The Passing Of The Empress Norton


Earlier this year, St. Mae of treated my wife and I to a tour of the fabled gravesite of one Emperor Joshua Norton I, which is located at one of the many cemeteries  in Colma, CA, otherwise known as the “City of the Graves”, the city with more cemeteries per capita than any other in these United States.


Of course, I’m probably getting ahead of myself if you’ve no clue as to who Emperor Norton was—so let’s fill in the blanks.

Norton—who immigrated from South Africa to the United States in 1849 after receiving 40,000 dollars inherited from his father’s estate—later lost his fortune in a failed business venture concerning Peruvian rice, of all things.

Due to this financial disaster—it could be conjectured—Norton experienced some sort of psychological meltdown as soon after he declared himself Emperor of the World and Protector of Mexico, wandering the streets of ol’ San Fran dressed in regal, yet ragged attire.


The Emperor Norton

Although he’d become a pauper, Norton was allowed to dine in the finest restaurants in town and treated as royalty. Considered by many a kook, Norton issued his own currency that was accepted in saloons and other establishments.

Emperor Norton was fond of issuing pronouncements and decrees; he called for the construction of a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, which later became the Bay Bridge. In recent times, there have been several campaigns launched to get the Bay Bridge renamed “The Emperor Norton Bay Bridge”, which you can find out more about at:

E. Clampus Vitus plaque dedicated the Emperor Norton Bay Bridge

E. Clampus Vitus plaque dedicated the Emperor Norton Bay Bridge

Among other accolades, Norton was a recognized Illuminated Being by the Ancient and Accepted Freemasons, and granted a 33rd degree in the order, the highest rank achievable. When he died, thousands of San Franciscans attended his funeral, and Norton was buried in the Masonic cemetery, courtesy of his Freemasonic homeboys.

A revival of interest in the Emperor Norton legacy surfaced in the late 1960s, when Discordian Society founder Greg Hill (aka Malaclypse the Younger) initiated the Emperor Joshua Norton Cabal and officially made Norton a patron saint of Discordianism. According to Hill:

Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Herman Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton.

Emperor Norton propaganda disseminated by the Discordian Society.

Emperor Norton propaganda disseminated by the Discordian Society.

So this was the historical background I‘d become quite familiar with over the years (as a pseudo Discordian Historian), although I‘d never officially (or even unofficially, for that matter) visited the good Emperor’s gravesite until, as noted, the wonderful St. Mae took us on a tour of this holy site earlier this year. While so doing, St. Mae dropped some additional Emperor Norton knowledge on us of which I was previously unawares—mainly, that located right beside the Emperor’s grave, was the future burial plot of The Widow Norton (aka José Sarria), a famous San Fran drag queen who had been instrumental in maintaining the Emperor’s gravesite over the years, as well as somehow wedding him along the way.


 The Widow Norton

The Widow Norton

Also sharing plots adjacent to Emperor Norton and his beloved Empress were four other drag queen comrades of the Widow Norton—some still living, others having shed the mortal coil.

 Gravesites of the other cross-dressing colleagues of the Widow Norton.

Gravesites of the other cross-dressing colleagues of the Widow Norton.

For several months, I’d been planning to write a short piece on our Emperor/Empress Norton gravesite visit, and was suddenly prompted to do so a few weeks back with news of the passing of José Sarria who, I soon discovered, was much more than a mere cross dressing widowed Empress, but also known as the “Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.”

Read more about Sarria’s passing here:

Sounds like they had a hell of a going away party for the Empress!

Live like Norton!