Why you should care
Joshua Abraham Norton — aka Emperor Norton I of the United States — was a beloved San Francisco celebrity.
The committee was in full agreement: A rally would be held the following day, Feb. 22, 1861, in support of the Union. George Washington’s birthday was the perfect occasion for the residents of San Francisco to prove their patriotism as the country trundled toward civil war. All they needed was a set of strongly worded resolutions and, of course, the star-spangled banner.
That’s when a scruffy-looking man in a tattered military uniform but with an unmistakable sense of purpose pressed forward, according to The Daily Alta California newspaper. “I will hold that flag,” exclaimed Joshua Abraham Norton. Laughter ensued, but it was no joke for Norton: The bankrupt former tycoon may have been the neighborhood loon, but as the newly declared Emperor Norton I of the United States, he felt a solemn duty to keep his country together.
At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S.
Emperor Norton I, San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 1859
Of all the eccentrics who have walked the streets of San Francisco, Emperor Norton is perhaps the most famous — and, his devotees claim, certainly the grandest. Through his peculiar charm and commitment to social advocacy, Norton became a cherished local celebrity, gallivanting about the city as residents gladly played along with his endearing delusions of royalty. “The Bay Area, and San Francisco specifically, has always embraced people who reinvent themselves,” says Joseph Amster, who leads city tours as the emperor, “and I think he encompasses that more than anyone in the city’s history.”
Born in a London suburb in 1818, Norton spent his childhood in South Africa with his merchant parents. Upon inheriting a small fortune from his deceased father in the late 1840s, he set sail for San Francisco, where traders and speculators of all stripes were cashing in on the California gold rush. Norton soon became one of them, doing brisk business in local commerce, snapping up real estate and embedding himself in high society — within a few short years, he had made the equivalent of around $8 million. But things suddenly went south when the price of rice collapsed just as he stocked up on the commodity.
Defeated and broke, Norton disappeared. When he resurfaced several years later, he wasn’t quite the same, as his September 1859 declaration in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin testified: “At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S.” He then directed state representatives “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.”
If local residents were confused, they were soon treated to the most fantastical explanation. Norton took to the streets with gusto and in true royal fashion — donning a uniform donated by a local military base and a cap adorned with colorful feathers. Greeting his subjects everywhere he went, the emperor kept abreast of current affairs, frequenting debates and contemplating key public issues. A sharp thinker and a prolific writer, Norton spent his days in the library either reading or drafting any number of surprisingly lucid proclamations, including one that called for the construction of what’s known today as the Bay Bridge, built in 1936.
And, like any decent ruler, he fought for the people. Whether standing up for Chinese immigrants, promoting religious tolerance or advocating women’s voting rights, Norton cast himself as a social justice warrior concerned with the problems facing the subjects of his empire. In the early 1870s, for example, he called for African-Americans to attend public schools and ride streetcars, according to John Lumea, president of the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, a nonprofit advancing Norton’s legacy. “Here he is,” Lumea says, “90 years in front of the modern civil rights movement and coming up with these things that are actually pretty ahead of their time.”
Yet a key question arises: Was the emperor crazy? While there’s no definitive answer, few took issue with his delusional behavior. He enjoyed free lunches from sympathetic establishments, received a stipend from the local Masons who covered his lodging in a local flophouse and generally ingratiated himself with the community. “Had he been a curmudgeon,” says Amster, the tour guide, “I don’t think his reign would have been embraced as much as it was.” When Norton died of a stroke in January 1880, some 30,000 people attended his funeral in a procession that spanned two miles.
Today, as San Francisco marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, observers believe the legendary oddball is enjoying a revival. Especially amid dizzying changes in society, the economy and technology, Lumea says, the emperor represents a certain lasting comfort. “People are reaching for the symbols of the real San Francisco they can hold onto,” he says. “And Emperor Norton seems to be one of those symbols.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the source of the feathers in Norton’s cap.