“There’s this image of him as a harrumphing loveable kook in a funny hat and a funny suit,” said historian John Lumea of the notorious Emperor Norton, that quirky figure from the 19th Century whose San Francisco history is a little bit muddled, a whole lot outdated, and ripe for reappraisal.
“I started reading about this character and got totally drawn in,” said Lumea who heads up The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, a non-profit organization formed “to honor the life and advance the legacy of Emperor Norton.”
Initially launched in 2013, the campaign was an effort to bestow The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with an honorary naming (much like the one for Willie Brown on the Western span) and acknowledge the Emperor’s 1872 vision of connecting Oakland to San Francisco via Yerba Buena Island with a bridge.
The naming didn’t happen, but in the course of collecting over 4,000 signatures in just six weeks, Lumea and his cohorts discovered additional details of Norton’s San Francisco life, and a “campaign within the campaign” to promote the Emperor’s legacy was born.
“One of my personal interests has been tracking down the proclamations he did in the 1860s and 70s where he’s calling for African Americans to attend public schools and ride street cars; for freedom for Chinese immigrants to work and for Native Americans not to have their land stolen,” said Lumea. Thanks to the recent mass digitization of newspaper archives, Lumea’s goal is more possible to reach than ever before.
Originally from Owensboro Kentucky, the one-time home of Johnny Depp and “a couple of NASCAR drivers,” Lumea first learned about the Emperor in 2013. “When the news stories about the Bridge started bubbling up. I was really taken by his story,’’ he said. “I was touched by someone who didn’t seem to have material connections, money and power, the usual reasons we’re still talking about people 100 years later,” said Lumea of the Emperor who lived in “a cheap boarding house.”
Lumea’s Nashville education in voice, his studies in religion and philosophy at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, his master’s program at Duke University in North Carolina, and 10 years living in New York City were in a way perfect preparation for the Emperor’s Campaign.
“Somewhere along the way I realized I didn’t have a calling for teaching, that I was interested in more esoteric things,” he said. When his wife, who works in the sustainable food industry received a job transfer in 2010, the couple moved to The City.
As for how Joshua Abraham Norton got to San Francisco, the details go something like this: Born in 1818 into an English, Jewish family, the Nortons were among the 1820 settlers sent to colonize South Africa. Joshua moved to The City for reasons not entirely clear —but possibly lured by its boomtown reputation —somewhere between 1848 and 1851. Carrying with him a small fortune of unknown origin, he invested in a rice importation scheme and lost it all, hence ending up in the low-rent hotel. In 1859, he named himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Following the French intervention of the country in 1863, he added Protector of Mexico to his title.
“Some of the most interesting things I stumble on,” said Lumea of scrolling through documents occasionally still stored on microfiche at libraries. “The accuracies are often more fascinating than the myth.”
As legend has it, Norton’s defense of the Chinese community in the face of angry anti-immigrant protesters had him reciting The Lord’s Prayer to a mob, forcing their immediate retreat. Lumea got a little closer to the story through archival research.
“In the late 1870s there were enormous demonstrations in the sandlots near what’s now Grove Street where demagogues like Denis Kearney whipped up crowds with anti-Chinese sentiment,” explained Lumea. According to newspaper accounts, “At one of these huge rallies, the Emperor Norton stood on a bench and challenged Kearney’s authority to say, ‘There is no place for you here and you need to go home.’ Standing in front of the crowd like that took some courage,” said Lumea.
Similar new discoveries about the Emperor’s mettle could conceivably replace the wacky tales in previous histories like Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America and Norton I, Emperor of the United States, published in 1939 and 1986 respectively. Lumea is pursuing his own book-length update.
“Right after we launched, I discovered Chuck Prophet’s album, Temple Beautiful, his sort of ode to San Francisco. The very last song on it, “Emperor Norton In The Last Year Of His Life (1880),” is very abstract, not about Emperor Norton as such but inspired by his story,” said Lumea.
Compiling an album tentatively titled The Imperial Purple: Songs and Stories of Emperor Norton, among the rarities Lumea found a composition by the famous songwriting team Kander and Ebb (of Chicago and Cabaret fame) from an early, unstaged musical, Golden Gate.
Other projects in the works include a book of essays drawn from his research on the Campaign, as well as a book of selected proclamations of Emperor Norton, underwritten in part by the San Francisco History Association.
In 2016, the SRO where Norton once laid his head was marked with a plaque at Empire Park, a pocket park in the Financial District. There’s a small statue in the Comstock Saloon by Dan Macchiarini, based on a design by his father, Peter. And perhaps one day, a third honorary name will be attached to the Bridge the Emperor imagined into being. Or not.
“That would be icing on the cake,” said Lumea who plans to keep following the Emperor’s trail, regardless. “So much of this work is left to do and San Francisco is the best place in the world to get it done. It’s where the Emperor’s spirit lives.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan
If You Go
What: SF History Days
Where: The Old Mint, 88 Fifth Street
When: Sunday, March 3, 11 AM – 5 PM
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the sandlot protests happened in the 1870s, and not the 1860s as originally reported.