Joshua A. Norton

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Joshua A. Norton, "Emperor Norton I"

Joshua Abraham Norton (January 17, 1811January 8, 1880), also known as His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco who famously proclaimed himself "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" in 1859. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented. Norton also corresponded with Queen Victoria, and he was addressed as His Imperial Majesty by local citizens and in the newspaper obituaries announcing his death.

Though he was generally considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco (and the world at large) in the mid-to-late 19th century celebrated his presence, his humor, and his deeds—among the most notorious being his "order" that the U.S. Congress be dissolved by force, and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge to be built across San Francisco Bay. The King in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is reportedly modeled after him.

He is considered a saint by the followers of Discordianism and is referenced repeatedly in the seminal work of the religion, the Principia Discordia.


Early life

Norton was born in England. Records vary as to the date and place of birth. Parish records ( from the chapelry of Priors-Lee (now Telford) in the parish of Shifnal show he was born on January 17, 1811 to John and Sarah Norton, and was baptized less than a month later on February 20 in Shropshire. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, "following the best information obtainable", cited the silver plate on his coffin. It said he was "aged about 65" at time of death, which suggests 1814 as his year of birth. Other, non-primary sources have his birth on February 14, 1819 in London. It may be presumed that those secondary sources did not have access to the earlier records.

In 1820 Norton's parents emigrated to South Africa and apparently established a successful business there. After receiving a gift of $40,000 from his father, Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849. He enjoyed some highly impressive initial success in the real estate market when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice. The price of rice in San Francisco skyrocketed from 4 cents to 36 cents per pound (9¢/kg to 79¢/kg). When Norton heard that a ship holding 200,000 pounds (90 tons) of rice was coming from Peru, he bought all the rice, hoping to corner the rice market. Unfortunately, shipload after shipload of rice came from Peru, and the price of rice plummeted. Norton declared bankruptcy in 1858. He then left the city for a few years, and shortly after returning announced his title to the offices of the Bulletin.

There are no known documents noting an eccentric personality or unusual behavior of Norton prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his psychology, or arose as a result of the stressful financial events of the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd," and began exhibiting delusions of grandeur.


Having become fully disgruntled with the inadequacies of the political structure and state and federal governments of the United States, Norton took matters into his own hands on September 17, 1859, when, in letters to the various newspapers of the area, he summarily proclaimed himself "Emperor of These United States":

At the pre-emptory 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 last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States.

He would, on occasion, add "Protector of Mexico" to this title. Thus commenced his unprecedented, whimsical, and almost entirely inconsequential 21-year "reign" over America.


In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of state. Deeming that he had assumed power, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress. He also observed that

"...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled."

As a result, the Emperor ordered that "all interested parties" gather at Platt's Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 so as to "remedy the evil complained of".

In another imperial "decree" of January 1860, Emperor Norton I summoned the army to depose the elected officials of Congress:

WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;

WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;

NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.

Norton's "orders" had no effect on the army, and the Congress likewise continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further "decrees" in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. These, like all of Norton's decrees, passed unnoted by the government in Washington, and by the nation at large. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout his "reign", though it appears that Norton eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission.

His attempts to overthrow the elected government of America by force having been frustrated, Norton turned his attention and his proclamations to other matters, both political and social. On August 12, 1869, "being desirous of allaying the dissentions of party strife now existing within our realm," he "abolished" both the Democratic and Republican parties. On another occasion, the failure to refer to his adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:

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.

After examining a number of his "Imperial Edicts", it is tempting to conjecture on the mental condition of America's only sovereign monarch. Unfortunately, diagnosing the precise psychological condition of Norton is an impossibility, due to the anecdotal nature of all the documents that relate his behavior. It has been suggested that he may have been schizophrenic, as "delusions of grandeur" are symptoms frequently associated with that condition [1] ( However, it is also possible that he suffered from some other mental illness, or even that he was sane.

For all of his quirks and regardless of the precise nature of his psychological condition, it cannot be denied that Norton was, on some occasions, a visionary, and a number of his "Imperial Decrees" exhibited a profound wisdom. Among his many edicts were instructions to form a League of Nations, and he explicitly forbade any form of discord or conflict between religions or their sects. The Emperor also saw fit on a number of occasions to decree the construction of a suspension bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience being exhibited by the authorities:

WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.

Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.

This decree, unlike most, concerned events that eventually came to pass. Construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge began in 1933 and was completed in 1936. BART's transbay tube was completed in 1969 and opened in 1972.

Life as "Emperor"

Emperor Norton regularly strolled the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform complete with tarnished gold-plated epaulets.
Emperor Norton regularly strolled the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform complete with tarnished gold-plated epaulets.

Norton had a fairly well documented routine. His days consisted of him inspecting his "dominion" (the streets of San Francisco) in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets (given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco), and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. Frequently he enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his ministrations Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, the appearance of police officers, and attend to the needs of his subjects as they arose. He would frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to whomever was in earshot at the time.

It was during one of his "Imperial inspections" that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts. During the 1860s and 1870s there were an unpleasant number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco, and ugly and fatal riots broke out on more than a handful of occasions. During one such incident, Norton is alleged to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head began to recite the Lord's Prayer repeatedly. Shamed, the rioters dispersed without incident.

A scandal occurred in 1867 when a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton, for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. This caused monumental outrage amongst the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering the "Emperor" released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the Police Force. Norton was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer who had committed the (perceived) act of treason. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter would salute Norton as he passed in the street.

Norton was clearly much loved and revered by his subjects. Although penniless, he regularly frequented the finest restaurants in San Francisco, and the proprietors of these establishments took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances that declared "By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States". This vanity appears to have been tolerated without complaint by Norton. By all accounts, such "Imperial seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade for such businesses. No play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton and his two mongrel dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. (As a sidenote, the death of Lazarus, in an 1863 accident with a vehicle belonging to the Fire Department of San Francisco, led to a period of public mourning. In 1865, when Bummer died, Mark Twain was sufficiently moved to write an epitaph for the Imperial Canine, saying that he'd died "full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas".)

Norton did receive some small tokens of formal recognition for his station; the census of 1870 records a Joshua Norton residing at 624 Commercial St, and lists him with the occupation of "Emperor". Norton would also issue his own money on occasion in order to pay for certain debts, and this was an effective local currency, generally accepted as legal tender by San Francisco businesses. (Typically these notes came in denominations of 50 cents to five dollars, and the few notes still existent have fetched thousands of dollars at recent auctions [2] ( Certainly the city of San Francisco honored Norton; when Norton's uniform began to look shabby, the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, with a great deal of ceremony, appropriated enough money to buy him a suitably regal replacement. In return, Norton sent them a gracious note of thanks and a "patent of nobility in perpetuity" for each Supervisor.

Waning years

During the latter years of Norton's reign, he was the subject of considerable rumor and speculation. One popular story suggested that he was actually the son of Emperor Louis Napoleon and that his claims of coming from South Africa were simply a ruse to prevent persecution. (To have been an illegitimate son of Louis Napoleon, he would have had to have been conceived when the French Emperor was only three; Louis Napoleon's actual son, Napoleon Eugene, Prince Imperial, died fighting in the Boer War in 1879.) Another popular story suggested that the Emperor was planning to marry Queen Victoria. While this is completely without foundation, the Emperor did actually correspond with the Queen on several occasions. A final rumor was that Norton was in fact supremely wealthy, and only affected poverty due to miserly inclinations.

In addition to the rumors, a number of "decrees" that were probably fraudulent were submitted and duly printed in the newspapers, and there is suspicion that in at least a few cases, the editors of the newspapers themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The Museum of the City of San Francisco maintains a listing of all the decrees it believes to be genuine [3] (

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The "Emperor" now rests in his second grave in Colma, California.

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Joshua Norton collapsed on the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets while on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed by another citizen who raised the alarm, and, according to one newspaper, "the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital" [4] ( Norton died before the carriage could arrive.

The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary ( on its front page under the headline "Le Roi est Mort" ("the King is Dead"). With a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that "On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life". The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life".

Contrary to the rumors, it quickly became evident that Norton had died in complete poverty, and his entire estate amounted to no more than a few dollars. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up only a single sovereign worth around $2.50, his collection of walking sticks, his rather battered sabre, his correspondence with Queen Victoria and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine.

