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Emperor Norton

Entry Author: Peter Moylan

Links to chapters:

Joshua Norton, San Francisco and the Gold Rush

Norton's World Collapses
The Emperor Appears
The Newspapers Role in Creating the Emperor
The Real Life of the Emperor
The Emperor as a National Character
Madness or Genius?
Le Roi Est Mort
Bibliography 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 Gold Rush

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 [1]. 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 [2] 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 business.

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

Norton I. Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico.

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley
Click here 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 history.

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 of."

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 either.

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 [3], 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 [4] 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 it."

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 this true.

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 displayed.

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 side.

In 1863, Norton took a room in the Eureka Lodgings, a flophouse at 624 Commercial Street, between Montgomery and Kearny [5]. 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 [6] 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 Norton.

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 for framing.

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 subjects."

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 outfit.

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 today's BART.

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 in 1945.

Old Emperor Norton in 1876

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.
Click here 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 have honored.

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 of California.

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 [7].

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."

Notes:

[1] 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 Park.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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 (1865-present).

[5] 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.

[6] 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."

[7] 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 taps.

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 and 2001)

QUICK FACTS

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Priorslee (now Telford), Shropshire, England on January 17, 1811
In 1849, Norton was lured to San Francisco by the dream of fortunes to be made in the Gold Rush
Emperor Norton died January 8, 1880 in San Francisco

RELATED INFORMATION

> Bummer and Lazarus
> Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company

OUTSIDE RESOURCES

+ Emperor Norton
+ Highlights from the Emperor's reign

 

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