On the Trail of Emperor Norton

I am at the corner of Grant and California Streets, across the intersection from where Emperor Norton died. On that corner stands a store called Imperial Fashion; I am across the street--at McDonald's.

It is odd to chase down the site where an obscure figure in American history died. When normal people come to San Francisco, they see normal sights like Haight-Ashbury, Cliff House, Golden Gate Park, even Alcatraz. My obsession with Joshua Norton is overtaking me.

I buy a large coffee and stare across the street. It's nine in the morning. Fog hides the sun. The breakfast crowd thins out. Only the straggling retired men and unemployed wait for their coffee to cool, pondering all the things they should be doing.

There are things I should be doing, too. Like going home -- finding a job. When I was fired from my summer job in Seattle, I decided to take my last few dollars and travel down the West Coast, staying with friends and family along the way. So here I am, nearly broke in Chinatown.

Emperor Norton would have understood. He tarried at cheap, unfashionable lunch counters -- the nineteenth century counterparts of McDonald's -- where he and many others could have some basic meal of cold cuts and bread for free -- if one bought a drink. He regularly trod a path from his fifty cent a night room, to the Library at the Mechanics Institute, and then to the lunch counters. His routine must have been quite similar to the daily travels of the depressing folks I silently share coffee with.

But Joshua Norton was no ordinary bum--he was Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. I first heard of him from reading the Principia Discordia, written by the Joshua Norton Cabal of the Discordian Society. Their motto is: "Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Herman Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton." The Discordian Society is sometimes called "nonsense disguised as religion or vice versa."

Until I found the biography of Norton I by William Drury, I thought he was a fictional character--he was just too cool to be real. I read the biography eagerly--mostly at bus stops, on buses and at the unfashionable lunch counters I frequented.

Joshua Norton was a businessman, an English Jew born in London and raised in South Africa. He came to San Francisco in 1849 to seek his fortune in gold but soon turned to commerce. In December of 1852, a rice famine in China caused the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four cents per pound to thirty-seven cents per pound. A business friend of Norton's told him that a ship named the Glyde was in harbor with its hold full of Peruvian rice. Norton bought the entire cargo for twelve cents a pound. The next day, another ship full of Peruvian rice sailed in, followed by another and another and another. When the dust finally settled, rice was selling for three cents a pound, and Norton was ruined.

Little is known about what Joshua Norton did during the years following his bankruptcy, but on September 17, 1859 the San Francisco Bulletin printed the following announcement:

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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; 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 February 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 public was wildly intrigued by the prospect of having an Emperor living in San Francisco. The papers fought to publish all his subsequent proclamations. Papers played a little more "fast and loose" with the facts back then and sometimes they even fabricated proclamations by Norton to improve sales. Scholars true to the legend generally agree that they can identify which proclamations were really "given under Norton's imperial hand," because his grammar and punctuation are generally better than those of the newspaper editors.

Norton I had some pretty far reaching plans. In March of 1872, the Pacific Appeal--recognized as the "official" newspaper of the Emperor--printed a proclamation that called for "a suspension bridge to be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and thence to Telegraph Hill." In the 1930's, the San Francisco Bay Bridge was built--exactly as Norton had recommended.

Even more before his time, he also called for "a Bible convention, to be held in the city of San Francisco... for the purpose of eliminating all doubtful passages contained in the present printed edition of the Bible, and that measures be adopted towards the obliteration of all religious sects and the establishment of an Universal Religion."

He was humored by all those who knew him, but he would have died in obscurity except that the transcontinental railroad was completed. For the first time, it was possible to travel across the continent for entertainment. Tourism had been invented. San Francisco wanted to cash in on the idea of people coming just to see the city, but there was nothing to see in those days.

The city of San Francisco publicized the fact that they had an Emperor. Stores that may have never seen the Emperor had signs in the window reading: "By appointment to his Imperial Majesty Norton I." Newspapers printed real or fabricated proclamations almost daily. Small, plaster statuettes of His Highness were sold in souvenir shops.

The Emperor himself was not to be outdone by those making their living off of his fame. In 1869, he commissioned Imperial Treasury bond certificates from Cuddy and Hughes Printers. They were ornamental promissory notes for fifty cents, which he signed and dated upon sale. Fifty cents was a small price to pay, after all, for a permanent record of a personal audience with His Majesty. This scheme kept the Imperial Treasury solvent for the rest of his life. Were these the acts of an insane man?

