Interesting Facts About San Francisco's Colorful Past

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The man famously known in early San Francisco as His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was born in London, England, sometime between 1814 and 1819 (the exact date remains unclear). There was little to suggest, however, that the ambitious young Joshua A. Norton, who arrived in San Francisco in 1849, would go on to become one of the most colorful and beloved figures ever to take up residence in the rapidly expanding City by the Bay! Stepping off the boat from England, Joshua Norton carried with him the majestic sum of $40,000, inherited from his father who had died the previous year. The younger Norton enjoyed a highly successful career in the real estate market and as a merchant, so much so that by 1853 he had accumulted a fortune worth some $250,000. In an attempt to make a financial killing cornering the market on rice imported from Peru, he bought an entire shipload only to watch helplessly as tons of rice glutted the market, causing the price of rice to plummet. After years of litigation between Norton and his financial partners, the Supreme Court eventually dealt Norton a bitter defeat, leaving the young Englishman penniless. Norton declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left San Francisco for parts unknown.

When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he came back a changed man, acting decidedly odd and exhibiting delusions of grandeur. No one knew or remembered who he was or where he had come from, but his faultless attire and regal airs led to intense speculation and surmise. From beneath his polished silk hat fell a thick mane of black hair, and he walked with a curious flourish suggestive of the theater, his gold-headed cane held behind him. Supposedly, Norton spoke to no one, preserving the aura of mystery as he went his way unconcerned by the staring public. Every afternoon he would promenade down Montgomery Street absorbed in his own thoughts. Then on September 17, 1859, the mysterious stranger distributed letters to various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself to be Joshua A. Norton I, Emperor of these United States. Occasionally thereafter, he would add "Protector of Mexico" to this title, in the belief that America's neighbors to the south were in dire need of leadership and guidance. With these startling declarations, Norton began his unprecedented and remarkable 21-year "reign" over America.

It is not known how the citizens of San Fransisco initially felt about their new monarch, but they apparently soon got used to him, for he was often seen walking the streets of the city, dressed in his regal -- although frequently a bit worn -- alternating blue and grey uniform, to show his support for both the Union and the Confederacy, his beaver hat with its colored feathers, his saber at his side and gnarled cane and wiry umbrella in hand. When his uniform was worn out, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, presented him with another, for which he sent them a note of thanks and a patent for nobillity in perpetuity for each supervisor.

As Norton the I, Emperor of the United States of America, he lived at a boarding house on Commercial Street, and was registered as "Emperor, living at 624 Commercial St." in a census done August 1, 1870. He resided there for seventeen years, insisting on paying his rent by day instead of by the week. He was fed for free by some of San Fransisco's finest resturants, which he graciosly allowed to put up signs which said; "By Appointment to His Emperor, Joshua Norton I." He had a standing ticket, together with his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, at any play or concert in the city´s theatres. He was given a bicycle by the city as his means of royal transport, he was allowed to review the police to check that they performed their duty, and a special chair was reserved for him at each precinct. He marched at the head of the annual Police parade and reviewed the cadets at the University of California. In order to pay his bills he issued paper notes, mostly in 50 cent denominations but some $5 and $10 notes exist. Today they are worth far more than the face value (if they can be found).

In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of state. Deeming that he had assumed power, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress. Not surprisingly, Norton's "orders" had no effect on Congress, which continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further "decrees" in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. These, like all of Norton's decrees, passed unnoticed by the government in Washington, and by the nation at large. Refusing to be discouraged, Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout his "reign", though it appears that he eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this didn't change his feelings on the matter.

His days consisted of inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco, and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. Frequently he enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his ministrations Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, the appearance of police officers, and attend to the needs of his subjects as they arose. He would frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.

It was during one of his "Imperial inspections" that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts. During the 1860s and 1870s there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco, and ugly and fatal riots broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton is alleged to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head began to recite the Lord's Prayer repeatedly. Shamed, the rioters dispersed without incident.

The Empreror had two dogs, strays who apparently recognized a kindred spirit in the peculiar little man, and immediately adopted him. Lazarus and Bummer became Norton's constant companions and followers, and most of the contemporary cartoons of the emperor showed him walking his dogs. Tragedy struck, however, when, in october 1863, Lazarus was run over and killed by a fire-truck. A public funeral was held, and many prominet people turned up to console the Emperor. Bummer continued to beg for scraps at his masters´ feet until the 10th of November 1865 when he, too, shuffled off this mortal coil. Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for the noble canine, saying that he'd died "full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas."

As for the Emperor, he lived out his remaining years in his little room at 624 Commercial Street, continuing to oversee his domain during his daily walks. On January 8, 1880, tragedy once again struck San Francisco. On that sad day, Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was promoted to glory on California Street, on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences, two blocks away. The cause of death was apoplexy. In his pocket was found some telegrams, a coin purse, a two and half dollar gold piece, three dollars in silver, an 1828 French Franc, and a few of his own bonds. When reporters sacked the Emperors' tiny apartment they discovered that all he left behind in the world was his collection of walking sticks, his tasseled saber, newsclippings, his corrospondesce with Queen Victoria and Lincoln, and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine.

The Morning Call ran the headline; "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life." On the 10th of January 1880 Emperor Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Wealthy citizens of San Fransisco paid for the coffin and burial expenses. The funeral cortege was two miles long and an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people turned up for the funeral. It is reported by some that his burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun.

On June 30, 1934, his grave was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery by the citizens of San Francisco. On January 7, 1980, San Fransisco marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its only Emperor with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets.

Coming in DECEMBER, San Francisco's infamous BARBARY COAST.

Sources: "Joshua A. Norton", from Wikipedia Encyclopedia, "San Francisco Kaleidoscope" by Samuel Dickson, "The Fantastic City", by Amelia Ransome Neville, and excerpts from The Emperor Norton website.



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