America's Emperor, San Francisco's Treasure: Who Was Emperor Norton?

12 min
Joshua Abraham Norton, better known as San Francisco's Emperor Norton. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you've taken a walking tour of San Francisco, there's a good chance you've heard the name Emperor Norton.

That was how Bay Curious listener and Oakland resident Jennifer Jacobs first learned about the beloved San Francisco eccentric after she moved to the Bay Area from Michigan in 1999.

"I was just like, 'Wow, this is a whole other world. They have their own emperor here in San Francisco,' " Jennifer says.


Ever since, Jennifer has wanted to know more. Who was Emperor Norton? How was he seen in his own time? And why is he still remembered and revered today, almost 140 years after his death?

Not much is known about Emperor Norton's early life, according to John Lumea, president of the Emperor's Bridge Campaign, which focuses on researching Norton's life and sharing it with the public.

Here's what we do know.

The rise and fall of a Gold Rush businessman

Emperor Norton was born Joshua Abraham Norton in 1818 to Jewish parents in present-day London. At age 2, he moved with his parents to South Africa, where his dad set up a successful ship supplies business.

Sponsored

At 21, with help from his father, Norton opened his own ship supplies business, but it went bankrupt within 18 months. Things went from bad to worse over the next few years, and by 1848, both of Norton's parents and two of his siblings had died.

The following year, Norton left South Africa, and after a short stop in South America, landed in San Francisco in late 1849.

Norton arrived in a lawless, Wild West version of San Francisco. The Gold Rush transformed a small town of a few hundred people to a bustling metropolis of 25,000 within a few years.

It was also a town of constant rebirth. People were making and losing their fortunes in the blink of an eye. The city was almost destroyed by fires seven times between 1849 and 1851.

Norton, who had already built and lost a business in South Africa, fit right into this boom-and-bust town. He established himself as a successful businessman selling commodities like rice and flour. He invested in real estate, erecting buildings on three of the four corners of Sansome and Jackson streets -- one of the most popular intersections in town -- plus plots in North Beach and a lucrative waterfront property.

The San Francisco waterfront in 1851. (San Francisco Maritime Museum National Historical Park)

"He made a great amount of money and was very influential," Lumea says of Norton's early days in the city. "He was in with all the right people, attended all the right clubs and all the right restaurants."

Riding high, Norton planned his next business move. With a rice famine underway in China, Norton was presented with a chance to corner the rice market by buying up a shipload of Peruvian rice. Expecting rice prices to soar, Norton went in with a couple of business partners in 1852 and staked $25,000 on the venture.

And then it all went wrong.

"Within a [few] days, ship after ship after ship of rice comes in, and so the bottom falls out of the market," Lumea says. "This idea, which at one point seemed so great, now isn't so great."

The deal, and the subsequent years of legal wrangling, ruined Norton. By the time Norton was 38, in 1856, he was bankrupt for the second time.

An imperial transformation

After his financial ruin, Norton went quiet for a few years. He moved out of his prestigious home, and fell out of favor with some members of the social elite.

He re-emerged on Sept. 17, 1859, on the pages on the San Francisco Evening Bulletin newspaper. Earlier in the day, he had walked into the paper's offices and presented the editor with a short notice he asked to have published in that day's edition.

"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 last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States," the notice began.

The proclamation in the September 17, 1859, edition of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin that transformed Joshua Abraham Norton into Emperor Norton.
The proclamation in the September 17, 1859, edition of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin that transformed Joshua Abraham Norton into Emperor Norton. (San Francisco Public Library)

At age 41, three years after losing everything, Norton christened himself Emperor of the United States. When France's Napoleon III invaded Mexico in 1861, Norton added "Protector of Mexico" to his imperial title.

This astonishing transformation has always fascinated Bay Curious listener Jacobs.

"I majored in psychology, so I couldn't help thinking he must have had some kind of a nervous breakdown or something happened in those few years," she says. "I was thinking schizophrenia or bipolar disorder maybe."

There are no sure answers about Norton's mental health before or after his imperial declaration, but some people think his money troubles led him into a deep depression and that becoming Emperor Norton was a coping mechanism.

A snarky caption is scrawled below this image of Norton on a bicycle.
A snarky caption is scrawled below this image of Norton on a bicycle. (California State Library)

"There's a sense in which the persona of the Emperor actually saved him in a way," Lumea says.

Later in his declaration, Norton called on representatives of all the states to assemble the following February to establish his empire and "to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union to ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring."

Unsurprisingly, nobody showed up.

But that didn't stop Norton. He had declared himself emperor. And he was going to act like it for the next 20 years.

Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico

Norton continued issuing imperial proclamations on items big, like calling for the end of presidential elections, and small, like chastising the skating rink operator who wouldn't let him use a pair of skates.

Even though he was Emperor of the United States, his proclamations were often very local in nature. He didn't hesitate to call out San Francisco's police and elected officials. Perhaps his most well-known proclamations were the ones calling for the construction of a bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco through Yerba Buena Island -- what we recognize today as the Bay Bridge.

Norton also adopted an imperial wardrobe. He started with either a blue or gray military jacket, switching between the two early in his "reign" to maintain his neutrality in the ongoing Civil War.

