Hidden History

The Original San Francisco Eccentric

A nineteenth century gold rusher built a fortune, lost it all, then declared himself Emperor of the United States — and got all of San Francisco to play along.

The Original San Francisco Eccentric

‘The Emperor is Dead’ screamed the front-page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 9, 1880. “On the reeking pavement,” the ensuing obituary lamented, “in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States, departed this life.”

If you were to believe the history books and the immigration records, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in 1818 in the London borough of Deptford to parents John and Sarah. Two years later, he and his young Jewish family disembarked from the vessel La Belle Alliance at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa as part of the group now referred to as the “1820 Settlers” — Africa’s first British colonialists.

But if you were to instead believe the dubious final words of the man himself, Joshua Abraham Norton was a crown prince to the throne of France; the grandchild of royal refugees who had fled from the blood-soaked guillotines of the revolution; a descendant of King Henry IV and the great House of Bourbon. Norton claimed to have fled to Cape Town to escape certain assassination. Though there is no worldly proof that he had any blood running through his veins other than that of Jewish-British emigrants, Norton, through his sixty-one years of mortal existence, maintained a story of grandeur.

In the late afternoon of November 23, 1849, the Franzeska departed South Africa for San Francisco, with thirty-one-year-old Joshua Norton among the “forty-niners” heeding the call of fortune crammed inside its hull. Nine thousand miles away in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the gold rush was in full swing. Some 300,000 fortune hunters bolted for the Golden State.

Norton had a $40,000 inheritance in his portmanteau, left to him by his father as the sole heir following the death of his parents and two brothers from various causes.

As the ship neared its destination, Norton marveled at the glory of the Golden Gate: the herds of deer galloping through the fields near the edges of both shores; the huts, tents and small buildings at the base of the Gate mountain; and the beauty of the bay as it opened up before him. A forest of crooked masts cluttered the wharf. In “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” biographer William Drury describes over four hundred ships, schooners and brigs all rusted at the anchor, abandoned by their crews and officers for the promised fortune of the gold rush. The ships bobbed up and down in the water like floating tombstones. The juxtaposition was jarring to Norton, the natural magnificence offset by the greed and the restlessness.

Norton wasn’t interested in panning for gold, however. Using some of his inheritance, he founded Joshua Norton & Company, General Merchants alongside a young shipping clerk from Baltimore named Peter Robertson. The two found a modest mud-brick cottage near the water in San Francisco and set up a shop selling panning equipment to other forty-niners. Norton also bought an old ship named Genessee that was anchored in Yerba Buena Cove and used it to house surplus merchandise.

Norton acquired parcels of land on the corners of Sansome and Jackson, where he opened a cigar factory, built a small wood-framed office building and opened the first rice mill on the Pacific coast, a primitive affair powered by a mule circling a ship wheel. He bought several lots by Rincon Point, where the value of land increased dramatically when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company built a passenger terminal and warehouse nearby. Norton was making good use of his father’s $40,000: He hobnobbed with San Francisco’s business and social elite and was a charter member of the Occidental Lodge #22 of the Freemasons. By 1852, only three short years since his arrival in San Francisco, his assets were estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars ($5 million today): a fortune fit for a Bourbon prince. But he still wanted more.

San Francisco, along with Norton’s mill, received the majority of their rice shipments from China. But when famine struck China late in 1852, the Chinese government put a strict ban on all rice exporting. In America, scarcity drove the price from four cents a pound up to thirty-six. Norton’s rice mill mule ceased to plod. There was no rice to be had. That’s when a merchant named Willy Sillem offered Norton an opportunity to corner the rice market once and for all. Sillem represented the Ruiz Brothers, who owned a ship called the Glyde, which had been sitting in the harbor, unable to dock because of bad weather, with 200,000 pounds of Peruvian rice in its hull. Sillem offered Norton the entire load for $25,000, a steep discount at about twelve cents per pound. Norton told his stockman on the Genessee to clear the deck of the ship to make room for the rice. The deal was done.

