1000 El Camino Real, Colma, California 94014
Did you know that the United States once had an emperor? An emperor who issued edicts and walked around in a blue military uniform complete with gold epaulettes. A purple sash along with a plumed beaver hat completed his uniform while he carried a saber. On September 17th, 1859, one Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States. He resided in San Francisco, and with this proclamation began the reign of the first and only Emperor of the United States.
Emperor Norton was born in England on February 4th, 1818. Regretfully his tombstone has 1819 as the year of his birth, but multiple facts point to the 1818 date. For example, when Norton was two, a ship brought him to South Africa from England in February 1820 and listed him as two. Additionally the newspaper, the Daily Alta California, wished him a 47th birthday on February 4th, 1865.
In November 1849, Joshua Norton probably arrived in San Francisco. He steadily increased his fortune by buying and selling real estate, mining claims, and ships, and by 1852 was one of the more well oft citizens of the city. But in 1855 his fortunes turned, when he tried to corner the rice market. He made bad investments on Peruvian rice, buying the rice at twelve cents a pound, but suddenly several ships unexpectedly arrived from Peru and the price of rice plummeted to only four cents a pound. By 1858, Joshua Norton was broke.
Penniless and going a little mad, Joshua Norton, on September 17th, 1859 proclaimed himself Norton the First, Emperor of the United States.
"At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; 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."
His proclamation made, Emperor Norton got about to the business of being Emperor. He tried to get a million dollar loan from the banks, but they surprisingly refused. Not dissuaded, the Emperor printed his own currency in various denominations from fifty cents to ten dollars. Surprisingly the businesses of San Francisco began happily accepting his notes. In fact, notes still found today often sell for upwards of $10,000 at auction.
The good Emperor patrolled his streets and saluted people. They saluted him back. City restaurants were honored to have the Emperor dine in their establishments and let him dine for free. City theaters supposedly left a seat open for him on opening night in case he wanted to catch the show. Bars gave him free drinks and the military gave him his uniforms. He wrote letters to Washington DC offering to mediate in the Civil War.
By 1863, he became the "Protector of Mexico" in addition to being Emperor of the United States after Napoleon III invaded Mexico. In 1867 he was sadly arrested, supposedly for his own good. People were outraged, and the Police Chief immediately released him, and issued a formal apology on behalf of the police force. The good Emperor Norton was not vindictive and granted the arresting officer a full pardon. Afterwards the San Francisco police officers all saluted the good Emperor whenever they saw him on the streets. The 1870 US Census actually lists Norton's occupation as Emperor, although it does also note that he was insane.
The good Emperor Norton the First was against racial injustice, in favor of women's rights, came up with an idea of having a League of Nations and in 1872, banned the use of the city's nickname, "Frisco" saying "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".
Some of his other decrees might have merit to some people. For example on October 12th, 1859, he made his first decree to dissolve the US Congress, by force if necessary. When this did not happen, he followed up his decree about a month later with this statement:
"WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress"
On August 12th, 1869 he ordered the dissolution of both the Democratic and Republican parties stating "being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm"
One of his more most famous decrees however was on March 23rd 1872 when he ordered that a suspension bridge, or perhaps a tunnel be built across the Bay connecting Oakland to San Francisco. This eventually did happen, although not in his lifetime. To commemorate this, the Clampers even put up a plaque to his idea. The plaque was originally at the Cliff House, but it was moved to the Transbay Terminal in 1986. The Terminal was closed and demolished in 2010. The plaque was restored and reinstalled in the new Transbay Transit Center in September 2019. Additionally there have been campaigns to rename the bridge "The Emperor Norton Bridge".
Emperor Norton I died on January 8th 1880 on the corner of California and Grant (then Dupont) streets, in front of Old Saint Mary's Cathedral. He was on his way to lecture at the California Academy of Sciences when he collapsed and died suddenly, so quickly that a carriage did not even have time to arrive in order to take him to the hospital. A police officer was on scene when he collapsed, but was unable to save him. Flags flew at half mast in the city on January 10th, and ten thousand people followed his coffin to his grave! In 1934 he was relocated along with all the other city graves to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.
