Notorious San Francisco: Emperor Norton

Charles J. Reed waits to testify before the Board of Supervisors as Emperor Norton in December, 2004. More >>
San Francisco rewards self invention. This is no truer than in the case of English merchant Joshua Norton, who came to the City from South Africa in 1849 with $40,000. Norton soon increased his fortune by prospecting real estate. When he went broke in a failed attempt to corner the rice market a decade later, a distraught Norton dropped out of sight. Several weeks later, on Sept. 17, 1859, he reemerged, dressed in a Union Army uniform, brandishing a sword and sporting a long white plume in his cap. He publicly declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. San Franciscans honored Emperor Norton by going along with his new persona. His proclamations, such as that which disbanded Congress and another ordering the construction of a bridge between the City and Oakland, were printed in City newspapers. Some merchants even accepted the money Emperor Norton minted. Arrested for involuntary treatment of a mental disorder in 1867, Norton was the subject of a huge outcry of public support. The uproar prompted Police Chief Patrick Crowley to apologize to the Emperor after ordering His Majesty's release. Only in legend was Norton sometimes attended by two stray dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, whose adventures were also followed in City newspapers. Bummer was poisoned in retaliation for biting a child in 1861. When Lazarus died two years later, Mark Twain wrote an epitaph. Norton was a well known figure along Montgomery Street in the Financial District. His address was listed as 624 Commercial Street by the U.S. Census Bureau. Neither the bench located on the sidewalk directly between 608 and 632 Commercial St. nor the site itself are landmarked or officially recognized except by Mister SF, and now by you. Visit this spot for a quiet moment to remember Emperor Norton and celebrate San Francisco as a haven for the self invented. It was Emperor Norton who famously banned the term "Frisco" when he decreed: "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." The tolerance and affection that San Franciscans felt for Norton were expressed when 10,000 people attended his funeral in 1880.

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