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Cemetery Sights: Norton, Emperor of the United States

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Graveyard guru Loren Rhoads on the final resting place of an American legend

EDITOR’S NOTE: Loren Rhoads is the author of the fascinating new book “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.” This is the first installment of her new Legacy.com series sharing remarkable tales from the world’s cemeteries.

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Although his may not be a well-recognized name, the most important figure buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in quiet Colma, California is Joshua Norton.

In mid-19th century San Francisco, Norton was a rice merchant who bet all he had on cornering the market. Unfortunately, when his ship finally came in, it arrived behind two others laden with rice. Norton lost everything.

After a brief period of madness, Norton returned to society and proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

From that point forward, he always wore a navy blue military-style uniform and a plumed beaver hat. He patrolled San Francisco on a high-wheeled penny-farthing bicycle. The census officially listed his occupation as Emperor. Norton issued his own currency, which was accepted in taverns, restaurants, and theaters in San Francisco. Local bartenders and restaurateurs re-sold Norton’s bills as souvenirs.

He also issued imperial proclamations. For instance: Norton called for President Lincoln to marry Queen Victoria to cement relations between our countries. And he decreed that a bridge be built linking San Francisco across the bay to Oakland. Eventually, of course, that one actually happened. Although the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge wasn’t completed until 1936, 56 years after Norton’s death, many Californians still believe that the bridge should be renamed in his honor.

In January 1880, Norton died penniless on a street corner.

The Pacific Club, a social club to which most of San Francisco’s millionaires belonged, bought Norton a rosewood casket ornamented with silver, paid for by subscriptions among its members. Joseph Eastland — a fellow Masonic Lodge brother — donated a burial plot in the Masonic Cemetery, which stood atop a ridge bounded by Turk, Fulton, Parker and Masonic Streets. And Reverend N. L. Githens of the Church of the Advent passed the collection plate and purchased a simple cross “to remember a Jew who had strayed far from his faith.”

Obituaries appeared in papers as far away as the Seattle Intelligencer and the New York Times. At two miles long, with an estimated 30,000 people, Norton’s funeral cortege was the largest the city had ever seen.

Fast forward 20 years to the turn of the 20th century, when San Francisco — then as now, valuing its real estate at a premium — decided it would no longer be legal for the dead to lie buried within city limits. The Masons bought land for a new cemetery south of San Francisco, in a little farming village that eventually became known as the town of Colma.

The Masons laid their cornerstone on October 29, 1904, and for the next three decades, families were invited to transfer their ancestors — and their ancestors’ monuments — to the new graveyard in Colma. But many of the old Masons had joined the fraternity because they had no one else to bury them. So in 1934, the surviving Masons transferred the remaining pioneers to a mass grave in their Woodlawn Cemetery and erected an impressive white granite monument over them.

Norton was saved the ignominy of being consigned to the mass grave. The City of San Francisco bought him a plot on the southern site of the Woodlawn Cemetery. An estimated 60,000 people attended his reburial.

A modest red granite monument stands over Norton’s grave. With no explanation, it remembers him as Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.


Loren Rhoads is the author of the fascinating new book “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.”