The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

TO HONOR THE LIFE + ADVANCE THE LEGACY OF EMPEROR NORTON

RESEARCH • EDUCATION • ADVOCACY

The Emperor Norton Rooms of 1961

In spring 1961, two establishments opened in San Francisco.

One was a hotel bar on Geary Street. The other was a lunch spot and cocktail lounge on Maiden Lane.

Both were less than two blocks from Union Square.

One was created by a designer who went on to be celebrated in the pages of the Architectural Digest. It had an "Emperor Norton" doorman. And, per Herb Caen, it once was host to Jack Dempsey and Lefty O'Doul — sharing a bowl of peanuts on the same night.

The other was home to a new portrait of the Emperor commissioned by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Both were called the Emperor Norton Room.

Here’s the intriguing story of two Nortonian stars that briefly rose and just as quickly fell in the same San Francisco season.

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Emperor Norton on the Front Row of the Fight for Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment Removing Race as a Barrier to Voting

In February 1869, the U.S. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which would have the effect of extending the right to vote in the United States to all men of color.

Ten months later — as ratification was making its way through the states, and with California still in the balance — a respected African-American editor and activist named Peter Anderson gave a lecture in favor of the Amendment at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, on Stockton Street in San Francisco.

Emperor Norton showed up, took a seat down front and was “an attentive listener,” according to the San Francisco Examiner.

The Amendment was ratified in February 1870 — no thanks to California, where the legislature rejected the Amendment against a backdrop of anti-Chinese racism in the state. But, Anderson — the editor of the African-American-owned and -operated Pacific Appeal newspaper — may have remembered Emperor Norton’s solidarity when, late that year, he took on the Emperor as a regular contributor to his pages.

Over the next four-and-a-half years, Anderson would publish — almost always on the front page — some 250 of Emperor Norton’s proclamations, including those insisting on the rights of African-Americans to attend public schools and ride public streetcars.

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Emperor Norton’s Early Engagement With an African-American Editor Reveals the Essence of the Emperor’s Mission — And Foreshadows a Key Relationship

In 1860, the prominent African-American editor and civil rights activist Philip Alexander Bell arrived in San Francisco from New York City to take up the editor’s chair at the San Francisco Mirror of the Times newspaper —the intellectual and political heartbeat of the emerging movement for African-American equality in California.

One of Bell’s earliest editorial items — published on 20 August of that year — was about Emperor Norton. Within a matter of hours, the Emperor responded in writing, and Bell published the note the following day under the headline “A Pacific Proclamation.”

Twenty months later, Bell would join Peter Anderson, a founder of the Mirror, in converting the paper to a new African-American weekly called The Pacific Appeal. At the end of 1870, Emperor Norton named the Appeal his imperial gazette; and, over the next four-and-a-half years, Anderson, as editor, published some 250 of the Emperor’s proclamations — including his many decrees recognizing the humanity and rights, and demanding fairness and equality, for marginalized and immigrant people, specifically: the Chinese, Native Americans and African-Americans,

The fact that Emperor Norton responded to Philip Bell in 1860 — and what he said — tells us much about the Emperor.

We believe this is the first modern publication of the images and full texts of Bell’s editorial and the Emperor’s reply.

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“The Old Boy Doped It Out Pretty Damn Well” — Notes on an Early "Emperor's Bridge" Campaigner

A May 1956 episode of the television series Telephone Time is one of the four films currently included in The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign’s digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film (ARENA).

The series was created, produced and hosted by John Nesbitt. And the episode is titled “Emperor Norton’s Bridge,” although the Bay Bridge — the Emperor’s bridge — appears nowhere in the story.

As it happens, though, Nesbitt — starting years before the airing of the episode — was a lifelong advocate for naming the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton.

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Campaign Discovers Newspaper Record of Emperor Norton’s Famous Stand-Off with an Anti-Chinese Crowd

One of the most popular stories about Emperor Norton has the Emperor dispersing an anti-Chinese riot by standing before a racist mob and saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over. But, there never has been a date or documentation for this incident.

The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign has discovered what we believe to be the first document that stands to lift key elements of this story out of the realm of legend and into the realm of history. We share it here.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 4: Was the Christmas Tree in Union Square, San Francisco, Really Emperor Norton’s Idea?

The short answer is: It seems not.

But, the question invites a deep dive into the history of Christmas trees and Christmas decorations, more broadly, in San Francisco’s Union Square.

Pull up a chair for the long answer. It’s a fascinating and occasionally surprising story that includes some wonderful rarely seen archival photographs of Christmas in Union Square over the last century.

