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Among the many eccentric characters who have called San Francisco home, few can compare to Joshua Abraham Norton, better known as Emperor Norton. In reality, Norton had only a meager, precarious income and lived in a rooming house on Commercial Street. But, in typical San Francisco fashion, locals indulged him in his fantasy, making him something of a celebrity.

Emperor Norton I in full regalia

Emperor Norton I in full regalia

Empire Park

Empire Park

The Gold Rush transformed San Francisco from a small settlement into a growing city in a remarkably short period of time. Among the influx of miners and adventurers who made up the city's booming population were more than a few eccentric characters, and one of the most colorful was Joshua Abraham Norton.

Norton was an Englishman by birth. Like thousands of others, he saw a chance to make his fortune in the Gold Rush and migrated to California in 1849. Within the space of a few years, Norton made a fortune in real estate but lost it equally quickly, declaring bankruptcy in 1856. In the few years following his bankruptcy, Norton receded from public view. 

By 1859, Norton seemed to have become a different person. Although he had not exhibited any obvious mental illness prior to his bankruptcy, it was clear that Norton now was unstable. He walked into the office of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin with a "document" in which he declared himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States."

San Franciscans, being a peculiar lot themselves, hardly batted an eye. Locals began referring to him as Emperor Norton and bowing in his presence. He issued numerous imperial decrees, which were printed in local newspapers with great fanfare. When the country teetered on the verge of civil war, Norton announced that he had abolished the Union altogether and replaced it with a monarchy. He issued his own currency and routinely called for the abolition of Congress.

Emperor Norton became a local celebrity. He ate for free at restaurants and had a special seat on opening night at local theaters. When his epaulet-studded uniform became tattered, city officials gave him a new one. Dolls were made in his image. Visiting dignitaries asked to meet him, and Mark Twain reportedly based the character of the King in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on Norton. 

When Norton died in 1880, it was discovered that Norton was penniless and had no means to provide for his own burial. San Franciscans paid for Norton's funeral, and the San Francisco Chronicle numbered the attendance at 10,000. The Chronicle ran the headline "Le Roi Est Mort" (The King is Dead). 

From 1864 or 1865 until his death, Emperor Norton lived at the Eureka Lodgings — a modest rooming house located within a building at 624 Commercial Street. The building was lost in the earthquake and fires of 1906. A new 4-story apartment building was constructed on the site in 1910. This building — whose address since has been changed to 650–654 Commercial Street — now occupies the space which was once home to San Francisco royalty.

Andrews, Evan. The Strange Case of Emperor Norton I of the United States. September 17, 2014. Accessed October 14, 2017.

Lumea, John. Emperor Norton's Residence, the Eureka Lodgings, Was Not Located (Exactly) Where You Think It Was. The Emperor Norton Trust. September 26, 2022. Accessed April 1, 2024.