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Meet Emperor Norton: The First (and only) Emperor of the United States

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Emperor Norton Portrait

(Note: This post refers to a story on our Secrets, Scandals, and Scoundrels of San Francisco tour. Click to learn more about that tour, or sign up today!)

Throughout its history, San Francisco has always been full of fascinating characters. You may have read about two "simple" prospectors conning the richest man in California out of $600,000 in the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Or possibly you've heard about the famous San Francisco Shanghai. But none of these characters come close to the fame, notoriety, and downright fascination as Emperor Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

What, you didn't know the United States was once ruled by a benevolent Emperor? Well, read on for this amazing story!

Born in Britain around 1818, Joshua Norton's parents died when he was in his 20s, leaving him an estate worth about $40,000 (a considerable sum of money in those days!)

In 1849, Norton decided to come to San Francisco with the same dreams that many new San Franciscans had: he wanted to strike it rich! But he didn't want to follow the miners into the gold fields. He decided to earn his fortune not by mining the hills, but by mining the miners.

Norton began investing in real estate. He bought plots of land all over the city, for which the value was continually increasing. With a constantly increasing population, there wasn't enough land to go around. Norton's fortune grew until it was about $250,000, or about $5 million in today's dollars.

At the same time, Norton was looking for something to really increase his fortune. The value of rice had dramatically increased because of a shortage from China. One day, a ship full of rice steamed into the San Francisco Bay, and the captain approached Norton with a proposal. Norton could get a steep discount on the rice, but he had to agree to buy the ship's entire cargo of rice. Norton saw a way to triple his money, so he bought the whole ship, about 25,000 pounds worth.

Unfortunately, within two weeks, another 4 ships full of rice would steam into the harbor. Norton had been tricked! The rice market plummeted, and Norton lost a large amount of money.

At the same time, the Gold Rush was losing steam. Very few people were finding gold anymore, so the flow of people into San Francisco slowed to a trickle. The real estate market crashed, along with all of Norton's holdings.

He was bankrupt, and ruined.

Joshua Norton Disappears, Emperor Norton Arrives

Emperor Norton in Uniform

Norton disappeared from public view. Two years later, a strange looking man showed up at the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin. The man was wearing a full military uniform, complete with buttons, epaulettes and a sword, along with a strange hat with a peacock feather in it. The man asked for an ad to be published. In the ad, Joshua Norton had declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

During this time, there were a dozen daily newspapers in the region that were desperate for good stories, and this seemed to be a great one. The newspaper immediately published Emperor Norton's declaration.

By 1861, the legend of the Emperor was in full swing. The local playhouse put on a production entitled Norton the First. From that moment on, every time a theater opened a new show, they would reserve a seat in the front row for the Emperor. Whenever he arrived, the theater manager would escort him to his seat as the orchestra played a fanfare and the audience stood up and cheered him.

During this time, Norton was still completely broke. His only source of income came from the charity of others.

San Francisco Rallies Around Emperor Norton

In 1867, a police officer arrested Emperor Norton on the charge of vagrancy. Word got out to the local press, and newspapers printed scathing reports. "How dare they arrest our Emperor!" The next day, the chief of police released the Emperor with an official apology. From that day forward, whenever the Emperor would pass police officers in the streets, the officers would salute him!

Area restaurants got in on the act as well. Norton could often eat for free, with the restaurant proudly displaying a sign in their window reading "Emperor Norton Ate Here."

Emperor Norton Saves the Day

During this time, there was a large amount of discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Thousands of them had come to the US, and many people throughout the nation didn't like all the new immigrants. One day, a mob of people began marching towards Chinatown with violent intentions. Before they could arrive, Emperor Norton walked in front of the crowd and knelt on the ground. He began reciting the Lord's Prayer, and he said "we are all God's children." The mob dispersed without causing any violence.

Emperor Norton Currency

The Emperor rode all the city's streetcars and trolleys for free. Whenever anybody demanded payment, the Emperor would simply hand over an Imperial Treasury note, which, remarkably, people accepted! Except one time, the Emperor was on a Central Pacific train, going to do some imperial business in Sacramento. The ticket taker refused to accept the money, which enraged the emperor. He went on a tirade saying how dare he! The conductor of the train came back and apologized to the Emperor. Soon after that, Leland Stanford, the owner of the Central Pacific railroad (and for whom Stanford University is named), presented the Emperor with a free pass on all Central Pacific trains for life!

Le Roi Est Mort

In 1880, Emperor Norton's reign finally ended. It was a cool evening in San Francisco, and as the Emperor was out for a stroll, he collapsed and breathed his last breath.

The next day, the very same day that the new Governor of California was sworn in, the local newspaper dedicated 4 lines to the new governor, and 34 inches to an obituary of Emperor Norton, under the headline "Le Roi Est Mort" (translation: The King is Dead). The main newspaper in Cincinnati, a place the Emperor had never visited, devoted half a page to him. They called him "an emperor without enemies, a king without a kingdom, supported in life by the willing tribute of a free people."

10,000 people attended the funeral of the Emperor. These people, from all walks of life, were there to celebrate the life of the man who had brought joy to so many. The funeral procession trailed for two miles throughout the city.

There are few better symbols of the generosity, openness, and downright quirkiness of San Franciscans than Emperor Norton. So when you come out to San Francisco, remember to salute the only Emperor we have ever had, and come learn some new tales about amazing characters from San Francisco history on a walking tour in our amazing city!

About The Author


Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: January 5th, 2016
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