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San Francisco City Hall turns gold to remember Emperor Norton

Sunday was 200th anniversary of American monarch’s birth

San Francisco City Hall turned a beautiful, warm gold color on Sunday night to celebrate the 200th birthday of its most famous and influential eccentric, the late Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton I.

[Update: John Lumea of the SF non-profit the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign tells Curbed SF it was the bridge campaign who petitioned for the gold lighting and who submitted the argument confirming Norton’s birth date to begin with.]

Previously hailing from South Africa, Norton was one of many business-minded immigrants who came to San Francisco in 1849, although according to his biography, Norton’s plan was not to dig up the ground but to sell it:

“Norton dove into the real estate business, and by the early 1850s, he’d turned his original $40,000 stake into a quarter million dollar fortune. But like so many Gold Rush-era speculators, Norton’s greed eventually got the better of him.”

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Note that a quarter million dollars in 1853 was the equivalent of more than $7 million in modern currency.

That might have satisfied most fortune hunters, but Norton’s next big scheme was to sink his scratch into importing rice from South America to corner the market during a local shortage.

But rice did not prove a San Francisco treat for the future emperor. By the time his ships came in, competing supply had returned and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton I.
Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton I.
Photo by H.W. Bradley or William Rulofson (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Norton’s next big bid in 1859 is the one that would finally make him into a man of success, albeit not in the way he expected. Appearing in the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin, he told them to print the following notice in their next edition:

“At the peremptory request 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S.”

Many of the stories people tell about Norton these days are myths, but it’s true that he did march around the streets of San Francisco in uniform making inspections of public spaces and handing down decrees.

Also true: When a beat cop hauled Norton into the clink as a madman, the judge ordered him released and apologized for his arrest. Norton eventually became a popular local figure and tourist attraction, although an 1880 letter from Mark Twain notes that the emperor had hard times as well:

It was always a painful thing to me to see the Emperor (Norton I., of San Francisco) begging; for although nobody else believed he was an Emperor, he believed it. [...] I have seen the Emperor when his dignity was wounded, and when he was both hurt & indignant at the dishonoring of an imperial draft.

And when he was full of trouble & bodings on account of the presence of the Russian fleet, he connecting it with his refusal to ally himself with the Romanoffs by marriage, & believing these ships were come to take advantage of his entanglements with Peru & Bolivia I wander from my subject.

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The history site SF Museum cautions that most of the “decrees” credited to Norton were fakes, but it’s confirmed that he really did order the creation of a suspension bridge to Oakland decades before the city seriously considered the project.