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America's Eccentric Emperor

Take a Tour with America's Only Emperor and Discover his Impact on San Francisco

Not many people know this, but the United States once had an emperor. On September 17, 1859, a bankrupt businessman by the name of Joshua Abraham Norton walked into a newspaper office and delivered a proclamation declaring himself Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. The papers ran it, and for 21 years the police saluted him, fine restaurants allowed him to eat for free, places accepted his own imperial currency, and the city even provided a uniform for him, tailoring and repairing it whenever needed. When he died on January 8, 1880, 30,000 people attended his funeral.

“If in any other city he had done that, he probably would have been run out of town,” says Joseph Amster, Emperor Norton reenactor and guide for Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine. “But we in San Francisco embrace our eccentrics, so for 21 years they treated him as if he were the emperor.”

While Amster leads several tours, his most Norton-centric one is arguably his most popular. Dressed as the emperor himself and telling stories about San Francisco’s history, he leads guests from Union Square to places like the financial district where Norton lived, Chinatown where he once stopped a riot by reciting the Lord's Prayer, and ending across the street from where he died.

“Norton’s the thread that sort of ties everything together. I tell tons of stories, like how at the Palace Hotel he was arrested for insanity, but the police chief had him released, and since then the police saluted him wherever he passed.” In fact, despite being considered mentally unstable by some, the officer who released him, Police Chief Patrick Crowley, stated, “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”

Strangely, despite signing up for the tour, many of Amster’s guests don’t know who Emperor Norton was. He says, “I always ask at the beginning of the tour who is familiar with his story, and in a group of ten to fifteen, I usually only get one or two. But sometimes we get people who really know his story.” He says it’s not uncommon for people to approach him on the street or during his tours and show off their Emperor Norton ink. “I had one guy come up to me and say, ‘Check this out!’ and pull up his shirt to show me his tattoo. I still have no idea who that guy was,” he laughs.

With a theatrical background and a thirst for knowledge, Amster really throws himself into the role. “I just try to immerse myself in knowledge about him,” he says. He explains that he combed libraries, the California Historical Society, and more for every shred of information he could gather. “I read just about anything I can get my hands on about him. I read all the biographies. Two were very good; two were not.” He even got to hold Norton’s walking stick, which Norton would use as he inspected the streets of San Francisco.

Despite being a bit crazy, Norton was an incredibly forward-thinking man. Decades before they became realities, Norton had ordered the creation of a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland and a corresponding tunnel built under the bay. He also promoted the idea of a League of Nations and stood up for Women’s, Chinese, African, and Native American rights. Amster says that really resonates with him and with a lot of San Francisco citizens. Of course, he also declared it punishable by $25 fine (over $400 today) to refer to San Francisco as “Frisco,” and ordered the abolishment of the Democratic and Republican parties, though Amster says guests still applaud that one.

But do people embrace Emperor Norton I today like they embraced him then? Amster says that while places don’t accept the imperial currency anymore, he’s still beloved by much of San Francisco. There are buildings named after him, organizations petitioning that the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge be named in his honor, and his tombstone reads Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, without quotations or any sense of irony. “He’s very beloved here. As I’m walking around people bow to me and greet me as the emperor. It’s an unexpected side effect of the tour, but I’ve kind of become a celebrity.”

It seems that San Francisco is the only place where such an eccentric figure would be embraced with such gusto, and Amster agrees. “He’s known here in San Francisco; outside not so much. I also don’t know if he would be appreciated outside of San Francisco the way he is here.” After all, in a city of drag queens, artists, and fellow eccentrics, what is a man declaring himself emperor? “It says a lot about this city that people can come here and reinvent ourselves. And also about San Francisco that we accept them and reaffirm them.”

So if you’re in the mood for a tour with a man who is unique, visionary, and maybe a little crazy, Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine tours is a must-do. After all, where else will you get the chance to meet Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico?

-By Ettractions Digital Content Editor, ALLISON BENNETT

-Photo credit, Mark Oplatka and Nobuko Hayami

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