We Americans pride ourselves in democracy, freedom and equality.
But 100 years ago, one man thought he knew better and proclaimed himself Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton the First of these United States and Protectorate of Mexico. You didn’t get the memo?
Norton didn’t stop there. He laid down a sort-of new world order through a series of statements like:
“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”
Some of his more unbelievable proclamations came true, including a bridge to Oakland, a tunnel across the bay, and an organization for world peace (the United Nations was formed in San Francisco).
Emperor Norton became a beloved eccentric. He issued his own money (still on display in the old U.S. Mint), dressed in Civil War regalia, donned a beaver hat with peacock feathers, and regularly appeared as an honored guest at high culture affairs. He is the basis of “The King” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
But maybe my favorite tidbit of all? In the 1870 U.S. Census, Norton is listed as living at “624 Commercial Street” and his job title is listed as “Emperor.”
No wait—I think I like this even more: The famed drag queen “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton,” purchased the gravestone next to Emperor Norton’s and will someday be interred next to her “husband.”
I caught Emperor Norton (or a very good facsimile) for a fantastic tour around old San Francisco.
Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine Tours run twice daily on Thursdays and Saturdays and are highly recommended! Visit his website for the latest tour info.
We started down Maiden’s Alley and were told of its former heyday as a red light district where women stood bare-breasted in the windows.
Nowadays it’s a beautiful shopping destination named Maiden Lane, located just off the sexy “Morton Street.”
We spent a “lotta” time at Lotta’s Fountain, where we heard tales of the 1906 Earthquake and fire, an event that destroyed 80% of the city. Estranged friends and families used Lotta’s Fountain as a reuniting place.
The city holds a 1906 Earthquake memorial here every year at 5:00 a.m. Norton said two survivors were there last year (making them each over 106 years old).
This fountain was swarming with facts: It was donated by Luisa Tettrazini (of whom the famous Turkey Tettrazini dish is named!) and “Nation’s Darling,” beloved San Francisco-based entertainer Lotta Crabtree.
If Lotta Crabtree was her stage name, how bad was her real name?
We walked by the Palace Hotel (President Warren G. Harding died there), and heard the controversial rumors that his wife “the Duchess” poisoned him after discovering he had a mistress.
And there’s that other rumor about how Harding may have died at a brothel across the street! Or at a bar down the street (it has a portrait of Harding under a sign that says “Do Not Accept Checks From”).
We saw San Francisco landmarks like the Trans America Pyramid, and spent time seeking out hidden wonders like this frog pond under the tower, possibly inspired by Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
We entered and exited a catacomb of fancy hotel lobbies like the Garden Court and Maxwell’s Pied Piper at the Palace Hotel and the beautiful Oak Room at the St. Francis Hotel—a former gay bar where, we were told, one day bar patrons were handed cards that said, “Your patronage is no longer welcome.”
In a LEED Gold certified building, there’s an Italian Renaissance-style mural of famous San Franciscans like Harvey Milk, John Muir, and the aforementioned Lotta Crabtree (see, she’s legit!).
We saw the St. Francis Hotel clock. It’s so famous that when in SF, you can say “meet me under the clock” and people know you’re talking about it.
Whereas if you said, “meet me under the cock,” you’d probably be talking about the Castro (Shout-out to Hot Cookie).
At Pied Piper Bar & Grill, Emperor Norton showed us a mural of similarly celebrated eccentric SF citizen George Washington II, who wore a powdered wig and tricorn hat and claimed to be George Washington.
We next dabbled in the history of the illicit Barbary Coast and learned stories behind the sayings “Slip ’em a Mickey” and “Getting Shanghaied.”
We walked down to the basement of a store that had rediscovered a piece of SF’s historic underground tunnels. When Emperor Norton asks you to step into his rainbow-colored man-hole, you step into his rainbow-colored man-hole.
Norton next took us to a seemingly nondescript spot. As a trolley passed by, he told us of the fateful day when the real Emperor Norton walked right where we stood, waved to a group on a trolley who waved back, and accidentally tripped into the street and died.
The next day, the papers read “Le Roi est Mort.”