Emperor Norton & The Great Unknown: Two Eccentrics Meet in a Rare Illustration from 1871
Emperor Norton had the longest career and is the best-known of a whole cast of “characters” who peopled the streets of San Francisco in the decades just after the Gold Rush. Names like Oofty Goofty, the King of Pain and George Washington II long have been familiar to those who have studied the San Francisco that was coming of age in the 1860s and ‘70s.
Typically, these characters emerged and remained on the scene for only a few years before leaving San Francisco or otherwise fading from view — each one surviving as an historical footnote mainly because, during his “fifteen minutes,” he was colorful enough in his appearance and activities to catch the attention of a newspaper reporter or memoirist who recorded the performance for posterity.
One of these characters styled himself as The Great Unknown. He was noted for his efforts to become recognized as something like The Most Interesting Man in the World of his day. His “hook” was his impeccable dress and his hair (which might have been a wig).
The top-hatted figure depicted toward the center right of Edward Jump’s 1863 cartoon, “Funeral of Lazarus” — here — may be the Unknown.
On 16 July 1871, a portrait photographer, George Daniels Morse (born c. 1835), ran an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle — toward the bottom of column 1, here — for his Montgomery Street studio, Morse’s Palace of Art. The ad noted: “Among the pictures recently taken by Morse is a striking one of William Fromm, the “Great Unknown,” whose magnificent chevelure“ — this being French for “head of hair” — “has been the wonder of everybody.”
The Great Unknown was known well enough that the day before, July 15th, the Chronicle ran an ad for the California Theater — top of column 2, here — where The Lindgards family troop was in residence, with William Horace Lindgard offering a segment of “His New and Local Life-Like Impersonations of Gov. Haight, Mayor Selby, the Great Unknown, Emperor Norton, etc., etc.”
Two days later, on 17 July 1871, the following item appeared in the San Francisco Examiner (bottom of column 3, here).
THE UNKNOWN IN A NEW ROLE. — That hirsute individual, who has gained for himself the sobriquet of “the Great Unknown,” probably from the fact that he is the best known man in town, has come out in a new role. He appears during the week in the character of the public benefactor. On Thursday next and during the week, between the hours of 2 and 5 P.M. at Pacific Hall, he will be on exhibition, where he will give a brief synopsis of his life, and on Saturday evening at the same place he will deliver a lecture. The proceeds of the exhibition will be donated to the charitable institutions of this city. Who ever thought that those flowing locks were an expensive an useless luxury, will have proved to them that such was not the case, and that Mr. Chas. Fromm was not so big a fool as he looked. Not quite.
The “Pacific Hall” referenced here was a large second-floor assembly space within the very same California Theater where the Lindgards had been performing. So, one could have attended the theater on July 15th and seen William Horace Lindgard’s impression of The Great Unknown and returned a few days later to see the man himself. The California — seen around 1870 and some years later — was completed in 1869 on the north side of Bush Street between Kearny and Dupont (Grant). It was demolished in 1888.
A Chronicle reporter showed up at the Unknown’s July 18th “exhibit” and wrote up a lengthy profile and interview that appeared on page 3 of the next morning’s paper (for a zoomable image of original page, click here). The piece was accompanied by the illustration above.
In the interview, The Great Unknown gives his name as Friedrich Wilhelm Frohm and says that he was born “the seventh son” on 27 August 1833 in a small town in western Prussia. He goes on to say that he “left [Germany] in 1854 and went to Liverpool, from thence to New York, on to Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and so on to San Francisco, arriving at 7 o’clock in the morning of March 30, 1860.”
It’s a wonderful read.
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On 18 June 1871 — a month before the encounter of the San Francisco Chronicle reporter with the Great Unknown — the Chronicle had announced the previous day’s debut of a “new German satirical journal” that featured a dual cameo appearance of the Great Unknown and the Emperor Norton.
The German “Punch”
The first number of the Humorist, the new German satirical journal, appeared yesterday. It is very handsomely printed, in quarto form, and the usual style of comic papers. The contents savor of Germany transplanted in California, and, taken together, are rather racy. It contain a capital illustration of “The Unknown” and “Emperor Norton” holding a confab about matters political, social and ecclesiastical on this mundane orb.
The editor and publisher of the San Francisco Humorist was Max Cohnheim (1826-1896).
Cohnheim — German, Jewish — had arrived in the United States in 1851 and in San Francisco in 1867. By the time he started the San Francisco Humorist, Cohnheim was deep into a career as a writer, editor, playwright and sometime actor who expressed his political commitments — radical; pro-Republican and pro-Lincoln (in the United States); often labor-oriented — through humor and satire.
The trajectory and scope of Cohnheim’s career is outside the ambit of this article. But, there is a wonderful introduction to Cohnheim in Kathleen Neils Conzen’s essay, “German Jews and the German-Speaking Civic Culture of Nineteenth-Century America.” Conzen is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor Emerita of History at the University of Chicago. Her essay is included in the book American Jewry: Transcending the European Experience? (Bloomsbury, 2016). You can read the essay here.
According to Conzen, there are exceeedingly few extant editions of the San Francisco Humorist.
Happily, one of these editions that has been photographed is the 17 June 1871 debut edition that includes the cartoon illustration of Emperor Norton with the Great Unknown.
Here’s the cover of this rarely seen edition. (For a pdf of the complete 8-page edition, click here.)
Note the signature “R.E.” on the cover illustration. It’s reasonable to guess that “R.E.” also drew the illustration of Emperor Norton and the Great Unknown on page 5 — as this is the only other illustration in the magazine.
A larger view of the illustration — a rare find, indeed!
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To Professor Kathleen Neils Conzen, for her generous help in locating a photographed copy of the 17 June 1871 debut edition of the San Francisco Humorist.
To Marie Lamoureaux and Amanda Kondek of the American Antiquarian Society for their wonderful assistance in providing a digital copy of the edition from the Society’s collection.
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The illustration of Emperor Norton featured here has been added to the Comics gallery of the Visual Arts section of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign’s digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film (ARENA).
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