Who was the "Emperor of San Francisco"?


Dear Straight Dope:

Whilst flipping through the TV channels, lookin' for Roller Derby, I accidentally landed on some station called PBS (I think it's local).  Anyway, they were running a historical piece on the history of San Francisco and mentioned a gentleman who roamed the cities back in the 1800's, styling himself as "The Emperor of San Francisco." He was evidently well-liked, and most everyone in the city played along with him. They'd give him the best seats in restaurants, stand in acknowledgment when he visited the theatre, wave to him on the streets. They said he even printed his own money — and merchants accepted it.  I have never heard anything else about this and am wondering how much of this recollection (it was a couple years back) is accurate.

SDStaff Songbird replies:

Trying to fall in love with a Roller Derby Empress, Dave?

All of San Francisco was certainly in love with Emperor Norton in the mid-1800s.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born to Jewish parents in London in 1818. When he was two years old, his parents moved the family to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. Norton somehow wound up in San Francisco in 1849 during the Gold Rush. He staked his claim by selling supplies to the miners and, four years later, was worth an estimated quarter of a million dollars.

Then the price of rice climbed from four cents to thirty-six cents per pound. And Norton, in a move to control the rice market, purchased the only ship of rice in port. What he didn’t bank on were the myriad of ships of Peruvian rice which came into port over the next few weeks. The price of rice plummeted, and Norton was in debt. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and seemingly disappeared.

He reappeared September 17, 1859, at the offices of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin with the following proclamation:

At the peremptory 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, 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 the 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.


Emperor of the United States

The editor of the newpaper, Deacon Fitch, was amused by the claim and ran the story in his paper. People immediately took to him (as San Francisco still takes to such odd folk). No one really believed he was Emperor of the United States, but they saw no harm in playing along.

So with a uniform of an old donated army coat and boots, a hat with feathers, a donated sword and assorted imperial epaulets, Emperor Norton proudly walked the streets of San Francisco, ridding the world of its ills. He ruled by decree. On the verge of the Civil War, he abolished the Union. If you thought taxes were too high, he lowered them.

The public loved him, and newspapers competed to publish his proclamations because when they ran, they sold more papers. When the papers needed a boost, they made up new Norton proclamations. No one minded.

Businesses reaped the benefits, too. If you wanted to sell more clothing, you put a sign in the window that you were the “Official Clothier of Emperor Norton” (whether you were or not). If you wanted more patrons in your hotel or restaurant, you claimed Emperor Norton slept/ate there. Soon statues, postcards and other souvenirs of the Emperor appeared for the many folks visiting the city.

Some claim he was the city’s first tourist trap.

He was always in touch with his subjects, patrolling the streets by foot or bicycle, making sure the police did their jobs and ennobling people he saw performing acts of kindness. Children followed him, picking up litter and doing kind deeds, in the hope of being crowned king or queen for a day.

Emperor Norton was allowed to dine for free in any restaurant. There were three seats at the opening of every theatrical performance reserved for the Emperor and his two dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. The local Masonic Lodge (of which he was once a member) paid for his small apartment. The city apparently picked up the costs of his uniform.

For money, the Emperor issued his own imperial bonds, usually in values from fifty cents to two dollars. The bonds were produced by the printing firm of Cuddy & Hughes. Each note allowed the bearer to collect the face value plus seven percent interest at maturity in the year 1900. Today the bonds are very rare and worth quite a bit of money.

Emperor Norton’s reign sadly came to an end January 8, 1880, when (as reported by the New York Times) he “dropped dead at the corner of California and Dupont streets.” His funeral was attended by a reported thirty thousand people, and he was buried in the city’s Masonic cemetery.

In 1934, his remains had to be moved to Woodlawn cemetery in Colma. Flags throughout the city were lowered and businesses closed their doors in his honor. Approximately 60,000 people attended the ceremony which featured full military honors. His tombstone was engraved “Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880.”

As for PBS, one assumes you’re being funny and that you know the letters stand for Public Broadcasting System–although some claim they stand for “Pretty Boring Stuff.”  They do occasionally air some fascinating Tales from the City.   But really, how much can you learn on a channel with no commercials?

By the way, if you’re still looking for Roller Derby, check out Roller Jam (with inline skates) on TNN.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.


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