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San Francisco History Bits: Who Was Emperor Norton?

As a born-and-raised San Francisco native, Liz has long had a fascination with the history of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

Dateline: San Francisco, California

The year was 1859, and a San Francisco eccentric by the name of Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself to be Emperor. "What's that?" you say... Well, read on; it's an entertaining story, and one I'm sure could happen, "only in San Francisco." (Or at least, in the San Francisco of 1859, just ten years after the start of the famous gold rush.)

Joshua Abraham "Emperor" Norton

Emperor Norton in his full regalia

Emperor Norton in his full regalia

Perfect Timing

With the gold flowing out of the Sierra-Nevada range, and business doing well, San Franciscans of the day were in a beneficent mood, and willing to put up with the shenanigans of this self-proclaimed "emperor."

Joshua Norton was a strange character, who originally had several businesses, most of which prospered, but a failed speculation in imported rice did him in, and he ended up on hard times.

It was his indomitable spirit and active imagination that led him into a spot in the history books.

An Impoverished Norton Becomes Emperor

His downfall came at the hands of the supreme court, which ruled against him in a lawsuit over the failed rice fiasco, and he filed bankruptcy. He ended up living in a small rooming house, and never recovered financially.

That did not stop him from dining at the finest restaurants in town and attending all the fine cultural events, all for free.

In the spirit of the times, the citizens of San Francisco humored him, and went along with his charade which began with his proclamation:

"At the peremptory request and desire 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 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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."

A few years later, he would add, "Protector of Mexico" to his grand title.

Re-enactment of Norton's Proclamation

His Own Currency

Some called him a crackpot; others insane, but he was nonetheless widely admired and humored in his eccentricities.

He even issued his own currency to pay for his meals. Restaurateurs took it as a matter of pride to have served him, and took to hanging placards reading,

"By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I of the United States"

They would gladly accept his self-printed money, which was made up in denominations ranging from fifty cents to ten dollars.

Norton was an honored guest at plays, where a seat was always reserved for him. He did not have to request that; you simply did not open a play without reserving a seat for His Majesty.

To be paid by a note from "The Emperor's Treasury," was regarded as an honor, and establishments would often frame these.

Norton's Ten-Dollar Note

An image of an actual Emperor Norton $10 note

An image of an actual Emperor Norton $10 note

Abolishing Congress

Emperor Norton saw the government as corrupt, and no doubt it was, on many counts. (Are things so different today?) He thought Congress should be abolished, and issued a royal edict, calling for the Army to forcibly remove the members of congress. (They ignored his request.)

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His dissatisfaction with government no doubt stemmed from his loss of the lawsuit which caused his bankruptcy.

Though most of his requests, orders, and edicts were ignored, the citizens nonetheless delighted in his brand of political activism. He would parade around the City in a donated uniform, "inspecting" the streets, the cable cars, and what have you, and any faults he found were duly reported to the police or the supervisors.

So loved was he, that when his original uniform began to look worn and decrepit, the board of supervisors provided him with a new one.

His many pronouncements were always published in the newspapers of the day, (though some papers were suspect of inventing some for their own purposes).

Businesses considered it an honor to be paid by a note from the "Emperor's" own treasury.


Whatever his eccentricities, some of his proclamations were realized in years long after his death.

Two of the things he called for were a bridge across the bay, and a tunnel under the bay.

Both were realized, first the building of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1933, and in 1969, the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which does, indeed, travel in a tube (Norton's "tunnel") under San Francisco Bay.

A plaque honoring his contribution to the concept of the Bay Bridge is mounted at the Trans-Bay Terminal in San Francisco

A plaque honoring his contribution to the concept of the Bay Bridge is mounted at the Trans-Bay Terminal in San Francisco

End of an Era

Sadly, the end of the reign of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States and Protector of Mexico, came in a way rather unfitting to such a noble character.

On January 8, 1880, He collapsed on a street corner in the rain, on his way to attend a lecture, and was dead before help could arrive.

The San Francisco Chronicle headlined, "Le Roi et Mort." (The King is Dead.)

It was estimated that over thirty thousand lined the streets for his funeral procession.

It was a different era; a more sentimental and tolerant time, such as we shall likely never see again.

Photo of the Emperor as seen today in the re-enactment tours.

Photo of the Emperor as seen today in the re-enactment tours.

Go on a Tour With The Emperor Himself!

Walking tour of San Francisco, showcasing the favorite haunts of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I.

Reservations advised.

Address: 333 Post St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Phone:(415) 644-8513

Closed Monday through Wednesday and Fridays.

Downtown San Francisco Tours:

Thursday 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 2:30 – 5:30 pm

Saturday 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 2:30 – 5:30 pm

Meet at Union Square

Waterfront Time Machine:

Sunday 11:00 a.m.; meet in front of Ferry Building

Website: Emperor Norton Tours

© 2014 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 24, 2014:

Hello, Tom,

Yes, I agree--the abolition of Congress is a suggestion that comes up every so often, though I'm not certain of the Emperor's timing on the matter vis-a-vis any elections of the day.

Glad you liked the article; thanks for stopping by and adding to the commentary.

Tom rubenoff from United States on February 24, 2014:

Fascinating. Abolishing Congress seems to be a perennial idea that pops up like daisies right on cue for every election. Yet since some of the other proclamations of The Emperor have come true, perhaps this, too, awaits us in our future. I guess we can only wait and see what wonders life has in store.

