The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Emperor Norton's Note to the Ladies of the German Benevolent Society

In early 1878, it appears, Emperor Norton penned a note "[t]o the Ladies Fair of the German Benevolent Association." When the item was sold at auction in October 2012, the auction house did not attempt to date it. But our research into the first 25 years of the German Benevolent Society, as it was called — a period that roughly paralleled the reign of the Emperor — points to the week of 27 February to 5 March 1878 as the specific moment when he reached out to say when he would be "glad to greet" these Ladies. Read on to learn more.

Also on the flip: A large, hi-res image of the Emperor's note, presented here for the first time anywhere online.

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"My Dear Lotta": Emperor Norton's Telegram to Lotta Crabtree

Of the 14 telegraph message forms in the California Historical Society's collection of Emperor Norton artifacts, most appear to be fakes written and signed by prankish telegraph operators. But, one appears to be authentic and in the Emperor's hand. It's a message from Emperor Norton to Lotta Crabtree, commending her on the recently dedicated fountain that she has commissioned as a gift to the City of San Francisco — and bestowing upon her the imperial title "Lady of the Fountain."

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The Itemized Bill for Emperor Norton's 1934 Reburial — And Who Paid It

In 1934, a group of members of San Francisco's Pacific-Union Club organized themselves as the Emperor Norton Memorial Association, for the purpose of overseeing the City-mandated reburial of Emperor Norton at Woodlawn cemetery, in Colma, Calif. The Association's goals were to (1) secure a burial plot; (2) have a new headstone made; (3) produce a public ceremony to dedicate the new grave and stone; and (4) raise the funds necessary to accomplish these goals.

Tucked inconspicuously into the Emperor Norton ephemera collection of the California Historical Society is an undated "Statement of Receipts and Disbursements," on Emperor Norton Memorial Association letterhead, that shows exactly how much money was raised; who gave what; and how the money was spent. 

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Setting the Record Straight on the Famous Emperor Norton Obit(s)

Emperor Norton died on Thursday 8 January 1880.

Time and time again, one reads that the San Francisco Chronicle was up the next morning with a dramatic front-page headline, "Le Roi Est Mort" ("The King Is Dead"), over a brief obituary whose signature passage began "On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain...."

It's a good story — but, it's not quite true.

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Herb Caen's "Norton Bridge" Campaign of 1947

Did you know that the longstanding call to name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton traces part of its pedigree to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen?

Exactly 70 years ago — in what may be some of the earliest published statements of the idea that a San Francisco Bay-spanning bridge should bear the name of the Emperor — Caen, with some persistence, called for a planned "second Bay Bridge" to be named the "Norton Bridge." 

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Write a Letter Today to Make It the Emperor Norton Bridge in 2018

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Emperor Norton's birth on 4 February 2018. And, we can't think of a better bicentennial birthday present than — finally! — naming the Emperor's bridge for the Emperor! 

But, making this a possibility means that three groups of people — (1) state legislators, the ones who would have to authorize "Emperor Norton Bridge" as a parallel / honorary name for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; (2) those in local and state government and media who have influence with these elected officials; and (3) the close friends of all these people — need to hear from California supporters of the Emperor Norton Bridge naming — and hear from them a lot! — between now and early 2018.

To assist California supporters with this outreach, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has prepared a model letter that includes all the key messages that the Campaign has been using to advocate on this issue.  

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The Most Respectful Directory?

Much is made of the parenthetical designation of "(Emperor)" that appeared after Joshua Norton's name in the San Francisco city directories compiled by Henry G. Langley. But there was another directory that went a good bit further in explaining exactly who it was that lived at 624 Commercial Street between Montgomery and Kearny.

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Emperor Norton, c.1871–72

A little more than half of the 17 extant photographs of Emperor Norton have reliable dates attached. In this context, "date" means year.

Armed with one historical lead, a good set of links to early San Francisco directories, some basic detective skills and a little patience, we set out to pin down the date of a well-known photograph of Emperor Norton that had no date.

We found it.

