On September 17, 1859, a man adorned in a beaver hat and ostrich plume marched into the office of the San Francisco Bulletin and handed over a Proclamation declaring himself Norton the First, Emperor of the United States.
Filmmaker Jesse Chandler’s Kickstarter campaign plans to pay tribute to the Emperor in a feature-length documentary that tells the story of how he became one San Francisco’s most beloved street characters.
Born in England and raised in South Africa, Joshua Abraham Norton was a businessman who had built his fortune in real estate and lost it all in San Francisco’s rice market. Norton left the city soon after, only to reappear a few years later at the door of George Fitch’s office, the editor for the Bulletin. Fitch printed the Proclamation and the self-appointed Emperor quickly rose to fame.
Though penniless and suspected insane, the Emperor’s charisma captured the imagination of a city whose willingness to embrace eccentricity would shape its history. San Franciscans happily played the role of his admiring subjects and helped support him financially during a 21-year “reign” that ended with his death in 1880.
The local newspapers would print many more of the Emperor’s Proclamations, making him a national celebrity. In 1872, he issued a decree that contemporary San Franciscans would no doubt celebrate today:
“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”
That same year he envisioned a bridge that would connect San Francisco with Oakland, inspiring a campaign lead by present-day Emperor appreciators to change the name of the Bay Bridge in his honor.
Locals unfamiliar with the Emperor’s place in San Francisco’s history may be more familiar with the bar in the Tenderloin that bears his name, Emperor Norton’s Boozeland. Others may know him as Mark Twain’s inspiration for the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Chandler’s Kickstarter campaign hopes to bring the Emperor’s story to a wider audience by raising $46,000 for the project by Dec. 19th. Funds will support the film’s research, editing, animation and musical score.