Sep 172013


On this date in 1859 Joshua Abraham Norton (c. 1819 – 1880), proclaimed himself “Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I of the United States,” and subsequently “Protector of Mexico.”

Norton was born in England and spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father’s estate, arriving aboard the steam yacht Hurlothrumbo. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, and made a considerable amount of money in real estate. But he lost it all investing in Peruvian rice to corner the market when China briefly stopped exports and causing the price to skyrocket. Shortly after he signed a contract for a shipload of rice, several other shiploads arrived from Peru pushing the price of rice back down to normal levels. Norton tried to void the contract, stating the dealer had misled him as to the quality and quantity of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay his debt. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left the city for a time.


When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself “Emperor of these United States,”

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.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
    —NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

The announcement was first reprinted for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. Norton would later add “Protector of Mexico” to this title. So began his rather eccentric, yet not entirely trivial, 21-year reign over the United States of America.


The emperor’s requested meeting never took place of course. Nevertheless Norton assumed his exalted position. Dressed in baggy, faded blue, military-style uniform, complete with gilt epaulets and shiny brass buttons, Norton began to strut about the streets of San Francisco as if he did indeed rule the city. Although he wore other hats during his reign, it was a beaver hat resplendent with tall feathers that Norton seemed to prefer. But it was the Emperor’s regal bearing and attitude itself that made him the impressive figure that he was. Norton looked and acted every inch a king, even if at times his royal outfit was ill fitting and a little worse for wear. With a ceremonial sword at his side and an umbrella or walking stick as his scepter, the bearded monarch strolled about his domain. During his daily patrol of the streets of San Francisco Norton made certain that all sidewalks were unobstructed. He reviewed the police to see that they were on duty. He checked on the progress of needed street repairs, inspected buildings under construction, and in general saw to it that all of the city’s ordinances were enforced.


Norton was pestered at times with a few teasing hecklers, but on the whole the citizens of San Francisco adopted the eccentric ex-merchant and actually afforded him the royal treatment he commanded. He was allowed to eat in restaurants as the guest of the owners. As his fame spread, the restaurateurs actually vied for his royal patronage and approval. Transportation was provided free of charge. At one point the city provided an annual sum for the Emperor’s trappings. To take care of any other physical needs of his royal person, Norton was even allowed to issue bonds, collect taxes from his subjects, or cash his own scrip (payable “by the agents of our Private Estate, in case the Government of Norton the First does not hold firm”), printed free of charge by local printers. As a wise dictator Norton was careful not to impose undue burdens on his subjects. His needs were modest, so his periodic demands on his subjects for financial assistance were kept to a minimum.


The citizens of the young city saw to it that Emperor Norton was well provided for, but they also went a step further. They more than humored his delusions. They even seemed to be proud that their city had the honor of being his royal capital. Whether it was a salute or a bow as they passed him on the street, they universally gave their Emperor the tribute he expected. They even listed him in the city directory as “Norton, Joshua (Emperor), dwl. Metropolitan Hotel.” They allowed him to review the cadets at the University of California. They gave him a place of honor at plays, concerts, public lectures, and other civic affairs. The police department – Norton’s “Imperial Constabulary” –  reserved a special chair for him at the precinct station and even prevailed upon him to march at the head of their annual parade.

Norton enjoyed the powers and privileges befitting an emperor, but he did more than simply accept the tribute of his subjects. Norton I was a working monarch. While much of his time was spent inspecting his domain, he never neglected his paperwork. During his reign Norton issued a wide variety of royal documents, and, as loyal subjects, newspaper editors followed his command and printed them.


On the local scene, Norton once issued a proclamation to ensure that proper respect was paid to his beloved capital city.

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abdominal word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor.

Penalty for noncompliance was $25. The proclamation obviously proved difficult to enforce, but many native San Franciscans to this day abide by it.

Outwardly, Norton I may have lost touch with reality, but his altruistic goals and aspirations for his adopted country – and  his insight into what his country needed — were remarkable. As early as July of 1860 Emperor Norton saw trouble brewing between the North and the South and declared that the Union be dissolved for the duration of the emergency. He wanted to arbitrate the Civil War, but no one seemed inclined to take him up on his generous offer.

