The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

TO HONOR THE LIFE + ADVANCE THE LEGACY OF EMPEROR NORTON

RESEARCH • EDUCATION • ADVOCACY

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Emperor Norton Addressed the European Trade Crisis of 1870 With an Offer of Imperial Bonds

In October 1870, the Franco-Prussian War was headed into its fourth month. Emperor Norton was angry about the bloodshed and appealed both to Wilhelm, the future German emperor, and Bismarck to stop the fighting. The Emperor also was concerned about the war’s negative impacts on European trade. He stepped into this particular breach with a concrete solution.

To help illustrate what he had in mind, the Emperor sent an influential German publisher in Leipzig one of his new imperial notes, signed and made out to the publisher.

Presented here is evidence that the note reached its destination. If this note survives, it would be the oldest one in existence.

It’s a fascinating story.

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New Transbay Transit Center Is in Norton's Old Neighborhood

Most people who see a connection between Emperor Norton and the site occupied by the new Transbay Transit Center see the connection only in terms of a beautiful Bay Bridge-oriented commemorative plaque that the fraternal society E Clampus Vitus commissioned and dedicated in 1939 and moved to the old Transbay Terminal some fifty years later, in 1986.

In fact, the new transit center is just a few steps from the former sites of some of the most important properties owned and used between 1850 and 1855 by the "pre-imperial" businessman known as Joshua Abraham Norton.

This points to an opportunity: The transit center is situated in the midst of the oldest of Old San Francisco. How about a prominent feature in the Center that would direct visitors to historically significant sites that are within walking distance? How about putting a plaque or some other historical marker on all of these sites?

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Emperor Norton Makes the News at the German "Ladies Fair" of 1878

In March, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign stumbled upon an image of a handwritten note from Emperor Norton that had been sold at auction in October 2012. The manuscript was undated and was sold as such — but the note was addressed "to the Ladies' Fair of the German Benevolent Association." With this clue as a point of departure, we undertook to try to learn more about the note — including exactly when it was written.

We published our research postulating that the Emperor penned his note around the time of the Fair, which was held between 26 February and 5 March 1878.

In this follow-up, we present the image, original text and English translation of a German-language article from 2 March 1878 that appears to include a reference to the Emperor’s letter — which, it seems, was part of an “autographic album” of letters written to the “Ladies” of the Fair by a host of “scholars, artists and statesmen,” including then-President Rutherford B.Hayes.

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Time-Traveling With One of the Earliest Comic Illustrations of Emperor Norton

A wonderful illustration of Emperor Norton featured by the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper in 1913 and the California Review monthly in 1904 got its start as part of a triptych of “Prominent Men of San Francisco” drawn by George Frederick Keller (1846–1927) in c.1874, as the Emperor was reaching the height of his imperial influence and becoming a nationally known figure.

Not long after this, in 1876, Keller came to prominence as the chief artist of the new San Francisco Wasp, a position that briefly would earn him both fame and notoriety as one of the leading political cartoonists of his day.

The full story is in the flip — including high-resolution wonders that The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign is pleased to present online for the first time.

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Emperor Norton's Note to the Ladies of the German Benevolent Society

In early 1878, it appears, Emperor Norton penned a note "[t]o the Ladies Fair of the German Benevolent Association." When the item was sold at auction in October 2012, the auction house did not attempt to date it. But our research into the first 25 years of the German Benevolent Society, as it was called — a period that roughly paralleled the reign of the Emperor — points to the week of 27 February to 5 March 1878 as the specific moment when he reached out to say when he would be "glad to greet" these Ladies. Read on to learn more.

Also on the flip: A large, hi-res image of the Emperor's note, presented here for the first time anywhere online.

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"My Dear Lotta": Emperor Norton's Telegram to Lotta Crabtree

Of the 14 telegraph message forms in the California Historical Society's collection of Emperor Norton artifacts, most appear to be fakes written and signed by prankish telegraph operators. But, one appears to be authentic and in the Emperor's hand. It's a message from Emperor Norton to Lotta Crabtree, commending her on the recently dedicated fountain that she has commissioned as a gift to the City of San Francisco — and bestowing upon her the imperial title "Lady of the Fountain."

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The Itemized Bill for Emperor Norton's 1934 Reburial — And Who Paid It

In 1934, a group of members of San Francisco's Pacific-Union Club organized themselves as the Emperor Norton Memorial Association, for the purpose of overseeing the City-mandated reburial of Emperor Norton at Woodlawn cemetery, in Colma, Calif. The Association's goals were to (1) secure a burial plot; (2) have a new headstone made; (3) produce a public ceremony to dedicate the new grave and stone; and (4) raise the funds necessary to accomplish these goals.

Tucked inconspicuously into the Emperor Norton ephemera collection of the California Historical Society is an undated "Statement of Receipts and Disbursements," on Emperor Norton Memorial Association letterhead, that shows exactly how much money was raised; who gave what; and how the money was spent. 

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Setting the Record Straight on the Famous Emperor Norton Obit(s)

Emperor Norton died on Thursday 8 January 1880.

Time and time again, one reads that the San Francisco Chronicle was up the next morning with a dramatic front-page headline, "Le Roi Est Mort" ("The King Is Dead"), over a brief obituary whose signature passage began "On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain...."