Bonus: Research for this article produced dates (years) for three photographs of Christmas trees in Union Square that previously either were incorrectly or imprecisely dated or were undated.

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Emperor Norton Plaque Restored; Site Eyed for Reinstallation at New Transbay Center

A well-known and fondly regarded Emperor Norton plaque created in 1939 most recently was installed at San Francisco’s old Transbay Terminal for 34 years — from November 1986 until the terminal was prepared for demolition in late 2010.

The weathered bronze plaque has been out of the public view for the last 8 years. But, recently, the plaque was lovingly restored — and plans are moving forward to reinstall the plaque at the new Transbay Transit Center.

Read on for a photograph of the plaque as most have never seen it — and for details on the location now being eyed for this rare and wonderful tribute to the Emperor.

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Emperor Norton Addressed the European Trade Crisis of 1870 With an Offer of Imperial Bonds

In October 1870, the Franco-Prussian War was headed into its fourth month. Emperor Norton was angry about the bloodshed and appealed both to Wilhelm, the future German emperor, and Bismarck to stop the fighting. The Emperor also was concerned about the war’s negative impacts on European trade. He stepped into this particular breach with a concrete solution.

To help illustrate what he had in mind, the Emperor sent an influential German publisher in Leipzig one of his new imperial notes, signed and made out to the publisher.

Presented here is evidence that the note reached its destination. If this note survives, it would be the oldest one in existence.

It’s a fascinating story.

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THE LONGEST PROCLAMATION? Emperor Norton at the Lyceum for Self-Culture

Virtually all of the published Proclamations of Emperor Norton were short — a couple of sentences; two or three very short paragraphs, tops — and virtually all originally appeared in newspapers.

Virtually all — but not all.

What appears to be the longest Proclamation by the Emperor — his verdict on the Beecher-Tilton affair, issued on 30 July 1874 and clocking in at 430 words — was published in Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas. This short-lived publication was a clearinghouse of information — reportage, commentary, lecture texts and letters — on "liberal" and "radical" writers, practitioners and societies of free thought and spiritualism, with a focus on the Pacific Coast.

One of the main societies covered in the pages of Common Sense was the Lyceum for Self-Culture, which met weekly at Dashaway Hall, on Post Street between Kearny and Dupont. Emperor Norton was a member and regular attendee of the Lyceum.

The full story — including the Proclamation and a rarely seen 1867 photograph of Dashaway Hall by Eadweard Muybridge — is on the flip.

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New Transbay Transit Center Is in Norton's Old Neighborhood

Most people who see a connection between Emperor Norton and the site occupied by the new Transbay Transit Center see the connection only in terms of a beautiful Bay Bridge-oriented commemorative plaque that the fraternal society E Clampus Vitus commissioned and dedicated in 1939 and moved to the old Transbay Terminal some fifty years later, in 1986.

In fact, the new transit center is just a few steps from the former sites of some of the most important properties owned and used between 1850 and 1855 by the "pre-imperial" businessman known as Joshua Abraham Norton.

This points to an opportunity: The transit center is situated in the midst of the oldest of Old San Francisco. How about a prominent feature in the Center that would direct visitors to historically significant sites that are within walking distance? How about putting a plaque or some other historical marker on all of these sites?

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Emperor Norton Makes the News at the German "Ladies Fair" of 1878

In March, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign stumbled upon an image of a handwritten note from Emperor Norton that had been sold at auction in October 2012. The manuscript was undated and was sold as such — but the note was addressed "to the Ladies' Fair of the German Benevolent Association." With this clue as a point of departure, we undertook to try to learn more about the note — including exactly when it was written.

We published our research postulating that the Emperor penned his note around the time of the Fair, which was held between 26 February and 5 March 1878.

In this follow-up, we present the image, original text and English translation of a German-language article from 2 March 1878 that appears to include a reference to the Emperor’s letter — which, it seems, was part of an “autographic album” of letters written to the “Ladies” of the Fair by a host of “scholars, artists and statesmen,” including then-President Rutherford B.Hayes.

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Time-Traveling With One of the Earliest Comic Illustrations of Emperor Norton

A wonderful illustration of Emperor Norton featured by the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper in 1913 and the California Review monthly in 1904 got its start as part of a triptych of “Prominent Men of San Francisco” drawn by George Frederick Keller (1846–1927) in c.1874, as the Emperor was reaching the height of his imperial influence and becoming a nationally known figure.

Not long after this, in 1876, Keller came to prominence as the chief artist of the new San Francisco Wasp, a position that briefly would earn him both fame and notoriety as one of the leading political cartoonists of his day.

The full story is in the flip — including high-resolution wonders that The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign is pleased to present online for the first time.

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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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