One of the Saints of Discordia (and saints do not have to be dead, agreed upon or even have a factual existence) is a historical figure by the name of Emperor Norton.
I set off on a mission to visit Norton’s grave, while I was in San Francisco. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who would do so with some frequency. After I walked all the way up, to the top of the steep hill of the graveyard, I gave up on finding Norton’s grave by myself and walked back down to the reception space to ask for help.
“I’m looking to visit a particular grave,” I said. “They’re a well known figure, known as Emperor Norton.”
The lady behind the desk knew immediately who I was after, and produced a photocopied map out from behind the desk.
“We get a lot of people coming to see the Emperor,” she said.
Emperor Norton was born in 1819 in England, but was taken very young to South Africa from where he emigrated to San Francisco in 1849. He made his money as a business person for sometime, until he lost his fortune in a bad investment in Peruvian rice. Norton claimed the supplier had misled him and appealed to the courts to help him out. While early rulings were in his favor, the Supreme Court of California ruled against him. He left San Francisco after this poor fortune, but returned again years later. When he did, he was to become a local legend.
On Norton’s return he no longer took the name of Joshua, and now claimed to be of royal lineage. In a conversation with his friend Nathan Peiser, he explained that he believed himself to be French royalty, sent to England as a child for his own safety, as indeed many children of French Royalty had done during the French revolution, as a response to the generally negative health implications of combining guillotines with angry mobs. Norton realized he had been given the Jewish name Joshua from his adoptive parents as a way to protect him from assassins.
Upon his return, he demanded the dissolution of the United States Government and declared himself Emperor of the United States of America, through the following notice, published by the San Francisco Bulletin in 1859;
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.
Norton, in many other cities, would have been a curiosity quickly forgotten, but San Francisco embraced him wholeheartedly. It had after all, become a tourist destination in recent history, and Norton had proved himself a character worth writing home about. Tourists were good for Norton personally, as well as San Francisco, providing a market for his Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates (to be repayed, apparently, at 7% interest in the year 1880).
As an additional title, for a little under a decade, Norton also took on the title of Protector of Mexico. He eventually gave up the title, stating “It is impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.”
While certainly destitute and possibly mentally ill, the city of San Francisco celebrated Norton so that he was never plunged too desperately into despair. While some tales of Norton seem suggest that his eccentricity allowed him to effectively live the regal life of an emperor, this seems to be quite the exaggeration. William Drury’s biography Norton I, Emperor of the United States seems to be the main source of most information available anywhere on Norton’s life, painting a somewhat less rosy picture of Norton’s economically challenged existence. However, some companies would set aside tables or seats for Norton’s use and deliver him meals in specially reserved plates and accept his self-issued currency, generally given out in 50 cent denominations.
Norton would be dressed in a blue uniform, with gold-plated epaulets provided by army officers and a beaver hat further decorated with a peacock feather and rosette. There are accounts that say he was known to inspect the condition of public property and the dress standards of police officers, to give philosophical expositions, to attend plays in seats reserved for him, and to eat for free in establishments that valued his presence for the publicity, sometimes with brass plaques under the entrance declaring “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.”
The Encyclopedia of San Francisco suggests he spent 50 cents-a-night (not self-issued currency) for accommodation. He would walk to the Empire Hostel to read his paper, then spend the day on a park bench with friends including the Chinese man Ah How. Norton would decry the unequal treatment of the Chinese in San Francisco.
One story suggests that Norton once stood between a violent mob and Chinese workers during an anti-Chinese riot, protecting the Chinese workers by repeating the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed.
Norton was said to be good at chess and a great reader who spent much time in these activities at the libraries of various San Francisco clubs. He also used their stationary for the purpose of writing some of his proclamations. He attended church on Sundays, alternating the church he visited. On Saturdays, he attended a Jewish temple. Of this, Norton said, “I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”
William Drury said of Norton, “He carried a dignified and regal air about him, but was seen as a kind, affable man, inclined to be jocular in conversation. He spoke rationally and intelligently about any subject, except about himself or his empire.”
It is suggested, by Samuel Dickinson in Tales of San Francisco, that Norton would be accompanied at plays by two other San Francisco celebrities, a pair of mongrel dogs named Bummer and Lazarus, who were by some accounts, pets of Norton. Stray dogs were, by law, destroyed, but these two had been adopted by the Board of Supervisors, as a reward for their duties in killing the rats that overran the city. Both dogs were well known in San Francisco, and SF resident Mark Twain provided a eulogy for Lazarus when he died. Twain also knew Norton, and based the character of “the King” who appeared in The Adventures of Huck Finn on him. Of Norton he said; “O dear, it was always a painful thing for me to see the Emperor begging, for although nobody else believed he was an emperor, he believed it.”
In 1867 Norton was arrested and placed in a mental institution, though outrage from the public ensured his release. He offered an Imperial Pardon to the policeman responsible, and thereafter was saluted by the police as he passed.
Norton was occasionally the victim of practical jokes in this mode. He was occasionally sent telegrams that alleged to be from other political figures of the time, or he would discover that some other bright spark had been issuing proclamations in his name. As far as can be known, he seems to have suffered these indignities with good grace, with the exception of a broken window in the case of a particularly insulting cartoon. Certain falsified telegrams, perhaps a prank on the emperor, were found amongst his possessions upon his death, along with very small amounts of money.
