I was...invited up another flight of stairs to his room, and we had a long conversation about his father, mother, and sisters. I asked him...to tell me how it was that he came by the title of Emperor and why he wore the uniform he had on....[T]he demeanor of the old man changed all of a sudden and he raised himself from the edge of his single bed and went to the door and turned the key, then stepped to where I was sitting in amazement at his strange proceedings, and stooping down almost whispered that before he would tell me he would first impose a silence upon my lips never to reveal to anyone about his folks at Cape Town. I thought it strange but, being interested, readily gave the promise.

My old friend then told me that he was not the son of Mr. Norton of Cape Town, but a crown prince to the throne of France; that he had been sent to Cape Town to save himself from being assassinated; that he was adopted by Mr. Norton and had retained his name for the love he had for him, and taken the title "Emperor," which he was rightly entitled to bear; that the uniform was presented to him by Queen Victoria; and all the people here and in Mexico, were his subjects.

I looked at the man a moment and then told him I thought he was crazy; to which he replied, "And so do a good many others."

-Nathan Peiser

Read this article with reservations:

  1. The writer is not a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. He ventures this only because he recommends no treatment and because the subject is dead and cannot be abused by attempts to apply the consequences of the diagnosis;
  2. The subject is dead and unable to answer questions or be directly observed. The opinions advanced here are based on second-hand accounts and examination of photos;
  3. Those seeking understanding of themselves should contact a qualified mental health professional.

William Drury weighs the evidence and concludes that Norton was probably schizophrenic. Drury holds for this because Norton believed himself to be Emperor of the United States. Missing from Drury's and other's accounts of the Emperor, however, are the audible and visible hallucinations which are the hallmarks of the schizophrenic personality. Norton insisted he was Emperor, but no one has documented evidence that he saw monsters where there were none, believed that people were out to assassinate him (unlike his rival Dr. Willie Coombs), made reckless sexual advances (he could take "no" for an answer), received telepathic messages, or heard the angels singing as he walked down the street. Without these things, I suspect, most therapists would hesitate to make the diagnosis of schizophrenia for Norton.

So what was his problem? Was he faking it?

I believe that Joshua Norton truly felt the pain of mental illness. He clearly invested a great deal of time in his creation of an Emperor of the United States and made his living from him. He seemed to his observers in touch with reality, except that he called himself "Emperor". After his financial ruin, he lived in shabby conditions, wore threadbare clothes, and suffered weight loss. Several people commented about how he'd let himself go. He was unable to work or to concentrate. Still, he maintained a creative impulse and could rouse himself from his sadness to speak and to act.

My guess is that Joshua Norton suffered from major depression, which accounts for his neglect of his person, his work, and other necessary aspects of his life. He fought this using the mechanism of what psychologists call a "histrionic personality". By his dress, by his manner, by his attendance at public gatherings and church services, and by the publication of his proclamations and other documents in the city's newspapers, he kept himself at the center of attention. When he acted the role of the Emperor, people looked at and listened to him and he was able to earn for himself a modest living. His schtick enabled him to keep going after the stunning defeats he suffered during the 1850s. It negated his pain.

For this conclusion to be valid, we must find evidence of the personality disorder before Joshua Norton turned thirty. One compelling piece of evidence comes from the testimony of Nathan Peiser who spoke of the young Norton disrupting a Jewish prayer meeting. Though Peiser does not describe what Norton did, it brought the affair to a halt and a scolding from Norton's father. The joker wants people to look at him and it appears that the habit of drawing attention to himself through off-color behavior came to Norton before he went to San Francisco. We must also remember Norton's reaction when he met Peisner, by chance, several years later. He expressed immediate recognition of his fellow Jew and recalled the prayer meeting in the same sentence. Peiser's account suggests that Norton did not hallucinate: he did not turn Peiser into someone else or forget who he was. Many years later, Joshua Norton recollected the shame of what he'd done back in Cape Town ; and, perhaps, too, he felt embarassed because Peiser had caught him doing something like it again.

If Norton's problem was a histrionic personality disorder compensating for depression, the reaction of the community exacerbated it. Newspapermen, merchants, tourists, and friends rewarded his Imperial shenanigans with publicity, some small privileges, conversations and gifts of money and inconsequential items. On one hand, this allowed him to make a living, force any thoughts of suicide out of his head, and lead a creative life. It also made him a prisoner of the town, unable to recover and make a life for himself that was better than that he lived. His efforts to support pioneer aviation, the construction of the Bay Bridge, and safety features for railroads and street cars may have been attempts to break free. Because San Franciscans had been trained to laugh at their Emperor, they just laughed more. Only a few compassionate souls such as Mark Twain realized that the Emperor was more than a crackpot. The Imperial proclamations demanding better clothes and a better place to live show that the Emperor was quite aware of his miserable situation and wanted out. The public received this as more silliness and so, to the end of his life, every night, Norton returned to the dingy flophouse room that served as his cell.

Qualified mental health professionals are encouraged to respond. I will print their remarks on this page for the better understanding of the readers.

For more information on the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders,
visit the Internet Mental Health Page

Return to the Third Part: Back to the Womb
Consult the Bibliography
Study his obituary
View a Collection of Imperial Proclamations
Read about San Francisco Eccentrics
Return to Tales from Colma