Drag has always attracted the most colorful of figures, and so it’s probably fitting that one of the most inspiring, and yet also overlooked, figures in drag history is Joshua Abraham Norton, more commonly known as Emperor Norton — and his “secret” Empress Jose Sarria.
He came from humble origins, born just north of London in 1818 and then moving with his family to South Africa. By the time he was 30, his family had all passed away and he was left with $40,000, which he used to move to San Francisco and invest in real estate.
He was a shrewd businessman, amassing a fortune of a quarter-million dollars — that’s around $5 million today. But he was ruined by the end of the Gold Rush and a bad investment in rice, and as he approached his 40s he declared bankruptcy.
It was in September of 1859 that he suddenly became an “emperor,” simply by declaring himself so. And San Franciscans obliged. For whatever reason, San Francisco embraced their weird new Emperor Norton, bestowing upon him all of the deference he claimed to deserve.
Who knows exactly why he decided he was emperor. Maybe he was just upset that he’d lost his fortune, or maybe he’d really been driven insane. But he issued various proclamations, demanding that Congress be disbanded and a bridge be built to Oakland. (It eventually would be, though it was named after sleazy former mayor Willie Brown instead of Norton.) He also abolished political parties.
For the next two decades, Emperor Norton could be seen walking the streets in a blue uniform and a beaver hat with a peacock feather sticking out of it. He would inspect civic infrastructure, and he once dispersed a riot. Restaurants would allow him to eat for free, and they put up plaques boasting that he’d visited. He often shared his meals with city-owned dogs, and created his own currency.
Though he died in 1880, Emperor Norton and his legacy survives today in an unlikely context: San Francisco’s drag community.
In 1965, a drag queen named Jose Sarria was crowned Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball and declared herself the widow of Emperor Norton, bestowing herself the title of “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco Jose I.” It was a tribute not only to the man but to the spirit of a city that let strange dreams become real.
But Jose Sarria didn’t stop there. He created a fundraising entity known as the Imperial Court, which like a homecoming court would select yearly regents. Those title holders would be responsible for community-based fundraising to benefit those in need. The San Francisco court soon spread to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, giving rise to the first ever Empress of Canada.
Many of these courts still survive to this day, often with official nonprofit status. They often hold elaborate fundraiser balls, as well as coronations to recognize new officials and investitures to present their titles. They are heavily steeped in pageantry and performance, and often quite formal.
Of course, they’re also silly, fun, campy parties featuring men dressed up as women. But that’s what makes Emperor Norton such a perfect inspiration for them: he was a man who did as he pleased, hurting no one and entertaining all, a century before the rise of ball culture.
Did you know about the story of Emperor Norton and Empress Jose Sarria?
This story was originally published on Sept. 23, 2017