But how does one attain such a ranking? Norton's life is one still retold with fascination and love by San Franciscans and has become woven into the folklore of the city. Not much is known about Joshua Norton's early life, he was born in England sometime in the 1810s and emigrated to South Africa as a child. In 1849 he set off for San Francisco with his parent's inheritance, dreaming the Gold Rush dream that captured so many men at the time. Norton grew a business empire in the city, at one point amassing a personal net worth of $250,000, around $5 million in today's dollars. He rubbed elbows with the business elite, and was a prominent member of the local masonic lodge. His success was short-lived though, with a couple of bad business dealings, legal problems, and the cooling of the Gold Rush fortunes driving Norton to bankruptcy. He was soon unemployed and living in a working class boarding house.
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In 1859, Joshua Norton, still living in squalor, approached the newspaper The San Francisco Bulletin with a letter. The letter was published the next day, declaring Norton the first Emperor of the United States. The letter detailed his frustrations with the current government. Emperor Norton routinely issued proclamations through the newspaper, from the abolition of congress, ordering Sacramento to clean it's muddy streets, to issuing a decree that the Grand Hotel furnish him with rooms.
It didn't take long for the San Francisco public to fall in love with Emperor Norton. He was seen walking the streets with dogs Bummer and Lazarus in an elaborate uniform, inspecting public buildings and protecting his citizens. Front row seats were reserved for his Majesty at the opening of every play, including many about him, as early as 1861. When a policeman arrested Norton for lunacy in 1867, hundreds of angry letters sent to the newspaper and police headquarters caused his immediate release and formal apology by the Chief of Police. After that, all public servants saluted Norton whenever he passed by.
Though poor, Emperor Norton never went hungry. Restauranteurs considered it an honor to serve him, stores began accepting his self-issued currency and locals purchased his fictitious government bonds from him. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors paid to replace his uniform when it began to wear out, and his job was listed as “Emperor” on the 1870 census. When Joshua Norton finally departed the earth in 1880, over 10,000 people attended his burial in the masonic cemetery. His final resting place was short-lived though, in 1930 the city of San Francisco moved all cemeteries to the neighboring town of Colma, and a full military reburial was paid for by the citizens of San Francisco, where his grave can still be visited.
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Norton's Continued Legacy
Despite being an eccentric, Norton was an intelligent man, and the impact of his life can be felt today, not just in the local folklore, but in the regional landscape as well. He was the first to suggest that a suspension bridge should be built from Oakland to San Francisco, using a tunnel on Treasure Island as a thoroughfare. The Bay Bridge, using this exact route, was built in 1936 and today is one of the most traveled bridges in the world, with daily traffic of 270,000. He was also the first to suggest building a tunnel under the water of the bay following a similar alignment. The Bay Area Rapid Transit Transbay Tube, constructed in 1963, now carries 185,000 commuters across the bay every day.
The City of San Francisco accepted and embraced Norton as Emperor, beginning a tradition of eccentrics. Mark Twain based the “the King” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on him, and he was included as a character in many other period novels. Isobel Field put it best in her book This Life I've Loved: "He was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being 'let him be emperor if he wants to.' San Francisco played the game with him."