After the war, he settled on a blue officer's jacket furnished with large, fringed, golden shoulder epaulets. His balding head was almost always covered with a hat, most often a small military kepi or a garish beaver fur top hat with a cascade of colorful feathers pinned to the front.

Being emperor did not pay very well. Norton spent most of his reign subsisting off the generosity of the public and the support of a few wealthy friends from his high society days.

In 1870, with the newly-completed transcontinental railroad bringing more tourists to San Francisco from across the country, Norton helped fill his coffers by selling "imperial bonds" for 50 cents each.

Emperor Norton in his traditional imperial outfit around 1875.
Emperor Norton in his traditional imperial outfit around 1875. (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

He didn't need much money. His lodgings on Commercial Street cost him only 50 cents a night, and he spent most of his day reading the newspapers, talking with other forty-niners in Portsmouth Square and writing proclamations at the Mechanics' Institute Library on Post Street.

For lunch, Norton could go to almost any tavern in town and for the price of a drink, no more than 25 cents, get access to a full lunch spread of salmon, roast beef, tomatoes and more.

"He really makes himself part of the life of the city," Lumea says. "He goes to political meetings. He goes to the theater. He goes to the saloons. He makes himself a public presence. He's in the streets."

The city's newspapers saw Norton as a bit of a buffoon and regularly published fake proclamations with his name attached. So, in 1870, he started publishing his genuine proclamations almost exclusively in an African-American-owned and operated abolitionist weekly, The Pacific Appeal.

Many of Norton's proclamations, especially those in The Pacific Appeal, were surprisingly progressive for his time.

"He's talking about how African-Americans should have the right to attend public schools, ride public streetcars. How the Chinese should be able to have their testimony heard in court," Lumea says. Norton also argued for the rights of Native Americans and against political corruption.

"So he’s really making himself into an early champion of the values of fairness and tolerance and the common good that really later become a great symbol of San Francisco," Lumea says.

'Le roi est mort'

Jan. 8, 1880, was a cold and rainy night in San Francisco. Norton left his room on Commercial Street to walk the few short blocks to a debate at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

On his way there, he collapsed on the street and died of a suspected stroke.

Emperor Norton's grave, which was moved from the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco to Colma.
Emperor Norton's grave, which was moved from the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco to Colma. (Joshua Neff/Flickr)

Ten thousand people came to Norton's funeral. The headline of his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle read, "Le roi est mort."

Norton died with just a few dollars in his pockets and would have been sent to a pauper's grave, if not for the intercession of his old friends in business, who paid for a fancy rosewood coffin adorned with silver and a burial plot in the Masonic Cemetery.

"Even though often in the official world of journalism or politics he was somewhat seen as a figure of ridicule," Lumea says, "to the people in the streets who saw him on a day-to-day basis for 20 years, he was known as a very kind person."

Norton at 200

Almost 140 years after his death, Norton continues to captivate San Francisco.

Lumea started the Emperor's Bridge Campaign in 2013 to try to get the Bay Bridge renamed for Emperor Norton, in recognition of him publishing the idea decades before it came to be. The Board of Supervisors designated February 2018 as "Emperor Norton Month," and City Hall and Coit Tower were lit up gold on Feb. 4, 2018, in honor of Norton's 200th birthday.

"Nobody really encompasses the spirit of San Francisco better than Emperor Norton," says Joseph Amster, one of two men who walk the streets of San Francisco as official Emperor Norton impersonators.

Amster and his fellow Norton, Rick Saber, both showed up in full imperial regalia at Norton's 200th birthday party in February at one of Norton's favorite spots, the Mechanics' Institute Library.

Jennifer Jacobs stands with Rick Saber (L) and Joseph Amster (R), two official Emperor Norton impersonators at Emperor Norton's 200th birthday party at the Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco on Feb. 7, 2018.
Jennifer Jacobs stands with Rick Saber (L) and Joseph Amster (R), two official Emperor Norton impersonators, at Emperor Norton's 200th birthday party at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco on Feb. 7, 2018. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Guests came dressed in their 19th century finest, from Wild West leather chaps to Victorian dresses, to honor Norton. Kazuo Sayama came all the way from Japan to attend the party. He first learned about Norton decades ago while he was doing research for a book about San Francisco, and he was so enthralled by his story that he dedicated an entire book to just Norton and is working on a second.

"You have so many presidents," Sayama says of the United States, "but no emperor in history. But people admire him as emperor."

For many at the party and across the city, Norton represents the best of the Bay Area: an advocate of fairness and tolerance, a kind person and a bit of an oddball.

"He's kind of a symbol of why this isn't New York or why this isn't Florida or why this isn't Seattle," says Tito Young, who came to the party dressed as a Wild West cowboy in brown leather chaps. "I think there's something wonderfully eccentric about this gentleman, which I can very much identify with."


"I'm glad there's a strong personality in my family tree," says Julie Driver, Norton's great-great-great-great-niece. She lives in Ontario, Canada, and learned about her famous relative from her dad. "He found a way to make a name for himself after he lost his fortune, and I think that's something that we should learn from."

Bay Curious listener Jennifer Jacobs was blown away by the sustained love and attention the city continues to give Emperor Norton, and she can't imagine it happening in any other city.

"San Francisco is a quirky town in a lot of ways," she says, "and he kind of embodies that."

Sponsored

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.