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His Majesty's Voice Reaches the South

On the morning of 17 September 1859, Joshua Norton delivered to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin his Proclamation declaring himself Emperor of the United States. The declaration appeared in that evening's edition. Who'd have guessed that, within a month, a newspaper in Mississippi would have printed the decree in full on its front page? 

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Emperor Norton, Schizophrenic. Or Not.

The conventional wisdom, advanced by Norton biographer William Drury and many others, is that Joshua Norton was a "high-functioning schizophrenic." But, accepting that Norton struggled with some form of mental illness, is schizophrenia really the best way to explain it? Here's a different take worth considering.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 3: What Happened to Joshua Norton Between Declaring Himself Bankrupt in 1856 and Declaring Himself Emperor in 1859?

Here's a "mystery" about Emperor Norton that may be less mysterious than many seem to think. Despite persistent speculation that Joshua Norton left San Francisco for a period of months or years just before declaring himself Emperor in 1859, the available evidence points to a narrative in which, most likely, the eventual Emperor remained a resident of the City from his arrival until his death.

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Notes on His Majesty's Printers

It is known that Emperor Norton had his imperial promissory notes — his scrip — printed for him. But, rarely if ever discussed in any detail — even among collectors and connoisseurs of historical currency — are the particulars: Who were these printers? What were their associations? How did they get their "gigs" with the Emperor, and how did they fit into his world? Exactly when and where did they do their printing for him?

This exploration takes a close look at the two firms that are known to have printed Emperor Norton's bonds, between 1870 and 1880: Cuddy & Hughes and Charles A. Murdock & Co. It unearths:

  • some of the earliest newspaper references to the Emperor's scrip — including by the Emperor himself;
  • rarely seen photographic views of the building where Cuddy & Hughes, the Emperor's first printer, operated;
  • a personal recollection of the Emperor that his second printer, Charles Murdock, published in 1921;
  • directory listings; and...

Much other detail that sharpens the focus on this most basic episode of the Emperor's story — the printing and selling of scrip — and the key behind-the-scenes players that helped to make it happen.

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The Eastern Approach to the Imperial Palace

Two newly discovered photographs show new glimpses of the eastern end of the block of Commercial Street where Emperor Norton lived — as it was just after he moved there. The photos are from 1865 and 1866. The Emperor had moved to the block in late 1862 or early 1863. Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain worked on this block — next door to the palace, in fact — in the summer of 1864.

These views would have been very familiar to both gentlemen.

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The Emperor's Bridge Campaign Contributes Four Rare Emperor Norton Films to the Internet Archive

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has contributed four rare Emperor-themed films to the Internet Archive, the nonprofit library that collects published works and makes them available in digital formats. 

These films are rarely seen outside the domains of film screening societies and, occasionally, subscription cable television — and sometimes not even then.

The Campaign is delighted and grateful to have the Internet Archive as a partner in making these films available for viewing by a broader audience — both via the Internet Archive and via the Campaign's own ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film (ARENA). 

This collaboration with the Internet Archive includes the Archive's new high-resolution scan of the Campaign's 16mm copy of a 1936 theatrical film short that appears to feature the earliest dramatic portrayal of Emperor Norton extant on film.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 2: Did Joshua Norton Really Arrive in San Francisco With a $40,000 Inheritance That He Built Into a Quarter-Million-Dollar Fortune in 3 Years?

According to the "received" version of the Emperor Norton story: Joshua Norton inherited $40,000 from his father's estate. At around the same time, news of the Gold Rush reached South Africa. Joshua sailed west to seek his fortune in San Francisco, where he arrived in November 1849 with the $40,000 — a nest egg that he parlayed into $250,000 within three years.

But is this how it really went down? Not likely, according to the available evidence.

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David Belasco: An Early "Emperor Norton" of the San Francisco Stage

The legendary theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright David Belasco (1853–1931) made his name in New York City. But he cut his teeth on the San Francisco stage — initially as an actor. And, in the 1873 San Francisco performance that brought him his first critical notice, Belasco's character was a thinly veiled Emperor Norton. The Emperor, now in the 14th year of his reign, was very much alive and well in San Francisco.  

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