Entry Author: Peter
Links to chapters:
Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the Gold
Norton's World Collapses
The Newspapers Role in Creating the Emperor
Life of the Emperor
as a National Character
Le Roi Est
and Other Sources
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Priorslee (now Telford),
Shropshire, England (147 miles northwest of London) on January
17, 1811, the second of nine children for John and Sarah Norton.
In 1820, the Norton family was among a handful of Jews among
British immigrants to South Africa called the 1820 Settlers.
In 1841, the family moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where
Joshua worked in his father's ship chandlery as a clerk. By
1848, his mother, and two brothers, and father had died. To
Joshua went his father's estate, worth about $40,000.
In 1849, Norton was lured, as hundreds of thousands would
be, to San Francisco by the dream of fortunes to be made in
the Gold Rush. Norton did not seek his fortune in the hard
gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills; instead he would
try to make his fortune in real estate and business.
Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the
Joshua Norton & Company, General Merchants, was founded
in a cottage made of adobe bricks at Jackson and Montgomery
Streets, which Norton rented from a miserly old man named
James Lick . He bought a ship anchored in the Yerba
Buena Cove, the Genessee, to store his own merchandise
and rent space to others for storage, a common use for ships
abandoned in San Francisco by crews headed to the gold fields.
In 1851, his adobe cottage  burned in a major fire.
Norton relocated to a substantial granite building at 110
Battery Street, which housed the offices of several of San
Francisco's elite citizens, with whom he socialized and did
He acquired parcels on three corners of Sansome and Jackson
Streets, on which he opened a cigar factory, a small wood-framed
office building, and a rice mill. He purchased a few lots
by Rincon Point, where the value increased dramatically when
the Pacific Mail Steamship
Company built a passenger terminal and warehouse nearby.
And he bought several lots that were to be developed by Harry
Meiggs on North Beach.
Norton's World Collapses
By 1852, Norton's assets were estimated at $250,000, about
$5 million today, and he saw the opportunity for more. China
was the main supplier of rice to California, until a famine
cut off shipments. The price rose from four cents a pound
to 36 cents. At the Merchant's Exchange, two of Norton's banking
acquaintances quietly showed him a handful of rice from Peru.
There was 200,000 pounds of rice on the Glyde, a ship
anchored in the harbor. Norton could buy it for only 12-cents
a pound, or $25,000 for the whole shipload. At 36 cents a
pound, he could gross $72,000.
On December 22, 1852, he put $2,000 down, with a contract
to pay it all in 30 days. The next day, a ship full of Peruvian
rice sailed into San Francisco, followed by several more ships
that would drive the price of rice to three
cents a pound. Norton tried to nullify the contract on the
grounds that he was misled - the rice on Glyde was
inferior to the sample shown him. The Glyde's owners
sued Norton for payment.
For the next several years, Norton was beset by additional
misfortunes, not the least of which was being accused of embezzlement
by a client. The Lucas Turner and Company Bank, ironically
located on the site of Norton's first adobe cottage at Jackson
and Montgomery, foreclosed on his North Beach property. On
August 25, 1856, a brief notice appeared in the Bulletin
newspaper - "Joshua Norton, filed a petition for the
benefit of the Insolvency Law. Liabilities $55,811; assets
stated at $15,000, uncertain value."
Over the next few years, Norton survived as a "commission
agent," brokering sales of goods between customers. The
City Directory showed that by 1858, he was living at 255 Kearny,
a boarding house of the working class that would not have
been the home of the successful businessman.
The Emperor Appears
I. Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico.
The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley
for larger view
On September 17, 1859, a neatly dressed and serious looking
Norton climbed the stairs of 517 Clay Street to the office
of the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper and placed
a piece of paper in front of the editor, George Fitch. The
next morning, Fitch ran a headline: "Have We An Emperor
Among Us?" and printed the following proclamation.
"At the pre-emptory 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 the 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."
It was signed: "Norton I, Emperor of the United States."
It was an odd thing to be sure; but San Francisco was not
devoid of characters in the 19th Century. A more subtle oddity
was that he signed it "Norton I." Most royalty use
the first name - Queen Mary, King Charles, Queen Victoria.
