Emperor Norton in popular culture

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Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818 – January 8, 1880), also known as Norton I or Emperor Norton, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco who in 1859 proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico." Though he was generally considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco in the mid to late nineteenth century celebrated Norton's regal presence and his deeds. He continues to be a patron saint of the unusual and of eccentrics, and he is recognized as a Saint in the Principia Discordia (1970), the main text of the Discordian religion.


Biography and nonfiction[edit]

  • William Drury's 1986 biography, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, is recognized as the authoritative book-length historical account of the life of Emperor Norton.
  • The 2007 book, Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley, by Richard Schwartz, includes a chapter on Emperor Norton.
  • Emperor Norton was one of 15 "eccentrics" featured in the student reader, Eccentrics, by Henry and Melissa Billings.
  • Giles Milton's book "When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain" provides a brief description of Emperor Norton's "reign".


Richard Miller's Sparkletack series of historical podcasts includes a celebrated 2005 episode, "Emperor Norton."


Novels, stories and plays[edit]

  • The Duke of Sacramento: A Comedy in Four Acts, by Warren Baer, is an 1856 play based on the "pre-Imperial" career of Joshua Abraham Norton.
  • In 1861, the new Tucker's Hall in San Francisco opened with a comic opera titled Norton the First, or, An Emperor for a Day.
  • In 1873, in San Francisco, an original burlesque titled The Gold Demon featured future theater impresario David Belasco as Emperor Norton.
  • Emperor Norton inspired the character of "the King" in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. [1] Twain was resident in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton's "reign."
  • Emperor Norton appears as himself in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1892 novel The Wrecker, written with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.
  • Christopher Moore's novels Bloodsucking Fiends, A Dirty Job, You Suck: A Love Story, and Bite Me! A Love Story feature a character based on Norton in contemporary San Francisco, referred to as "the Emperor of San Francisco" and accompanied by his dogs Bummer and Lazarus.
  • The story and ideas of Emperor Norton are lovingly related in several books by Robert Anton Wilson, most notably The Illuminatus! Trilogy of novels, co-authored with Robert Shea, and a sequel, Schrödinger's Cat.
  • The opera of Emperor Norton is being composed and written by one of the lesser characters in the novel Factotum by Charles Bukowski.
  • Dianne Day's San Francisco-based "Fremont Jones" mystery series includes the novel Emperor Norton's Ghost (1998), in which a friend of the intrepid investigator claims to be communicating with the late Emperor about some unfinished business.
  • Emperor Norton is the probable basis for the Selma Lagerlöf novel, Kejsarn av Portugallien (The Emperor of Portugallia), the story of a rural Swedish man so disturbed by his daughter's leaving home that he goes mad and declares himself the emperor of Portugallia, parading through the streets of his village wearing a long robe and a bizarre piece of headgear. The 1925 film The Tower of Lies is based on the book.
  • Steve Bartholomew's novel, The Imaginary Emperor: A Tale of Old San Francisco, was published in 2011.
  • David St. John's historical novel, "An Emperor Among Us", presents the story of Emperor Norton's life through the lens of Mark Twain. It was published in 2012.
  • L. Neil Smith's novel The Probability Broach in the North American Confederacy Series prominently features action set at Emperor Norton University.
  • Emperor Norton and the dogs Bummer and Lazarus make a brief appearance in Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, a novel set in the Star Trek universe.
  • T.A. Pratt's novel Blood Engines makes a reference to Emperor Norton through a cameo by Norton's appointed (and very powerful) Court Magician.
  • There are references to "The Emperor of San Francisco" in the science fiction novel The Woman Between the Worlds by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.
  • The character of Mr. Crazy in the novel Dark Hearts Of Chicago by William Horwood and Helen Rappaport is based on Norton.
  • Emperor Norton makes a cameo appearance in the novel The Golden Nineties by Lisa Mason.
  • Sara Harvey's short story Allegiance to a Dead Man features the ghost of Emperor Norton as one of the two protagonists. The story was published as an e-book in 2011.
  • A short story by Robert Silverberg, "The Palace at Midnight", features a post-apocalyptic California with an Empire of San Francisco. The Emperor at the time of the story is a decrepit and senile Norton the Seventh.
  • The San Francisco-based Rock Band Land program of classes and camps for children produced an audio story, King Bobby of the Village Village, in which the main character, King Bobby, appears to be heavily based on Emperor Norton.

