San Francisco was founded in 1847, but in 1848 when gold was discovered, the city swelled from a sleepy town of 1000 to a bustling international port boasting 25000 residents- all in one year. Immigrants flooded in, ships full of railroad workers from China, fur traders from Russia and Gold hunters from every corner of the globe. Cowboys rubbed shoulders with Poets, Victorian Londonites drank with escaped Australian convicts. The following two decades saw the birth of countless new technologies, including the wireless telegraph, the steam-train, electric light and flying machines. At this moment in history, San Francisco was one of the most progressive, multi-racial, radical and debauched cities in the world.
The real draw of San Francisco, however, became its ultra-violent red-light district, Sydney Town, later renamed The Barbary Coast. Any imaginable vice was available for trade in The Barbary Coast. Opium dens, saloons, gambling houses, fight clubs and brothels run by gangsters and the thousands of prostitutes that had been shipped in from Europe to meet the demands in a womanless gold town. Even the police were afraid to walk the streets with brawls, Shanghai kidnappings, lynchings, torture and gun fights as an every night event. Yet, in one corner of this den of sin lived a character of surprising dignity: Emperor Norton I.
America’s first and only Emperor
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in England, raised in South Africa, and arrived in San Francisco in 1849 with shiploads of other gold-dazzled dreamers known as the ’49ers.
He quickly became a very successful merchant, as well as owning numerous properties, warehouses and factories. However, in 1853 a bad deal on Peruvian rice left him bankrupt and ruined.
Norton was barely heard of again until in 1859 he published in the local paper a notice proclaiming himself The Emperor of the United States.
Surprisingly, San Francisco took heed. The false Emperor, who patrolled the city’s streets in his donated general’s uniform with an entourage of dogs, was given free meals at restaurants, a private box at the opera, free ship and train travel, whilst newspaper editors gleefully traced his footsteps, published his outrageous proclamations and monstrously promoted the lie.
Even though this man had gone as far as to attempt to fire Abraham Lincoln and to declare Congress null and void, he was not openly laughed at, or locked up, and even an attempt by a policeman to arrest him on the ground of lunacy was quickly reversed by the authorities.
When Emperor Norton crashed face down on a pavement in San Francisco in 1880, never to rise again, citizens of the city felt they had lost one of their most eminent characters. Over ten thousand people lined up through the streets to pay respects at the funeral, a generous mark of respect from the society that entertained his delusions on such a grand and lavish scale.