Emperor Norton: America’s one and only monarch…

These are hard times. Many bad things are happening The jackboot of oppression is being stamped upon Ukraine’s citizens. Innocents are being murdered. Prices are rising. Belts are tightening. A dark cloud awaits in the distance – an economic reckoning that will be unleashed, most likely in the depths of our next winter. The miasma of Covid still lurks, picking people off; maybe not killing them, but making them ill. And on top of that, there’s the small matter of our dying planet and the Doomsday clock of climate change ticking towards the final minute to midnight. Things are grim, so we hunker down; our hearts heavy, our spirits full of the gloom of bad tidings.

We forget the positives – the bravery, the sacrifice… the love… that still exists in the shade of all that sadness and worry. There are glimmers of light, though, in the enfolding dark. Strangers are opening their doors to refugees; there’s compassion and concern for those who suffer. The kindness of our battered spirit is not completely spent. And yet there still exists that sense of unease, trepidation and helplessness; that feeling that we can’t hold back the rising tide of misery that threatens to sweep us away. The gloom remains, and it gets darker by the day.

We need reminding of the positives; of how great we really can be. We need to lift the shutters from our souls and let the light in, and the tolerance, too – tolerance for others, but also for ourselves as we fight and lose our battles with everyday life.

If ever I need reminding of the heights to which we can all rise as we go about our daily struggle, I think of a portly, bearded, middle-aged gentleman in a slightly rumpled uniform, whose story is one of fantasy and harsh reality. I think of how the great gifts of tolerance and acceptance were displayed in all their glory by a whole society for that one man. I think of the Emperor, and then I smile…


“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.

As proclamations go, that sounds pretty impressive, especially when you consider the man making it had become mentally unhinged following years of protracted litigation with his business associates.

Joshua Norton may have come a cropper when it came to deal making but he found his true calling and the love of tens of thousands of people when he decided to proclaim himself the Emperor of America in 1859 after becoming fed up with what he considered the inadequacies of the country’s  legal and political structures.

The editor of the San Francisco Bulletin reprinted the announcement to entertain his readers. After that, it would seem that the city’s citizens took the Emperor to their hearts for the next 21 years of his ‘reign’.

Norton, who emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849, later added ‘Protector of Mexico’ to his title and took his ‘duties’ very seriously, issuing decrees and inspecting public works.

Emperor Norton I

Emperor Norton I

The Emperor dressed the part, too, donning an ex-army uniform with gold epaulettes, topped off with a beaver hat, which was decorated with a peacock feather and rosette. He spent his days walking San Francisco’s streets, checking the condition of the footpaths and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, as well as commenting on the appearance of police officers.

San Francisco’s citizens clearly loved him. Despite being penniless, he regularly ate in the city’s finest restaurants, with the establishments going so far as to attach brass plaques in their entrances declaring “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.

When he wasn’t dining out, the Emperor was a patron of the arts and would regularly enjoy the best seats at the latest theatrical and musical productions.

However, there was one occasion of lese majeste in 1867, when a policeman had the temerity to commit the Emperor to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. Needless to say, there was uproar. The arrest outraged the citizens and sparked editorials in the newspapers.

Police Chief Patrick Crowley immediately ordered Norton to be released and issued a formal apology on behalf of the police force.

Crowley wrote: “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line”.

Emperor Norton was clearly a magnanimous chap and granted an “Imperial Pardon” to the offending policeman.  After that, all police officers in San Francisco would salute Norton as he passed in the street.

As remarkable as it seems, the powers that be were only too willing to look out for the eccentric character. When his uniform began to look worn, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors even decided to purchase a regal replacement.

Norton even issued his own currency in denominations of fifty cents and ten dollars, to pay for any debts incurred, which was accepted by San Francisco’s businesses. Today, the notes are collector’s items.

It is even said that Mark Twain was so inspired by The Emperor that he based his characters The Duke and The King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Norton.

Norton didn’t slack off when it came to foreign relations either, and was wont to write to Queen Victoria on several occasions.

Unfortunately, the pressures of state took their toll on the Emperor and on January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on a street corner and died shortly afterwards.