Comic book series[edit]

  • The story of Emperor Norton was used by Neil Gaiman in "Three Septembers and a January", an issue of his Sandman comic-book series (included in the collection Fables and Reflections). Gaiman's Norton is a victim of Despair until Despair's brother, Dream, gives him the dream of royalty. Dream's sister Delirium notes that Norton's fantasy of Imperial power keeps him from true insanity, observing that "he should belong to me, but he doesn't ... his madness keeps him sane." In later issues collected in Worlds' End, it is mentioned that a movement started in San Francisco sought to declare Prez Rickard Emperor of the United States, and a figure resembling Norton appears in one of the later stories marching in a procession.
  • The character of "His Imperial Highness Smith" in the Belgian Comic "Lucky Luke: L'empereur Smith" (1976), by Morris and René Goscinny, is loosely based on Norton. In contrast to the historical Norton, at the time that he declared himself emperor, the fictional Smith remains a successful businessman. In fact it is becoming fabulously rich that gave him his delusions of grandeur. He is capable of maintaining his own private army which an outlaw manipulates him into using to "reconquer" the United States before Lucky Luke stops him. In spite of the drama arising from the manipulations, Smith is never described as malicious, probably in respect of the "real" emperor. At the end of the comic book, a page is devoted to a short biography of the real Emperor Norton.
  • Ted Naifeh's fantasy comic Polly and the Pirates features an Emperor Joshua who is modeled after Norton.

Role-playing games[edit]

  • Emperor Norton I is the ruler of the Bear Flag Empire (encompassing the modern-day states of California, Oregon, and Washington) in R. Talsorian Games' Castle Falkenstein series of role-playing game. Originally installed as a figurehead by the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolt, he was popularly asked to remain as a beloved monarch after the assassinations of the men that had originally propped him up.
  • In Diana: Warrior Princess by Marcus Rowland (a satirical role-playing game with an "alternate" 20th-century setting, which also features such "historical" characters as Wild Bill Gates and Prince Albert Einstein), Emperor Norton is described as the "benign ruler of large parts of America."


A pair of "Emperor Norton Awards" is made annually by Tachyon Publications and Borderlands books, for "extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason."[1][2]


Operas, musicals and songs[edit]

1944 Lu Watters composed a piece, "Emperor Norton's Hunch", originally performed and recorded by his Yerba Buena Jazz Band.

1950s Robert B. Aird, founding chairman of the neurology department of the University of California at San Francisco, composed a still-unperformed opera based on Norton's life.

1981 A one-act opera, "Emperor Norton", with music by Henry Mollicone and a libretto by John S. Bowman, received its premiere in 1981. It was performed by the West Bay Opera company in the San Francisco peninsula in the fall of 1990.

1999 An opera, "Emperor Norton of the U.S.A.", with music by Jerome Rosen and a libretto by James Schevill, premiered in Davis, California in 1999. [2]

2003 An opera, "I, Norton", by Gino Robair, combines free and conducted improvisation with graphical and conventional scores, and has been performed by many ensembles in North America and Europe.

2005 "Emperor Norton: A New Musical", by Kim Ohanneson with songs by Marty Axelrod premiered at San Francisco's Dark Room Theater in December 2005 and ran there for three months, consistently selling out. A condensed and re-arranged version was presented in July 2006 at the San Francisco Theater Festival, and a revised production with many of the original cast and several new songs began a three-month run at the Shelton Theater in January 2007.

2006 "The Madness of Emperor Norton I", a song by the group The Kehoe Nation, appears on the group's 2006 album, Devil's Acre Overture.

2007 "The Emperor", a song with lyrics by Z. Mulls and music by Ron Tintner.

2008 "Emperor Norton", a song by singer-songwriter Matthew Dinario (who records as The Short Wave Mystery) appeared on his 2008 album, Okey Dokey.

