Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was San Francisco’s first eccentric citizen of notoriety. As a commodities trader of 1859, whose rice deal went belly-up, Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself to be nobility and adorned himself in outlandish military attire, including epaulets and stovepipe hat that boasted a single imperial ostrich feather. He hand-delivered letters to various city dailies, entreating, among other things, construction of a bridge and a tunnel across the Bay to Oakland. Printing his own personal currency, he was welcomed by restaurants, and they in turn posted in their windows, “Emperor Norton Dines Here!” Police officers started saluting Norton when he appeared on their beats, and though Queen Victoria refused his proposal of marriage, King Kamehameha V officially recognized him as Emperor of these United States.
During his reign, Norton adopted two stray dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who would accompany him on his rounds. Opera houses began reserving three box seats for every show in the names of Emperor Norton, Bummer and Lazarus, and together they became the first luminaries of the Pacific Slope.
Just as Norton had adopted Bum and Laz, San Francisco adopted the three of them and provided them with the only unfettered life of royalty our country has ever seen. And what a life they had in that City by the Bay until 1934, when 10,000 San Franciscans attended Norton’s two-mile funeral cortege to say goodbye to our first and perhaps last emperor.
Bum and Laz, when called home to that great dog heaven in the sky, were subsequently stuffed by a taxidermist and put on display at Martin’s Saloon on Montgomery Street, where they were ardently toasted daily upon each and every happy hour.
Mark Twain would use Emperor Norton as a model for the King in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and there would be an effort as recent as 2014 to rename the Bay Bridge, “Emperor Norton Bridge.”
Tonight, after scribbling this, two of my matchless pals and our lady friends will be dining out of doors at the famous Stonefly Restaurant in Markleeville to honor Emperor Norton, Bummer and Lazarus. It may sound preposterous, but our lady friends put up with us as, “Norton,” and his two wastrel dogs, “Bum” and “Laz.” Norton will get the prime cut, and if we’re lucky, they might throw Bum and me a bone. And Norton will bring along a couple dog leashes in case Bummer and I want to take a walk after dinner.
It ain’t easy being a celebrity dog, especially a celebrity dog who was run over by a fire truck in downtown San Francisco away back in the 19th century. And Bummer, well, every time I shout out his name people look at him like he owes them $5. But Norton still gets all the limelight as he should. After all, he is Emperor of The United States and Protector of Mexico.
McAvoy Layne is a 30-year impressionist of Mark Twain who can be reached at GhostofTwain.com.