Traditionalists decry the City of San Francisco largely due to its historical role of being a haven for non-conformists, free-thinkers, and eccentrics. There are a lot of us people with personalities like these who would love to live in the City by the Bay, but cannot afford its exhorbitant cost of living.
Even though we do not live there, we like to ponder the history of the most beautiful city in the US. We sometimes fantasize about the era following the end of the Mexican-American War when California was annexed to the United States. Our image of San Francisco as the cultural center of the Wild West becomes vivid when we think of the mid-19th century. Some of this mythology was true.
Joshua Abraham Norton was probably the most colorful character from that time. He was born around 1818 to a Jewish couple from South Africa, John and Sarah Norton. By 1848, Norton’s father, mother, and his two brothers had died. He inherited the remainder of his father’s estate, worth a tidy $40,000, a small fortune, in those days.
In 1849, Norton, like hundreds of thousands of other people was attracted to the San Francisco area hoping to make it big during the California Gold Rush. He sailed to the Bay Area and soon became the “Merchant with the Midas Touch”.
Norton started Joshua Norton & Company in a small adobe brick cottage at the corner of Montgomery and Jackson Streets. He bought an abandoned ship in Yerba Buena Cove to store his inventory.
His cottage was destroyed in a major city fire in 1851, so he relocated to a more sturdy office building on Battery Street. The building also contained the offices of influential people like the British Consul. This move put Norton in the position of socializing with San Francisco’s social big wigs. Norton’s other acquisitions included land, on which, he started a cigar factory, a rice mill, and built a small office building.
His holdings became more valuable when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company opened their warehouse and passenger terminal in his neighborhood. Norton increased his holdings by purchasing development lots on North Beach. Within a year, Norton’s worth was an estimated $250,000 (over $5,000,000 in 2016 value).
Then Norton made a terrible mistake. He was conned into a scheme to corner the area’s rice market. However, the rice market plummeted, and he could barely give away his inventory of the grain. He and many of the businessmen who joined the scheme were caught up for several years in lawsuits.
By 1856, the boom years of the Gold Rush had ended. There were over-supplies of everything in the City. Local markets crashed, cargoes wasted away on the wharves, businesses shuttered, banks failed, bankruptcy was common. San Francisco, herself, was almost ruined. The same fate awaited Norton. His lifestyle changed from living in the most elite hotels down to the run-down tenaments. Then, he simply disappeared from the area.
In 1859, Norton returned to San Francisco. On September 17th, Norton entered the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and handed a letter to editor George Fitch. The next day’s edition of the newspaper ran the headline, “Have We An Emperor Among Us?” It was followed by a news story and a 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. (Signed) Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”
The proclamation was fueled by Norton’s observations that the US Government was inefficient and reeked of self-interest and corruption. Add to this, the State of California was in the center of the debate over the nation’s slavery issue. The nation was on the verge of civil warfare.
Emperor Norton I believed he was now in charge. In October, Norton released 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.”
The citizens of San Francisco were soon caught up in the drama regarding their new Emperor. He went about his daily routine decked out in a blue and red uniform garnished with brass buttons and braiding. He wore a tall beaver skin hat with a plume of feathers tucked into the band. A wooden staff and a long, curved sword finished his ensemble.
Norton the First was first tolerated, then humored, and finally embraced by the citizens of the City. Over the next two decades, he had the run of the town. He could eat for free at any cafe, saloon or eatery. His boarding house room rent was paid for by the Freemasons, who had earlier cancelled his membership. For those times when Norton needed cold, hard cash, he simply ordered a stack of “Imperial Bond Certificates” to be printed. The entire City of San Francisco honored Norton’s money when he presented it for payment.
Norton became a welcome celebrity everywhere in town. Politicians curried his favor, because to insult the Emperor was political suicide. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that stipulated Norton’s wardrobe must be reviewed. The City Charter required that the city must pay for a new uniform each year.
Following an incident that questioned the validity of his money while riding the train between San Francisco and Sacramento, the Central Pacific Railroad issued Norton a free boarding pass for life.
Among Norton’s storied “accomplishments” was the dissolution of the US Congress, the abolition of the California Supreme Court for a perceived slight, and the “ousting” of Virginia Governor Henry Wise for sentencing abolitionist John Brown to be hanged. In 1860, Emperor Norton ordered the Republic of the United States be dissolved in favor of his Absolute Monarchy. In 1869, his crowning “achievement” was the “abolition” of the Democratic and Republican parties.
He was a frequent correspondent of German Kaiser Wilhelm I and Russian Tsar Alexander III to advise them on how to more effectively rule their empires. He also wrote to President Abraham Lincoln to urge him to marry Britain’s Queen Victoria in order to keep the British Empire on the side of the Union in the Civil War. There is no record of any Presidential reply to this suggestion.
True San Franciscans love this all important proclamation: “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 $25.”
Emperor Norton is noted for having performed at least one act of courageous defense of minorities. A gang of vigilante racist thugs was threatening harm to a small group of Chinese. Norton stood between the two factions. With a bowed head, he recited the “Lord’s Prayer”. The thugs left in shame without violence.
One writer who appreciated Emperor Norton was a reporter for the San Francisco Call newspaper, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). He wrote the “epitaph” for one of Norton’s pet dogs. “He died full of years and honor and disease and fleas.” A little known fact: Mark Twain’s character of the king in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was inspired by publicity about Emperor Norton.
On the cold, rainy evening of January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton was walking up California Street to Nob Hill to attend the monthly debate of the Hastings Society. He collapsed and died on the sidewalk. 10,000 people came to see the Emperor lying in state. Major newspapers across the US published tributes penned by the important writers of the day, including Mark Twain. The day after the Emperor’s funeral, San Franciscans witnessed a total solar eclipse.
Here’s an interesting post script: In one of the Emperor’s proclamations, he called for the creation of an international “League of Nations” through which, international disputes could be resolved. Of course, the actual League of Nations is a more serious chapter of our history.
(Thanks for background information from the San Francisco County, California Archives and the San Francisco Public Library.)
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Mark Twain: “It is human nature to yearn to be what we were never intended for. It is singular, but it is so. I wanted to be a pilot or a preacher, & I was about as well calculated for either as is poor Emperor Norton for Chief Justice of the United States.”