I Go to Wiki So You Don’t Have To #2: His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I

In a continuing effort to be as untopical as humanly possible, I’ve decided to ignore that holiday business and focus on something really important: an old dead white guy.

Not just any old dead white guy, mind you. I’m talking about the single greatest San Franciscan in the history of the city, including that dude with cornrows at El Faralito’s. I’m talking about His Imperial Majesty, Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico, Emperor Norton the First.

What, you weren’t aware that we had an emperor?

This is one of those stories that seems so completely absurd that there’s something almost mystical about it. In fact, Emperor Norton is a patron saint for a quasi-religion called Discordianism and I first ran into him when I was reading in high school.

The story of our first, and to this point only, Emperor is so incredibly fascinating that it reads like fiction. To this day I don’t understand how people don’t know about Norton.

Norton was born Joshua Abraham Norton in London in 1819 and grew up in South Africa. In 1849 Norton received a $40,000 inheritance from his wealthy uncle and emigrated to San Francisco. A very quick check suggests that a dollar in 1850 was worth anywhere from $28 to $5,000 in Dollars of Today, so any way you slice it Norton had a bunch of money when he moved to San Fran. Little did he know that less than ten years after he arrived he’d be Royalty.

At first, things were good for our soon-to-be-Emperor, and he made a living as a business man until he lost the whole lot on bad Peruvian Rice. Peruvian Rice is not a euphemism for drugs, mind you, but actual foodstuffs from Peru. Litigation proved no help for our intrepid Imperial Majesty and he left San Fran destitute, which is where a mortal man’s story would’ve ended. After drifting around in that historical limbo that the past often suffers from, he returned to San Francisco with what appeared to be some serious mental issues.

What else would you call claiming that you were the Emperor of the USA?

As anyone who knows San Fran will tell you, there are a lot of crazy poor people who will tell you all sorts of things about themselves, with Emperor on the low end of the official crazy scale. If what people on the street have told me is true, I’ve personally met the Pope, several distinct species of aliens, a couple mythological creature and at least one descendant of Genghis Khan.

The funny thing is that people actually bought this. Not literally, mind you. At least not at first. I mean he said:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. 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.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

Note he has yet to add “Protector of Mexico” to his title.

People got a kick out of this sort of thing back then and this little proclamation was published in the San Fran Bulletin as a joke. The joke got better, too: On October 12th, 1859, Norton dissolved the US Congress, which seemed like a good idea. Given recent Senatorial news, it’s hard to fault Norton on his decision. He cited the corruption and open contempt for the laws of his day caused in part 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.” He even ordered the Army to depose the Senate in 1860. Over the years of his ‘reign’ he continued his one sided struggle with the United States, continually pushing for the dissolution of nearly all elements of the government. He even demanded to be ordained as Emperor by both Protestant and Catholic authorities.

Some other highlights of his reign include a 25 dollar fine for use of the term “Frisco” to refer to his capital city, banning both Republican and Democratic parties, orders to build both a bridge and a tunnel across the Bay (what are now the Bay Bridge and Transtunnel), strict ruling against sectarian violence, and the formation of an international governmental bodies remarkably similar to the League of Nations. He grew increasingly annoyed that his decrees were not followed, but never seemed to go off the deep end like a lot of crazy folks do.

So far he’s just a typically crazy guy though, one of literally thousands in San Francisco at any given time. To really get a feel for the bizarre nature of his existence you need to hear about some of his quirks. He printed his own money:


which isn’t too crazy but the fact that people accepted his script as actual cash is. He ate at the best restaurants in the city for free and the restaurants he visited would add brass plaques bearing the Imperial Seal of Approval which actually boosted their sales. A rumor suggests that he had a pair of royal dogs which he considered to be full people. When he was arrested in 1867 to be committed to an institution, the public outcry was enough to get him released and all charges dropped.

Ever classy, Norton issued an Imperial Pardon and from that point on police officers saluted him when they saw him. He was easy to pick out because he wore a special blue uniform with epaulets donated by the Army fort in the Presidio, and a beaver hat with a peacock feather. When the uniform wore out the city bought him a replacement.

Once the Myth of Norton really got rolling, it did the thing that all myths do: it grew. People speculated on his parentage (possibly the son of the French Emperor Louis Napoleon), his marital fortunes (Queen Victoria?) and that he was secretly tremendously wealthy. None of these had even a shred of proof to them, though Norton apparently did meet Emperor Pedro II of Brazil.

The single most impressive event in Norton’s life took place during the ugly and prolonged race riots in San Francisco between Chinese immigrants. During some of the most vicious of these fights, Emperor Norton I simply stood between the agitators and their soon-to-be-victims, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until the group gave up and left.

Norton’s reign came to an end on January 8th, 1880 while he was on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Science. Despite the best efforts of the police to secure his travels to a hospital by carriage, Norton died. The next day’s San Francisco Chronicle published the following headline: “Le Roi est Mort (the King is Dead).”

His worldly possessions at the time amounted to five dollars in small change, a single gold sovereign, a collection of walking sticks, one rusty saber, several hats, one Franc and a number of Imperial Bonds to be sold to visiting tourists. Despite this meager collection of items, San Francisco sent him off in style.

The Pacific Club paid for his rosewood coffin and funeral arrangements, which lead to an outpouring of public grief that crossed the social, ethnic and political lines. Upwards of 30,000 people came to see his funeral, leading to a procession that, at some points, was almost two miles long. Remember, San Francisco had a population of around 230,000 people at that point, around a quarter of its current number. Over ten percent of the city turned out for his funeral. The city paid for his burial at the Masonic Cemetery and later moved his remains to Woodland Cemetery in Colma, where a large stone reads “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”


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