The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

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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"I Would Like to Send That Scalp of Yours to Them."

Over the course of several months in 1873, Emperor Norton issued a series of Proclamations calling out the exploitation of Native American people; urging a peaceable resolution to the Modoc War that was taking place at the time; and warning that the execution of Captain Jack and other Modoc leaders — a punishment mandated by an Army court-martial and eventually carried out — would only make matters worse.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has discovered a May 1873 diary entry — by a 13-year-old boy living in Oakland — that further illuminates the Emperor's take on the Modoc War and on Native Americans in general. 

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New Life for an 1879 Drawing of Emperor Norton

On 9 November 1879 — just two months before Emperor Norton's death — the San Francisco Chronicle published a Sunday front-page profile of the Emperor that was based on rare interview with the Emperor himself.

The profile was accompanied by a lovely drawing of the Emperor that was reproduced 60 years later for Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 biography, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America — but that has languished since then.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has had a new photographic print made of the drawing and has added a hi-res scan of it to ARENA, our digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art.

Learn more and see the drawing, after the flip.  

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OPEN QUESTION No. 1: How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?

The familiar version of Joshua Norton's San Francisco immigration story — a narrative developed primarily between 1879 and 1939 by that period's leading writers about Emperor Norton — holds that the future Emperor made his way from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, where he booked passage on the Hamburg ship Franzeska and arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849.

The "story of the story" — of how this narrative came together and was canonized — is interesting on its own. What has yet to surface, however, is any primary-source documentation verifying Joshua's passage on any particular ship or his arrival in San Francisco in November 1849.

Absent such evidence, what we really have in the "received version" of this story — as with a number of details about the Emperor's pre-imperial life, in particular — is more a work of "collaborative intuition," a theory in search of documentation.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on aspects of the Emperor Norton biography that should be regarded as "open questions" — and opportunities for research.

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LIGHTS! CAMERA! NORTON! A Campaign Fundraiser

On Thursday 23 March, The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign presents Lights! Camera! Norton! —  an evening of three films about Emperor Norton at the legendary Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

The event includes a screening of our own 35mm print of a 1936 short that we believe features the earliest dramatic portrayal of the Emperor on film.

This special evening takes place in the 254-seat Big Roxie theater and is a fundraiser for the Campaign: After the first 50 tickets sold, 50 percent of all proceeds from this screening will benefit The Campaign.

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Mark Twain Ate Here. Did Emperor Norton?

At least three times — in a 1906 autobiographical reminiscence; in an 1893 short story; and in his 1872 book, Roughing It — Mark Twain mentions a low-fare eatery, the Miners' Restaurant, that was on the same street as — and only a block away from — the Emperor Norton's residence.

Twain himself is reported to have adopted this restaurant as his "headquarters" in the winter of 1866 and 1867.

Might the Emperor have frequented this place, too?

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"Happy New Year, Emperor!"

The songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb are best known for their smash musicals Cabaret and Chicago. But Kander and Ebb's first musical theater collaboration was on the 1962 score for an unproduced musical inspired, in part, by the story of Emperor Norton. The score includes a Happy New Year song. Step inside for a listen, as rendered by Kander and Ebb themselves!

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