When the initial funeral arrangements were made a pauper's coffin of simple redwood had been procured for the departed: however the members of the Pacific Club (a San Franciscan businessmen's association) deemed this to be completely unacceptable. After establishing a funeral fund, the members rapidly raised a sufficient amount to purchase a handsome rosewood casket and arrange a suitably dignified farewell. Reports indicated ( that respects were paid "... by all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast".

Norton's funeral was a solemn, mournful and large affair, some accounts report that as many as 30,000 people lined the streets to pay homage and that the funeral cortege was two miles long. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco. The day after his funeral, January 11, 1880, the San Francisco skies were blackened with a total solar eclipse.

In 1934, Norton's remains were transferred, again at the expense of the City of San Francisco, to a gravesite of moderate splendor at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Colma. His story faded somewhat after his death, and his resting place was marked by a small worn stone. However his story became more popular during the 1960s and his present gravestone refers to him as "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" (Gorman 1998). Political activist and drag queen Jos Sarria declared herself Her Royal Majesty, Empress One of San Francisco, Jose I, the Widow Norton and holds an annual memorial celebration, complete with continental breakfast, for her long dead "husband" that helped to repopularize his legend and prompted Woodlawn Cemetery to provide the more substantial gravestone at their own expense (Gorman 1998).

In January 1980, numerous ceremonies and memorials were conducted in San Francisco to honor the 100th anniversary of the passing of the one and only "Emperor of the United States".

Recent recognition

Norton's early work at promoting a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland was commemorated on Tuesday, December 14th, 2004, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution calling for the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to be named after Norton. The resolution was introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin (the supervisor currently elected from the district where Norton lived) after the idea was publicized by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank in his comic strip "Farley".

Legitimacy and Debate

A ten-dollar note issued by "Emperor Norton I".
A ten-dollar note issued by "Emperor Norton I".

More than a century after Norton's death, some people claim that Norton was, in actuality, the Emperor of the United States. Despite the fact that the Constitution of the United States, as the "supreme law of the land", vests the ultimate executive governmental power in the President, and that fact that citizens generally have accepted this and all that comes with it (with exceptions: the American Civil War, civil disobedience, etc.), defenders of Norton's claim say that the assumption of a title is confirmed and made legitimate by the affirmation and recognition of other people. If that is to be the primary criterion, they claim, Norton was indeed Emperor, at least in San Francisco, just as the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms of China all were Emperor of China in their separate kingdoms simultaneously. (See Three Kingdoms: Tripartite of China.)

Although there was no vacant position of "Emperor of the United States", it is claimed that the acknowledgement of his status and title by the citizens of the San Francisco area made valid his claims. This can be seen as a form of traditional or charismatic authority: Norton created the position and its power simply by acting as though they existed. Whether or not he had any legal or legitimate authority is irrelevant to the fact that things were done at his behest, because people wanted to do what he wanted them to do.

It remains the case that Norton had no empire, subjects, authority nor political power; any person who humored Norton by choosing to follow his edicts, accept his "currency", or acknowledge his chosen title as "Emperor" did so only by volition and not because it was legitimate or legal. Supporters of Norton accede this as true and dismiss it as irrelevant.

Many more people consider this entire debate to be moot at best, and point out that he was a friendly, interesting old man with a number of good ideas, who liked to be the Emperor, and that was no problem to anyone. Although the semantics might raise some interesting questions as to what is needed to lay claim to a title and exercise power, the real-world consequences of his Imperial tenure were far less serious. His unparalleled audacity inspired the founders of the religion of Discordianism.

For further discussion, see Authority, Legitimacy, and Power (sociology).

Norton as part of the public imagination


  • Ghirardelli, a chocolatier in San Francisco, used to offer a sundae called "The Emperor Norton" which has as its primary garnishes two bananas and a handful of nuts. The company also produced a 5 oz. "Emperor Norton Non-Pareils" candy.
  • The Oakland-based San Francisco Bread Company produces the "Emperor Norton Sourdough Snack Chips" in 5.5 or 12 oz. bags. Varieties include original flavor and ranch. The product is marketed through deli shelves, and according to vice-president of operations Jill Schuster, it has a very loyal following around the country.