People who knew Norton personally said that apart from his insistance that he was Emperor, he was perfectly reasonable and highly intellectual. He was regarded without sarcasm as a honest, noble, intelligent man. People respected him because he respected them.

When a young patrolman who didn't know any better accidentally arrested Norton for lunacy, the judge publically rebuked the officer saying: "Norton has shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for most fellows in the king line."

How far from my world it all seems. All the rice in Peru couldn't make me Emperor. I finish my coffee stuck in the body of an unemployed cake decorator. I hesitate to cross the intersection -- half afraid to enter his world; half afraid not to.

First I go to the store named Imperial Fashion to ask if they had taken the name to honor the memory of the great man who died practically on their doorstep.

"I noticed the name," I say to the woman at the counter, "Is that because of Emperor Norton?"

"Who?" she asks.

I shake my head and walk out.

Here at the corner of California and Grant on January 8, 1880, Joshua Norton slumped in the gutter and died.

Neil Gaiman devoted an issue of the comic book Sandman to the story of Emperor Norton. In the comic, Norton dies in the rain after climbing the Grant Street hill. I'm looking at the hill. I'm standing in the gutter. At my feet is a five-inch long pigeon feather. Norton had a bunch of feathers on the front of his high hat. The few portraits that exist show him wearing the top hat with feathers and pieces of both Confederate and Union army uniforms. I pick up the feather. This is a sign. It had fallen from the band of his hat and had drifted a hundred and thirteen years into the future to land at my feet.

I clutch that feather like an important document -- my invitation into the Imperial City.

The sun burns off the fog and warms the damp sidewalks. Around me the shops open like flowers. This is Chinatown -- where something exotic peers out with googly eyes from every store window. The jade dragons, ceramic Buddhas, silk apple blossoms and discount appliances emerge from their shops, pushed onto the streets by shopkeepers determined to tempt tourists. I walk through Chinatown admiring the wares, feeling myself smiling vaguely at everything. Passerby return my vague smile and perhaps a nod here and there. I walk to the bus stop and wait for a bus to Colma.

Drury's book said that the Emperor had been given a royal funeral. His final resting place was in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma. I have to see it for myself.

The bus runs down El Camino Real--right past the gates to Woodlawn. I stride to the cemetery office.

"I'm looking for a the grave of a particular individual," I announce to the blonde woman at the desk.

"Do you know the individual's name?" she replies.


She hands me a note pad. "Write it down and I'll look up the site."

I write: "Emperor Norton I," and hand it back to her.

She looks at it, spins to the file cabinet behind her, stops, looks at the note again, and spins back to face me with a big smile. "Oh, you're here to see the Emperor," she says. "I can show you where he is." She produces a small, printed map of the cemetery and points to the top left corner where the words "Emperor Norton" dominate Section H.

"All you do is drive right up this hill," she says pointing simultaneously with her right hand to the map and with her left hand up the hill behind her.

"I'm walking."

"Oh, well that's quite a hike." She looks over my shoulder. "Jim," she says to a person behind me, "This man is here to see the Emperor--could you drive him up?"

I turn around. A tan, Latino groundskeeper in green workclothes smiles at me. "Sure," he says.

"He'll take you up there," she says.

I follow the groundskeeper out. He has a station wagon parked outside. We get in, and he drives two hundred yards or so--quite a hike by California standards. He stops in the middle of the narrow road and leads me to the tall, black monument.

It reads:


I thank Jim for the ride and have him take my picture with my camera. He asks if I need anything else and I say that I don't. I tell him that I will just walk back down when I am ready to go and he leaves.

At his funeral, Norton lay in state in a black robe, starched shirt, and black bow tie--standard Victorian burial garb. It is estimated that ten thousand people came to his memorial service, which was punctuated by an eclipse.

I sit by Norton's grave for a long time. I'm not sure what I should do. I tear several pages out of my sketchbook and carefully rub a gradient of red, blue, and purple crayons on the paper stretched over the carved letters. The Emperor's name and titles emerge on the thick paper. I lay the pages out on the grass. When I glue them together they will make an impressive picture of Norton's headstone.

Satisfied -- and now suddenly curious, I walk down the hill and back into the office.