2010 A musical, Norton: America's Forgotten Emperor, with words and music by Bobby McGlynn, was performed at Denison University.


  • "Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)", a song by Chuck Prophet, appeared on Prophet's 2012 album, Temple Beautiful.
  • "Pope of the Bay (for Emperor Norton)", a song by the group Smooth Toad, appears on the group's 2012 album, Long Old Road.

2013 "Emperor Norton", song by singer-songwriter Steven Crowley.

Ensembles and bands[edit]


The independent record label, Emperor Norton Records, launched in 1996 and closed in 2004.


  • Bonanza, an American western television show, featured an episode titled "The Emperor Norton." It first aired on February 27, 1966, as episode 225 in the seventh season.[3] In the episode, Emperor Norton gets in trouble after calling for worker safety in the mines. As a result of his concern for the miners, his opponents attempt to have him committed. Mark Twain and the cast of Bonanza testify on Norton's behalf at a competency hearing. Norton's suspension bridge concept is also featured.
  • Telephone Time "Emperor Norton's Bridge" (season 1, episode 8; aired 5/27/56).
  • Death Valley Days "Emperor Norton" (episode 376, aired 6/15/56).
  • Broken Arrow "The Conspirators" (episode 11, aired 12/18/56).
  • Alistair Cooke's Letter From America featured Norton as the subject of one of its episodes.
  • The Emperor Norton Science Fiction Hour, a public-access television program in San Francisco during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  • Weird U.S., Vol. 3 (History Channel) DVD (2004).
  • Surprise, a Korean entertainment show, aired a "re-enactment" of Emperor Norton's life in 2006.


During the San Francisco sequence of the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days, an actor dressed in a costume resembling Emperor Norton's regalia and accompanied by two dogs, thought to be Bummer and Lazarus, is briefly seen leading a torchlight parade.


The San Francisco radio station KFOG referred to the Bay Bridge as "the Emperor Norton" during their morning traffic reports in the late 1980s [need confirmation of exact dates].

Comedy and comic strips[edit]

  • The Bugle podcast, cohosted by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, nominated Emperor Norton for October 2008's prestigious "Hottie from History" award.[4]
  • Emperor Norton's story was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle comic strip Farley by Phil Frank between September 2004 and March 2005. In this series, the character Baba Rebop also promotes naming the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton in his honor.[5]
  • Thinkin' Lincoln, a Web comic, uses Emperor Norton as a minor character.[6]
  • Kate Beaton's popular history- and literature-based Web comic, Hark! A Vagrant, has twice honored Emperor Norton.[7][8]
  • Francesca Testen's Web comic The History Twins featured a five-part series on Emperor Norton in June 2014.[9]
  • The comic strip The New Adventures of Queen Victoria includes Norton as a minor character. The third paperback collection of the strip is entitled Norton Hears a Who, and Other Stories.
  • Web comic Skin Horse features Emperor Norton as a leader of the undead living in a California necropolis.[10]


The author of a blog titled "Strip Mining for Whimsy" wrote under the name Joshua Norton II, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico. The blog was taken down in March 2007.

Video games[edit]

Emperor Norton is a character in the Neuromancer video game, an adaptation of the novel by William Gibson. He hangs out in the Matrix Restaurant and sells the player skill chips.

In the mod "After the End" for Paradox Interactive's Crusader Kings II, Norton I is listed as a past ruler of the Empire of California.

Emperor Norton may be played as an alternate leader for the American civilization with the use of a mod for Civilization VI.

Emperor Norton is the Final Boss of Asymmetric Productions' Weird West themed RPG West of Loathing. He rules over Frisco and demands a crown before he'll allow a transcontinental railroad to be completed, and if none is provided, he curses the player character with an annoying status effect called Norton's Ant-Eye Virus, and hijacks a passenger train, forcing the player character to find a cure and then track down Emperor Norton for the final battle.

General Web[edit]

  • The Emperor Norton Utilities is a collection of strange and amusing software of limited practical use. The name is a play on the Norton Utilities.
  • In 1999, it was reported (via a spiritual medium) that Emperor Norton had issued a new decree which, among other things, established that his Imperial Domain now extends to include the Usenet.


A ten-dollar note issued by "Emperor Norton I."
  • For many years, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco offered a sundae called "The Emperor Norton", which had as its primary garnishes two bananas and a handful of nuts. The company also produced an "Emperor Norton Non-Pareils" candy, sold in 5-ounce portions.
  • The Oakland, California-based San Francisco Bread Company produced the "Emperor Norton Sourdough Snack Chips" in 5.5- or 12-ounce bags. Varieties included original flavor and ranch. The product was marketed through deli shelves and, according to vice-president of operations Jill Schuster, it had a very loyal following around the country. The product was discontinued in early 2012.
  • In North Beach, San Francisco, the now-closed San Francisco Brewing Company produced the "Emperor Norton Lager", a Munich-style amber lager with a distinctive malt character.

Historical organizations and societies[edit]

  • The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal society focused on the legacy of the Old West, holds Emperor Norton in particular regard. Members of the order have been active in calling for all or part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to be named for Emperor Norton, who set out the original vision for the bridge in 1872.
  • The Emperor's Bridge Campaign is a nonprofit organization that fosters public awareness, understanding and appreciation of the life and legacy of Emperor Norton.

Emperor Norton actors[edit]

Emperor Norton impersonator participating in the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day Parade 2018
  • The San Francisco historical walking tour "Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine" is run by Joseph Amster, who gives the tours in the person of Emperor Norton.
  • Emperor Norton was a "guest of honor" at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention, held in San Francisco. He was "channeled" by a local fan.


José Sarria, a drag queen and early gay activist, proclaimed himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton" in 1964. As the Widow Norton, Sarria established the Imperial Court System, an international network of charitable organizations. Sarria died in August 2013, at the age of 89 or 90, and is buried at the foot of Emperor Norton's grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.


In the religion of Discordianism, Emperor Norton is considered a Saint Second Class, the highest spiritual honor attainable by an actual (non-fictional) human being. The Principia also says that the Goddess Eris / Discordia replied with Norton's name when questioned as to whether She, like Jehovah, had a Begotten Son. As reported in the Principia Discordia, the Joshua Norton Cabal, a group of Discordians based in San Francisco, has as its slogan:

In official practice, the phrase is never translated out of Latin, except on certain holidays.


  • Norton appears on the currency of some micronations, including the 10 Valora coin and 5 Valora paper note of the Republic of Molossia.
  • Molossians have declared part of their backyard to be Norton Park.
  • Micronations can be awarded Norton Awards for Micronational Excellence.[by whom?]

Annual celebration[edit]

  • January 8, the anniversary of Emperor Norton's death, is celebrated as Emperor Norton Day.


  1. ^ "2010 Emperor Norton Awards Winners". Locus. September 2010. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  2. ^ "The Locus Index to SF Awards: Emperor Norton Awards Winners By Year". Locus. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  3. ^ "Episode Guide, Season Seven...1965-1966, continued..." Bonanza: Scenery of the Ponderosa. Rick M. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  4. ^ Oliver, John; Zaltzman, Andy (October 20, 2008). The Bugle Podcast, Issue 49 (MP3). Times Online. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  5. ^ "The Bridge-Naming Tag Team of 2004," The Emperor's Bridge Campaign, EmperorsBridge.org.
  6. ^ Grover, Miles (2009). "Thinkin' Lincoln Characters". Thinkin' Lincoln. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  7. ^ Beaton, Kate (2007). "Today I write an imperial proclamation for General Scott to clear all personnel from Congress". Hark! A Vagrant. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  8. ^ Beaton, Kate (2009). "In San Francisco, Salute The Emperor". Hark! A Vagrant. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  9. ^ Testen, Francesca (September 24, 2014). "Tag Archives: #emperornorton". The History Twins. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  10. ^ Garrity, Shaenon K.; Wells, Jeffrey C. (November 18, 2013). "Today's Comic". Skin Horse. Retrieved February 4, 2016.