Emperor Norton

Historical Essay

by Chris Carlsson with additions by Michael Whitson

Emperor-Joshua-Abraham-Norton PD.jpg

Emperor Norton: he banned the use of "Frisco" to refer to the city of San Francisco. It is a misdemeanor punishable with a $25.00 fine.

Photo: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA

Emperor Norton I is among the most unique and celebrated characters of San Francisco's early history. A failed gold rush-era businessman fallen into madness, he was nonetheless adopted by the press to become a beloved civic mascot and the city's first genuine tourist attraction. Referring to himself as Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, Norton issued several decrees, both surprising and inspiring, including the first proposal for a transbay bridge and tunnel, and a calling for the abolition of the nickname "Frisco." The acceptance and celebration of his existence is a touching early example of San Francisco's legacy of eccentricity and whimsy.

Emperor Norton I, was born Joshua Abraham Norton in 1819 and lived his early childhood in South Africa. By 1850 he arrived in San Francisco as a young man, and soon made a tidy fortune trading in goods in the burgeoning San Francisco market. As Yerba Buena cove was filled in, auctions were held for "made-ground," during which Norton acquired three of the four corners of Sansome and Jackson. He also bought a couple of water lots near Rincon Point, one of which was occupied by an abandoned brig, which he converted into a warehouse. When a good part of the city was burned to the ground on May 4, 1851, Norton made a killing when his stores of goods at Rincon Point avoided the conflagration. Within a few weeks the first Vigilante Committees was born to mete out "justice" to the alleged arsonists, and Joshua Norton was a charter member.

Norton's business life continued along smoothly enough until December 1852, when his rice mill had been dry for weeks due to the Chinese crop failure. Rice had climbed from 4 to 36 cents a pound, so when Norton was offered an entire shipload of 200,000 pounds of Peruvian rice at 12.5 cents, he jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, a dozen more ships full of rice followed that ship into port, flooding the market and driving the price down to 3 cents a pound. Norton lost everything and never recovered.

After eight years of increasing poverty amidst the rising tension of the impending civil war, Joshua Norton seems to have snapped, at least in one key respect. He declared that he was the Emperor of the United States, and within a year or so he added the title of Protector of Mexico. His lunacy is worth some retrospection however.


Norton I: Emperor of the United States

photo: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA

After all, Norton spent the next 20 years of his life slowly becoming an icon and widely loved mascot of San Francisco. He lived an oddly dignified life, participated in the daily life of the city, appeared at numerous theatrical and operatic openings, lived very frugally in his various rooms, and caused no one any harm. In fact, as William Drury argues in Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Dodd, Mean & Co., New York: 1986), Emperor Norton brought wealth to San Francisco far beyond what he derived from the city himself. Emperor Norton was San Francisco's first and foremost tourist attraction! When the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, San Francisco merchants could taste the money to be made from luring tourists to the city. Emperor Norton, a "bummer" in many eyes (a pejorative term for homeless or vagabond at the time), was adopted and turned into a wildly popular local character by the local press. It started with the Bulletin, where Norton I appeared one day late in 1859. He hand-delivered the first imperial declaration to George Fitch, the Bulletin's editor.

"At the peremptory 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, 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 the 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.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States."

When Lincoln won the November 1860 election and the south seceded over the following months, men all over the country were acquiring uniforms, and Emperor Norton was no exception. He was never seen again without his uniform of bulky epaulets, a plumed hat, and a large sword on his hip. When he realized that his earlier declarations had gone unheeded, Norton issued more decrees. By mid-summer 1860, he was becoming more assertive:

WHEREAS, it is necessary for our Peace, Prosperity and Happiness, as also to the National Advancement of the people of the United States, that they should dissolve the Republican form of government and establish in its stead an Absolute Monarchy;

NOW, THEREFORE, WE, Norton I, by the Grace of God Emperor of the Thirty-three States and the multitude of Territories of the United States of North America, do hereby dissolve the Republic of the United States, and it is hereby dissolved; And all laws made from and after this date, either by the National Congress or any State Legislature, shall be null and of no effect.

All Governors, and all other persons in authority, shall maintain order by enforcing the heretofore existing laws, and regulations until the necessary alterations can be effected.

Given under our hand and seal, at Headquarters, San Francisco, this 26th day of July, 1860.


