Emperor Norton Is Still Alive, Still Well, and Still Living in Bernal Heights


Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a front page (!!!) story about the odd history of Emperor Norton I, the 19th century San Francisco eccentric who declared himself “Emperor of the United States,” and Neighbor Joseph Amster, the Bernal Heights resident who re-enacts him today.

The WSJ writes:

Wearing a top hat festooned with multicolored feathers, Joseph Amster stopped in front of a Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. store on bustling Market Street and began shouting at the shop’s bemused clientele through its large glass windows.

“Look at them! Ignoring me! Mocking me! They have not heard the last of me!” Mr. Amster exclaimed, the feathers quivering with his wild gesticulations. “I will issue a special proclamation demanding they bring back my sundae!”

Patrons likely had no idea what he was talking about. But Mr. Amster was playing the role of this city’s most celebrated 19th-century eccentric: Norton I, the self-styled “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Mr. Norton’s was once a household name here. Numerous things were named after him, including Ghirardelli’s Emperor Norton Sundae. But the sundae, like Mr. Norton in general, has since faded from view.

Now some San Franciscans are pushing to return the emperor to prominence. Mr. Amster, 59 years old, who conducts tours dressed as Emperor Norton, is among those trying to bring him back, to rekindle the city’s celebration of society’s oddballs and outcasts.

PHOTO: Joseph Amster as Emperor Norton, holding a print copy of the Wall Street Journal, via Joseph Amster

6 thoughts on “Emperor Norton Is Still Alive, Still Well, and Still Living in Bernal Heights

  1. I for one am very happy to live in a society of “oddballs and outcasts.” This is what saves SF from being primarily about movers, shakers and those who want to tally who is “in” and who is “out.” Bravo and Brava, our eccentrics everywhere!

  2. He could possibly be at the Wednesday evening meeting of the Bernal Heights Historical group at our library.

  3. Neighbor Norton walks up our street often, and I’ve taught our 2.5 year old to say “Hiiii Neighbor Norton” whenever she sees him. Half in homage to Bernalwood and half in homage to the Emperor himself. Such a fun slice of life in Bernal!

  4. He lives on my street in Bernal! I’ve wanted to ask him about his costume but he is often very serious and deep in thought and I don’t want disturb him. In my mind, I call him the “Major Modern General.” I had no idea he was SF legendary! Sort of surprised at all the hostile comments in the WSJ article. He’s so endearing and eccentric, how can anyone hate? I’m glad there is some vestige of the old San Francisco right here in Bernal…

  5. Pingback: His Highness Emperor Norton Is Getting Married!! | Bernalwood

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