Norton the First is one man’s biography, but it is also the story of a city. Through studying the rise and fall of one remarkable and unique individual we can also explore the nature of San Francisco from its infancy through today.
Joshua Abraham Norton was a ‘49er that moved from South Africa to pursue his fortune. He quickly became a pillar of the business community and amassed a fortune. However, while trying to corner the market on rice he lost everything, and disappeared from public records.
Then one fateful day, he confidently walked into the editor’s office of a local paper in full empirical regalia with a proclamation declaring himself Emperor of the United States. The proclamation was printed and wildly popular among a public that was already familiar with Norton, and for twenty years the city played along.
Many people have contributed to the whimsical nature of San Francisco but Norton was the first. He set the standard in a city that values creativity, tolerance, and freedom, and is a shining example of how San Francisco is a place where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms.
Through extensive interviews, archival images, and immersive cinematic sequences, Norton the First aims to put the viewer in 19th century California and lend historical perspective to the continuing development of San Francisco.
California's West Coast is about as far from the ‘Old World’ as you can travel and as result, it is a place of constant reinvention.
After the initial rush in 1849, gold quickly ran out and San Francisco fell into an economic depression. The downturn was short-lived however, and the Comstock Lode discovered in 1859 ushered in a Silver Rush that brought ten times the wealth of the Gold Rush.
Eventually, the silver was depleted and miners, along with new immigrants, turned to farming. Today, California boasts an agricultural sector that produces most of the country's fruits and nuts and brings in $53 billion annually. In 1890, oil was found in southern California and by 1903, California was the largest oil producing state in the country. Shortly thereafter, the film industry took hold in Hollywood, and played leading role in America's entertainment sector.
Since the invention of the silicon transistor in 1953, the Santa Clara Valley has been center a of high-tech innovation. The “dot com” boom in the mid 1990’s brought massive amounts of money to the area, but led to a bust in 2000. Currently the region is in the midst of another boom, and Silicon Valley has become the highest wealth producing sector in the United States. These waves of industry have made California one of the most prosperous places on the planet, and San Francisco one of the wealthiest cities. However such rapid change and growth has a cost.
In San Francisco’s most recent high tech “Gold Rush” the culture is struggling to assimilating people fast enough. Working class neighborhoods are rapidly changing as they cater to tech workers who commute daily to Silicon Valley, and rapidly increasing housing prices are pushing long time residents out of the city.
San Francisco has always been a city of immigrants making it a challenge to maintain a collective identity and sense of history, but what all inhabitants have in common is a love of the city. Emperor Norton’s story shines a light on the amazing history of San Francisco and brings together natives and newcomers. Not only does the Emperor serve as a foil to discuss the early decades of San Francisco, but his story describes cultural roots of the city and its place in the world.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Deptford, England, in 1818. In 1820 Joshua’s parents moved him and his two siblings to South Africa, they were among the first Europeans to colonize Cape Town. Settling a new land was difficult work but the family did well for themselves while raising three young children. By 1848, however, tragedy had taken the lives of both of Joshua’s parents and a number of his siblings. Joshua succumbed to the rumors of gold in the Western United States and sailed for San Francisco in search of fortune and a fresh start. He arrived in the city in 1849 with $40,000.
Joshua Norton quickly made a name for himself as a successful businessman in the booming gold town. In a few short years his father’s inheritance grew from $40,000 to nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and among other properties owned three of the four corners of Sansome and Jackson Streets. Eventually he pushed his luck too far and, in an attempt to corner the rice market, lost everything including his investors money. After a series of long court battles he declared bankruptcy, and subsequently disappeared from the city census.
Then one day, Joshua Norton confidently strode into offices of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin newspaper in full imperial dress, and changed the nature of San Francisco forever. He handed the editor a proclamation, a brief paragraph that asserted Norton’s rightful claim as Emperor of the United States, and called for the government to be abolished.
Norton would rule as Emperor on the streets of San Francisco until the day he died. The city embraced its new royalty, businesses used his name to sell goods, box seats were reserved for him at the opera, and police saluted as he passed in the street.