"Does the Emperor get many visitors?" I ask.

"Not this time of year, but every January E Clampus Vitus holds a parade from Norton's grave to Malloy's Tavern."

Ah yes, I had heard of them from Drury's biography. E Clampus Vitus is an organization of silly history buffs that originally started as a public service group, but as police and fire duties were taken over by the government, they became more of a drinking club. They claim that Norton I was a member of their organization.

Their logic for this assertion follows this pattern:

Therefore, Norton must have been a Clamper.

Their argument doesn't hold much water, but Norton fans are not widely known for their logic.

I want to meet these people. I get directions to Malloy's and walk the mile and a half. A car on the side of the road has a bumper sticker that reads: "It's great to be alive in Colma!" I pass no fewer than two dozen cemeteries and a dozen flower shops. I had heard that Colma was called San Francisco's "Necropolis" but I guess I hadn't grasped that the whole city of Colma is a cemetery. The city is elegant, sunny, flowery, and well kept. If there hadn't been any gravestones, I would have thought I was on the world's nicest golf course.

Malloy's has a sign in the window that reads: "By appointment to Emperor Norton I"

I walk in. Newspaper clippings and stories about Norton and the Clampers are carefully framed and proudly displayed. One shows a full color picture of hundreds of Clampers at their annual march from Woodlawn. They were bedecked in all manner of god-awful costumes; the only link is that they were all wearing bright red shirts. Another clipping is a recent rehashing of the facts of Norton's life. It's flat, boring; the author is obviously not a Norton fan. I doubt he would have found the feather--or looked for it.

I take a seat at the bar and order a drink. The lunch crowd is leaving. Only one other person is at the bar. I ask the bartender about the Clampers.

The other person at the bar asks, "Are you a Clamper?"

"No, but I was up at Norton's grave."

The bartender looks at his watch. "Some of the Clampers come in the afternoon. You might want to wait," he says.

I decide to wait.

Norton's inspiration still eludes me. The Principia Discordia holds forth the notion that Eris, the Greek Goddess of chaos, is the creator of the universe--the Ultimate Divinity. If that is so, then Norton is the Erisian Messiah--the word of the Principia Discordia made flesh. He directs Erisians, instructs them how to live by example. He did all the things Erisians value. He lived on his own terms, he quit his job, he was loved by everyone, he had a gimmick, and he got published. What else is there to life for an Erisian? If it means some people think you're insane--so be it.

Maybe there are two worlds parallel to each other, to oversimplify the Buddhist doctrine: the world of Samsara (greed, suffering, and despair) or the world of Nirvana (bliss, spiritual wonder, and joy). Joshua Norton lived in Samsara for many years. When he was ruined, he left Samsara and entered a world in which he was Emperor -- his Imperial City.

According to legend, when asked about Norton, the head of the San Francisco Masonic Lodge said: "Live like him!"

Wouldn't it be nice to live like him, I thought. Could we all live in the Imperial City? There would be emperors and empresses waiting tables, picking up trash, selling shoes in the mall. What would the world be like if we treated everyone as though they were Emperor and everyone treated us as though we were Emperor too? Instead of nurturing our Inner Child -- what if we served our Inner Emperor?

Several cars pull up almost simultaneously. A troop of somber looking people in dry cleaned, dark clothing enter and begin ordering strong drinks.

"How was the funeral?" the bartender asks.

"Real nice," says one.

An older man with some authority enters and works his way through the growing crowd, making sure everyone is being served. I 'm being surrounded by an Irish wake. The guy who is being memorialized is named Joe or something similar. He must have been a big wheel because I get the impression he left money in his will specifically for a nice wake. I wonder if Malloy's has Irish wakes often.

"Have you been taken care of?" the gentleman asks me, respectfully.

"I'm not with your party, sir," I reply.

"Let me buy you a drink anyway, it's what Joe would have wanted."

I want to ask if Joe had left specific instructions to sauce any old stranger who happens to be in the bar at the time of the wake, but I don't. I thank him and order a glass of whiskey.

I know I'll have to go back to the screaming, demeaning world of Samsara, but even that can't make me sad. Returning to the Imperial City is easy -- as easy as picking up a feather.

A great list of Web Sites
That I stole from Mike at < a href="http://www.discordia.org/~keeper/norton.html">http://www.discordia.org/~keeper/norton.html