I love my tattoo because it comes with a history lesson!
Emperor Norton is the one and only Emperor that the United States has ever had. He was born in London in 1819, raised in South Africa, and came to San Francisco a wealthy man until he lost his fortune investing in rice. He became homeless and some say he was driven mad, which prompted his next move- publicly declaring himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”
The city of San Francisco accepted him whole-heartedly as their Emperor, bowing to him in the streets, paying for his meals in fancy restaurants, even accepting currency he made himself which depicted his own face. Newspapers began to print his decrees, which included dissolving Congress, abolishing both the Democratic and Republican Parties, demanding that a suspension bridge be built to connect San Francisco and Oakland (now known as the Oakland Bay Bridge), and demanding that a meeting of the nations be held in order to encourage friendly relations (now known as the United Nations). One day, an overzealous police officer arrested His Majesty Norton I for involuntary treatment for a “mental disorder” and created a major civic uproar. Police Chief Partick Crowley apologized to His Majesty and had him released back into the street where he continued to live. After several scathing newspaper articles, police officers began to salute His Majesty when he passed them.
The Emperor regularly attended synagogue on Saturdays as he was born Jewish. He also attended church on Sundays, stating that a public figure such as himself should be mindful of all beliefs. In Chinatown, where tensions between the newly immigrated Chinese and the white miners were running high, gang wars tended to break out. On one such occasion, His Majesty noticed a group of white miners about to attack a group of unarmed Chinese men. He placed himself between them, raised his hands, and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Both parties stood down.
On January 8, 1880, The Emperor was on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences when he collapsed in the street. The next morning, the San Francisco Chronicle’s headline read “Le Roi Est Mort”- The King is Dead. 30,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession which was darkened by a total eclipse of the sun.
He was beloved by those who knew him, including such literary legends as Robert Luis Stevenson and Mark Twain, who immortalized The Emperor through a character in his novel “Huckleberry Finn”. You’d know him as “The King”.
I’m a tour guide in SF and my favorite part of the day is telling the story of The Emperor. He’s shaped the way that I look at SF. To me, it will always be the city that, even in it’s rowdy Gold Rush days, accepted a man who may or may not have been mad, who had a deep sense of goodness, a great pride for his people, and was absolutely absurd. SF continues to embody this spirit today.
The Tattoo was done at Cold Steel Tattoo in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco by Thaoe Rivas, who was as excited as I was when I told him the story.