That it was also the last time he used his given name, Joshua,
would be the clue to what turned a successful businessmen
into one of the most colorful characters of San Francisco
Joshua Abraham Norton simply did not believe he was
the son of John and Sarah Norton. From his youngest days,
Norton believed he was of royal blood, a member of the Bourbon
family of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, guillotined in 1792
in the French Revolution.
The brutality of the revolution and the fall of Napoleon
Bonaparte led to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy with
King Louis XVIII in 1814. Because the French had declared
war on Britain, the English now supported the restoration.
Many Brits named their children after French royals. Norton's
parents named their first son Philip, the third son Louis
and the first daughter Louisa.
In Norton's mind, however, the fact that his name was Joshua
- Jewish, not French - convinced him that he was given to
the Norton family to protect his identity as a Bourbon. At
the time, there were dozens of pretenders who claimed to be
children of royalty who were given to commoners to protect
them from assassination by revolutionaries. In virtually every
case, these claims proved to be hoaxes.
But in San Francisco, the reign of Emperor Norton I was to
begin. In October 1859, Norton issued another proclamation
to the Bulletin:
"It is represented to us that the universal suffrage,
as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud
and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the
public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly
occurring, caused 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 to by paying
his pro rata of the expense of government - in consequence
of which, WE do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore
abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of
all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of
this city on the first of February next, and then and there
take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained
Not surprisingly, Congress did not comply. Norton ordered
General Winfield Scott, Commander of the Union Armies, to
"clear the halls." General Scott did not comply
On February 1, 1860, the date Norton scheduled for parties
to meet in his first proclamation, The Bulletin humorously
urged folks to get there early for a good seat. But when Emperor
Norton arrived at the Assembly Hall , the doors
were locked; the hall dark; nary a soul was there.
The Bulletin did publish a bit of Norton's prepared
speech: "Taking all of these circumstances into consideration,
and the internal dissensions on Slavery, we are certain that
nothing will save the nation from utter ruin except an absolute
monarchy under the supervision and authority of an independent
Emperor." In May, 1860, Norton ordered the Republic of
the United States to be dissolved for an "Absolute Monarchy."
Within a few months Norton abolished the California State
Supreme Court. He fired Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia
for hanging abolitionist John Brown and replaced him with
Governor John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky.
By 1861, Norton's legend was growing. Norton the First, a
play, debuted on a San Francisco stage. While he probably
would not have wanted to attend that play, one of the best
seats at the theaters was always reserved on opening night
for Norton. Playgoers applauded and the orchestra played a
fanfare upon his arrival.
Politicians courted him; to show him disrespect would be
to lose votes. In 1867, an overzealous policeman named Armand
Barbier created a major civic uproar by arresting Norton "for
involuntary treatment of a mental disorder." Newspaper
editorials blasted the police. Police Chief Patrick Crowley
released Norton, with his apology, and from then all police
officers would salute Norton when he passed them on the street.
When Napoleon III, nephew of the first Napoleon, invaded
Mexico in 1862, the Emperor added a new title: "Protector
of Mexico." There is no evidence Norton ever stepped
foot in Mexico.
In 1869, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties.
And, in 1872, he issued the following edict:
"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."
The Newspapers Role in Creating the Emperor
While the Bulletin stayed true to Norton's actual
proclamations, The Daily Alta California quickly realized
a potential bonanza. Unlike today, most cities had several
newspapers in the late 1800s - San Francisco had at least
five  fiercely competitive papers. Anything that
made a good story sold papers and Norton was the quintessential
good story. The Alta California began printing phony
proclamations from the Emperor. San Franciscans would submit
phony proclamations to push a political point of view, or
to make fun of the Emperor.
One writer who sympathized with the Emperor was a reporter
for the Daily Morning Call named Samuel Langhorne Clemens,
who, while in San Francisco in 1864, adopted the pen name
of Mark Twain. Twain would from time to time include Emperor
Norton in his column. He wrote of Norton: "O dear, it
was always a painful thing for me to see the Emperor begging,
for although nobody else believed he was an emperor, he believed
Reporters learned very quickly that associating Emperor Norton
with a restaurant or a clothing store would generate free
publicity for the merchant and free food and clothing for
the reporter. And businesses quickly learned that a bribe
to the editors could also get you some publicity if Emperor
Norton was involved. One business advertised in the papers:
"Gentleman's Outfitters to His Imperial Majesty."