  • Others have tried to co-opt Norton's image for their own use: In 1999, it was reported (via a spiritual medium) that Emperor Norton had issued a new decree which (among other things) established that his Imperial Domain now extends to include the Usenet.
WHEREAS, We have been specifically resurrected for the purpose of observing and commenting on the great commotion, called by some a "flame war", now occurring in rec.skiing.alpine;

WHEREAS, such exchanges of invective and rudeness disturb the peace of mind of those who come to said association seeking relaxation and gentle conversation upon the sport of skiing;

AND WHEREAS, the ongoing and aggravating vendettas, accusations, and legal action that have been spawned by this dispute do little to resolve it and much to expand it beyond the reaches of the fair City of Seattle;

THEREFORE, We, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico and the USENet, do decree that all participants in this ongoing confrontation (including the judge) do rebel and riot against the Emperor's good order and command that they be denied InterNet access and electrical service until they have ended their insurrection.


  • A short story by Robert Silverberg, "The Palace at Midnight", features a post-apocalyptic California with an Empire of San Francisco. The Emperor at the time of the story is a decrepit and senile Norton the Seventh.
  • Emperor Norton, Bummer and Lazarus make a brief appearance in Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, a novel set in the Star Trek universe.
  • Christopher Moore's novel Bloodsucking Fiends features an apparently immortal Norton in contemporary San Francisco.
  • Dianne Day's San Francisco-based "Fremont Jones" mystery series features the novel Emperor Norton's Ghost (1998), in which a friend of the intrepid investigator claims to be communicating with the late Emperor about some unfinished business.
  • Probable basis for the Selma Lagerlf novel, Kejsarn av Portugallien (The Emperor of Portugallia), a story of a rural Swedish man so disturbed by his daughter's leaving home that he goes mad and declares himself the emperor of Portugallia. The "lost" 1925 film, The Tower of Lies is based on the book.
  • Emperor Norton was a "guest of honor" at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention, held in San Francisco. He was "channeled" by an impressive local fan.
  • The Lucky Luke comic book "Emperor Smith" features a local rancher-turned-Emperor named Smith. Morris acknowledges that he based Smith on Emperor Norton I.


  • An opera based on Norton's life was penned by Henry Mollicone and was performed by (among other companies) the West Bay Opera company in the San Francisco peninsula in the fall of 1990.
  • An independent record label, Emperor Norton Records, memorializes his legacy through their dedication to Emperor Norton's history.



  • There is a collection of surreal or entertaining software (mostly for Unix systems) called the "Emperor Norton Utilities", a reference to the popular commercial computer software "Norton Utilities" written by Peter Norton.


  • Bonanza, an American western television show, featured an episode titled, "The Emperor Norton". It first aired on February 27, 1966 as episode 225 in the seventh season. In the episode, Emperor Norton gets in trouble after calling for worker safety in the mines. As a result of his concern for the miners, his opponents attempt to have him committed. Mark Twain and the cast of Bonanza testify on Norton's behalf at a competency hearing. Norton's suspension bridge concept is also featured.


  • Cowan, Robert E. et al. The Forgotton Characters of Old San Francisco. Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1964.
  • Dressler, Albert. Emperor Norton of the United States. Sacramento: Dressler, 1927.
  • Drury, William. Norton I, Emperor of the United States. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc, 1986. ISBN 0396085091.
  • Gorman, Michael Robert MA (1998). The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of Jos Sarria. New York: Haworth Press. ISBN 0789002590.
  • Kramer, William M. Emperor Norton of San Francisco. Santa Monica: Norton B. Stern, 1974.
  • Lane, Allen Stanley. Emperor Norton, Mad Monarch of America. Caldwell, Ida.: Caxton Printers, 1939.
  • Ryder, David Warren. San Francisco's Emperor Norton. San Francisco: Ryder, 1939.

External links

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eo:Joshua Abraham NORTON fr:Joshua Norton nl:Joshua Norton ja:ノートン1世 pl:Joshua A. Norton zh:诺顿一世


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