Norton died in 1880, succumbing to a sanguineous apoplexy. His funeral was large, by some accounts having 30,000 attendees. He was buried in a rosewood casket, provided by a business men’s association, the Pacific Club, at the Masonic Cemetery and at the expense of the city of San Francisco.
Norton now lies with the other previous residents of the Masonic cemetery, in the graveyard in Colma. His grave is between two trees atop a hill, a large dark grave with deep gold letters emblazoned in it. In front of his grave is a surprising second; the grave of The Widow Norton, who I later discovered was reserved for the still living drag queen Jose Sarria, a San Francisco feature, the first openly gay person in the USA to run for political office. Only a few months after my visit, Jose continued his journey to the big drag show in the sky. At his funeral, “fit for an empress” Bay Area Reporter columnist Donna Sachet performed a song titled “The Norton Family” to the tune of “The Addams Family.” The Gay and Lesbian Freedom Band played “As The Saints Go Marching In” as his casket was lowered.
I spent a little time at Norton’s grave site. In a funny way I felt thankful to him for his example, for the audacity of his madness, and the way in which he gave an example of creating a new reality through consensus, by inviting others to play along. I left some coins, as others had, at the base of his tombstone, and a Pope Card too.
The group E Clampus Vitus hold a party yearly at Norton’s grave. Other groups, such as one assembly of KallistiCon as mentioned in the Portland chapter, as well as individual Discordians, hold events or pilgrimages to Norton’s grave.
Norton’s laws and directives included the following;
1859: Congress is to be abolished.
1859: Gov. Wise of Virginia is dismissed from office, for the hanging of John Brown.
1860: Congress, having refused Norton’s imperial decree is to be forcefully disbanded by the United States Military.
1861: A new theater, Tucker’s Hall, opened with a performance of “Norton the First,” or “An Emperor for a Day.”
1862: The Roman Catholic and Protestant church need both publicly recognize Norton as Emperor.
1869: The Republican and Democratic parties of America are both abolished.
1869: Sacramento is required to clean its muddy streets and install gaslights.
1872: A $25 fine is issued to any person who refers to San Francisco as ‘Frisco.
1872: A suspension bridge is to be built between Oakland and San Francisco. (This one was eventually obeyed long after Norton’s death)
Norton influenced the works of writers such as Twain, Neil Gaiman and Robert Lewis Stevenson. He is also heavily represented in Discordianism.
Norton is listed in the Principia Discordia as an example of a second class saint—being Saints who, by their existence, are ineligible for higher levels of Sainthood, which are reserved for nonexistent saints.
Page 14 of the Principia is taken up entirely by an altered image of Norton’s money.
One manifestation of the Discordians Society in San Francisco was titled The Joshua Norton Cabal. Their slogan was: Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton.
This cabal was fictionalized in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shae’s classic Discordian work Illuminatus! as a renegade gang poised to resist the Illuminati. Character Doc Iggy gives the following explanation of the cabal
Well, chew on this for a while, friend: there were two very sane and rational anarchists who lived about the same time as Emperor Norton across the country in Massachusetts: William Green and Lysander Spooner. They also realized the value of having competing currencies instead of one uniform State currency, and they tried logical arguments, empirical demonstrations and legal suits ‘to get this idea accepted’. They accomplished nothing. The government broke its own laws to find ways to suppress Green’s Mutual Bank and Spooner’s People’s Bank. That’s because they were obviously sane, and their currency did pose a real threat to the monopoly of the Illuminati. But Emperor Norton was so crazy that people humored him and his currency was allowed to circulate. Think about it.
In the introduction to the purple cover edition by IllumiNet Press of the Principia Discordia, Kerry Thornley has the following to say on Norton:
We asked Goddess if She, like God, had an Only Begotten Son. She assured us that She did and gave His name as Emperor Norton I—whom we assumed was probably some Byzantine ruler of Constantinople. Diligent research eventually turned up the historical Norton, as we call Him, in the holy city of San Francisco—where He walked His faithful dog along Market Street scarcely more than a century ago….
He ended by saying:
Perhaps occasionally the soul of Emperor Norton descends once more into the world to momentarily inhabit the body of an otherwise undistinguished infidel. One day I was sitting in a hamburger stand in rundown Midtown Atlanta. A burned-out speed freak at a nearby table looked at me with a pleasant smile and said, “I’m King of the Universe. I don’t know what I’m doing in a place like this.”
And perhaps that’s the big attraction of our faith. If you want, you can be King of the Universe. Jesse Sump is Ancient Abbreviated Calif. of California. I am Bull Goose of Limbo and President of the Fair-Play-for-Switzerland Committee. Camden Benares is Pretender to the Throne of Lesbos. Greg Hill is Polyfather of Virginity-in-Gold. Sabal Etonia is High Constable of Constantinople. You can declare yourself Archbishop of Abyssinia or Curator of the Moon—we don’t care, but your mailman will be impressed.
The final version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book Chasing Eris.