I enjoy walking tours and historical curiosities. The more obscure the detail is, the more my mind ties itself in knots over it. So when Auey told me there was an Emperor Norton walking tour, I just had to go.
Who is Emperor Norton? That’s a good question, something that the tour tried to answer over the course of a summer afternoon.
On the surface, Emperor Norton was a nineteenth century businessman named Joshua Abraham Norton, a man who lost his fortune with one unfortunate deal. After disappearing for a few years, Norton re-emerged to declare himself the first emperor of the United States.
As tour operator Joseph Amster noted, in any other city Emperor Norton would have been sent straight to the nearest asylum. But he was in San Francisco, the most tolerant and freethinking city in North America. Originally an object of interest to the local newspapers which needed to fill column inches, soon Norton became a mascot, a tourist attraction, and even an unofficial spokesperson for city’s downtrodden.
Some of Emperor Norton’s far-sighted proclamations addressed the need for a bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay, and the need for an international council that promoted peace among all nations. Many people may have laughed at his ideas when he was alive, but the Bay Bridge and the UN were created anyway.
How an entire city could have humored and even encouraged the eccentricity of one man is fascinating. It’s unthinkable that this feat could ever be duplicated. Over a twenty-year period, Emperor Norton became an accepted part of city life. He was fed for free at certain restaurants, he was given free tickets to new shows, and he was even issued clothes by the local government.
Despite his obvious eccentricities, Emperor Norton was never declared insane. I asked specifically if anyone had tried to have him committed. According to his research, Joseph said that the Emperor was even autopsied after his grand funeral. The doctors could find no sign of brain damage. The consensus was that there was nothing wrong with him at all.
It’s as if the man—gasp!—lived upon a dream.
For my Neil Gaiman-loving friends, Emperor Norton may be a familiar name. He appears in one issue of The Sandman as the object of a bet between the Endless siblings. It’s a memorable one-shot, punctuated with a Mark Twain cameo. When I first read it years ago I thought it was all fiction, so it was a pleasure to find out that Gaiman embroidered little on reality. It was definitely an amazing treat to walk the streets where this strange man once trod.
The walking tour started promptly at two thirty. We started at Union Square and crisscrossed all over the city, and somehow ended up in Chinatown. My favorite points included the history of Maiden Lane, all the many anecdotes connected to Lotta’s Fountain, and the origins of Bummer and Lazarus, the city’s most famous stray dogs.
Joseph is an engaging, entertaining guide, with an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of the city. He’s not afraid to improvise either. He simply burst out into song at one street corner, when he realized that the two opera singers (who sideline as buskers) weren’t working that day!
Probably the best—and totally unscripted—moments of the tour were the locals who were delighted to see Emperor Norton (or at least someone cosplaying him). Around Barnaby Coast one bicyclist roared, “the Emperor has returned!” while several foreign tourists couldn’t resist photographing “the Emperor” in all his splendor. It was a momentary glimpse of how the real Emperor Norton was treated during his heyday.
While the tour ends at the corner of Grace Cathedral and it’s a thirteen-minute drive from there, I think the best way to finish up an Emperor Norton tour is to drop by Elixir, a lovely saloon-styled bar on 16th Street. I interviewed the owner, H. Joseph Ehrrman for Gastronomique En Vogue magazine, a week or so before I went on the tour so it was a bit of serendipity. Among the many fabulous summer concoctions H. made was the refreshing Emperor Norton’s Second Mistress. Since I love fresh strawberries and I have a soft spot for bourbon, I have to recommend this cocktail.
Whether you think Emperor Norton was a crazy coot or not, the drink named after him is certainly fit for a king.