Once upon a time, in the City by the Bay, there lived a great emperor. He wore a long, Napoleonic coat topped with epaulets, carried a saber, and was saluted by an adoring public everywhere he went. He regularly attended governmental meetings, tried to abolish congress, and made written proclamations decrying everything from racial injustice to those who would dare call his city "Frisco."
Emperor Norton was outspoken, eccentric, and had a few screws loose. And here in San Francisco – a city long known for its embrace of the supremely offbeat – he wasn't just tolerated, but beloved.
To kick off a new series we're calling "Stranger than Fiction," which will look at some of San Francisco's most colorful historic characters and the places where they've left their marks, we're introducing you to the city's patron saint of absurdity.
Birth of a Legend
According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Norton was a native of Scotland who made his way to San Francisco's Barbary Coast during the Gold Rush in 1849. He disappeared in 1854 after losing his fortune trying to monopolize the local rice market, ostensibly losing his mind as well. A few years later, he turned up at the offices of The San Francisco Bulletin with a hand-written decree naming himself Emperor of the United States (later adding "Protector of Mexico" to his title). It must have been a slow news day, because the paper's editor decided to print the announcement, unwittingly inaugurating the two-decade reign of Emperor Norton.
Soon, Norton was treated like royalty everywhere he went. Local restaurants would feed him for free; policemen were ordered to salute him on the street rather than have him committed. Even the 1870 U.S. census listed Norton's occupation as "Emperor," and when he died ten years later, the headline in the Chronicle proclaimed, "The King is Dead."
Today, the absurd Emperor Norton is still a source of local pride, and you'll find his influence all over the city if you just know where to look.
Emperor Norton would be proud if you started with a glance at the Bay Bridge, connecting Oakland and San Francisco. Norton was the first person to suggest the idea for the marvelous structure in 1872, more than 60 years before it actually got built. In recent years, admirers of His Highness (including a county supervisor and a local cartoonist), have lobbied – ultimately without success – to have the bridge renamed after Emperor Norton. For the best bridge vistas, head to the waterfront Embarcadero Street, or get adventurous and hop a bus across the bridge to Treasure Island.
The Emperor spent much of his time in and around North Beach, now the city's Italian neighborhood, where he owned several parcels of land before losing his wealth. Today the neighborhood's full of Italian restaurants and cafés perfect for an afternoon drink, or a dinner of pasta and spumoni. But the ultimate sign of Norton in North Beach is at the Comstock Saloon, a bar outfitted like a Gold Rush watering hole. The bar has commissioned and installed a four-and-a-half-foot-tall, 350-pound bronze statue of the emperor to watch over the room.
It's said that when the Prime Minister of Brazil visited the city in 1876, he requested – and was granted – a meeting with the American emperor at the Palace Hotel. The Palace has since then hosted countless other celebrities and dignitaries, but has reserved a special honor for Emperor Norton. Take a free historical walking tour of the grand old hotel, or just pop your head into its Pied Piper bar, and you'll see a series of paintings by Antonio Sotomayer, who worked in the hotel in the 1920s. One painting features prominent early San Franciscans, with Emperor Norton in the foreground.
Portsmouth Square was where Norton liked to spend his afternoons, chatting with friends and exchanging his own "currency" for 50-cent "taxes" levied from passersby. (Legend has it that a piece of Norton’s currency even became a must-have souvenir for the city's early tourists). The neighborhood surrounding Portsmouth Square later became the largest Chinatown outside of Asia – a fitting coincidence, as the Emperor was in his time a vocal opponent of unfair treatment of Asians and African Americans. In Portsmouth Square Plaza today, you'll find a monument honoring Robert Louis Stevenson, famous author and self-proclaimed fan of Emperor Norton.
Norton died during an evening walk on Jan. 7, 1880 at the southeast corner of California St. and Grant Ave. The Emperor had been living in a ten-by-six-foot room in a nearby lodging house, where the Masons paid his nightly rent. Today, the boarding house is gone, but it's been replaced by an arguably more comfortable place to relax: a Privately Owned Public Open Space called Empire Park.
True Norton fans may want to hop a BART train out to Colma, just south of San Francisco, to visit Norton's grave. Though the Emperor's funeral service in San Francisco is said to have drawn upwards of 10,000 mourners, his body (along with many others) was later exhumed and moved to Colma's Woodlawn Cemetery. To pay your own respects, just stop by the cemetery's office and ask for directions to his Imperial Majesty's headstone (don't worry -- the staff will know exactly what you're talking about).
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
To learn more about Norton and the Gold-Rush-era San Francisco he inhabited, spend a few hours on the Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine tour. For $20 a ticket, a local history buff and Norton authority – in character, and costume, as His Imperial Highness – takes visitors on offbeat walking tours of the city. Stories and stops focus on the bits of San Francisco's history that are weird, wacky, and wonderful – just like Norton himself.