San Francisco's Would Be Emperor

Bay Area's most colorful character took the throne 150 years ago

Hail to the emperor: It is the anniversary of his accession, after all.

It was 150 years ago today that Emperor Norton, one of San Francisco's most colorful characters, became the self-proclaimed ruler of the free world and the defender of Mexico.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in England, like any good monarch, but it was his move to San Francisco in 1849 that gave birth to his legend.

After losing his fortune, and some say his mind, Norton declared himself the "Emperor of these United States" in 1859.

Appropriately, one of his first acts as emporer was to dissolve Congress because of its rampant corruption. But being emperor wasn't all about defending the poor and patrolling the crooked. Being emperor had its perks.

Money with Norton's image was printed and honored in restaurants across the City. Police officers were told to salute him and when his dog died, Mark Twain wrote his obituary. The infamous author also based a character in "Huckleberry Finn" on the character that was Norton.

Emperor Norton I was a nut job, but he was San Francisco's nut job. And the City honored him as only San Franciscans can. Today there are still tributes to his brilliant reign, including a musical in his honor and the California Historical Society will feature Norton in an exhibit beginning Sept. 25.

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