While it’s easy to be appalled by the overwhelming amount of bad behavior that abounds in Silicon Valley, just remember one thing: from the Gold Rush to the tech boom, the greater Bay Area has always been a haven for misfits looking to make a fortune. Colorful characters have fueled its expansion and gained notoriety for living by their own rules. However, few of its most notable eccentrics have been as beloved or celebrated as Joshua Norton.
The self-proclaimed first Emperor of America was born in England, raised in South Africa, and arrived in San Francisco during the peak of the Gold Rush in 1849. With only $40 to his name, he quickly amassed a great deal of wealth on a series of business deals. Unfortunately, when one major investment in rice went bust, he declared bankruptcy and fled the city. Norton re-emerged a few years later, in 1859, donning military gear with gold-braided trim and declared himself ‘Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.’
San Francisco’s newspapers published his proclamation (because why check facts) and the title stuck. If you were wondering where “Don’t call it ‘Frisco'” originated, look no further. The Emperor imposed a $25 fine (the equivalent to $5,000 these days), payable to him of course, to anyone who dared refer to the city in such a curt manner. He printed his own currency and sold it to tourists. He dined for free in the finest restaurants all over the city. Theaters gave him the VIP treatment. Cops saluted him in the street. When he passed away, an estimated 30,000 people showed up at his funeral.
His legacy has spawned some memorable contributions as well. For one, it was his idea to construct what is now the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland to San Francisco. An LA-based record label, Emperor Norton Records, blossomed with his spirit in mind and served as a launchpad for Ladytron, Miss Kittin, and Ugly Duckling. Most importantly, the spirit of San Francisco’s inclusive vibe can be attributed to his reign.
Emperor Norton’s story is one that deserves a proper documentary treatment. Currently, a crew of artists and filmmakers are raising money on Kickstarter to illustrate a comprehensive story about his life. Since photos from this period are tough to come by, they plan on creating the visual assets to complement the interviews conducted with a variety of experts. To paraphrase: it looks like “Norton the First: America’s Emperor” is going to be the most thorough account of America’s first Emperor.
I, for one, hope this project reaches its funding goals – only because there’s another good-time bad guy of the Wild West that deserves a similar treatment.
That’s right, Sam Brannan. I was looking for a connection between these two but didn’t find one. Either way, if anyone from the crew reads this, I hope you consider this as your next project if you plan on making more documentaries. This is our history and we should support the storytellers who can bring it to life.