"Baby Face Norton" Is Baby-Faced — But Not Norton
Tucked into a few corners of the Internet — mostly on Pinterest boards linking back to this 2012 Tumblr — is the following photograph labelled as being Emperor Norton (or at least possibly so). Every now and again, someone will send us this photo in the hope of having stumbled across a hidden treasure.
We've had doubts of our own about the authenticity of this photograph — but we've discovered new evidence that would seem to confirm any hopes as wishful thinking.
The image here is of a carte de visite mounting of the photograph, which was taken by Jacob Shew (1826-1879). The card is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Pencilled on the back of the card is the name "Emp Norton" [see image here]. But the library's title for the card — "[Photograph of Emperor Norton [?]]" — indicates Yale's recognition that there is reason to doubt that Emperor Norton is who is depicted in the photograph.
We agree. For some time, in the Campaign's gallery of photographs of the Emperor, we have had this photo at the bottom of the page, as one of two "persistent outliers" for which "there's not enough information to confirm the authenticity."
I long have felt that the figure in this photo is much too young, fresh-faced, slightly built and closely groomed to be Norton. Indeed, click to enlarge the photo and you'll see that the beard and moustache appear to be fake — a theatrical prop provided by the photographer, perhaps?
From the following photograph — part of the same Yale collection that includes the photo we're considering here — one can guess that photographing young boys in military regalia was, in fact, a "thing" during this period.
Note the similarity of the costumes and props — the military "top," the sword and the carefully staged tall fur hat — in the two photographs. As though the parents of each boy had browsed the catalogue at the studio and requested the "Military Officer" option.
ln doing a bit of extra digging recently, I discovered something that would seem to further disqualify Emperor Norton as the subject of the Shew photograph.
The Beinecke catalogue listing dates this carte de visite as "ca. 1860."
But the studio address on the front of the card is 612 Clay Street in San Francisco. According to Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn in their extensively annotated book Pioneer Photographers of the Far West (Stanford, 2000), Jacob Shew didn't move his studio to 612 Clay until mid 1867 — and Shew remained at 612 Clay until moving his studio to 513 Montgomery Street in 1871 [see page 494, column 2, here].
Assuming that Shew took this photograph while he was at 612 Clay, as the card indicates, i.e., between 1867 and 1871...
A comparison of this photo to the established photographs of Emperor Norton from this same period — see rows 1 and 2 in our gallery here for photos of the Emperor dated 1864 and 1869 — would seem to confirm that the person in Shew's photograph is not Emperor Norton.
Cute kid, though.
[Many thanks to Julie Driver and Judi Leff for a very productive online brainstorm about the Jacob Shew photograph back in September. —JL]
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