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By Fred Dickey | Exclusive to American History Magazine

© 2004

He owned San Francisco. With the self-assurance of his royal status, he strolled the streets of the crowded commercial district throughout the 1860s and ‘70s. He wore a tall beaver hat with a plume and rosette, dressed in a blue suit with tarnished gold-plate epaulettes, and carried both a cane and a tri-color umbrella. His oversized shoes were sensibly ventilated with holes to provide relief for his corns. On ceremonial occasions he would even wear a sword.

Celebrated though he was, it was only on the day that he, Joshua Abraham Norton, dropped dead of a stroke on a busy street corner that officials first entered his home. It was a 50-cent per night room at the Eureka Lodging House, and it was where he lived for 17 years. The room was about ten feet by six feet. There they found a camp cot with crossed legs, one straight-back chair, and a pitcher and basin. Strewn about were proclamations, telegrams and pictures of other reigning monarchs, especially of his hoped-for consort, Queen Victoria. (If he had seen that dowager’s picture, his intent must have been only for purposes of power consolidation.) In his possession were $5.50 and mining stock certificates worthlessly proclaiming face value exceeding a million dollars. It was spectacularly downscale for a man who carried the weight of two nations on his shoulders.

Thus ended the reign of “Norton I, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” on January 8, 1880. Though some later called him “The Mad Monarch of America,” they never did to his face. For over twenty years, the portly, fierce-eyed ruler patrolled the bustling, free-for-all city with shoulders stooped, hair sprouting from beneath his cap, and with a “rapt far-away gaze” most of the time. But Norton was not born to the purple. He started his San Francisco career as just another rich businessman.

Norton arrived in San Francisco from South Africa in 1849 as a 30-year-old successful merchant with a worth of $40,000. Little was known about him except that he had been born in Great Britain, probably London, and was Jewish. However, in the next four years, smart investing in real estate increased his fortune to about $250,000. He was a first-team player in a town where cornering a buck was the big game.

Then he got greedy. In December of 1852, a rice shortage caused the price to escalate from four cents per pound to thirty-seven cents. When a ship loaded with rice came into the harbor, Norton bought the entire shipment for twelve cents per pound, trying to corner the market. He was on the verge of cashing in when at least one more ship sailed in with her hold full of rice. The price plummeted to three cents and Norton was ruined. Sketchy accounts attest that he tried to pay off his debts, but filed for bankruptcy in 1856. Then, after serving as a juror at a trial on Sept. 28, 1857, he abruptly disappeared. No one ever learned where.

In the next two years, San Francisco continued to be, well, San Francisco. The “easy riches” gold had already been plucked from the Sierra stream beds, but the city remained wide-open as a sanctuary from Victorian rectitude. Hustlers abounded, and bizarre characters were tolerated, even encouraged, and daily walked the streets giving unsquelched voice to their delusions. They were a promenade--George Washington the Second, the Great Unknown, the Guttersnipe, the Money King, and a quack peddler called the King of Pain.

Then, on September 17, 1859, Norton reappeared and overshadowed them all. Dressed in an operetta-style uniform, he entered the office of the San Francisco Bulletin where he demanded publication of a proclamation which “…at the request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” introduced himself as their emperor and demanded obedience. The town loved it. Mark Twain, with an ever-open eye for affectionate instability, called him a “lovable old humbug” and is said to have patterned the King in Huckleberry Finn after him. His endearment to San Francisco said as much about the liberality of the city as it did about Norton. Robert Louis Stevenson, who traveled through San Francisco, wrote, ”In what other city would a harmless madman…have been so fostered and encouraged?”

Norton issued proclamations, decrees, and imperiously gave his “patronage” in return for meals, uniforms, transportation, and free drinks (always in moderation). Merchants and bankers would redeem the fifty-cent “bonds” he had had printed. He was given a lifetime pass on the Central Pacific Railroad, and on those occasions when he visited the capital at Sacramento, he was given a special chair in the Senate chambers where he would sit for a while and take copious notes.

Herbert Asbury wrote in 1933: “He ate without paying at whatever restaurant, lunchroom, or saloon took his fancy; after he visited an establishment, the owners were permitted to post a sign: ‘By Appointment to the Emperor, Norton I.’ Invariably, these ‘appointments’ brought great business to the saloon or restaurant so graced.”

The effect his business failure had in creating his addled state is not known, but biographer Allen Stanley Lane said in 1939, “There is no evidence that Norton revealed any striking erratic tendencies during his business career. He probably held in check any irrational whims. But being a proud and sensitive man, he suffered great mental torture over his misfortunes.”

Psychiatrist Robert Solomon of San Diego recently undertook to put Norton on the couch from a distance of a century and a quarter. Based on the accounts left behind, the psychiatrist says we know he suffered a later-age-onset cataclysmic blow to his ego, was not violent, did not have a substance abuse problem, and had only a single primary delusion. Based on his behavior, Solomon discounts schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression-caused psychosis. He thinks the stress of Norton losing all his assets pushed him into a relatively rare condition called a “delusional disorder of the grandiose type” which resulted in the emperor-imaginings that lasted more than two decades up to the time of his death.

The emperor was a proud man who bore the royal mantle easily. On one occasion, concerned about the fraying of his uniform, he proclaimed, “We, etc., have heard serious complaints from our adherents and all around that our imperial wardrobe is a national disgrace; and even His majesty the King of Pain has had his sympathy excited so far as to offer us a suit of clothing, which we have had a delicacy in [not] accepting. Therefore, we warn those whose duty it is to attend to these affairs that their scalps are in danger if our said word is unheeded.”

