The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



The Eights Have It!

Of the hundreds of Norton-ish folks that we've met over the course of the last year or so, some of those who harbor the deepest fondness for Emperor Norton and his story identify with one of two groups: the Jewish community or numismatists, the latter being the proper term for historians of coin and currency. 

Here's a little discovery that brings both groups together. But, first, some background.

Both of the major Norton biographies affirm that Emperor Norton was born in 1818,

Allen Stanley Lane, in Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America (1939), sets it out at the very beginning, writing [emphasis ours] that young Joshua's parents

were English Jews of the working class, his father being a farmer and trader. John Norton and his wife, Sarah, were among the four thousand British colonists who went out from England in 1820 to settle at the Cape of Good Hope. With them they took their two small sons, Joshua Abraham, born in 1818, and Lewis, born in 1816. 

Nearly fifty years later, William Drury, in Norton  I: Emperor of the United States (1986) agreed with Lane about the birth year — and he added a clue [emphasis ours] as to why his readers should, too:

On May 2, 1820, when John and Sarah Norton arrived at the Cape of Good Hope with three small children, one a babe in Sarah's arms, John told an immigration clerk that the boy they called Joshua Abraham...was two years old. So there you have it from a father's lips; he was born in 1818. 

And, yet — for several decades now — most people who write and speak about Emperor Norton have continued to repeat the conventional wisdom that he was born in 1819. Indeed, many of the historical and educational institutions that usually are the starting points for research on the Emperor have 1819 as his birth year (e.g., here, here, here, here and here).   

In the course of our research project on the Emperor's birth date, the Campaign has made what we believe is a compelling case for 4 February 1818 as the date of Joshua Abraham Norton's birth. We also have offered some detailed thoughts, included in the essays here and here, on why "1819" has continued to be so tenaciously lodged in the version of Emperor Norton that most people who know much about him carry around in their pockets — the most obvious reason being that 1819 is the birth year that was (mistakenly) inscribed on the 1934 headstone that continues to preside over the Emperor's grave at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma, Calif.

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Along the way, of course, there have been those — apart from Messrs. Drury and Lane who have been willing to commit to 1818 as the year of Joshua Norton's birth. 

One of these "witnesses" surfaced last week. 

Cover of the November-December 1988 edition of  The Shekel , the bi-monthly journal of the American Israel Numismatic Association.  Source:  American IsraeI Numismatic Association . 

Cover of the November-December 1988 edition of The Shekel, the bi-monthly journal of the American Israel Numismatic Association.  Source: American IsraeI Numismatic Association

The Shekel, founded in 1967, is the bi-monthly journal of the American Israel Numismatic Association, which describes itself as "a non-sectarian cultural and educational organization dedicated to the study and collection of Israel's coinage, past and present, and all aspects of Judaic numismatics."

In The Shekel's November-December 1988 edition, the journal's editor, Edward Schuman, penned a cover article on Emperor Norton in which he wrote that "Joshua Abraham Norton was born of Jewish parents in London England in 1818."

Interesting that Schuman claimed as a source neither William Drury (whose book had been published only two years earlier) nor Allen Stanley Lane — at the time (and still), the chief biographers of the Emperor, and the most prominent advocates for an 1818 birth date.

The two sources Schuman identified both were published before Drury's 1986 biography:

  • Fred R. Marckhoff, "Norton I of California," Calcoin News: Quarterly Magazine of the California State Numismatic Association, vol. 15, no. 3 (Summer 1961), p.95; expanded reprint in Numismatic Scrapbook, March 1962.
  • Bernard Postal and Lionel Koppman, American Jewish Landmarks: A Travel Guide and History, vol. 4, "The West" (Fleet Press,1977).  

Did Schuman, in 1988; Postal and Koppmann, in 1977; and Marckhoff, in 1961, draw on Lane for their birth year  or from some other source? 

Either way: Schuman wrote in 1988 that Emperor Norton was born in 1818.

Can this many eights be wrong?


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