Joshua A. Norton: Beloved Jewish Emperor of San Francisco, 1819-1880

Joshua A. Norton

Emperor Joshua Norton WS 22/3151

Emperor Joshua Norton
WS 22/3151

Values Codes  H-E-L


Joshua A. Norton was born in London, in 1819

Joshua Abraham Norton was the son of John and Sara Norton, English Jews who migrated from England, in 1820, to settle in Cape Town, South Africa.

News of the California Gold Rush brought Joshua A. Norton to San Fran­cisco, where he arrived, in 1849.


San Francisco

For a number of years Joshua Norton operated successfully as a commission merchant and as a real estate investor.

Near the end of 1856, after a disastrous attempt to corner the rice market, Joshua Norton went bankrupt – and disappeared from San Francisco.

It is said that he lost both his fortune and his “marbles.”


Joshua Norton, 1970's WS 27/3988

Joshua Norton, 1970’s
WS 27/3988

The Jewish Emperor

Less than three years later he emerged to public view as Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States, via an announcement he placed in the San Francisco Bulletin.

That notice of the self-appointed Emporor was run on the front page, gratis, by the editor – probably due to a slow news day.

The citizens of San Francisco accepted their new “Emperor” in the “spirit” of San Francisco. (Some things never change)

From the fall of 1859, until January 8, 1880, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico,” as inscribed on his headstone, was San Francisco’s most famed and beloved eccentric.

Demented but loved, he became the symbol of the tolerance of the Golden Gate city.

Emperor Norton walked the streets garbed in a blue military uniform with large gilt epaulets on his shoulders, a tall beaver hat, a knotty cane and a sword at his belt.

He inspected new buildings and insisted the streets be clean.

His popular figure was seen everywhere, and all deferred to him.

When Emperor Norton needed a new uniform or new pair of shoes, they were promptly provided by one of the obliging merchants.

Each Saturday morning the Emperor sat in the first row of the balcony of Congregation Emanu-El.



Emperor Norton regularly issued proclamations on a variety of sub­jects.

Perhaps his most famous was the one printed in an Oakland paper in 1869, ordering, “a steel suspension bridge be constructed” across the Bay to San Francisco!

At this time the only suspension bridges were made with rope and vines in South America.


Unfortunately, on slow news days, various newspapers would make up their own proclamations and credit Emperor Norton.

This makes it hard for historians to determine which were really his.


Once a week Emperor Norton visited Oakland.

There was never a charge for the ferry ride there, of course.


He enjoyed a “grand promenade on Broadway,” and occasionally someone would pro­vide a horse for him to ride around town.


Emperor Norton took the semi-annual reviews of the Police and Fire Departments in Grand Parades in San Francisco – and then give long patriotic speeches while cheered on by his loyal subjects.

He had a box at the Opera and stayed in the best of hotels, careful not to overstay his welcome.


Norton ScripWS3990-^Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton ^Norton Paper Money-San Francisco,CA

From time to time Emperor Norton stood in need of money, so he printed his own paper money in amounts of 25 and 50 cents, and $5.00.

The citizens of San Francisco, who avoided most U.S. paper money, accepted Emperor Norton’s.

Norton Scrip read as follows: The Imperial Government of Norton I Promises to Pay the Holder Hereof, The Sum of Fifty Cents in the Year 1880,. With Interest per Annum

Each one of these pieces of currency was dated and signed, “Norton I, Emperor.”

Today, Norton Scrip  sells for thousands of dollars between collectors.



When the Emperor Norton passed away, in 1880, his funeral was arranged and conducted by the elite of San Francisco, and he was interred in the Masonic Cemetery, with thousands of mourn­ers in attendance.

In 1934, when that cemetery was abandoned, the Emperor Norton Memorial Association was formed to rebury him in Woodlawn Cem­etery.

WS3989-^Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton ^Reburial-San Francisco,CA [1934]

Only in the most cosmopolitan and history-conscious city in America could there have been such recognition of such a character!


Actual Program for the re-burying of Joshua Norton. WS Archives

Actual Program for the re-burying of Joshua Norton.
WS Archives


More information can be found in the following issues of Western States Jewish History:

  • Norton, Emperor Joshua A., Pioneer Jews of San Francisco, Part Two, M-Z, Norton Stern, 41/2
  • Norton, Joshua A., California’s First (And Only) Jewish Emporer, and the Clampers; Abraham Hoffman; 42/1

Photo Gallery [New photos always welcome]

Emporor Norton attached to the Bow of the "Harbor Emporer" Tourist Boat in San Francisco Harbor - today.

Emporor Norton attached to the Bow of the “Harbor Emporer” Tourist Boat in San Francisco Harbor – today.

Note: To enlarge any photo, click on the middle of it.