Thanks for this well-written and entertaining article.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 22, 2014:

Hello, DDE,

Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks much for the votes!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 22, 2014:

Emperor Norton: Who Was He? is an interesting and informative hub Voted up and Useful.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 19, 2014:

LOL, BigBlue54--That is funny! Thanks for sharing!

BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on February 19, 2014:

I meant to mention a story I came across a couple of years ago about a man in France who regularly gatecrashes some of the top banquettes in France, including those for the French president. It became such a regular occurrence that an unofficial place was set out for him and though officials knew it was him they went through the ritual of him not being on the list and finally letting him in. I seem to remember that the then president François Mitterrand actually knew of this arrangement but allowed it to go on.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 18, 2014:

Hi, Suzanne!

Yes, he was quite the character. I sometimes feel I was born 100 years too late. What a hoot it would have been to actually meet such characters such as the "Emperor" and Mark Twain (who actually based a character in one of his stories upon Norton).

Thanks very much for the votes! I'm delighted you got such a kick out of this hub.

Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on February 18, 2014:

Haha, had to laugh while reading this as it reminds me of my ex boyfriend, but unfortunately he isn't dead yet. Certainly Emperor Norton seems to have been quite the colourful character! Voted up and funny x

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 14, 2014:

Hello, Jodah!

I'm glad you enjoyed the article about this eccentric old fellow.

How interesting that Australia had a similar character, albeit with more successful results. I wonder how our history would have been different had our "Emperor" succeeded in his demands. Hahaha.

Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the link to the interesting site.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on February 14, 2014:

Very interesting hub MsLizzy and what an interesting character Emperor Norton was. We have a similar character in Prince Leonard of Hutt River Province. In 1970 the self appointed Prince Leonard announced that the principality of Hutt River in Western Australia was seceding from the rest of Australia. It succeeded in doing this and is still an independent sovereign state with it's own currency and laws. Here is a link to the official website...interesting reading, because I'm sure most people have never heard of it.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 13, 2014:

@ Dolores Monet--It must have been quite a time to be alive, eh? I don't think anyone could pull that off in this day and age. I'm glad you liked the hub--thanks so much for your comment!

@ Phyllis Doyle--Thank you so much for your comment; I'm delighted you so enjoyed the article. Many people have heard of him; others have not. My own husband, when I told him what I had written about responded with "WHO????" ;-)

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on February 13, 2014:

Ms Lizzy, this is a great hub with a lot of information I had not known. I heard about the Emperor years ago and had forgotten about it over time. I am so glad you wrote this hub and provided such interesting history with it. Awesome ! Cheers to Emperor Norton I for having such a vivid imagination and providing a wonderful thing for the people to enjoy. And cheers to you for sharing this history.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on February 13, 2014:

What a wonderful character! I love this story and the fact that all those people went along with him, accepting his currency, saving seats at the theater - one of those stories that make you glad to be a human being.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 13, 2014:

Hello again, BigBlue54--Yes, exactly so! Emperor Norton currency today is very rare,and surely to be very costly to any would-be collector! ;-)

BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on February 13, 2014:

I think DzyMsLizzy what we are looking for in the case of the currency is more an exchange of goods such as you would get from bartering. He exchanged a decorated piece of paper for a meal.

Now as to whether the paper was worth the price of the meal that would be up to the restaurant. If they assign a value to that piece of paper which happens to be the same value as the meal then both side will be happy.

I have seen something similar several years ago where an artist in the US would produce copies of US bank notes, not exact copies, which he would exchange for meals et cetera. Not everyone took them but some did on the chance that one day they would have a greater value.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 13, 2014:

Hi there, FlourishAnyway!

HaHa! Perhaps your uncle is a distant relative of the Emperor's? That is too funny.

I don't know if you'd call the Emperor a con man, or just an old eccentric, whose money was honored because businesses thought it to be good public relations, giving them bragging rights--a form of advertising, if you will. It wasn't illegal for him to issue that fake currency, because it was not counterfeiting US currency, but was of his own design. Acceptance of said money in exchange for goods or services was nothing more than a 'gentleman's agreement.'

Thanks for stopping by...I loved your story about your uncle!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 13, 2014:

Terrific hub, Liz! I think the Emperor must know my uncle, who is perpetually running for President and has been writing his autobiography for decades. My uncle can be so convincing sometimes that he has strangers in awe, sometimes truly believing he was the confidante and personal attorney to Ronald Reagan. I love that the Emperor printed his own money. I hope my uncle doesn't catch wind of that.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 12, 2014:

@ BigBlue54--Thank you so much; I'm pleased you found the article interesting and that I was able to add to your prior knowledge of this character.

@ billybuc--He was a most interesting character, indeed--one I'd like to meet, if time travel were possible. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and I thank you for your kind comment.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2014:

Absolutely fascinating. I had heard of him for whatever reason, but you gave background I did not know. Great topic for an article my friend. Well done and very interesting.

BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on February 12, 2014:

They say that only the rich can be eccentric because they can afford to sue if you call them mad. But I always think there should be exceptions and Emperor Norton should be that exception.

What a great story and thank you for sharing. I had heard of the Emperor but I did not know much about him. You've changed that. :)

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