The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle caught the mood of the city when it published his obituary on its front page under the headline ‘Le Roi est Mort’ (‘The King is Dead’), reporting that ‘on the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life”.

Despite rumours of him having great wealth, it soon emerged that Norton had died in poverty. Nevertheless, that did not prevent 30,000 people lining the streets (the population of San Francisco at the time was 230,000) for the funeral cortege, which stretched to two miles. long.

Norton lies in Woodlawn Cemetery under a suitably regal headstone.

In this world of cynics and chest-beaters it is a comfort to know that there was a time when people and state bodies cared enough about law-abiding citizens to allow them live the life they chose to live without interference, persecution or the need to sneer and deride.

The tolerance and acceptance shown to one befuddled tramp should give us all hope. It shows that there is light in the darkness of life; that despite the vicissitudes that pick at our good nature and steal away our sympathy, we can still be generous.

The citizens of San Francisco should be immensely proud of their forebears. We should all be – and we should take a leaf from their book and give the Nortons of this busy, modern world of ours the respect, love and latitude they truly deserve.

Long live the Emperor.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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35 Responses to Emperor Norton: America’s one and only monarch…

  1. What a lovely story, David! I’d never heard of our emperor. You’re right – San Francisco should be proud of how they treated this man. And we might all do well to take a page from that book.


  2. Lindy Moone says:

    This is such a sweet story. I used to live in the Bay Area, and it doesn’t surprise me that this fellow was welcomed there, even so long ago… Off to share it on facebook.


  3. Carol Ervin says:

    What a prize. Reblog!


  4. Carol Ervin says:

    Reblogged this on Carol Ervin's Author Site and commented:
    If you’re ODD enough, people will love you! Check out my reblog of David Lawlor’s newest post:


  5. What a fascinating post . I am originally from Mexico, American by choice and I love San Francisco now even more. About 9 years ago I attended a swearing in ceremony in Miami where the man at the podium stated Welcome to the GREATEST EMPIRE in the world. I was annoyed although American imperialism can be argued back and forth. This post gives the term an interesting new perspective.


  6. Great story! I’m not a citizen of San Francisco, but I’ve visited that beautiful city. I enjoyed reading your post about eccentric Emperor Norton. Thanks for making my day.


  7. I remember a Lucky Luke album that’s probably based on this guy called “L’Empereur Smith”. You should check it out.


  8. Bill Kasal says:

    Well written, as always, David. I have previously read of Norton and have immensely enjoyed your telling of his story. My comment today is in reference to your closing paragraphs. I cannot agree with you more. Long live the Emperor. Long live the Nortons of this world!


  9. Thank you, Bill, that’s very nice of you to say. He seems to have been a wonderful character. If only people today could be as considerate as those San Franciscans in Norton’s time.


  10. Reblogged this on For Whom the Gear Turns and commented:
    I had planned to do a piece on Norton I, the Emperor of the United States, myself, but I found this one while doing my research and I really liked it. I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area so I had heard of Norton before and I think of him as basically a steampunk in his own time. He certainly “punked” the status quo in the 1860s-1870s.


  11. Pingback: I’m Somebody’s Sunshine! | For Whom the Gear Turns

  12. Great article! Do you know about my tour? Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine: http://www.emperornortontour.com


  13. What an amazing story. San Francisco has always been one of my favourite places, now I like it even more.
    I’m stunned where you find these great treasures of stories.


  14. Thanks, Christoph. I must admit, the Emperor Norton story is one of my absolute favourites. It’s a shame that it could never happen in today’s society


  15. A wonderful story David. Reminds me a bit of the time the town of Key West, Florida seceded from the U.S. and formed the Conch Republic. Keep up the good work. I thoroughly enjoy your stories.


  16. You may just have given me an idea for another blog post there, Barbara, thanks. 🙂


  17. Ceri London says:

    This is a fascinating story, and very touching. San Francisco should be proud of this snippet of history!


  18. Fascinating story! I wonder how many other Emperor Nortons there are in the world. I would love to meet one some day.


  19. Scribbling Owlet says:

    As usual, a wonderful read David! 🙂


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