The next day, a rival ship came into port with 218 barrels full of Peruvian rice. The day after that, another ship arrived with 200,000 more pounds. Then a third sailed in with over 250,000 pounds of more Peruvian rice. The barrels just kept coming. When the dust had settled, the retail price of rice had plummeted to three cents per pound — even less than it was before the Chinese famine. A lengthy legal battle with the Ruiz Brothers over the purchase ate into whatever capital he had left in the bank. Norton was financially ruined. His investment lots were foreclosed and his businesses went bankrupt. He was suspended from the Masonic lodge because he failed to pay his dues. Over the course of the next few years, Norton flitted from failed business to failed business.

According to the SF Museum and Historical Society’s online encyclopedia, between 1857 and 1858, Norton placed advertisements in the Alta, a local California paper, for products he had been consigned to sell — some people still trusted him with their goods, it seemed, allowing him to eke out a meager living. One day it was barley. Another it was boots, or coffee or beans. The city directory shows an address change for Norton around this time. He moved to 255 Kearny Street, where a Mrs. Carswell operated a cheap, working-class lodging house. The advertisements in the Alta began to appear less frequently until they stopped appearing at all. Joshua Norton disappeared.

“Have We An Emperor Among Us?” inquired the headline of the evening issue of The San Francisco Bulletin on September 18, 1859. Beneath the headline, editor George Fitch wrote, “This forenoon, a well-dressed and serious-looking man entered our office and quietly left the following document, which he respectfully requested we would examine and insert in the Bulletin. Promising him to look at it, he politely retired without saying anything further. Here is the paper:

‘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.

– Norton I, Emperor of the United States.’”

It came out of nowhere. Norton had no known psychiatric incapacities. As a child, he had been subject to flights of fancy, sure. As a young boy in Cape Town, he became enamored with a local eccentric known as Old Moses the Moneychanger. Old Moses had been an officer in the garrison and was Captain of the 60th Regiment. But Norton’s glory days were long gone. He had become a misfit. A bum. He sported a faded army uniform, a camel hair cloak and a strange, wide-brimmed hat. Whenever young Norton would pass Old Moses on the streets of Cape Town, he would salute the old nut. Old Moses always returned the salutation. Moses the Moneychanger wasn’t quite insane, but he wasn’t quite right, either. He was suspended, perhaps intentionally, in the gap between conventional and crazy.

But as an adult, Norton had grown up, matured. Among business associates and friends in San Francisco, he often voiced his opinion that America would be better served by an absolute monarchy. But it was idle talk. Just a few years prior to this royal declaration, Norton was a model of capitalist citizenry — a perfect fit for the cesspool of San Francisco during the time of the Gold Rush.

Yet by 1859, San Francisco, much like Norton, had been ruined. The gold rush had ended. The flow from the fields had been reduced to a trickle. The real estate market had collapsed. Businesses had closed up by the handful. Banks had failed and cargo shipments of all kinds rotted away on the wharf. The city had fallen with the man. Together, they nosedived into the abyss.

The “well-dressed” Norton, who Fitch described in the proclamation’s prologue, did not stick around for long. Shortly after the exile’s triumphant return as Emperor, he donned an outfit more fit for a monarch as mad as he: a blue Confederate uniform, supposedly given to him by officers of at the Presidio military base, enhanced with gold-plated epaulettes, a cavalry sword on his hip and a beaver hat on his head adorned with a peacock feather and a rosette. He would often amend his threadbare regalia with a cane or a tri-colored Chinese umbrella. And in this kingly fashion, His Majesty would stroll through the streets of San Francisco inspecting her great many sidewalks, cable cars, public buildings and officers of the law.

In her memoirs, San Francisco socialite Amelia Neville described Norton as a man about town. “During shopping hours,” she wrote, “one saw him in Kearny or Montgomery Street, walking toward some destination which I fancy was never reached, his old army uniform and military cap with its rakish feather worn with an air. A sword hung from his sword belt. The whole town knew him.” The benevolent reign of Emperor Norton, perhaps the only monarch in history to use his surname instead of his given name, had thus begun.

Early in his righteous rule, Norton carried out his first federal act as Emperor: He abolished Congress. The Bulletin was lucky enough to be granted the right to publish yet another proclamation penned by the ragamuffin ruler. “Congress Abolished! Take Notice, The World!” read the headline above the text:

“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.”

– Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”

Congress convened early the following year, in flagrant defiance of its great monarch’s order to disband. The Emperor was furious. Proclamation after proclamation began gracing the pages of the Bulletin. Fitch was eager to publish Norton’s ramblings, as the Emperor’s flair for publicity did wonders for circulation.

Norton demanded the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to clear the Halls of Congress immediately. He formally abolished the Supreme Court of California. And in the summer of 1860, the Emperor took it upon himself to officially dissolve the Republican government and establish an absolute monarchy. “All laws made from here and after this date, either by the National Congress or any State Legislature, shall be null of no effect,” His Majesty stated in yet another stately proclamation — written, no doubt, on the desk in his royal palace: a small, dank room at a run-down hotel on Bush Street called The Metropolitan.

When His Majesty required new additions to his uniform, he would visit the tailor at Hueston & Hastings, a clothing store just east of Union Square. Norton didn’t have to pay, as long as the owners were permitted to enjoy the extra business they received thanks to a poster displayed on the front window that read, “Gentlemen’s Outfitters by Appointment to His Imperial Majesty.”

Lunch counters also took advantage of this form of royal marketing, as did Marcelin Aurignace, a flower vendor out front of City Hall, who pinned a slightly wilted boutonniere on Norton’s royal lapel every morning and nailed a sign to his cart that read, “By Appointment to Norton I.”

The Emperor was becoming a boon to business. Other local newspapers began running forged proclamations after witnessing The Chronicle’s circulation explode. Everyone wanted a piece of the woebegone sovereign.

But Norton’s rule was not always easy. There was, of course, the matter of the Imperial Treasury. The proprietors of The Metropolitan demanded rent from even their most noble of tenants. As a result, the good Emperor implemented a system of somewhat casual taxation. During his daily inspections, Norton would stop the more affluent passersby and “tax” each of them fifty cents, but did so fastidiously, recording each loyal subject’s name and the amount of tax paid. His subjects paid the tax, of course. But why exactly they paid is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they got a kick out of having an Emperor on the streets of San Francisco. Or perhaps it was just pity. It was rumored that in addition to this tax revenue, Norton was also receiving a monthly stipend from his former Masonic brethren at the Occidental Lodge — although they found a way to help without bruising His Majesty’s highborn pride.

Cities far and wide attempted to lure the Emperor away from San Francisco, begging that he make his Realm’s Capital elsewhere. They tried to bribe him by sending him opulent walking canes. William Drury wrote that even the state of Oregon sent Norton a grapevine walking stick “richly ornamented with a gold head ferule… and with a head of mahogany.” He didn’t oblige them, of course. Perhaps he knew, deep down, that he was in the only city that would really tolerate his quirks. A contributor to Scribner’s Monthly described Norton’s San Francisco as the “Elysium of bummers.” Albert Evans, a writer for the Alta, bragged about San Francisco’s affinity for crackpots. “Probably no town of the same size in the world has so many public individuals who have become noted for their peculiarities,” he boasted. “Among some of its leading notorieties we may claim as first on the list the Emperor, Norton I.”

The nearby towns of Marysville, Oroville and Petaluma all pledged their allegiance to the counterfeit Crown. Small plaster statuettes of His Highness were sold in souvenir shops all over San Francisco. A comic opera entitled “An Emperor For A Day” was even staged at the local Tucker’s Hall playhouse. The show, based on the realm’s mad monarch, played nightly to roars of irrepressible laughter. As The Golden Era, a literary journal at the time, reported, “Walter Bray enacts Norton I, making up his part very effectively and clothing the character with is inexhaustible fund of comicalities.” Though front row seats were reserved for the Emperor (as they were in every other theater in town) he did not grace Tucker’s Hall with his presence during the show’s run.

One night, His Royal Highness’s subjects failed to show due deference. Norton had wandered into the Palace Hotel looking for a chair and a newspaper and was ordered off the premises by the naïve proprietor. Norton refused to leave. It was his royal prerogative. Armand Barbier, a local police officer who was somewhat new to town, was ordered to remove the shabby tramp and book him for vagrancy. In the police station at City Hall, a sergeant found a room key and $4.75 in Norton’s pockets, thus proving he was no vagrant. Instead of releasing the Emperor before any further damage was done, the sergeant booked Norton for lunacy.

