OPEN QUESTION No. 1: How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?
This is the first in 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.
Forget the Who, which we know, and the Why, which we may never.
Some of the most basic Whats, Whens, Wheres and Hows that hold up the Emperor Norton biography that has been passed down to us — "historical" elements that for decades have been presented as "known knowns" of the Emperor's story — are not readily substantiated at all today (if they ever were).
Occasionally, one can find a given What, When, Where or How — or traces of it, anyway — referenced either in an item that was written about the Emperor during his lifetime or in one of his obituaries.
Perhaps one or more of these Whats, Whens, Wheres or Hows made its way from contemporaneous newspaper accounts into one of the several essays and booklets written about the Emperor in the 1920s and '30s — a period that was a high-water mark of Emperor Norton romanticism.
The narrative of the Emperor's life that emerged from this period has been repeated so many times now as to have become a rubber stamp. So many of the pop-history articles on Emperor Norton that populate my Twitter feed all look the same. With rare exceptions, each one is just the latest re-packaging of the same set of facts and "facts" about the Emperor — with no differentiation between the two.
But what about those Whats, Whens, Wheres and Hows? Where are the footnotes? Where are the primary sources? The original documents?
They may be somewhere — but good luck finding them.
Until we can find them, some of the "episodes" stitched together from what now appear to be only secondary sources seem better understood not as settled histories but, rather, as theories in search of documentation.
Let's call them open questions.
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The oft-repeated Cape Town-to-San Francisco immigration narrative holds that, following the deaths of Joshua Norton's older brother Louis in April 1846, his mother Sarah in December 1846, his younger brother Philip in April 1847 and his father John in August 1848, Joshua — the oldest surviving son — received from his father an inheritance of $40,000.
Shortly afterward, according to this story, news of the Gold Rush reached South Africa, inspiring Joshua to book passage to San Francisco via Rio de Janeiro, from which he arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849 aboard the Hamburg steamer Franzeska, bringing with him the familial nest egg that he used to launch his businesses and make himself into one of the most prosperous and respected citizens of his adopted city.
Leaving "the $40,000 question" for another day...
Although obituaries of Emperor Norton have him arriving in San Francisco anywhere between 1848 and 1851, depending on the newspaper, there was a listing for Joshua Norton in the San Francisco directory published in September 1850; and Joshua Norton & Co. was running business ads in local papers by July of that year — all of which suggests that Joshua was in San Francisco at least by early 1850.
Primary-source documentation for any "Rio passage" is elusive, however. At least one obituary of the Emperor claims that he arrived in San Francisco from Valparaiso, in Chile. But there is no mention of a specific vessel or date of arrival. Surely, had this information been known — or even just believed — at the time of the Emperor's death in January 1880, it would have been included.
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In fact, the first time that anyone put Joshua Norton on a steamer called Franzeska arriving in San Francisco from Rio on 23 November 1849 may not have been until 59 years after the obituaries of 1880.
That's when Allen Stanley Lane wrote, in his 1939 book, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America [emphasis mine]:
The trip around the horn was a stormy one. Some damage was done to the ship, and the captain was obliged to put in at Valparaiso for repairs and provisions. Now, one hundred and one days from Rio, the Franzeska was at last entering the port of San Francisco. The date was Friday, November 23, 1849.
As it happens, there is a record of a Franzeska arriving in San Francisco from Rio on 23 November 1849 — more about this shortly.
But where did Lane get his "information" that our Joshua was on the boat?
Responding to our query about how one might go about establishing Joshua Norton's "ride," our friend Richard Everett, exhibits curator at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, put the question to his colleague, Gina Bardi, the park's reference librarian, who pointed out:
Passenger lists don't exist for that early here in Frisco. The best you can hope is to find a name in the paper, as they sometimes listed last names of first-class passengers or listed them as staying in a hotel. I searched the California Digital Newspaper Collection for that period and didn't find his name. As you know, there were so many people streaming in and not enough hotels to house them all.
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We did the same search and came up empty.
Here's something, though: Two months before the Emperor died in January 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed him and ran a profile that appeared on the front page of the edition of 9 November 1879.
The Chronicle wrote [emphases mine]:
In 1849, on the fifth day of November, please to remember, Norton arrived in San Francisco from the Cape of Good Hope via Rio Janiero [sic] and Valparaiso.
It's not entirely clear from the prose and from the context whether this was the Chronicle speaking or if the writer was relaying information he heard from Emperor Norton — but it may be the earliest reference we have to a specific month and year for the Emperor's arrival.
Was the Chronicle the secondary source that Lane and writers before and after him used to tease out a case for Joshua Norton's 23 November 1849 arrival on the Franzeska?
Let's take a little trip down "history" lane, shall we?
In 1869 — the tenth year of the Emperor's reign — a German-American writer named Theodor Kirchhoff (1828-1899) arrived in San Francisco and wrote a short German-language item on Emperor Norton that appeared in the German magazine Die Gartenlaube.
Seventeen years later, in 1886, Kirchhoff published his Californische Kulturbilder, an anthology of German-language sketches of California life. This collection included, under the title "Norton the First," an expanded version of his original piece on the Emperor. This longer piece finally was translated into English in 1928 and appeared in that year's December number (volume 5, number 4) of the Quarterly of the Society of California Pioneers.
According to the translation by Rudolph Jordan, Jr., Kirchhoff wrote [emphases mine]:
On November 5, 1849, [Norton] arrived here on the sailing vessel Franziska from Hamburg, Captain Nicholas Dau, on her way from Cape of Good Hope via Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso, in the young city of gold, San Francisco.
Kirchhoff echoes the Chronicle's account of the route and the arrival date — details that, curiously, went unremarked in the obituaries (including the Chronicle's) published only two months later. But his naming of the ship and his citation of the ship's provenance and its captain appears to have been a new contribution.
Although Kirchhoff offers no documentation, including for his claim that Joshua Norton was on this "Franziska," he does include the story of a personal encounter he once had with Emperor Norton, when the Emperor sat down across from him in the dining car of a train from San Francisco to Sacramento. Perhaps the travel details are Kirchhoff's recollections of a conversation in which the Emperor disclosed this information?
Thirty-seven years later, in his under-critiqued and overly influential essay on Emperor Norton that appeared in the October 1923 number of the recently founded California Historical Society Quarterly, the bookman and Californiana-ist Robert Ernest Cowan (1862-1942) — who was the journal's inaugural editor — offered a pared-down, slightly different version of Kirchhoff's account. Cowan wrote [emphases mine]:
[Norton] finally reached San Francisco in December, 1849, having come from Rio de Janeiro on the Hamburg vessel Franzika.
It's unclear why Cowan claimed a December arrival. Certainly, his alteration of "Franziska" to "Franzika" could have been down to an error of memory or transcription.
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In fact, the various lists of ship arrivals that were published in the Weekly Alta California and Daily Alta California newspapers during this period do not show any Hamburg ships arriving from Rio in December — only the French ship Grange (see here).
Nor do the lists show any arrival from Rio on 5 November 1849. Was Emperor Norton wittingly or unwittingly referencing the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in the San Francisco Chronicle interview of November 1879?
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy, 'tis our intent
To blow up the king and his parliament
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England's overthrow.
By God's providence he got catched,
With a dark lantern and a burning match.
A stick and a stake
For King George's sake!
And a rope and a cart
To hang Bonyparte!
And so on. Certainly, the opportunity for humor was not lost on the Chronicle writer, who urged his readers "please to remember" the date the Emperor said he came to town.
Although it appears that there was no ship from Rio on the 5th of November, the Weekly Alta California of 1 December 1849 listed two as arriving in succession on the 22nd and the 23rd.
What these listings tell us is that, on 22 November, the Hamburg bark Adolph, captained by Reiness, arrived from Rio, the journey having taken 101 days, and that...
The next day, 23 November, the Hamburg ship Franzeska, captained by Deach, arrived following a similar journey.
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In his own rendering of the Rio narrative, William Drury — whose 1986 biography, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, remains the standard book-length treatment of the Emperor Norton story — included one detail from the Weekly Alta listing that Allen Stanley Lane did not mention but that may actually have inspired both writers to give special consideration to the Franzeska as the ship that brought Joshua Norton to San Francisco. Drury wrote:
Late in the afternoon of November 23, 1849, a tall German ship appeared at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Her spars creaked and her canvas shuddered, smacked by the buffeting wind, as she turned her stern to the sullen Pacific and ploughed through the Golden Gate. Captain Nicholas Deach gazed with dismay upon the great bay that now stretched before him. For more than three months, since Rio de Janeiro, he had battled gales and misfortune; yet even now, safe inside the sound, his troubles were far from over. The ships in the bay told him that. More than four hundred rusted at anchor, abandoned by crews gone in search of gold. His own men could not be trusted. Most, perhaps all, would probably desert.
The seven passengers he carried were all on deck with their baggage, eager to land, the perils of the voyage almost forgotten as they scanned the sand and scrub on shore for some sign of a port not yet in sight, hidden by a distant headland from which a mirror flashed.
"What ship?" asked the heliograph.
The incoming German winked a reply.
"Franzeska, Deach, Hamburg."
The detail? Deach.
"Franzeska" was close enough to Theodor Kirchhoff's "Franziska" for the difference to be negligible. But Kirchhoff also had claimed that the captain who ferried Joshua Norton to San Francisco was Nicholas Dau. Surely, the potential significance of the Franzeska's being captained by a "D" was not lost on Messrs. Lane and Drury.
Did Drury take the liberty of adding "Nicholas" as Deach's first name, to tie up the loose end? Or did he find independent verification of that? We don't know. Certainly, this reference to a Nicholas Deach born in Baden, Germany, in 1828 is tantalizing.
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Let's assume that Joshua Norton did arrive on a vessel outbound from Rio.
Given that there don't appear to have been any arrivals from Rio more than once every few months during this period — and given, too, that there were other arrivals from Rio earlier in 1849, as well as in 1850...
The Emperor's apparent citation of both a year and a month for his arrival — November 1849 — does seem to lend some credence to the idea.
Alas, none of this — which is all the Emperor's various stenographers and biographers have given us — is enough to put Joshua Norton himself on the ship Franzeska that sailed into San Francisco on 23 November 1849.
Absent any independent, primary-source documentation that mentions Joshua in this context, what we mainly are left with is two secondary sources — the San Francisco Chronicle interview and profile of 1879 and the Kirchhoff piece from a few years later — and a group of writers who, over the course of several decades, from the 1920s to the 1980s, engaged in a project of "collaborative intuition" to refine these two sources into a narrative that makes sense of the available claims.
Does this narrative make the question of the How and When of Joshua Norton's arrival in San Francisco less open that it was?
Time will tell.
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