Emperor Norton is Alive and Well and Living in Bernal Heights

His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I was a nineteenth century San Francisco eccentric who fancied himself Emperor of the United States. Joseph Amster is a twenty-first century Bernal Heights resident who resurrects the spirit and dress of Emperor Norton to lead tourists on downtown historic tours. From his media kit:

Amster, a displaced journalist with an acting background decided he wanted to create a walking tour with a twist, offering his patrons a unique experience. “I decided early on that I wanted to do my tour in character and researched the historical figures from San Francisco’s past,” says Amster. “At first I thought about doing the tour as Mark Twain, but the more I read about Emperor Norton, the more fascinated I became with him.” After completing his research, Amster took on the character of Emperor Norton, complete with uniform, beard and plumed top hat. He now offers his tour to anyone with an interest in history.

A businessman originally from England and South Africa, Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849 with $40,000, which after some shrewd investing, increased to $250,000 (which would be $3 million today). After losing his fortune to a bad rice investment, Norton disappeared, returning to San Francisco in 1859, declaring himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. In any other city, he would have been dismissed as a madman, but the people of San Francisco embraced his reign. During his lifetime, Norton printed his own currency (which was accepted by San Francisco merchants), was served gratis in the city’s restaurants and always had the best seats at the theater. He also issued numerous proclamations, including calling for a bridge to be built between San Francisco and Oakland, and the founding of a league of nations. Today the Bay Bridge and United Nations stand as testaments to Emperor Norton’s vision.

As part of preserving Emperor Norton’s legacy, Amster is seeking to pay proper tribute to this visionary. “San Francisco has no memorial to Emperor Norton,” says Amster. “No streets are named after him, no statue has been erected, and there is no historical marker. The only plaque dedicated to his memory was on the old Transbay Terminal.” That plaque now rests with the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, and will be part of an interpretive exhibit when the new Transbay Terminal opens. The tributes Amster proposes include naming Commercial Street’s Empire Park (Emperor Norton’s address when the 1870 census listed his occupation as “Emperor”) Emperor Norton Park, and naming the Bay Bridge in Emperor Norton’s honor.

Fine proposals, all. And kudos to Joseph Amster to reviving the spirit of Emperor Norton in high fidelity and grand style. Oh, and if you happen to see him in full Norton I regalia waiting for the bus to take him to work downtown, do not be alarmed. To the contrary, approach him with Bernal pride and admiration, because he is clearly one of our own.

PHOTO: Top, Joseph Amster as Emperor Norton, by  Chris Ellen Montgomery. Below, Emperor Norton I, circa 1880, via Wikimedia Commons

13 thoughts on “Emperor Norton is Alive and Well and Living in Bernal Heights

  1. I’m a huge Norton fan, and I actually went on the emperor’s tour in September. A bunch of us dressed up in Victorian garb for a private tour for my birthday – it was a blast! He leads a great tour. Even if you’re a local you’ll learn a lot and have a great time. Plus it’s fun to occasionally be a tourist in your own city. Hats off to a true local character enthusiastically representing a true local character!

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  5. We would like to engage Mr. Amster for a Speaking Engagement at a private Club in SF. We need contact information.

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