard cutter to blockade their steamers. Only when the company surrendered and offered him gratuitious passage for life did he rescind the order.

For the most part, however, His Majesty was temperate, thoughtful, and considerate, especially with the children of the city. Almost every day he could be seen imparting his wisdom to them on the city’s cobbled streets as they passed to and from school. He frequently presented the little girls with flowers, and escorted the boys to nearby candy shops where licorice sticks and jawbreakers were provided at Royal command. Many a child departed the happier for being made a Grand Duke or Dutchess.

Only once did his royal temper explode. A famous cartoonist of the day had penned a caricature of him at a free lunch with his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, at his heels. This so enraged him that he smashed his cane through the store window where it was displayed.

When Bummer became lame, Lazarus was known to visit a free lunch frequented by Norton and bark for scraps, which he carried to his companion. Once a new pound master impounded the dogs, but an angry mob forced their release, and the city supervisors voted them the freedom of the city. Toward the end of Norton’s reign both dogs died—together in death as well as life.

Norton was fully abreast of the issues of the times, studying diligently at the public library, and appearing in some of the better known drawing room parlors where he expounded his royal rule to the fashionable and well-to-do.

His knowledge was considered voluminous, though sketchy. Out of consideration for his knowledge—or so they said—the legislature reserved for him a comfortable plush chair at their sessions in the State House.

A patron of the arts, his familiar face was a free ticket to all amusements, and he was often the guest of high society at the opera.

His intimacy with foreign rulers of equal status was established after his death, as telegrams and cables from the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria, and other dignitaries found on his person showed. There was a cable from Hong Kong, which could not be deciphered because it was in Chinese characters.

Of course, the messages were real to Norton, but they did not originate from beyond the limits of his capital city. The telegraphers gravely presented a copy of each "message" sent and received.

The Civil War brought the greatest crisis to his court. That his children should fight among themselves brought him great troubles so after due consideration on July 12, 1862, he issued a proclamation declaring the Union dissolved for the duration of the emergency!

However prolific his public affairs, his private living he kept within the limits of a meager budget, augmented occasionally by cigars, tobacco, and an infrequent glass of liquor, which he accepted in lieu of taxes.

A substantial part of his taxes—levied strictly according to ability to pay—Norton used for charity, holding a Christmas party every year for the younger of his citizens.

Several times over the span of his more than 20-year reign, he needed a new uniform, which was always promptly forthcoming, either by donation from a newspaper or by means of popular subscription conducted by the Fire Department.

Once the city supervisors voted him a full dress uniform from the public treasury with scrupulous disregard for legal proprieties. It was tailor-made to order and presented at a public ceremony.

His membership in the Masonic Lodge did not confine his religious views, as he wandered from church to church on succeeding Sundays with a view to distributing equally the prestige of a visit from royalty.

The Police Department—or the Royal Constabulary—was so dear to his heart that he always marched at the head of its annual parade and in return the policemen reciprocated with thoughtful favors of a variety known only to guardians of the law and even kept a special chair for him at the precinct station. Outstanding members Norton presented with his Citation of Valor.

Norton was in some respects the outstanding booster for the Queen City of the West, losing no opportunity to extol its virtues.

On one occasion he took opportunity to express his detest of the contraction for his capital city, "Frisco," by publishing a proclamation which read: ‘Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linquistic 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."

Although little money came into the Imperial Treasury as a result of the order, Emperor Norton’s edict is still spiritually enforced by present-day San Franciscans.

It was in 1869 during his eventful reign that he ordered great bridges flung across the Golden Gate and the East Bay. The city fathers smiled, and continued to humor the old gentleman. It was 67 years after his order that the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, longest in the world, was built less than three blocks from the site he designated!

Now the memory of the Emperor—in whose madness there seems to have been a great deal of foresight, is honored by a plaque enscribed: "Pause traveler, and be grateful to Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, 1859-80, whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay August 18, 1869."

The same order decreed that the Yerba Buena shoals be filled to form what now is Treasure Island, and that the western terminal of the Western Pacific Railroad be established in Oakland—where it now is!

Death finally overtook Norton on the night of January 8, 1880, as he was crossing California street. His passing was not without sincere public grief. The colorful figure was sorely missed, as evidenced by the closed business establishments and public buildings, and the half-mast flags.

Over thirty thousand persons, many of them children, took four hours to pass his bier, paying homage to a fallen monarch. Newspapers said it was the biggest funeral ever held in San Francisco.

Fifty-four years later, San Francisco took time out from the troubled depression years of 1934 to commemorate the kindly old gentleman, and under sponsorship of the Pacific Club removed his grave to Woodlawn Cemetery.

Other Kings of more worldly renown have fared far worse upon death, and yet could offer less in defense of their reign.

Of all who flocked to pay last homage, perhaps a few remembered Shakespeare’s lines in King Henry VI:

Ay, but thou talk’st as if thou were a King.
Why, so I am, in mind; and that’s enough.
But if thou be a King, where is thy crown?
My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not deck’d with diamonds and Indian stones,
Not to be seen; my crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom Kings enjoy.

[06-01-00-001-0001 Fireman’s Fund Archives]


©1998-99 Fireman's Fund Insurance Company. All rights reserved.