It's a good story — but, it's not quite true.

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Herb Caen's "Norton Bridge" Campaign of 1947 (And the 1960 Letter from Berkeley That Watered the Seed)

Did you know that the longstanding call to name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton traces part of its pedigree to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen?

Exactly 70 years ago — in what may be some of the earliest published statements of the idea that a San Francisco Bay-spanning bridge should bear the name of the Emperor — Caen, with some persistence, called for a planned "second Bay Bridge" to be named the "Norton Bridge." 

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The Most Respectful Directory?

Much is made of the parenthetical designation of "(Emperor)" that appeared after Joshua Norton's name in the San Francisco city directories compiled by Henry G. Langley. But there was another directory that went a good bit further in explaining exactly who it was that lived at 624 Commercial Street between Montgomery and Kearny.

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Emperor Norton, c.1871–72

A little more than half of the 17 extant photographs of Emperor Norton have reliable dates attached. In this context, "date" means year.

Armed with one historical lead, a good set of links to early San Francisco directories, some basic detective skills and a little patience, we set out to pin down the date of a well-known photograph of Emperor Norton that had no date.

We found it.

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His Majesty's Voice Reaches the South

On the morning of 17 September 1859, Joshua Norton delivered to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin his Proclamation declaring himself Emperor of the United States. The declaration appeared in that evening's edition. Who'd have guessed that, within a month, a newspaper in Mississippi would have printed the decree in full on its front page? 

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OPEN QUESTION No. 3: What Happened to Joshua Norton Between Declaring Himself Bankrupt in 1856 and Declaring Himself Emperor in 1859?

Here's a "mystery" about Emperor Norton that may be less mysterious than many seem to think. Despite persistent speculation that Joshua Norton left San Francisco for a period of months or years just before declaring himself Emperor in 1859, the available evidence points to a narrative in which, most likely, the eventual Emperor remained a resident of the City from his arrival until his death.

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Notes on His Majesty's Printers

It is known that Emperor Norton had his imperial promissory notes — his scrip — printed for him. But, rarely if ever discussed in any detail — even among collectors and connoisseurs of historical currency — are the particulars: Who were these printers? What were their associations? How did they get their "gigs" with the Emperor, and how did they fit into his world? Exactly when and where did they do their printing for him?

This exploration takes a close look at the two firms that are known to have printed Emperor Norton's bonds, between 1870 and 1880: Cuddy & Hughes and Charles A. Murdock & Co. It unearths:

  • some of the earliest newspaper references to the Emperor's scrip — including by the Emperor himself;
  • rarely seen photographic views of the building where Cuddy & Hughes, the Emperor's first printer, operated;
  • a personal recollection of the Emperor that his second printer, Charles Murdock, published in 1921;
  • directory listings; and...

Much other detail that sharpens the focus on this most basic episode of the Emperor's story — the printing and selling of scrip — and the key behind-the-scenes players that helped to make it happen.

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The Eastern Approach to the Imperial Palace

Two newly discovered photographs show new glimpses of the eastern end of the block of Commercial Street where Emperor Norton lived — as it was just after he moved there. The photos are from 1865 and 1866. The Emperor had moved to the block in late 1862 or early 1863. Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain worked on this block — next door to the palace, in fact — in the summer of 1864.

These views would have been very familiar to both gentlemen.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 2: Did Joshua Norton Really Arrive in San Francisco With a $40,000 Inheritance That He Built Into a Quarter-Million-Dollar Fortune in 3 Years?

According to the "received" version of the Emperor Norton story: Joshua Norton inherited $40,000 from his father's estate. At around the same time, news of the Gold Rush reached South Africa. Joshua sailed west to seek his fortune in San Francisco, where he arrived in November 1849 with the $40,000 — a nest egg that he parlayed into $250,000 within three years.

But is this how it really went down? Not likely, according to the available evidence.

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David Belasco: An Early "Emperor Norton" of the San Francisco Stage

The legendary theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright David Belasco (1853–1931) made his name in New York City. But he cut his teeth on the San Francisco stage — initially as an actor. And, in the 1873 San Francisco performance that brought him his first critical notice, Belasco's character was a thinly veiled Emperor Norton. The Emperor, now in the 14th year of his reign, was very much alive and well in San Francisco.  

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"I Would Like to Send That Scalp of Yours to Them."

Over the course of several months in 1873, Emperor Norton issued a series of Proclamations calling out the exploitation of Native American people; urging a peaceable resolution to the Modoc War that was taking place at the time; and warning that the execution of Captain Jack and other Modoc leaders — a punishment mandated by an Army court-martial and eventually carried out — would only make matters worse.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has discovered a May 1873 diary entry — by a 13-year-old boy living in Oakland — that further illuminates the Emperor's take on the Modoc War and on Native Americans in general. 

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New Life for an 1879 Drawing of Emperor Norton

On 9 November 1879 — just two months before Emperor Norton's death — the San Francisco Chronicle published a Sunday front-page profile of the Emperor that was based on rare interview with the Emperor himself.

The profile was accompanied by a lovely drawing of the Emperor that was reproduced 60 years later for Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 biography, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America — but that has languished since then.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has had a new photographic print made of the drawing and has added a hi-res scan of it to ARENA, our digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art.

Learn more and see the drawing, after the flip.  

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