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Norton I, Famous for Being Well-Known

by Greg Pabst

Celebrity is a capricious state in that, while many seek the public eye, few catch and hold it. Consider Joshua Norton, the self-styled Emperor of the United States and erstwhile Protector of Mexico.

The fast and easy analysis–maybe crazy, maybe not so crazy, but everybody in San Francisco loved him just the same! The Cranky Historian suggests that a closer look helps explain this supposedly universal municipal "love."

A few well-documented facts:

• Joshua Norton was a successful merchant in the gold rush and a member of the first Vigilance Committee.

• He lost all when the bottom fell out of the rice market.

• He returned to public attention after some years–much changed in mental condition–to anoint himself "royalty."

• His celebrity reached its zenith in the last ten years of his life–and continues today.

Much was written about "The Emp" in his own time, most of it in a lightly humorous vein. The usual theme, "only in San Francisco," is in the DNA of our collective self-identity.

Yes! San Francisco IS different, that's why we live here. It's what historians call "exceptionalism," we celebrate it, and we exploit it.

Norton I: Emperor of the United States (1986), exhaustively researched and written by former newspaperman William Drury, tells the story best, I think.

Drury adds:

• An Englishman named Nathan Peiser claimed to have lived with the Norton family in South Africa for more than a year.

• The family consisted of English-born parents John and Sarah and nine children (Joshua the eldest).

• They were observant Jews.

• Peiser, also Jewish, recalled Joshua sometimes exhibited bizarre behavior, and especially remembered an incident when he disrupted family prayers.

Peiser eventually found his way to California and again encountered Joshua:

My old friend then told me that he was not the son of Mr. Norton of Cape Town, but the crown prince to the throne of France; that he had been sent to Cape Town to save himself from assassination; that he was adopted by Mr. Norton and retained his name ... and taken the title "Emperor" to which he was entitled rightly to bear ... I looked at the man a moment and then told him I thought he was crazy; to which he replied, "And so do a good many others."

Whatever his state of mental health, it marked him as eccentric, but not unusual. Drury quotes Amelia Neville, whose carriage, he says, "frequently traveled the avenue of banks and cranks." She noted that "So many quaint gentlemen, who in a modern city would face the indignity of being 'run in,' passed unmolested in Montgomery Street." Norton's "peers" bore titles like George Washington the Second and the King of Pain. Exceptionalism again.

But Norton differentiated himself through media, and his proclamations–front page of the Evening Bulletin–sold papers. Even faked proclamations by competing papers lifted sales. And when the proclamations and coverage got the attention of out-of-town reporters, Norton became a topic for human interest stories worldwide–and it made him famous.

Norton was soon putting jingle in the pockets of San Francisco entrepreneurs. Tourists wanted to meet this "only in San Francisco" eccentric who would exchange some of their currency for his own–his autographed on the spot.

Tourists could take home memorabilia, plaster statues of His Royal Highness or lithographs by cartoonist Ed Jump of Emp's Adventures, or send a Norton picture postcard, or smoke an Emperor Norton Imperial Cigar.

Nathan Peiser was probably right, Norton was pretty crazy. But at the same time, he became a celebrity, famous for being well known (and famous for being crazy; check People magazine, some things don't change), but profits were made, especially after the opening of the trans- continental railroad, carrying waves of early tourists.

But from a 21st century point of view, Norton is somewhat a tragic figure, locked inside an illness that nonetheless enriched others.

Mark Twain, who knew the Emperor before his celebrity was widespread, wrote sympathetically, "O, dear, it was always a painful thing for me to see the Emperor begging, for although nobody else believed he was an Emperor, he believed it."

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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Emperor Norton bicycling around San Francisco.

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