The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

TO HONOR THE LIFE + ADVANCE THE LEGACY OF EMPEROR NORTON

RESEARCH • EDUCATION • ADVOCACY

Filtering by Category: Campaign research

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: Did Joshua Norton Really Leave San Francisco Between Declaring Himself Bankrupt in 1856 and 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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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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What Ever Happened to the Plaque of '59?

In 1959, "the Society of California Pioneers in cooperation with the San Francisco Chronicle" proposed an Emperor Norton memorial plaque at the intersection of California Street and Grant Avenue — where the Emperor collapsed and died on 8 January 1880. A design for the plaque was created by Hubert Buel, the Chronicle's art director. Indeed, the design and text for the plaque were approved by resolution of the San Francisco Arts Commission on 1 June 1959.

And yet, today, there is no Emperor Norton plaque at California and Grant. In fact, it appears that the project never made it before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — which typically would have to have given final approval for a project like this in order for it to move forward.

How did an Emperor Norton plaque with the collaborative backing of two storied institutions like the Society of California Pioneers and the San Francisco Chronicle get pushed off the tracks — and who did the job? 

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Admiral Santa Norton Claus

In 1926, San Francisco-born artist Charles William Saalburg penned an article for The New York Times, in which he recalled many of the storied figures that peopled the San Francisco of his younger years. The piece featured Saalburg's own illustrations of these characters, including an undated rendering of Emperor Norton, which he depicted — perhaps from childhood memory — as a Santa Claus figure with an admiral's hat.

Saalburg's illustration of the Emperor is included in the Paintings gallery of ARENA, the Campaign's digital Archive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film. 

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