“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.”
–Emperor Joshua Norton I
It was 154 years ago, September 17th 1859, the eclectic and ruined San Francisco businessman Joshua Norton strolled into the offices of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin and delivered his now-famous proclamation, declaring himself Emperor Norton. He later added Protector of Mexico to the title.
Thus officially launched Norton’s 21-year run as San Francisco’s most beloved character – dining for free on the kindness of citizens and firing off proclamations declaring such ideas as building a bridge between San Francisco to Oakland, and abolishing Congress. It would take more than 80 years for the Bay Bridge to open. Congress, it seems, is taking a bit longer.
“Some say he was crazy, some say he was crazy like a fox,” says Joseph Amster, a Norton look-a-like who leads walking tours through San Francisco. “I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth.”
To mark the anniversary of Norton’s declaration, members of E Clampus Vitus, a historical group devoted to early California history, turned out at San Francisco’s Gold Dust Lounge with several costumed Emperor Nortons in tow.
Every January, the Clampers, as they call themselves, visit Norton’s grave in Colma to mark the anniversary of his death on January 8th, 1880. It was reported tens of thousands of people turned out for his funeral in 1880.
“Norton’s story gets told over and over and over again,” said Amster, “of somebody who came here, met with adversity, reinvented himself - wildly successful at it.”
Historian Robert Chandler recently lead a campaign to get the Bay Bridge named after Norton. California’s legislature ended-up giving the honor to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
“Willie has the sharpest political mind in California today,” said Chandler. “But since we’re antiquaries, we much prefer the 19th century Emperor Norton.”
Norton’s devotees are quick to point out that in addition to walking the streets making proclamations, Norton was also an early civil rights activist of sorts. According to his legend, he fought to allow Chinese and African Americans to ride on segregated cable cars.
“He was a spokesman for the voiceless,” said Chandler, “arguing for good treatment for African Americans, Chinese, Native Americans - sailors.”
Norton even issued his own paper currency - in 50 cent denominations. On Tuesday his original bond notes occasionally pop-up for $15,000 on eBay.
The honor of such a man was reason enough to raise a pint, which the Clampers readily did – even at the crack of noon on Tuesday. They said in a city and region that prides itself on eclectic characters, Norton was truly the patron saint of individuality.
“I think Emperor Norton kind of appeals to the spirit of San Francisco, that we’ve always embraced people who were different,” said Amster. “That continues today.”