Norton and San Francisco had a symbiotic relationship. While the city played along with his delusion, businesses used his name to market their wares or promote their restaurants. Tales of Emperor Norton stretched all the way to the East Coast and beyond, and once the railroad was completed he was a primary tourist attraction. All the while, Norton was writing proclamations that were being printed in local newspapers, many of which turned out to be prophetic.
He called for the straightening of the Petaluma River, which was later undertaken, and gave rise to agriculture in the area. He also decreed a suspension bridge to be built from Oakland to San Francisco through Goat Island, and even plotted the points on which it now stands.
He reigned with grace from San Francisco for 21 years until on January 8th, 1880 he collapsed and died on the corner of Grant Avenue (then called Dupont Street) and California Street, while on his way to an academic lecture. The San Francisco Chronicle headline read, “Le Roi est Mort.” By some accounts 20,000 people lined the streets for his burial march, making his the largest funeral the city has ever seen.
As remarkable as Joshua Abraham Norton’s life was, his legacy is even more so. His life has inspired a seemingly endless amount of popular art. His contemporary, Mark Twain, used him as the basis for the Mad King in Huckleberry Finn, no less than three operas have been written about his life and a handful of plays. Multiple bands have used his name along with a record label. In San Francisco, a bar in the Tenderloin is named after his majesty, an absinthe is distilled on Treasure Island that bears his image and name, and Almanac Brewing bottles an “eccentric ale brewed in his honor.”
Even more remarkable are the organizations that continue to hold him up as a patron saint.
E Clampus Vitus, otherwise known as “The Clampers,” is a men’s historical drinking club (or a drinking club with a history problem) formed in the 1850s. Now spread throughout North America, and numbering in the tens of thousands, they describe themselves as a “drinking club with a history problem.” Members make a yearly pilgrimage to Emperor Norton’s grave to celebrate his contribution to Californian history.
Remembered as being the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States, Jose Sarria founded the Imperial Council in 1965. Jose would dress as the Widow Norton and visit Norton’s grave every year on the anniversary of his death. Today known as the ‘International Court System’ it is one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the world. In each of the fundraising organizations 86 “Empires,” reigns an Empirical couple. Members of the court continue to celebrate both Sarria and the Emperor annually in Colma, CA, where they rest side by side.
Norton is the patron saint of The Cacophony Society. A uniquely San Franciscan group of merry making anarchists and urban explorers that among their many shenanigans brought us SantaCon, and eventually Burning Man. Active in the early ‘90s, the group's newsletter described themselves as “...a randomly gathered network of free spirits united the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society....”
And finally, The Emperor Norton Bridge Campaign was formed in 2013 in an effort to re-name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. Since then their mission has broadened to include research, education and advocacy designed to preserve and foster public awareness, understanding and appreciation of the full life and legacy of the Emperor.
We aim to tell this fantastic tale through two main techniques. The bedrock of the story will be told via engaging interviews with a host of historians and local Norton enthusiasts. Interviews will be augmented with archival photos, articles, and re-enactments from popular culture. What will set the film apart however, are fully immersive cinematic sequences. Unlike re-enactments, these sequences will include diegetic sound and dialogue. Once an inflection point is reached through interviewees, we will continue the story in immersive gold rush era sets. These sequences will comprise roughly one third of the film.
Additionally, the film will be bookended with scenes of Emperor Norton in modern day San Francisco to drive home the idea that both people and cities are shaped from their history.
Norton’s story made me feel even more connected to my new home, after moving to San Francisco in 2006. Years later while searching for a project to call my own, I found that video content on the Emperor was hard to come by.
Together with my fiancé, we have been working on this project for nearly two years. We’ve fallen into several rabbit holes while researching the Emperor, and in the process learned about the history of our city. There are many members of the Norton community that we have since partnered with, who are invested in the Emperor’s story, and would like to see it told well.
We have conducted over a dozen interviews and covered numerous events, such as the Clamper and Imperial Council pilgrimages, and Jewish burial rites. Currently, we are focused on preparing a screenplay for cinematic sequences, and cutting together a trailer.
Our planned timeline is the raise funds through the end of April 2016, shoot over the summer, and complete the film by December 2016.