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
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
• He lost all when the bottom fell out of the rice
• 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,
• 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
• 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
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
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
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
Emperor Norton bicycling around San Francisco.
Send comments and questions to email@example.com
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.