Sep 21, 2023 - Culture

A self-proclaimed emperor who called San Francisco home

Undated photograph of Joshua A. Norton, known as the eccentric of San Francisco. Photo: Bettmann / Unknown Contributor

Joshua Abraham Norton — who proclaimed himself "Emperor Norton" —began his "reign" in San Francisco in 1859.

How it happened: Norton was born in England and spent his early years in South Africa before coming to America. Once he made his way to our city in 1849, he became a successful commodities trader and real estate speculator.

Details: After facing financial ruin due to a failed attempt to corner the rice market, he reinvented himself as emperor. Though he had no formal political power, many people went along with his charade.

  • Some establishments issued currency in his name while merchants sold souvenirs bearing his image. He frequently made proclamations in the newspaper and enjoyed free ferry and train rides.
  • When Norton died in 1880, San Francisco Chronicle reported that over 10,000 people lined the city streets to honor him.

Of note: San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted earlier this year to designate the 600 block of Commercial Street "Emperor Norton Place" to commemorate him.

Photo of an Emperor Norton impersonator, dressed in full regalia and waving a walking stick
Joseph Amster, impersonator of Emperor Norton on his tour in Union Square. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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