In 1869 he showed uncanny foresight when he ordered a bridge built across the San Francisco Bay. People laughed at his ridiculous proposal, but about sixty years later the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge became a reality. Today a plaque honors the Emperor’s wisdom: “Pause traveler, and be grateful to Norton I… whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay…”


Emperor Norton’s love and concern for San Francisco did not prevent him from directing his attention to the national scene. His Royal Majesty soon tired of all the political mudslinging going on in the country, and he decided to put an end to it by issuing another of his famous proclamations in the San Francisco Herald on August 4, 1869:

Being desirous of allaying the dissension’s of party strife now existing within our realm, [I] do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also do hereby degree the disfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten, nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree.


Norton ruled much of his kingdom by proclamations, but he was not above dealing directly with the problems and issues requiring his attention. During one of the typical anti-Chinese demonstrations so common at the time, the Emperor gave the local populace a lesson in the practical application of civics and prayer. Sensing the dangerously heated tone of one particular encounter, Norton is reported to have stood up before the group, bowed his head and begun reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Within a few minutes the agitators retreated in shame without putting any of their threats into action.

The Emperor’s position on equal rights for women, however, seemed to fluctuate. An October 1878 petition to the California Constitutional Convention calling for an amendment “that no citizens of the State shall be disfranchised on account of sex” had among its signers “Norton I Emperor.” While not a typical 19th century male chauvinist, however, Norton drew a thin line around a woman’s role. When the Emperor came to hear a noted leader of the movement lecture on women’s rights, for example, it seemed in order for the master of ceremonies to introduce Norton and suggest that he step up on the stage before the guest speaker and receive the greetings of his subjects. It is not recorded what the reaction was when he decided to lecture on the subject himself, telling those women present to “go home and mind their children.”


Although Norton was obviously busy with his local and national duties, he also found time to dabble in foreign affairs. At one time he let it be known that Mexico had “beseeched him to rule over her.” As a result, he added “Protector of Mexico” to his already onerous title. But his protectorate did not last long; he shortly dropped it with the explanation that it was “impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.”

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary’s Church while on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed and “the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital.” Norton died before a carriage could arrive. The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). In a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that, “[o]n the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: “Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”


It quickly became evident that, contrary to the rumors, Norton had died in complete poverty. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up a single gold sovereign, then worth around $2.50; his collection of walking sticks; his rather battered saber; a variety of headgear (including a stovepipe hat, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and another cap suited to a martial band-master); an 1828 French franc; and a handful of the Imperial bonds he sold to tourists at a fictitious 7% interest. There were fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine.

Initial funeral arrangements were for a pauper’s coffin of simple redwood. However, members of the Pacific Club, a San Francisco businessman’s association, established a funeral fund that provided for a handsome rosewood casket and arranged a suitably dignified farewell. Norton’s funeral on Sunday, January 10, was solemn, mournful, and large. Paying their respects were members of “…all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast.” Some accounts say as many as 30,000 people lined the streets, and that the funeral cortège was two miles (3 km) long. San Francisco’s total population was then 230,000. Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco.

I wanted to find an imperial recipe that was suitable for Emperor Norton’s standing with a San Francisco flavor. Crab Imperial seems up to the task.  It is actually a Maryland dish, but I have adapted it for Dungeness crab which is a San Francisco specialty. Ideally you should get fresh crabs, boil them, and reserve the shells for cooking. If this is not possible, use lump crab meat and bake in scallop shells or ramekins. Serve as an appetizer on royal occasions.



Dungeness Crab Imperial


meat of 6 small Dungeness crabs plus 4 shells
¼ cup butter
1 tbsp finely chopped shallots
½ cup mushrooms, diced fine
½ red bell pepper, diced fine
¼ cup flour
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup sherry
1 tsp salt
2 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp Tabasco sauce or other hot sauce
2 tbsp mayonnaise
melted butter for serving
lemon wedges


Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C

Butter the crab shells and place on a baking tray.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a skillet and sauté shallots for a minute or two. Then add the mushrooms and peppers, and sauté until they are tender.

Add the flour and cook, stirring with a whisk, until bubbling.  Slowly add the milk, and stir constantly until the sauce thickens.  Add the sherry and seasonings.  Cook gently for about 10 minutes then add the crab meat.

Remove from the heat, cool, and stir in mayonnaise.

Spoon into the shells and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. If additional browning is desired, place under a broiler briefly.

Serve with lemon wedges and melted butter.

Serves 4