The funeral for Joshua Abraham Norton held on January 10, 1880 was a grandiose spectacle. As many as 30,000 mourners made up of people from every level of San Francisco society took part in a funeral cortege that was two miles long. They all turned out to witness the passing of the one of the city's most memorable characters.
Born in London, England in 1819, Joshua Norton emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 with a tidy sum that he had inherited from his father. He flourished for a time as a wholesale grocer before losing everything in a risky attempt to corner the Peruvian rice market. He made several attempts to recoup his losses before dropping out of sight in 1857. Where he went is still a mystery but his return to San Francisco two years later was certainly memorable.
It quickly became clear after his return that Norton had become mentally unbalanced. Wearing a strange blue uniform with gold epaulets and a beaver hat, Norton proclaimed himself "Emperor of the United States and Defender of Mexico". For the rest of his life, he would be a familiar sight to San Franciscans as he issued numerous proclamations as well as his own currency (which local restaurants and stores honoured). Wherever the Emperor Norton went, he was accompanied by his two dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. When Lazarus died in 1863 (after being run over by a fire truck), the city paid for the funeral and hundreds of mourners attended. Mark Twain himself wrote an epitaph for Bummer when he died two years later.
Norton's proclamations, despite his having no actual authority, made for good reading in the newspapers and editors frequently published them. Among other things, he ordered the governor of Virginia removed from office, barred Congress from meeting in Washington, D.C., and even ordered the United States government dissolved. Newspaper editors were not above inventing their own proclamations (usually reflecting their political biases) and attributing them to the Emperor.
In 1867, an overeager police officer arrested Norton and attempted to have him involuntarily treated. The outraged San Franciscans nearly rioted and newspaper editorials savaged the police force. Police Chief Patrick Crowley apologized to the Emperor and ordered his release. Norton, in turn, issued a formal pardon to the officer who had arrested him. Afterwards, police officers made it a habit to salute Norton whenever he went about his regular inspections of the city.
The Emperor Norton became extremely well-known due to the writings of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson (who both created characters based on Norton in their books). His letters to world leaders such as President Lincoln and Queen Victoria were taken seriously. In the 1870 census, Norton was formally listed with the occupation of "Emperor." Not surprisingly, there were numerous rumours surrounding Joseph Norton. For all that he appeared penniless, it was suggested that he was secretly wealthy despite his known history.
On January 8, 1880, the Emperor collapsed while on his way to give a lecture at the California Academy of Natural Sciences. The police officer on the scene tried to get him to a hospital but the Emperor died before help could arrive. The cause of death was later given as apoplexy (hemorrhagic stroke). The San Francisco Chronicle ran a front page obituary titled "Le Roi Est Mort" (The King Is Dead). A rival newspaper announced that ""Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life".
It was only after his death that the full extent of his poverty became known. The small boarding-house room where he had lived contained nothing more than a collection of walking sticks, copies of his letters to various notables, newspaper clippings, and shares in a worthless gold mine. Initial plans for a pauper's burial were quickly scrapped and he received a grand funeral at the city's expense. The strange story of Joshua Norton didn't end with his death and funeral. In 1934, he was reburied in Woodlawn Cemetery, again at the city's expense. On the hundredth anniversary of his death, formal ceremonies were held in different parts of the city to mark the memory of San Francisco's only monarch.
So why was Joshua Norton unofficially adopted as a mascot for San Franciscan society while so many other mentally ill transients were locked away in insane asylums? To begin with, there was a definite method in his madness. Norton knew enough not to push the limits more than necessary. The currency that he issued never exceeded small amounts and his proclamations were often quite sensible. He was also extremely likable (not to mention a tourist attraction) and, in many ways, lived better as a mad Emperor than he did as a prosperous businessman.
Joshua Norton's legacy seems to live on. Archives of his various proclamations and writings are available online and the currency that he issued continues to be prized by collectors. While grandiose delusions seem to be a common enough feature in some forms of mental illness (I once dealt with a self-proclaimed King of Canada during my time as a prison psychologist), there was only one Emperor Norton.