Restaurants claimed Emperor Norton as a patron. A tavern posted
a window sign that said "Fine wines and spirituous liquors
by Appointment to his Majesty, Norton I." Rarely was
But it was a sketch artist/cartoonist named Edward Jump who
created the greatest myth about Emperor Norton. Many believe
that San Francisco's two great canine heroes, Bummer
and Lazarus, belonged to Norton. Jump drew a picture of
Norton standing at a buffet table with the two dogs standing
beside him. Norton became enraged, and broke his walking stick
on the window of a stationery store in which the picture was
The Real Life of the Emperor
In reality, Norton was now living off the kindness of his
former society friends. He was bone thin, with raggedy clothes.
Norton would take their help of the occasional 50 cent piece,
but to save face, he simply referred to it as a tax, and recorded
his tax collections in a notebook.
In pawnshops, Norton could afford the blue tunic and soft
cap (called a kepi) left behind by Union deserters who joined
the Confederacy, which to him would be suitable for an Emperor.
To increase his royal splendor, he put tarnished epaulets
on his shoulders, and wore a beaver hat with a plume of peacock
and ostrich features, and a sword and walking stick at his
In 1863, Norton took a room in the Eureka Lodgings, a flophouse
at 624 Commercial Street, between Montgomery and Kearny .
He paid 50 cents a night for the next 17 years. His room was
nine-feet by six-feet, with an iron cot with rickety springs,
a chair, a sagging couch with soiled upholstering, a washbasin,
and a night table. There was no closet. He hung his clothes
on "ten-penny" nails in the wall. Logically, he
was attracted to royalty. Lithographs of Queen Victoria of
England, Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and
two other royal widows were on his walls.
The official United States Census taker in 1870 recorded
the presence of Norton. In the column marked occupation was
the entry: "emperor." In the column that explained
why Norton was not eligible to vote, he did not choose the
option of foreigner. He chose the option of "insane."
His days followed a regular pattern. He would dress in his
uniform, pay the daily rent, and walk next door to the Empire
House to read the newspapers. He then walked a block and a
half to Portsmouth Square, where he would sit with his friends
on park benches.
When Old St. Mary's church bells signaled noon, the Emperor
would go to the Bank Exchange  for his lunch. Norton
was sometimes criticized, sometimes admired for bumming free
lunches in the taverns. But most taverns served a free lunch
for the mere purchase of a drink. At the Bank Exchange, you
could buy a Brandy Smash for 25 cents and get a free lunch
of soup, salmon, roast beef, potatoes, tomatoes, crackers,
bread and butter and cheese.
His afternoons would be spent at the Mechanic's Library on
Post Street, reading books, playing chess, and writing proclamations
on the Institute's handsomely engraved stationery.
Norton believed he had certain responsibilities as Emperor,
so he went to church every Sunday - Old St. Mary's one week
and the First Unitarian Church another. On Saturday, he went
to Temple Emanu-El. He told the Reverend O. P. Fitzgerald:
"I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality
by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend
them all in turn." But he threatened to create a state
church if the preachers continued to use the pulpit for civil
war political rants.
He rode free on all the city's ferries and streetcars. Leland
Stanford, President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave
Norton a free pass in California to offset his reputation
as a greedy "robber baron." Norton used that free
pass to attend sessions of the state legislature, and to review
military troops around the Bay Area.
The Emperor as a National Character
Norton's fame would spread throughout the U.S. in the 1870's.
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 connected
America from Atlantic to Pacific, reducing a six-month journey
by wagon or ship to only seven days. Now San Francisco was
a tourist destination. Many knew about the Emperor from travel
books and newspapers. When journalists from newspapers throughout
the United States arrived to see and write about the city,
they were unimpressed with Golden Gate Park, the zoo, the
seals and sea lions. They preferred to write about Emperor
In 1876, Don Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, visited San
Francisco and asked to meet the Emperor of the United States.
They met at a royal suite at the newly opened Palace Hotel
and talked for more than an hour.
Benjamin Lloyd, in his book Lights and Shades in San Francisco
let the tourists know that "He will talk very readily
upon any subject, and his opinions are usually very correct,
except when relating to himself. He is more familiar with
history than the ordinary citizen, and his scientific knowledge,
although sometimes mixed, is considerable."
