All Hail the Emperor!


Joshua Norton’s spirit lingers by the Bay Bridge.

It is without question that the Voice’s Humor section is terrible. Two pages of poor jokes, incredibly dry writing, and a self-congratulatory tone that is unbearably painful to read—there is only so much that a person can take. So, instead of trying to come up with something funny (and failing), I’ll let history do the work for me. While the past is filled with hilarious figures, there is one man who towers above the rest. Let me introduce you to Joshua Norton, Emperor of San Francisco and the United States of America.

Originally from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco by way of South America on November 5, 1849. He quickly established a trading firm and made large profits, but a bad deal on rice in 1852 saw his entire fortune evaporate. By the late 1850s, he was poor, living in a boarding house on Kearny street, disillusioned with life. But then the fun began.

On September 17, 1859, Norton sent a rather unique letter to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. It read as follows: “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.”

You would imagine that it would take more than a single formally worded letter to become an emperor—and you would be wrong. The newspaper decided that Norton’s declaration was worth printing for sheer comic value, and Norton soon became famous in the city. Police officers saluted him on the streets, people gave him free food and clothes, and money coined in his name was accepted in most parts of the city. When the U.S Census was conducted in 1870, Norton’s occupation was simply listed as “emperor.”**

Unsatisfied with simply being called an emperor, Norton went a step further and began to play the part. He began with a decree disbanding Congress in 1859, and followed up with a decree that called for the eradication of both the Democratic and Republican political parties. While nobody in Congress took him seriously, someone of note did: the King of Hawaii, Kamehameha V, eventually fell out with the government in Washington and recognized Joshua Norton as the sole ruler of the United States. Jealous of the Emperor, U.S President William McKinley responded by toppling the Hawaiian monarchy and annexing the islands in 1898*.

Emperor Norton’s death in 1880 finally ended his 21 year long reign, the longest of any American monarch. His legacy was, in part, one of comedic insanity—as he had been in life. But in some ways, the man was also a visionary. He advocated for the inclusion of Chinese, Black, and Native Americans into mainstream society, going as far to issue all of his legitimate imperial decrees in a Black-owned newspaper. He called for the construction of “a suspension bridge from Oakland Point [to San Francisco] via Goat Island,” as well as a tunnel under the bay. Today, when we drive across the Bay Bridge or take the BART through the Transbay Tunnel, we see his vision realized.

*In reality, McKinley’s annexation of Hawaii had nothing to do with Norton.
** Even Wikipedia refers to him with his imperial title: