The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



On the Trail of the Elusive "Frisco" Proclamation

This is part of our occasional series of Open Questions articles. These articles take "deep dives" into some of the most oft-repeated — but under-analyzed — historical claims about Joshua Norton / Emperor Norton. They offer source material for future exploration of questions that generally are presented as settled — but aren't. (Later articles in the series are numbered — "Open Question No. 1," etc. This article was added to the series retroactively.) 

See 4 March 2016 update immediately below this article.

Find yourself in a conversation about Emperor Norton with one of his followers — whether someone who identifies as a subject of the Emperor or just someone who has paid close attention to his story — and you won't get far before you hear about his proclamations setting out the vision for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. They are amongst his best-known decrees.

But no proclamation more often is actually quoted, if that's the right term, than the one in which Emperor Norton is said to have ordered:

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.

Given how faithfully this text has been preserved, and given the glib certainty with which the words almost invariably are attributed to the Emperor, what seems most remarkable is that — in fact — the source of this proclamation is far from clear.

As soon as one starts digging around in search of origins, things get very foggy indeed.

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Important to note, before going any further...

Occasionally, accounts of Emperor Norton that mention the "Frisco" proclamation offer 1872 as the year of publication. 

But we've yet to see or hear any account, from the Emperor's time to the present — book, thesis, essay, article, post or proclamation; print, online, broadcast, podcast or otherwise — that offers a specific date or specific primary-source documentation for this proclamation, much less evidence of Emperor Norton's authorship.

Here, in reverse chronological order, are the highlights of what we've discovered so far:


The Libertarian Labyrinth, led by Shawn Wilbur, describes itself as "an archive of anarchistic histories and possibilities" with "writings by anarchists, socialists, feminists and dreamers." In September 2013, the Labyrinth posted as "an ongoing project" its digital collection of Proclamations of Emperor Norton.

No mention of the "Frisco" proclamation.


By January 2010, the essay on Emperor Norton by Shaping San Francisco co-founder Chris Carlsson had appeared at the FoundSF wiki. Here's the current version.

States the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date.


Since William Drury's 1986 book on Emperor Norton, there's been only one substantively long treatment of the Emperor's life and influence: Dieter Martin's 2009 master's thesis, Emperor Norton I: The Rise of a San Francisco Cultural Icon, 1859-1880.

No mention of the proclamation.


In August 2005, Richard Miller, the creator of the Sparkletack series of podcasts on San Francisco history, posted his extremely popular Emperor Norton episode

States the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date.


By March 2005, Peter Moylan's entry on Emperor Norton had appeared in the online Encyclopedia of San Francisco, a project of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. 

The current version of the entry includes an "Author's Note" in which Moylan points out that the material for the entry is drawn largely from the 1986 biography of Emperor Norton by William Drury (see below). 

States the proclamation and dates it as "1872" — but offers no primary source and no specific date.


In late 1998, Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax launched a Web site,, which featured a welcome page quoting the "Frisco" proclamation — but offering no source or date.

By October 1999, the proclamation was listed as part of a collection; and 1872 had been added as the year of publication.  Here's the current listing.

States the proclamation and dates it as "1872" — but offers no primary source and no specific date.


By November 1996, Richard Petersen — one of the first to offer online information about Emperor Norton — had added to his Web site at a page about the Emperor that included most of the text of the "Frisco" edict. Here's the current page.

States most of the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date.


In the 1995 edition of her San Francisco Almanac (Chronicle Books), Gladys Hansen includes an Emperor Norton timeline. In the introduction to the timeline that appears in the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, which she curates, Hansen writes: "Many of the 'decrees' attributed to Norton I were fakes; written in jest by newspaper editors at the time for amusement, or for political purposes. Those' decrees' listed here were, we believe, actually issued by Norton."

No mention of the proclamation.


William Drury's book, Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Dodd, Mead) — not perfect, but the most historically astute account; and still the "reference standard" — quotes the Proclamation. And he places it within a passage where he is discussing events of 1872.

States the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date (although positions the decree so as to invite the interpretation that it was published in 1872).


Michael S. McDonald wrote a piece on Emperor Norton for the Western History Association's magazine, The American West.

No mention of the proclamation.


Joan Parker penned an essay on the Emperor for American Heritage magazine.

No mention of the proclamation.


A year earlier, Patricia E. Carr wrote an essay on the Emperor for American History Illustrated.

States most of the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date.


Rabbi William M. Kramer published an erudite little volume, Emperor Norton of San Francisco (Norton Stern).

No mention of the proclamation.


Richard Dillon, longtime curator of the Sutro Library, includes a chapter on Emperor Norton in his book, Humbugs and Heroes: A Gallery of California Pioneers (Doubleday). 

No mention of the proclamation.


In The Square Pegs (Knopf), his book about "Some Americans Who Dared to be Different," Irving Wallace includes a chapter on Emperor Norton.

No mention of the proclamation.


Legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen published his second book, titled Don't Call It Frisco (Doubleday). The opening essay, which shared the same title, became the founding text of the modern anti-"Frisco" movement. More than than 40 years later, Caen revived "Don't Call It Frisco" as the title of a 3 March 1995 column that includes the passage most frequently cited today to sum up Caen's position. In both cases, however...

No mention of the proclamation.


David Warren Ryder's little book, San Francisco's Emperor Norton, was the longest of a number of accounts of the Emperor that Ryder published between 1928 and 1945.

States the proclamation — but offers no primary source and no date.


Allen Stanley Lane's book, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America (The Caxton Printers, Ltd.), was the standard biography before William Drury's.

No mention of the proclamation.


Weighing in at just 22 pages, Albert Dressler's Emperor Norton: Life and Experiences of a Notable Character in San Francisco, 1849-1880 may be the slimmest volume on Norton to be graced with a proper binding. So slim that...

No mention of the proclamation.


Bibliographer and book collector Robert Ernest Cowan was the inaugural editor of the California Historical Society Quarterly. Cowan's brief essay, "Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, published in the October 1923 issue of the Quarterly, was one of the most influential — if not always historically scrupulous — early accounts of the Emperor. He published an expanded version of the essay in 1938.

No mention of the proclamation in either version.


Featured in the May 1892 issue of The Overland Monthly is Francis Sheldon's article, "Street Characters of San Francisco," which opens with a lengthy profile of Emperor Norton.

No mention of the proclamation.


Benjamin E. Lloyd's book, Lights and Shades of San Francisco, offers a contemporaneous account of Emperor Norton.

No mention of the proclamation.


The California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC) includes nearly complete sets of searchable issues of two San Francisco papers that had strong associations with Emperor Norton: (1) The Pacific Appeal from 1862 to 1880, including the period from January 1871 to May 1875, when the paper published Emperor Norton's proclamations as the Emperor's preferred "weekly imperial organ"; and (2) the Daily Alta California from 1849 to 1891. The Alta's editor wrote and published many fake proclamations in the Emperor's name.

The search " 'Norton' 'Frisco' " for the period of Emperor Norton's reign, from 17 September 1859 to 8 January 1880, produces 10 results across the CDNC's entire collection of papers.

No mention of the proclamation.

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This is not an exhaustive list. Over the last few years, Emperor Norton has become a popular subject for blog posts of varying quality. At least every few months, a new one makes the rounds on Twitter — and, almost invariably, it includes yet one more unsourced quotation of the "Frisco" proclamation as the Emperor's handiwork. (Two that have done especially well in the Twitter market are here and here). And, of course, the "Frisco" decree has been a staple of San Francisco travel handbooks for years.

But the secondary sources above are the most respected and most frequently cited ones. They include both the print sources that most often appear in Norton bibliographies and the online ones that are linked to advance the claim that the "Frisco" proclamation came straight from the Emperor's pen.

It seems remarkable that, across all of these sources, there is nothing that qualifies as evidence of this.

Surely, if a publication and date for the proclamation had been verified, at least one of the professional or amateur historians who have affirmed the Emperor's authorship of the decree would have gone on the record with the details.

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Front cover of David Warren Ryder's book,  San Francisco's Emperor Norton  (1939).

Front cover of David Warren Ryder's book, San Francisco's Emperor Norton (1939).

As it is, the book by David Warren Ryder (1892-1975) — published nearly 60 years after the Emperor's death — appears to include the earliest statement of the "Frisco" proclamation.

It turns out that — before being tried and convicted in 1942 for being a Japanese agent (he served 16 months) — Ryder ran something of a cottage industry in Norton biographies. His article, "The American Emperor," appeared in the January 1928 issue of the journal Plain Talk.* This was condensed for Reader's Digest, where it appeared in the February 1936 issue under the title "Norton I: Emperor of America."

In 1945 — after the publication of his book on Emperor Norton in 1939 — Ryder included a shorter summary of the Emperor's life in his booklet, Storied San Francisco, published by the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company to commemorate that year's founding of the United Nations at a conference held in San Francisco. Later in 1945, this Norton passage was reprinted in the Saturday Evening Post as "The Strange Story of Emperor Norton."

Of all of these biographies, only the book includes the "Frisco" story.

Like other biographical accounts of the Emperor from that era — including the books by Albert Dressler in 1927 and Allen Stanley Lane in 1939 ** — Ryder's book is a self-published and highly romanticized affair in which he seems to be writing less as an historian than as an aggregator of folklore.

A number of the most famous tales about Emperor Norton — including the Lord's Prayer episode in Chinatown and the call for the yearly mounting of a public Christmas tree in San Francisco's Union Square — appear to have gotten their start in Ryder's book. But these stories are told in such gauzy, florid, sentimental detail as to assure any modern reader that Ryder has spun them from whole cloth on the wheel of his own imagination. At the very least, these stories earn a few Pinocchio's.

David Warren Ryder   via

David Warren Ryder via

Perhaps the "Frisco" proclamation is another example of this?

In February 1939, the San Francisco Chronicle's longtime literary editor, Joseph Henry Jackson, reviewed Ryder's new book and noted: "One point Mr. Ryder makes is perhaps not very widely known even to those who are familiar with Norton's life. That is his dislike of the term 'Frisco' for San Francisco. Indeed, Norton became so angry at the use of that word that he issued a proclamation about it..."

After quoting the decree, Jackson opined that "there is no doubt of the justice of the Emperor's complaint. 'Frisco' is an abominable word."

But perhaps the reason the proclamation would have been news to those who knew the Emperor's story is that — pace Ockham's razor — it wasn't actually part of the story.

And perhaps the reviewer's endorsement of the decree is a foreshadowing clue to the real reason why writers in subsequent generations gave it legs, too: Not because it could be demonstrated that the proclamation was anything Emperor Norton said or wrote — but simply because they agreed with the sentiment and it was fun to pretend that their thinking had the Emperor's pedigree.

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It appears that William Drury, in his 1986 biography of Emperor Norton, was the first to suggest a publication year — 1872 — for the "Frisco" proclamation. This, too, may prove to be significant of not very much.

The fact that Drury doesn't source this proclamation is surprising, given that he otherwise is very meticulous about saying exactly where and when the proclamations he mentions were published — even when he thinks they are fake. And when he does think they're fake, he explains why.

In the case of this proclamation, he doesn't indicate the newspaper or the date. Indeed, he simply slides the "Frisco" vignette in between a few other things that happened in 1872, inviting his readers to interpret that as the year of publication.

Also interesting: For all the other proclamations in Drury, "NORTON I" is printed below the text. Here, there's no indication of the signature — perhaps the "tell" that Drury doesn't have the goods for this one. 

Wiliam Drury (1918-1993) was a San Francisco newspaperman. And the best clue to his motivations for including this proclamation — the word seems to want quotation marks now — may be in the fact that he placed it in a chapter that he titled "Don't Call It 'Frisco," after the title of the 1953 book by another San Francisco newspaperman, one that he surely knew personally: Herb Caen (1916-1997), the great theologian of anti-"Frisco" orthodoxy.

In forwarding me Joseph Henry Jackson's 1939 review of David Warren Ryder's book, Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson suggested the "Frisco" proclamation might be a later "attempt to enlist Norton's ghost to bolster the anti-Frisco argument."

That's looking more and more likely.

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One factor that shouldn't be ignored is the power that the early Internet had to accelerate the influence of "Frisco" claims that "ain't necessarily so."

The timeline above includes two sites — Richard Petersen's, launched in 1996, and Joel Gazis-Sax's, launched in  1998 — that were amongst the earliest online sources on Emperor Norton.

What this has meant, in practical terms, is that these sites have been ubiquitously linked and, in the process, become regarded as primary authorities on the Emperor — sometimes without warrant and beyond any authority that they claimed for themselves.

From the beginning, both sites have included the "Frisco" proclamation and credited it to Emperor Norton. And it seems clear that both Petersen and Sax were acting in good faith to present the best information on Emperor Norton that they could find in the mid 1990s. (Sax's appears to have been the earliest online collection of Proclamation texts — Gladys Hansen's timeline simply provides descriptions of the decrees she includes — and it stands to reason that Sax's site owed some measure of its early influence to that distinction.) 

The potential problem lies in the fact that these Norton pages basically are static snapshots of Petersen's and Sax's respective interests in the Emperor at a particular moment in time; the pages scarcely been updated in nearly 20 years. 

In the meantime, "Norton studies" have been much more dynamic than once thought possible, as more and more documentary sources from the Emperor's time have become digitized and democratized via projects like the California Digital Newspaper Collection, the Internet Archive and Google Books.

Alas, the possibility that a given site may not reflect the latest and best research is not the kind of information provided by Google, where the number one search result for "Norton," "proclamation" and "Frisco" is — yep —

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A couple of additional considerations and conjectures, starting with this one:

The "Frisco" proclamation describes the offending word as having "no linguistic or other warrant." 

Strictly speaking, this may not be true. But leave aside, for a moment, the word "Frisco."

What about the word "linguistic"?

This actually was a brand-new word in Emperor Norton's day, not having entered the lexicon until sometime in the mid 1840s. 

Of course, the Emperor was an avid reader of the daily newspapers; a regular attendee at public lectures and debates; and a familiar presence at forward-thinking establishments like the Mechanics' Institute. He could have been exposed to the new word in these contexts. 

But it appears that the opportunities would have been few.

Two of the dailies that almost certainly were on the Emperor's reading list — the Daily Alta California and the Sacramento Daily Union — are part of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

The CDNC's archive of the Union begins in 1851.  Based on a CDNC search, the first appearance of the word "linguistic" in the paper was 1859; and it appeared in only 49 articles in the Union in the 20 years between 1859 and 1879.

In the Alta, too, the word's first appearance was 1859. But, after that, it didn't appear again until 1867; and it appeared in a total of only 24 articles between 1859 and 1878. 

Generally, the word "linguistic" appeared in these papers only two, three or four times a year — probably a decent index of how often other papers on the Emperor's list were using it and of where the word was, more generally, on the cultural radar.

Was Emperor Norton given to...well...linguistic experimentation in his proclamations?

Is it reasonable to believe that the Emperor would have added to his writing vocabulary a word that he couldn't have encountered at all until middle age and that he would have had only rare opportunities to encounter for the rest of his life?

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Of course, the word "linguistic" was much better established by the time David Warren Ryder published his book on Emperor Norton, including the "Frisco" proclamation, in 1939.

The very day — 25 February 1939 — that the San Francisco Chronicle published its review of the booklet, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus dedicated a plaque honoring the Emperor for setting out the original vision for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  

The plaque was an early sign that the order, known as the Clampers, were back. Two or three decades earlier, the fraternity — a Gold Rush-era spoof on secret societies of the day (Masons, Pacific and Union clubs, etc.) — had fallen dormant. But in 1930 — less than a decade before Ryder's book — the Clampers had begun to be "revivified," with a renewed mission of preserving the memory of Old California and the Old West generally. That and drinking.

Their patron saint: Emperor Norton. Their motto: Credo quia absurdum: I believe because it is absurd.

This, together with the timing and the hagiographic tone of Ryder's book, begs the question: Was David Warren Ryder a Clamper? Indeed, was William Drury?

At the least: Was Ryder or Drury — or both — just another one or two of the long line of editors and "historians" who used the Emperor to advance their own myth-making agendas,  never mind what he actually said or wrote?

In his thought-provoking 1997 essay on Emperor Norton, Joel Sax offers the sobering observation that, "to this day, his champions are the puppetmasters and Norton the marionette."

That seems worth remembering.

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All in all, it begins to look and sound like a giant echo chamber of hearsay: One in which a critical mass of folk who just don't like the word "Frisco" have had so much fun seeing, hearing and repeating the "Frisco" proclamation as Emperor Norton's dictum — and, indeed, have been repeating it that way for so long (for at least the 77 years since David Warren Ryder's book) — that the idea has taken on a life of its own and a thick veneer of truth.

But a thick veneer is no less a veneer: We still have no primary source connecting this "Frisco" text to Emperor Norton.

Don't like "Frisco"? That's OK.

But even Herb Caen, the leading light of the modern anti-"Frisco" crusade, didn't use Emperor Norton to make his case.

Indeed, it doesn't seem very kind or respectful to the Emperor to put the words of the "Frisco" proclamation in his pen unless and until we have a source proving that they belong there.

In the meantime, there's a 43-box David Warren Ryder archive at the California State Library in Sacramento. The online finding aid for the archive names Emperor Norton as one of the subjects of the archive and indicates that the collection includes historic research and drafts; correspondence; and diaries. 

Road trip!

* PDF provided by the California State Library.

** Given that Allen Stanley Lane does not include David Warren Ryder in the bibliography for his book, it appears that Ryder was not on Lane's radar at the time. Ryder does not include a bibliography for his own book.

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UPDATE — 4 March 2016

On 1 March 2016, I and Lindsey Westbrook — an editor and writer with a longstanding interest in California and San Francisco history — went to the California State Library, in Sacramento, to see if the David Warren Ryder papers there might reveal a source for Ryder’s claim, in his self-published booklet San Francisco’s Emperor Norton (1939), that the Emperor penned a Proclamation against the use of the word “Frisco” for San Francisco.

The collection includes 43 boxes of materials. Based on the catalog titles for the boxes, Lindsey and I identified 12 boxes that seemed most likely to include information about Emperor Norton. Over the course of several hours, we reviewed the complete contents of all 12 of these boxes.

Although we found a few reviews and interviews related to Ryder’s booklet, these did not provide any source for Ryder’s claim. There were no drafts or research notes that Ryder might have used to produce the booklet — and that might have included this source information. There also were no original, scanned or photocopied clippings of any newspaper, journal, magazine or parchment showing the authorship or publication of any anti-”Frisco” decree by the Emperor.


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