The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Filtering by Category: Histories

When a Veteran Rocker’s Great Great Grandparents Hosted Emperor Norton at Their Sonoma Valley Ranch

He’s a two-time Grammy Award winner — for co-writing “After the Love Is Gone” (Earth, Wind & Fire) and “Turn Your Love Around” (George Benson).

As a solo artist, he had his own minor hit in 1981 with “Sara.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, he was one of the most in-demand backing vocalists in Los Angeles, appearing on hundreds of recordings, including by: Elton John, Al Jarreau, Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, George Benson, The Tubes, Patti LaBelle, Neil Diamond, Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, Kim Carnes, Kenny Rogers and on and on

His cover of the 1967 Ray Charles tune, "In the Heat of the Night,” was used as the opening theme for the television series that ran from 1988 to 1995.

For nearly 30 years, from 1981 to 2009, he was a member — and was instrumental in the rebirth — of one of the best-known and longest-running bands of all time.

And, he is widely recognized as being one of the best vocalists in rock.

But, it was his great-great grandparents who had the real connections in the family.

Read on for the whole story.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 1: How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?

The familiar version of Joshua Norton's San Francisco immigration story — a narrative developed primarily between 1879 and 1939 by that period's leading writers about Emperor Norton — holds that the future Emperor made his way from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, where he booked passage on the Hamburg ship Franzeska and arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849.

The "story of the story" — of how this narrative came together and was canonized — is interesting on its own. What has yet to surface, however, is any primary-source documentation verifying Joshua's passage on any particular ship or his arrival in San Francisco in November 1849.

Absent such evidence, what we really have in the "received version" of this story — as with a number of details about the Emperor's pre-imperial life, in particular — is more a work of "collaborative intuition," a theory in search of documentation.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on aspects of the Emperor Norton biography that should be regarded as "open questions" — and opportunities for research.

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Rev. Fitzgerald's Recollections

Arriving in San Francisco in 1858, Oscar Penn Fitzgerald (1829-1911) was the founder and sometime preacher at one of the churches that was on Emperor Norton's Sunday rotation. By the time he returned to his native South in 1878, Fitzgerald had become an influential leader in the development of higher education in California. They were twenty years that enabled Fitzgerald to witness firsthand nearly the whole of the Emperor's reign. 

O.P. Fitzgerald's second book of "California Sketches," published in 1881, features one of the most carefully observed and wonderfully drawn portraits of Emperor Norton that we have — exploring, with great empathy, the paradox of an Emperor who carried a Bologna sausage in his hip pocket but whose nobility of mind and bearing were such as to rob his title of any paradox at all.

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On the Trail of the Elusive "Frisco" Proclamation

No proclamation attributed to Emperor Norton more often is actually quoted than the one in which he is said to have railed against the word "Frisco." But did the Emperor actually write this? As it turns out, the source of the "Frisco" proclamation is far from clear. In this wide-ranging, link-packed essay, we detail our quest for the origins of the decree and find that all roads may lead to 1939.

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Emperor Norton at Ease

One of the most arresting and enigmatic images of Emperor Norton is an 1870s watercolor of him — in street clothes and smoking a pipe — that hung for more than 30 years in the library of the Bohemian Club, in San Francisco. No doubt known by the Emperor himself during his lifetime, this painting later made its way into the Overland Monthly — thanks, in part, to a member of Robert Louis Stevenson's extended family.

Here's the story of this wonderful portrait.

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In the Emperor's Study

Early last month, we ran Eadweard Muybridge's wonderful exterior photograph of the 1866 building of the Mechanics' Institute, where Emperor Norton spent many afternoons, wrote many proclamations and played many games of chess. But the more elusive prize has been a photograph(s) of the building's interior — of the physical spaces that Emperor Norton himself inhabited on all those afternoons, so many years ago.

Happily, we now can close this gap.

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The Eights Have It!

Of the hundreds of Norton-ish folks that we've met over the course of the last year or so, some of those who harbor the deepest fondness for Emperor Norton and his story identify with one of two groups: the Jewish community or numismatists, the latter being the proper term for historians of coin and currency. 

Here's a little discovery that brings both groups together  and that advances the case for 1818 as the year of the Emperor's birth.

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The Snubs of 1934

The story of those who stood by Emperor Norton at his death in 1880 — and two prominent organizations that did not, when the Emperor was reburied in 1934. Includes images of original archival documents published for the first time. 

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Mr. Hutchinson's Mementos

It long has been known that, upon Emperor Norton's death in January 1880, many of his personal effects — including his regimentals, a hat, his sword and his treasured Serpent Scepter, an elaborate walking stick given him by his subjects in Oregon — went to the Society of California Pioneers (only to be lost 26 years later in the earthquake and fire). 

Many, but not all. This week, we discovered archival traces of an early 1880 donation to the Odd Fellows' Library Association of San Francisco. The donation  by David Hutchinson, Emperor Norton's longtime landlord at the Eureka Lodgings  included the stamp the Emperor used to place his seal on his proclamations. It might also have included the Emperor's final proclamation: written and sealed, but not yet delivered and published.  

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The Proclamatorium of Post Street

Emperor Norton wrote many — possibly even most — of his Proclamations during his regular afternoon visits to the Mechanics' Institute at 31 Post Street, where he also is said to have played a fine game of chess. Here's a look at how the Institute featured in the Emperor's daily life, illustrated by a couple of photographs of the building — including a wonderful shot by the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who also took the famous 1869 photo of the Emperor astride a bicycle.

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Joshua Norton at the Rassette House

Starting in 1863, Emperor Norton occupied a sparsely furnished 9-by-6-foot room on the top floor of a 50-cent-per-night three-story boarding house known as the Eureka Lodgings. A decade earlier, the pre-imperial Joshua Norton enjoyed accommodation in one of the best hotels in San Francisco. What's surprising is that the difference between the daily rates of the two places appears to have been only about 50 cents. 

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The Necropolis (and So Much More) of San Francisco

In 1934, Emperor Norton was (re)buried in Colma, Calif. But the connection of Colma to the life of San Francisco runs much, much deeper than simply providing real estate for burial plots. SF Weekly reporter Joe Eskenazi was up this past week with a really fine historical-observational piece that fleshes out everything that Colma has done for San Francisco, and why this matters.

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