Emperor Norton I has left a lasting impression upon San Francisco, and not just because the area now has a massive suspension bridge going across the bay as the good Emperor ordered. The city embraced the Emperor, took care of him, and still to this day remembers him fondly.
Pictures, wax sculptures, and other homages to Emperor Norton exist throughout the city. San Francisco Welcome Center & History Museum at 449 Powell Street has a wax sculpture of the Emperor made by the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf.
The Wells Fargo History Museum at 420 Montgomery Street is the site where Wells Fargo first opened for business in 1852. It also has some Emperor Norton memorabilia on display including an undated proclamation of his, plus some old notes from the good Emperor (although I'm not sure how real the old notes are). The California Historical Society at 678 Mission also might have some Norton artifacts.
Emperor Norton's picture hangs in at least two establishments in San Francisco: Tommy's Joynt, at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard, and at Maxfield's Pied Piper Bar located in the Palace Hotel on Market Street. Decorations and pictures of the Emperor also appear at newer place, a dive bar called Emperor Norton's Boozeland at 510 Larkin.
Emperor Norton has even appeared as the figure head at the front of a boat on the wharf, his blue and gold clad figure mounted on the front of at least one boat in the Blue and Gold Fleet called the Harbor Emperor, with a capacity to carry up to 500 passengers. Mark Twain based the king in Huckleberry Finn on Emperor Norton, and even Neil Gaiman has had the character appear in his stories. There are still occasional tales that the Emperor's ghost wanders the streets of San Francisco.
Emperor Norton I has a large tombstone in Colma. The tombstone quite literally states that he was the Emperor of the United States and the Protector of Mexico. As previously stated, the birth year is off by one. In front of his tombstone is another tombstone, this one of the Empress Norton. The tombstone is to Jose Sarria, Empress Norton I, The Widow Norton. Born December 13th, 1922 and passing away August 19th, 2013, the Widow Norton is known for being the first ever openly gay candidate for a public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. Although he did not win, it is said that Jose Sarria "put the gay vote on the map [and] made it visible and showed there was a constituency." As Sarria himself put it, "From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community." Sarria was also known for being a drag queen at the Black Cat Bar and in 1964 proclaimed himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton". Afterwards Sarria organized annual pilgrimages to lay flowers on Norton's grave and eventually he purchased the plot in front of the original Emperor Norton. Sarria performed in the 1995 film To Wong Foo playing one of the judges for the Drag Queen of the Year Contest.
Lastly, you might have heard that he owned two stray dogs in San Francisco called Bummer and Lazarus. This is actually incorrect. Edward Jump in the 1860s drew several cartoons appearing in the city's newspapers. Depicted in his cartoons were caricatures of the city's notable (infamous) characters including Bummer and Lazarus along with Emperor Norton I. It is thanks to these cartoons that historians came up with the tale of the "Three Bummers" (Bummer, Lazarus and Emperor Norton). But it is entirely made up. Bummer and Lazarus had no connection to Emperor Norton and were most decidedly not his dogs. One of Edward Jump's cartoons showed Bummer, Lazarus and Emperor Norton at a free lunch counter. Norton was so angry at the cartoon that upon seeing it he reportedly smashed a window with a cane, angry that he had been depicted eating lunch with strays. The Alta California stated that Norton "let fly with his walking stick at the window pane and smashed - his stick."
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- Secret San Francisco (2019) by Carlson, Ruth, p: 6 - 7
- Weird California (2006) by Greg Bishop, Joe Oesterle, Mike Marinacci, p: 102 - 103
- Strange But True San Francisco (2005) by Montanarelli, Lisa and Ann Harrison, p: 146 - 147
- Weird US (2004) by Moran, Mark and Sceurman, Mark, p: 152 - 153
- Northern California Curiosities (2005) by Rubin, Saul, p: 11 - 12
- San Francisco Curiosities (2010) by Rubin, Saul, p: 25 - 26
- Haunted Northern California (2009) by Stansfield Jr, Charles A, p: 9 - 10
Last Edited: 2020-09-13