The Bonanza Age in San Francisco: Emperor Norton I

December 5, 2015 | By | Reply More

nort50cBy 1876, San Francisco had reached the respectable age of one hundred, since both presidio and mission date from 1776.

Now the infant pueblo which had been catapulted into worldwide significance because of the discovery of gold, had arrived securely at a place in the sun of civilization.

The four decades between 1860 and 1900 carried on the pace and excitement thus begun.

Vibrant personalities and interesting events marked these fascinating decades.

As will be seen, San Francisco had a bit of just about everything during these years, including is share of civic characters.

Perhaps one such, Joshua A. Norton (1819 -1880) the famous “Emperor Norton I” should find immediate mention.

His story will always remain high on the list of San Franciscana.

He was an English Jew who, after amassing considerable wealth in rice speculation in San Francisco, lost all in a sudden financial reverse.

This induced a genial for of self-delusion which caused him to proclaim himself as “Norton I, Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico”; soon accompanied by his two faithful dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, he walked (perhaps “processed” would be the more accurate term) the streets of San Francisco, dressed in a bedraggled uniform complete with epaulets and a cocked hat.

Until his sudden death in 1880, the “Emperor” formed a colorful part in the daily life of a city that had never, at least since Gild Rush times, been without color; all these years, Norton was the object of charity for he never paid for his meals or lodging but simply left signed chits to take care of such material considerations.

It will probably never be settled whether the “Emperor” was as demented as he seemed: there are some who think that he was pretty much of a shrewd operator who knew a good thing, and city, when he found both combined.

Whatever the truth, it should be remarked that, perhaps, the chief merit in the San Francisco story of Emperor Norton is that he probably could not have lived out such a life anywhere else; he would have been quickly disposed of on vagrancy or other charges.

Never did this happen to the “Emperor” in the center of his “kingdom,” or elsewhere within its royal confines.

At least two lives of Emperor Norton have been written, while he is continually mentioned even today.

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Category: Curiosities, Fog City - City of Fog

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