Simanaitis Says

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ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1859, after having bankrupted big time on a rice scam, Joshua Abraham Norton sent the following proclamation to several San Francisco newspapers: “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.”

His proclamation also ordered representatives from around the country to assemble in San Francisco, “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. — NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”

The San Francisco Bulletin printed Norton’s proclamation as a joke. Indeed, the people of the city went along whimsically with his lunacy for Norton I’s 21-year reign.

Joshua Abraham Norton, c. 1818–1880, British-born American, self-proclaimed Emperor Norton I of the United States, from September 17, 1859, until his death, recognized by contemporaries as a harmless lunatic. Image, c. 1875, from, to my knowledge, the best documented source on Norton.

Emperor Norton I certainly knew how to give people what they wanted. An October 12, 1859, decree abolished the U.S. Congress: “… 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…”

Hmm… Maybe not so loopy after all.

Or maybe, like James Thurber’s Grandfather, he “was given to these sudden, unexpected, and extremely lucid moments.”

The emperor and his bicycle. Image from

Norton I was an emperor to perfection: He wore a blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes (given to him by officers at the Presidio of San Francisco). He decorated his beaver top hat with a peacock feather and rosette.

He scammed free meals from the finest San Francisco restaurants, which would later add brass plaques declaring “By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.” Norton also issued Imperial Seals of Approval to local plays and musical attractions; theaters reciprocated with reserved seats.

In 1867, a cop had the temerity to arrest the emperor and commit him to involuntary treatment for mental disorder. Citizens were outraged; scathing editorials appeared in the newspapers. The Chief of Police had Norton released with a formal apology; policemen thereafter gave the emperor a salute as he passed.

The 1870 U.S. census listed Joshua Norton, 50 years old, Eureka Lodges, 624 Commercial Street, occupation Emperor.

Emperor Norton I spent his days touring his realm, at least the San Francisco portion thereof, often accompanied by two mutts, Bummer and Lazarus. They were known to benefit from his Imperial Kindness at local bars’ free lunches.

Emperor Norton I, Bummer, and Lazarus. Image from

The emperor paid his debts by issuing his own currency in denominations between 50 cents and ten dollars. These became accepted local currency and are prized by collectors today.

An Imperial ten spot. Image from

Alas, on January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton I collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) Streets. He died before he could be given medical treatment. Nearly 30,000 thousand people lined the streets of San Francisco for his funeral cortege.

He is remembered, nay revered, in several ways. The con man King in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is based on Emperor Norton I. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker includes Emperor Norton I as a character.

Emperor Norton I made his most memorable decree in 1872. Or perhaps he did; imperial authenticity remains illusive: “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 the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Bruce Troxell
    December 8, 2017

    Perhaps you should amend the title of this article to ‘…America’s only Emperor So Far”. Trump isn’t quite done yet, unfortunately.

  2. Bob DuBois
    December 8, 2017

    In the mid- and late-50s,the San Francisco Examiner ran a yearly “emperor norton treasure Hunt”. Each day, a clue would be published in the paper as to the location of the treasure. It usually took 3 to 4 weeks of clues to narrow it down to the exact spot. It was always buried in a public spot, such as Tilden Regional Park, at some local beach, etc. By the time it would be found there were thousands of people running around digging holes everywhere that they thought the clues led them. So, Emperor Norton was still a presence in the Bay Area.

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