And now just about every store in San Francisco had a sign
saying "By Appointment to Norton I," and merchants
made a killing selling picture postcards of the Emperor, Emperor
Norton dolls complete with plumed hat, Emperor Norton cigars
with his portrait on the label, and colored lithographs suitable
Several cities tried to lure him away by sending him a gift
of his favorite implement - a walking stick. Portland, Oregon
sent an especially elaborate one called the Serpent Scepter,
with a mahogany handle carved in the shape of a human hand
grasping a snake. It was signed "from his faithful web-footed
But the press was also ridiculing his threadbare clothes.
The Evening Express in Los Angeles called His Majesty
"a walking travesty upon San Francisco's shoddy spirit."
The local press, stung by the criticism, raised an outcry
and the Board of Supervisors voted to buy the Emperor an appropriate
Norton began issuing promissory notes that he called "Imperial
Treasury Bond Certificates" in denominations of 50 cents
to 10 dollars. He sold them to tourists and locals alike.
Norton inscribed the notes with a promise they would be due
and payable with 7% interest in the year of 1880. Of course,
no one believed that. The real value was in the signature
- a great souvenir of a visit to San Francisco.
Madness or Genius?
But his madness did not always hide his genius. Because the
Transcontinental Railroad's western terminus was Oakland,
many feared that Oakland would eclipse San Francisco as the
major city of the west. The Emperor had a solution. He issued
this proclamation in 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 navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco.
II. That the Central Pacific Railroad Company be granted
franchises to lay down tracks and run cars from Telegraph
Hill and along the city front to Mission Bay".
How prescient was Emperor Norton? 64 years later, the San
Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge opened, a suspension bridge that
passes through what we today call Yerba Buena Island, but
in 1872 was Goat Island. The double decked freeway that once
lined the Embarcadero from the foot of Broadway (at the base
of Telegraph Hill) south to Mission Bay was officially part
of the bridge!
Later in 1872, he also ordered that a survey to evaluate
whether a bridge or a tunnel under the Bay would be
the best solution. His suggested route was roughly that of
He called upon the other leaders of the world to join him
in forming a league of nations where disputes could be resolved.
Ironically, when such a league was permanently formed - The
United Nations - it was founded in Norton's own San Francisco
Emperor Norton in 1876
The Bancroft Library. University of California,
for larger view
And now it was time to think about what had been missing
all these years - an Empress. He was 63 years old when he
became infatuated with a 16 year old high school girl graduate
named Minnie Wakeman, who was described as "a tall, beautiful
creature who had lovely dark blue eyes with fringed lashes
and long curls that were the admiration of the whole school."
Norton wrote her a note that said: "My dear Miss Wakeman.
In arranging for my Empress, I shall be delighted if you will
permit me to make use of your name. Should you be willing,
please let me know, but keep your own secret. It is safer
that way, I think." He signed it - "Your devoted
loving friend, The Emperor." Unfortunately, Norton received
a note thanking his majesty for graciously thinking her worthy
of his attentions, but informing him that she was already
engaged. There would be no Empress for the Emperor.
Le Roi Est Mort
The evening of January 8, 1880, was cold and rainy, as January
days are so often in San Francisco. The Emperor was walking
up California Street towards Nob Hill to attend the regular
monthly debate of the Hastings Society at the Academy of Natural
Sciences. As he neared Old St. Mary's Church, Norton staggered
a bit, then slumped to the sidewalk. The reign of Norton I,
Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, expired
with his final breath.
As a crowd gathered, the police moved his body to the city
morgue. His clothes were as disheveled as always, and he had
only a few coins on him - a gold piece worth $2.50, $3 in
silver, and a French franc dated 1828, bearing the face of
Charles X, France's last Bourbon king. He had a bundle of
his 50 cent imperial treasury notes, dated for repayment in
1890. He intended to exchange these notes for his original
notes, due and payable this very month, which he could not
The next morning, the headline in the Chronicle screamed:
"Le Roi Est Mort" (The King is dead). The Alta
California printed a 34-inch story on the same day it
devoted all of 38 words - a mere 4-lines of type - from the
inaugural speech of George C. Perkins, newly elected Governor
The leading papers of Cleveland, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia,
and Portland, reported his death. The Cincinnati Enquirer
devoted 16 inches, under a headline that said, in part, "An
emperor without enemies, a king without a kingdom, supported
in life by the willing tribute of a free people."
