Based upon an actual person, Emperor Norton I was born Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818 – January 8, 1880). He was a well known character in 19th century San Francisco, he issued his own currency which he sold to tourists, and published decrees. Over 30,000 people attended his funeral.

In reality and in Sandman, Norton was a failed businessman on the verge of ruin and despair. For the purposes of the story, his delusion that he was, in fact, Emperor of the United States was instilled by Dream in the course of a wager with Desire and Despair.

Norton lived a "waking dream" for the remainder of his life. Morpheus did not give Norton a dream to live out of altruism; he did so to prove to his younger sibling that without dreams there could not be despair.

Delirium took part in the wager but soon gave up, since she did not like Norton. He did not mind if people laughed at him, in contrast to Delirium. He remarked that he was still the peoples Emperor, so they could laugh as they want. Delirium then left, but not before remarking that he could never be hers, since his madness kept him sane. He was too focused and collected to be delirious and could therefore never enter her (Delirium) realm.

In the end, in January 8, 1880, 8:00 PM, Emperor Norton, first and only Emperor of the United States died while walking through the rain to join a meeting at the Hasting society. A fact Despair bittirly resented: "I hoped that you would come back to me Joshua. You are a pitiful madman, a Tom o Bedlam, dying in the gutter in the rain...but you never despaired"

And so Despair lost her bet with Dream, since Emperors Norton dream prevailed over Despair itself. Death came for him after that and escorted him to the afterlife, remarking that out of all the emperors, queens and kings of the world she had taken, she liked him best.

He was buried on Sunday, The 10th of Januar 1880. Ten thousand people filed past it body as it lay in state, and his funeral cortege was over two miles long. His burial was marked by the total eclipse of the sun.