The following morning, a rather scathing editorial was published by Fitch in The Chronicle. “In what can only be described as the most dastardly of errors, Joshua A. Norton was arrested today,” wrote Fitch. “He is being held on the ludicrous charge of ‘Lunacy.’ Known and loved by all true San Franciscans as Emperor Norton, this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.” The Alta wrote, “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.”

Before the Emperor could even be judged by the commissioner of lunacy, the chief of police, Patrick Crowley, released the monarch with his sincerest apology and ordered that from then on, all police officers would be required to salute His Majesty when he passed them on the street. Norton forgave young Barbier, granting him a royal pardon. The Emperor was, after all, a kind, God-fearing citizen. He attended church every Sunday at either St. Mary’s or the First Unitarian Church, as well as synagogue every Saturday at Temple Emanu-El. “I think it my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church,” he once said to Rev. O.P. Fitzgerald, a Methodist minister, “and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”

Mark Twain, who at the time was a working reporter in San Francisco by the name of Samuel Clemens, recalled one Sunday morning when Norton failed to attend mass. “The nobility were represented by his Grace the Duke of Benicia, the Countess of San Jose, Lord Bless you, Lord Geeminy, and many others whose titles and whose faces have passed from my memory,” the famously cynical Twain wrote, adding, “Owing to a pressure of imperial business, the Emperor Norton was unable to come.”

In 1872, thirteen glorious years into his reign, Emperor Norton began working to upgrade the capital of his vast realm. He ordered that “a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and thence to Telegraph Hill.” According to EmperorNorton.net, he “correctly predicted that only a suspension span bridge would have the strength to span such a large stretch.”

That same year, he also issued a decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of an underwater tunnel connecting the two cities. The suspension bridge and the tunnel were feats of engineering so ambitious at the time that engineers, contractors and respected inventors deemed it laughable. The following century, long after the Emperor’s death, his two visions came into fruition with the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube. In fact, in 1936, when the Bay Bridge was completed, it followed the exact route that Norton had proposed some sixty-four years before. (In 2013, a local San Franciscan launched a petition to have the Bay Bridge officially renamed “The Emperor Norton Bridge” in light of its loopy visionary.)

On the night of January 8, 1880, His Highness was on the way to a Hastings Society Debate at The Academy of Natural Sciences on the corner of California and Dupont. He rarely missed the monthly discussions. The rain was driving hard, but he had raised his Chinese umbrella to block the sheet of downpour. Two doors down from the Academy, Emperor Norton stumbled and collapsed into a heap on the sidewalk. A cable car stopped at the intersection and passengers filtered out and formed a crowd around the breathless Monarch. After nineteen years of rule over the great United States, Norton exited this life and left his loyal subjects to mourn.

Joshua Norton, for all intents and purposes, should have spent the rest of eternity in a cheap pine box in a pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field. But he was an Emperor, a King. Surely he deserved better.

Joseph Eastland agreed. Eastland was the president of the Pacific Club and a charter member of the Freemasons Occidental Lodge #22, the same lodge that Norton belonged to before his fall from grace. Eastman drew up a subscription paper to procure a fund for Norton’s funeral arrangements. The men at the Pacific Club enriched the fund handsomely.

And so, on January 10, Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States, was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery wearing Victorian black-tie, laid peacefully in a fine rosewood casket ordained with silver detailing. A throng of 10,000 loyal subjects, admirers and devotees filled the sidewalks, windows and porches of every single house in town. The funeral cortege that followed the Emperor’s body was two miles long.

It is odd though, that on the night of His Majesty’s death, while he lay inert on the coroner’s slab, morgue employees found a peculiar French franc dated 1828 among the clatter in his purse. The coin bore the face of King Charles X, the last of the French rulers from the House of Bourbon — the house from which Joshua Norton claimed to be descended. Valuable coins tend not to last long in the pockets of paupers. Indeed, a franc is a strange item for a hungry tramp to hold onto so dearly. Then again, it is strange only if you believe the history books and not the Emperor himself.