Did you know that the United States once had an emperor? No, not the King of England. Not in pre-colonial days. We're not talking about George Washington or any of the founding fathers. No, it was more recent than you may think. On September 17, 1859 an eccentric but rational man by the name of Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in San Francisco.

You are probably thinking any nut can proclaim anything but who would care? What made the difference in Emperor Norton's case was that during the early years of the California gold rush he was a very successful business man in San Francisco who lost his fortune in a bad business deal. But more notably the newspapers actually published his initial proclamation and the others that followed.  

San Franciscans’ had a fondness for the Emperor. This may be explained partly by the fact that, in addition to issuing Proclamations on weighty matters of state and human rights, he did not forget about the common man's basic, everyday needs. If Norton found that streets were not properly maintained, or taxes were too high, he issued Proclamations on these things too.

Here are few ways in which he was recognized, not just as entertainment at the expense of someone down on his luck, but as a contributor to local culture and commerce of San Francisco in the mid to late 1800s.

  • The newspapers printed his proclamations.
  • Martin and Horton's, a bar or eatery, gave him a free daily lunch in exchange for the publicity he brought them.
  • Nearly every store in San Francisco displayed a sign, "By appointment of Norton I".
  • He rode free on all city's ferries and streetcars.
  • Leland Stanford, President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave Norton a free railroad pass which he used to attend sessions of the state legislature in Sacramento, and to review the military troops around the Bay Area. Really? Yes.
  • After a mistaken arrest for vagrancy, all police officers saluted Norton when he passed on the street.
  • He was known outside of San Francisco and California from travel books and newspapers. Journalists from around the U.S. Would write about him when visiting San Francisco.
  • In 1872 he issued three proclamations to build a bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco. This is the reason why there have been calls over the years to name the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton, the most recent in 2013.
  • In 1876 the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, visited San Francisco and asked to meet Emperor Norton at his suite in the Palace Hotel.
  • When he died, on January 8, 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on the front page. Another San Francisco paper, Alta California, printed a 34 column inch story about the Emperor. And, 10,000 people came to see him lying in state at the morgue.

It didn't end there. In 1934 Norton's casket was moved to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Coloma where he was re-interred with civic and military honors. The San Francisco Municipal band played, the Mayor of San Francisco laid a wreath, the 3rd Battalion of the 159th Infantry fired three volleys in salute, and a bugler played taps. His prominent tombstone reads:

Norton I
Emperor of the United States
and
Protector of Mexico
Joshua A. Norton
1819 - 1880

Was Emperor Norton simply a mentally ill man who lost his fortune and became a delusional beggar? Or, was he ahead of his time by becoming what we would now call a “street artist” as a means to support himself? Maybe a little of both? Although some degree of mental illness seems apparent, we don't really know for sure. No matter which, he was obviously a complex, interesting character whose story and legend lives on today. 

Norton's legacy is strong. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many scholars say Mark Twain created the character of "the king" based on Norton. Norton was an actual character in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1892 novel, The Wrecker. Even though he died 135 years ago, his life continues to be revived through history expos, magazine articles, and blog posts. Even the Wall Street Journal published an article recently about the Emperor and his fans in San Francisco who are trying to preserve his legacy.