If you were out and about in San Francisco between 1860 and 1880, you might have seen a curious figure on the streets. Joshua Abraham Norton wore a uniform reminiscent of European nobility, made proclamations, and styled himself as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Norton seems to have been embraced by the city he “ruled” over, to the point where citizens actually used the currency that he issued. His proclamations were popular reading in the city at the time, and often reprinted and imitated by newspapers of the era. He’s best known for proposing a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and renaming the Bay Bridge in honor of Norton has been proposed numerous times.
Norton today is remembered as an eccentric and benevolent monarch, and his grave, just south of San Francisco, proclaims him simply as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
Read a collection of Norton’s proclamations from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, who have tried to suss out which ones are genuine and which are hoaxes or pranks.
Renaming the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton Bridge is a perennial topic of discussion, and (unsurprisingly) there’s a change.org petition out right now to do exactly that.
There’s a tour guide who apparently dresses up as Norton and does walking tours of San Francisco. That sounds absurd, and I’m totally signing up for one of those the next time I’m in the Bay Area.