The Board of Supervisors responded by buying him a new uniform and presented it to him in a city hall ceremony.

The emperor was arrested only once, in 1867 by a young deputy with more zeal than judgment who charged him with lunacy. However, the charge was quickly dropped by a judge with this explanation: “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.”

Norton’s name endures mainly because of his frequent proclamations which still ring with pomp, authority and righteous indignation. His language was officious, his topics timely, and his reach grandiose. The San Francisco newspapers vied to publish them. In 1878, Anglophile Norton sent a cablegram to the Ameer of Afghanistan warning that fellow ruler about his supposed hostility toward Britain. “Norton I informs the Ameer that he [Norton] is dictator of the peace of Europe; that he will make it Mighty Warm for him if he precipitates a war.” One can imagine the unknowing Ameer studying this threatening cable with knitted brow while sycophants cluster around pledging till-death support.

As evidenced by the endangered Ameer and Emperor Maximillian of Mexico whom he threatened with execution, Norton could be harsh in his pronouncements. On another occasion, in 1860, he abolished Congress; he then ordered Gen. Winfield Scott to use troops to scatter the politicians when they disobeyed. He also fired President Abraham Lincoln. He ordered the assets of the First National Bank of San Francisco seized in 1869 because it refused to cash his $100 check, and thereby jeopardized the financial stability of the realm.

In 1872, he endeared himself to San Franciscans forever by decreeing, “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 twenty-five dollars.”

Perhaps the main reason Norton was cut an extra length of slack by even the more sober-minded citizens was that he was a kindly man who threatened no one. In one account, he rose to the defense of an unpopular minority: "During one of the typical anti-Chinese demonstrations so common at the time… [he] sensing the dangerously heated tone of [the] meeting, Norton is reported to have stood up before the group, bowed his head and begun reciting the Lord's Prayer. Within a few minutes the agitators retreated in shame without putting any of their threats into cruel action." Norton also proved a seer by calling for a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, a good half century before the Bay Bridge made it to the drawing boards.

Despite all the bizarre characters running around the city, Norton’s preeminence among them was unchallenged until he had to share public attention with a couple of street curs. Bummer and Lazarus were a team of mutts who for a few years in the mid-‘60s also worked their way into the hearts of the city and formed an ad-hoc scrounging team with Norton.

Lane described Bummer as, “A small black mongrel with white spots. He had an unusually projecting lower jaw, and teeth too prominent for his lips to cover. The result was a permanent sardonic grin, whether awake or asleep. He had no owner and wanted none. He became the city’s champion rat killer.” Lazarus, Lane said, was smaller and subordinate to Bummer. “He was a “thin, mangy, yellowish-black cur.”

Although neither the dogs nor Norton made ownership claims on the other, the emperor and the canines became linked in the public perception as they made the rounds together seeking out free saloon lunches, and were content spending long hours patrolling the streets in each others’ company.

The Daily Alta California in 1861 explained that the dogs had teamed up when Bummer rescued Lazarus from a dog-fight mauling. “The poor cur had one of his legs half bitten through, and having limped upon the sidewalk, he proceeded to scrape an acquaintance with his deliverer, Bummer, who thenceforth took him under his special protection. Every night since, the two dogs have slept coiled up together, close to some doorway—Bummer always giving the lame cur the inside berth, and trying to keep him as warm as possible.”

The same newspaper the next year added to the dogs’ legend: “Yesterday afternoon, the notorious curs, Bummer and Lazarus, chased a runaway team up Clay Street, one taking one side of the thoroughfare, and one the other. On reaching the corner of Kearny, Bummer rushed in front of the horse and held him at bay until a man came up and caught the team, Lazarus being on hand to check any further advance. These dogs may now be considered in the employ of the city, and of course are exempt from taxation.”

An assistant dogcatcher once seized Lazarus, only to be mobbed by a crowd. Money was raised immediately for the dog’s release, and neither dog was ever arrested again. The Board of Supervisors exempted them from a strict ordinance that banned all dogs downtown without a leash or muzzle, and allowed them to run free, which the dogs had intended to do anyway.

Lazarus died of poison in 1863. Bummer was stomped to death by a drunk in 1865. Not everyone can get into the spirit.

They collected enough money to dignify Norton’s body with new clothes and a rosewood casket. His funeral cortege was two miles long, and crowd estimates ranged as high as 30,000. He was buried by the Masons, and without the traditional tallit burial shawl of his Judaism. In 1934, his body was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in suburban Colma where the grave today has a handsome stone marker which gives his full title as he believed it to be. The Emperor has been adopted by the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of San Francisco who each March hold an Emperor Norton celebration that draws several hundred. A biker club and E. Clampus Vitus, the partying history buffs, also show up annually to celebrate his colorful life.

Norton did not see himself a victim and the society he lived in didn’t either. If his delusions of grandeur represented the groping of his mind to recapture the public esteem he had known before his bankruptcy, then he succeeded by grace of the forbearance and sense of humor of San Francisco. The city foreshadowed its present self, and showed that even in the Victorian Era it was possible to hang loose.

As a historical figure His Majesty is a winner. After all, other than the yearned-for Victoria, how many other emperors of the time can you name?

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