The most oft-repeated stories about Emperor Norton are about how San Franciscans accepted his self-designated status, and allowed him to eat anywhere without paying, to receive free clothes from the city, and to be given preferential seating at stage and musical openings. For many years Norton ate at various bars where full meals were provided free to drinking patrons (e.g. Martin & Horton's, where a Brandy Smash cost a quarter and a free meal was included, with soup, boiled salmon, roast beef, bread and butter, potatoes, tomatoes, crackers and cheese), but there are few known cases of the Emperor indulging in a restaurant meal at all, let alone without paying. The city's Board of Supervisors was petitioned for a suit of imperial clothes, but ignored his entreaty. In fact, Norton generally went about in shabby, second-hand uniforms, both of Union and Confederate colors (he thought it best to maintain his neutrality so as to be able to help mediate a settlement).

Perhaps equal parts genius provocateur and mentally ill, Joshua Abraham Norton re-invented himself from a failed businessman into an outlandish yet popularly accepted imperial figure commanding the streets of San Francisco. Rather than using the stage as his vehicle Norton simply presented in public as royalty at all times. Responding to widespread corruption in general and the atrocities of the Civil War in particular, Norton issued a mandate in 1862 ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as "Emperor".

In the first of countless proclamations that were to follow Norton wrote:

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

Emperor Norton paraded daily through San Francisco's streets in an elaborate, imperial way. In addition to his military uniforms, he also wore a beaver top hat adorned with a large peacock feather, a rosette, and often added to his regal bearing with a ornate cane or umbrella. He 'acted' on his frequent proclamations by regularly "inspecting' SF streets, public infrastructure, as well as the behavior of police. He often provided elaborate, impromptu discourses on the problems he observed on SF's streets as well as larger contemporary issues.

One of his more memorable city 'inspections' happened during an anti-Chinese riot that frequented the poorer districts of San Francisco at this time. During one of those anti-Chinese 'demonstrations' Norton placed himself between the rioters and the Chinese designated for imminent violence. He then bowed his head and recited the Lords Prayer until the rioters left without hurting anyone.

Norton was nearly universally accepted by San Franciscans. Local restaurants often placed brass plaques at their entrances announcing "[b]y Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." Norton's self-created Imperial Seals of Approval were highly cherished by restaurants and resulted in a considerable increase in business for those that displayed them. All major plays and musical performances reserved free balcony seats for him for fear that his conspicuous absence would doom their run. Norton had the habit of levying spontaneous taxes in which he would walk into a business and politely announce an imperial assessment of several million dollars but then would easily acquiesce to only a couple of dollars or a cigar and depart happily.

He has also been generally thought to have had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, but this is a myth. The dogs were widely known vagrants in San Francisco, and thanks to an Edward Jump cartoon depicting Emperor Norton and the two canines dining at the same banquet table, the myth was spread that the beasts were his. But it was precisely this cartoon that turned Norton emphatically against the dogs, since it was terribly undignified to be associated with a dog called "Bummer." But the endearment Norton enjoyed from San Franciscans was quite similar to that showered upon the famous dogs.

Norton managed to survive almost 20 years by taxing bankers and the wealthy with whom he came in regular contact at bars and clubs, usually about 50 cents per collection. In 1870 he began selling his own scrip in 50 cent, $5 and $10 dollar denominations, redeemable in 1880 with 7% interest. These notes became tourist souvenirs as much as anything else. When he died only eight days into 1880, he was spared from having to back them up with "real money." A small industry surrounded the Emperor, marketing small figurines, photographic postcards, and many local merchants and restaurants displayed signs attesting to their status "by appointment of Norton I." News of the Emperor traveled around the country, and even overseas.

Norton's insanity didn't deter his creative mind from addressing itself to several technical issues of the day. During his reign, Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car, and Norton I issued an edict urging improved safety mechanisms for the new-fangled technology, in particular a better system of gripping the underground cable than the large screw with which it began.

Norton is also known for having been the first to propose a Bay Bridge and an under-the-bay tunnel. His decree in the Pacific Appeal of March 23, 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 the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco. . .

Another decree on September 21, 1872:

WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; . . .


A vision of Emperor Norton's proposed Bay Bridge.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Norton is one of those rorschach inkblot kinds of characters. Clearly he has been and remains one of San Francisco's best-selling stories. Writers like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson used him in their stories, as have journalists and tourism promoters for over a century. Perhaps his contribution that lingers most actively is his injunction against uttering the abbreviation "Frisco:"

"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."

His grave was moved when the cemeteries were banished from city limits, and he now rests in Colma under a prominent headstone unambiguously affirming his status in life, as it is in death, "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico."

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