"Le Roi Est Mort" - The Life and Death of Emperor Norton I in the streets of San Francisco

8 January 1880, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, died in the streets of San Francisco.

“Of all our visitors, I believe I preferred Emperor Norton; the very mention of whose name reminds me I am doing scanty justice to the folks of San Francisco. In what other city would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor of the two Americas have been so fostered and encouraged? Where else would even the people of the streets have respected the poor soul's illusion? Where else would bankers and merchants have received his visits, cashed his cheques, and submitted to his small assessments? Where else would he have been suffered to attend and address the exhibition days of schools and colleges? Where else, in God's green earth, have taken his pick of restaurants, ransacked the bill of fare, and departed scathless? They tell me he was even an exacting patron, threatening to withdraw his custom when dissatisfied; and I can believe it, for his face wore an expression distinctly gastronomical. Pinkerton had received from this monarch a cabinet appointment; I have seen the brevet, wondering mainly at the good nature of the printer who had executed the forms, and I think my friend was at the head either of foreign affairs or education: it mattered, indeed, nothing, the prestation being in all offices identical. It was at a comparatively early date that I saw Jim in the exercise of his public functions. His Majesty entered the office--a portly, rather flabby man, with the face of a gentleman, rendered unspeakably pathetic and absurd by the great sabre at his side and the peacock's feather in his hat.“ (Robert Louis Stevenson “The Wrecker“)

A contemporary photograph of Norton I in full fig
and one of his Imperial Edicts from 1879

“One morning my basket was heavy with wares”, Tagore once wrote, “Men were busy in the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth heaved with the mirth of ripening rice.” English-born entrepreneur Joshua Norton must have thought something along these lines when he had invested his considerable capital in a shipload of rice coming to his adopted home San Francisco from Peru. A severe famine and a series of wars in China had resulted in an export ban and, consequently, a shortage of said cereal grain, staple food of ten thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush. And while prices were about to skyrocket, enterprising Mr Norton formed a cunning plan. With the 90 tons of rice unloaded from the “Glyde” he thought to dictate the price and make another fortune. Unfortunately for Mr Norton, several other ships carrying rice from Peru arrived shortly after the “Glyde” in San Francisco and the price dropped to an all-time low. In short: Joshua Abraham Norton of Deptford and San Francisco was buggered. A bit of whining in court followed, Norton claimed he had been humbugged, the Supreme Court of California stated that he wasn’t, in 1858 he filed for bankruptcy, found himself in a working class boarding house and like the traveller from Tagore’s poem, he “went astray in the fairyland of things.” On 17 September 1859, Norton proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States”: “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.”, signed Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

The "San Francisco Chronicle's" court jester Edward Jumper's caricature of Norton I, dining with his two dogs Bummer and Lazarus, somewhat irreverently called "The Three Bummers"  (around 1865)

It might be that the Imperial Decree making the use of the word “Frisco” a punishable offence endeared him to the good people of San Frisco or his Imperial Majesty’s high entertainment value en bloc, but Norton I was not put into a quiet place without belts and shoe strings like the rest of the folks with their right hand in their waistcoats à la “Napoleon in his Study”. Quite the reverse, actually. Norton I, strutting down the Streets of San Francisco in his blue uniform, adorned with epaulettes Union officers from the Presidio had given to him and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather, enjoyed an immense popularity. A newcomer to the police force of San Francisco had him arrested once, in 1867, though. Norton I was released soon after a public outcry and a formal apology by Police Chief Patrick Crowley however, since the Emperor, Crowley wrote “had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." San Francisco’s police officers on the beat usually saluted the Emperor afterwards. Not all government institutions were as compliant, though. Winfield Scott, for example, Commanding General of the United States Army, chose not to move and arrest the members of the U.S. Congress and other usurpers in Washington on his Imperial Majesty’s orders. It was one of the few imperial decrees that implicated violent action. Otherwise, Police Chief Patrick Crowley was right. Emperor Norton I lead a surprisingly non-violent regime. Unfortunately, his appeal to the Catholic and Protestant Churches to confirm his reign in 1862 to end the Civil War went off unheard, but once, during the 1870s, the Emperor allegedly stopped a racist riot by standing, with his head bowed, in front of the Chinese targets, saying the Lord’s Prayer until the mob of attackers dispersed.

More bummers: Edward Jump's capture of a scene from the streets of San Francisco, with Emperor Norton on the far right, his two dogs in the centre and George Washington II in 18th century garb displaying one of his banners

was, however, the Emperor’s feud with another British-born nutter of San Francisco, Frederick Coombs, a resident photographer with a knack for burning his own shop down, the inventor of an excavator known as the "Free Ditcher of Napa", and a phrenologist who had lost his marbles and thought himself to be a reincarnation of George Washington. Walking the streets of San Francisco in Continental Army buckskins and a tricorne hat proposing marriages and issuing edicts as George Washington the Second, he finally accused his rival Emperor Norton of tearing down some of his pamphlets fly-postered in Montgomery Street. Out of jealousy over his success with the ladies, George Washington No 2 claimed. Both potentates tried to sue each other out of town and into the loony bin until Washington (# 2) gave up and fled to New York. The Emperor could be certain of his San Francisco subjects’ acclaim and support, local newspapers covering his edicts and exploits, the two stray dogs he adopted, Bummer and Lazarus, became celebrities as well and were given the freedom of the city, this time by a really legal ordinance, after Lazarus was taken by an overzealous dog catcher and had to be freed when community pressure splashed over. Shop owners adorned their stores with “By appointment to his Imperial Majesty” plaques, some of the best local restaurants wined and dined him and the dogs for free and when his uniform got tatty he was presented with a new one by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And then, at the age of about 62, he collapsed on a street corner and died and caused immediate public interest for a last time. “Le Roi est Mort”, a San Francisco Headline ran the very next day along with a front page obituary and 10,000 people carried him to his grave. Mark Twain memoralised him four years later beyond the local memory of San Francisco as the King in the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and every now and then, Emperor Norton I makes his appearance in fiction as one of the most likeable and thorough eccentrics from times out of mind.

And more about His Imperial Majesty Norton I on:


Tagore’s wonderful poem quoted above is called “I Travelled The Old Road” and runs as follows:

“I travelled the old road every day, I took my fruits to the market,
my cattle to the meadows, I ferried my boat across the stream and
all the ways were well known to me.
One morning my basket was heavy with wares. Men were busy in
the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth
heaved with the mirth of ripening rice.
Suddenly there was a tremor in the air, and the sky seemed to
kiss me on my forehead. My mind started up like the morning out of
I forgot to follow the track. I stepped a few paces from the
path, and my familiar world appeared strange to me, like a flower
I had only known in bud.
My everyday wisdom was ashamed. I went astray in the fairyland
of things. It was the best luck of my life that I lost my path that
morning, and found my eternal childhood.”