Posted by: nancycurteman | June 2, 2010

Emperor of the United States: San Francisco’s Emperor Norton I

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in London and found his way to the United States where he became a wealthy San Francisco businessman who later hit on hard times. He remained in San Francisco as a pauper where he declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. San Franciscans being San Franciscans had the attitude that if he wants to be emperor, let him. They adored him. This Monarch of Montgomery  roamed the streets in an appropriate emperor uniform ruling by decree, issuing his own imperial bonds and performing altruistic deeds. As his fame spread, the city actually adopted him. The Mason’s paid for his lodging. He dined free in any restaurant and rode free on public transit. A seat was always ready for him in the city’s theatres. He allowed his name to be used in advertising throughout the city, e.g. Emperor Norton slept in this hotel, dined in this restaurant, visited this shop. Norton is also known for having been the first to propose a Bay Bridge and an under-the-bay tunnel.  His famous injunction against uttering the abbreviation “Frisco” for San Francisco is still an unwritten law among San Franciscans.  When he died in 1880, 30,000 people attended his funeral. His tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery was engraved “Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880.”


  1. This is hysterical! Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies:

    Claim what isn’t, as if it were, until it becomes!


    • Norton was quite a character. I love the way San Franciscans embraced him. In fact, that’s one of the things I love about the Bay area and San Francisco in particular—Live and let live. Do your own thing. If you hear a different drummer, go ahead and march to it, we’ll even join you.


  2. I’ve lived here so many years, and have often heard of Emperor Norton, but never have I gotten the details. You’re the best!


  3. […] Emperor of the United States: San Francisco’s Emperor Norton I […]


  4. I have had the privilege of playing in an orchestra conducted by Henry Mollicone – Bay Area composer who wrote a one-act opera about the “Emperor.”


    • What is the name of the opera? I’d love to know more about it. Emperor Norton is one of my favorite S.F. characters.


  5. A uniformed man roaming about doing altruistic deeds sounds like excellent emperor material. I’m glad San Franciscans accepted him.


    • San Francisco is the home of the Hippies. We accept all kinds of unique and quirky people.


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