At his home in Hartford, Connecticut, Mark Twain read of
the Emperor's death in the New York Times. He sadly wrote
to a good friend and Editor of the Atlantic Monthly,
William Dean Howells: "What an odd thing it is that neither
Frank Soule, nor Charley Warren Stoddard, nor I, nor Bret
Harte, the Immortal Bilk, nor any other professionally literary
person in San Francisco has ever "written up" the
Emperor Norton." He would add: "O dear, it was always
a painful thing for me to see the Emperor begging, for although
nobody else believed he was an emperor, he believed it."
10,000 people came to see Emperor Norton lying in state at
the morgue. Jimmy Bowman, of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote.
"The visitors included all classes from the capitalist
to the pauper, the clergyman and the pickpocket, well dressed
ladies, the bowed with age, and the prattling child."
James Eastland, President of the Pacific Club, was one of
the leading businessmen who knew Norton in the early years.
They were both members of the Freemasons. Eastland could not
envision Norton buried in a pauper's grave. He raised all
the money deemed necessary from his club for a funeral fit
for an Emperor and burial at the Masonic Cemetery .
A funeral cortege followed Norton's body from the morgue
to the cemetery that was two miles long. As they lay his body
into the ground, the world grew dark with that phenomenon
of infrequent occurrence, a total eclipse of the sun.
Throughout San Francisco there are small tributes to Emperor
Norton. A group called E Clampus Vitus, established to help
widows and orphans of silver miners of the Comstock Lode era
(1859-1875). Today, it's a group that celebrates the oddest
historic occurrences of California. The group placed a plaque
to honor him on the entrance on the Transbay Terminal on Mission
Street. They also celebrate his birthday every year with a
great party. The Harbor Emperor is a ferry with a carved Emperor
Norton masthead, there is an Emperor Norton Inn, and a few
other sites bear his name.
Emperor Norton is remembered in literature. In The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain created the character
of "the king" based on Norton. Robert Louis Stevenson
made Norton a character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker.
The stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, Isobel Field,
wrote about Norton in her book entitled This Life I've
Loved: "He was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately
found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city
in the world, the idea being 'let him be emperor if he wants
to.' San Francisco played the game with him."
 Though Lick dressed in rags, his riches would one day
build Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton in Santa Clara
County and bring the Conservatory of Flowers to Golden Gate
 In 1853, a 3-story brick and concrete building would be
constructed on the same site for Lucas, Turner and Company
Bank. William Tecumseh Sherman ran the bank from 1853 to 1857.
Nicknamed "Sherman's Bank," the building is still
there today, part of the Jackson Square Historic District.
Sherman became the general made infamous by his march to the
sea in the Civil War that resulted in the burning of Atlanta.
 The Musical Hall referenced in the first proclamation
was Platt's Music Hall, which had burned down a few days earlier.
The meeting was "moved" to the Assembly Hall.
 Daily Alta California (1849-1891); Daily Evening Bulletin
(1855-1929); Daily Morning Call (1856-1965);The Daily Morning
and Evening Chronicle (1868-present); and the Daily Examiner
 Tiny Grabhorn Park is there today, next to the Pacific
Heritage Museum, in the building that was the first San Francisco
Mint and later a Sub-Treasury Building. The Morning Call was
located next door, where Mark Twain worked.
 The Bank Exchange was located where the Transamerica Pyramid
is today, in a building known as the Montgomery Block (1853-1958),
and nicknamed the "Monkey Block."
 In 1934, San Francisco closed all its cemeteries to make
more space available for the living. His casket was relocated
to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma. He would not be forgotten.
He was re-interred with civic and military honors. The San
Francisco Municipal band played, the 3rd Battalion of the
159th Infantry fired 3 volleys in salute, and a bugler played
Bibliography and Other Sources
William Drury: Norton I, Emperor of the United States
(Dodd, Mead, New York, 1986)
Malcolm E. Barker: Bummer & Lazarus: San Francisco's
Famous Dogs (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1984