The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1975, Volume 21, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Reviw Editor

Emperor Norton of San Francisco. By William M. Kramer, Santa Monica: Norton B. Stern Publisher, 1974. $8.00.

Reviewed by Abraham P. Nasatir, Emeritus Professor of History, San Diego State University.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America, and Protector of Mexico, is well known in the annals of California’s El Dorado history. Born Joshua Abraham Norton in 1819, he reached San Francisco in December, 1849, entered business and real estate, and made money. In attempting to control the rice market, he lost his wealth and faded into obscurity in 1853. However, in 1857, he emerged as Emperor of the United States. As such, and as Protector of Mexico (a title he dropped during the period of Maximilian), he issued proclamations, wore Emperor’s dress, sword and plume. The Civil War bothered him, and he “dissolved” the Union by a proclamation on July 12, 1860. He declared a blockade, and issued a mandate to Protestant and Catholic churches to publicly ordain him as Emperor in June, 1862. His proclamations were issued in excellent English, and several bore upon foreign relations. He desired to visit Sacramento while the legislature was in session, but the river transportation denied him passage, and he declared a blockade of the river.

Norton I lived a simple life. He visited churches of all denominations, but followed none ritualistically. Deeply interested in higher education, he frequently visited the University. He was fond of children.

Much has been written about Emperor Norton in a humorous fashion. There are many jokes and myths about him. However, little has been published about him (within the last thirty years) of any serious biographical nature. He died of a heart attack. He was penniless, and he was buried at the expense of the Emperor Norton Memorial Association. He was legend, even to the extent of having two funerals, the second in 1930.

Will Kramer, who doubles as a rabbi and a professor, submerged himself in all that has been published about Norton. He digested and uncovered much new material, especially in the Jewish and Anglo-Jewish publications about Norton. Will Kramer was perplexed by the fact that Joshua Abraham, born a Jew, was not accepted by the Jews of San Francisco, who refused to bury him, which is most unusual for Jews. Rabbi Kramer tells us much about the Jews of San Francisco at the time; he tries to explain why Norton was denied a basic Jewish service. He re-examined the legend of Emperor Norton with an eye for something other than humor. He has drawn a much older, and more universal legend of the “Wandering Jew.” The author believes that San Francisco’s “Emperor” was a fallen merchant prince who rose to new heights as a majestic mendicant.

Rabbi Kramer uses psychology and sociology as vehicles for his research into the life of the Emperor, placing him in the context of Christian and Jewish ethnic feelings. As the book’s advertisement blurb correctly states: “His very presence gave character to the Golden Empire over which he reigned, but did not rule.” Kramer tells the manner in which Californians treated Norton as a “touchstone of frontier values and San Francisco cosmopolitanism.” His work is history, while retaining the joy and flavor of the myth. It is also the essential study of California’s most famous eccentric.

This small volume contains a foreword by Peter A. Evans of the California Historical Society. It also has many illustrations, and is fully documented. It does not have a formal bibliography, or index. Two burials of a Jew without a Jewish service, fantasy and legend: Christian and Jew can all profit from reading this small volume on California’s only “reigning monarch!”