When America had a Jewish emperor


Joshua Abraham Norton was a schizophrenic. In most cities in 19th-century America, he would probably have been confined to an insane asylum. Not in San Francisco. This bustling and boisterous California town -- it has been called the number-one tourist attraction in America -- has been tolerant of its eccentrics since it first became an American possession in 1848. Norton arrived in San Francisco in November 1849, part of the wave of Jewish settlers who were drawn by the Gold Rush. He had come a long way. Born in London in 1819, his family had migrated to South Africa, where his father, John Norton, was one of the founders of the first congregation in Cape Town. Norton's life in South Africa was a disaster. His parents and brother died and the family store went bankrupt. Thirty and unmarried, Norton decided to begin life anew in California. Initially, Norton was quite successful. Disdaining the gold fields, he became a commodity merchant and prosperous landowner. At one time he owned some of the prime real estate in downtown San Francisco, obtaining his financing from a local bank run by William Tecumseh Sherman, who was to gain infamy in the Civil War as a Union general. One of Norton's neighbors was a newspaper man by the name of Samuel L. Clemens, who began to write under the name of Mark Twain. The Dauphin, pretender to the French throne, one of the droll characters in Twain's classic.

Among Norton's enterprises was a rice mill where he ground rice for the local market. In 1852, there was a famine in China and the price of rice rose from 4 cents a pound to 36 cents a pound. Norton found out about a ship from Peru that carried 200,000 pounds of rice. He contracted to buy it all for 12-1/2 cents a pound, or $25,000, an enormous sum in 1852. Three days later, three more ships arrived in San Francisco loaded with rice. The price of rice plummeted to 3 cents a pound and Norton was wiped out. This second business failure was too much for him. Norton cracked and had a nervous breakdown.

Shortly, thereafter, a well-dressed man entered the office of the San Francisco Bulletin and left the following document, which he hoped would be inserted in the paper: "At the preemptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton ... declare and proclaim myself emperor of these U.S. ..." NORTON I, Emperor of the United States." The Bulletin published the entire announcement under the headline: "Have We An Emperor Among Us?" The reign of Emperor Norton I had begun. For 21 years, until his death in 1880, Norton was treated with dignity and amused respect by the citizens of San Francisco. He attended every public gathering and major theatrical presentation -- always at no charge. He obtained free cigars from tobacco stores, free wearing apparel, meals from restaurants, drinks from saloons, and rode the municipal trolleys free of charge. During the Civil War, he dressed in both Union and Confederate uniforms -- an emperor of all the people could not take sides -- but his favorite uniform was a royal blue jacket with large epaulets and a plumed top hat. He carried a sword on "special" state occasions. Born a Jew, the emperor was ecumenical in his beliefs. On Saturdays he sat in the first row of the balcony at Temple Emanuel, and on Sundays he would occupy a pew at St. Mary's or the First Unitarian Church. Troubled that he had never been crowned with God's blessing, Norton issued the following edict in 1862: "We do hereby command the leaders of the Hebrew, Catholic and Protestant churches to sanctify and have us crowned Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico." Norton became one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco, and his patronage was sought by many stores and restaurants who used his imprimatur in their advertisements.

Despite his title, Norton never lived regally, spending his last years in a series of broken-down boardinghouses. He died on the street on the night of January 8, 1880. Over 10,000 people came to see him lying in state. He was buried in a Masonic cemetery and was reburied in 1934 with full civic and military honors. His red granite tombstone reads: NORTON I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico; Joshua A. Norton; 1819-1880.

To this day, memories of Emperor Norton linger in San Francisco. The sightseeing boat from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz is named the Harbor Emperor and a figurehead of Norton I is on its bow. The Sheraton-Palace and Mansion Hotels have Emperor Norton rooms and suites. In 1981, the San Francisco Opera performed "Emperor Norton". You can still buy Emperor Norton cigars and Emperor Norton coffee in a city that has never forgotten its Jewish Emperor.