Free Minds & Free Markets

Emperor Joshua Norton I: The Movie

Friday A/V Club: "An empire of voluntary subjects"

public domainpublic domainWhile Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were leading a war between the American north and south, a rival emperor was conducting a much more peaceful reign out west. 158 years ago this week, on September 17, 1859, Joshua Norton of San Francisco proclaimed himself emperor of the United States. Once a prosperous rice trader, now living on the edge of vagrancy, he issued his own currency, which local businesses often honored; he wrote royal proclamations, which local newspapers printed; legend has it he once managed to stop an anti-Chinese riot by standing in front of the mob and reciting the Lord's Prayer. He allegedly inspired a character in Huckleberry Finn—the phony dauphin who travels with Huck and Jim for a spell—but he didn't need Mark Twain to be remembered; he generated plenty of memorable stories on his own.

A few of those tales appear in The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States, a short film made by Columbia Pictures in 1936. Let me warn you up front: This is a clumsily made movie with stilted acting and, in one scene, one of the most cringeworthy blackface performances you'll ever see. But there are moments when the acting is so far removed from natural behavior that it stops seeming bad and starts to feel like some strange David Lynch experiment. And surely there's something inspirational in the film's final line: "He was insane, but—strange as it seems—honesty and sympathy won him an empire of voluntary subjects."

Needless to say, that's a rather romanticized assessment. Emperor Norton I lived in poverty—plenty of businesses did not accept his scrip—and he had to withstand more than his share of mockery and cruelty. But he was loved too, and he managed to reign for two decades through sheer power of personality. I cannot think of a better American statesman, with the possible exception of President-in-Exile Dick Gregory.

Here is the film:

For some background on the motion picture, check out this post from the folks at the Emperor's Bridge Campaign, a commendable effort to name the San Francisco Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton.

(Past editions of the Friday A/V Club can be found here.)

Photo Credit: public domain

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  • Crusty Juggler - Lawbertarian||

    That's great! I only know about The Emporer because he - along with his contempories, the dogs Bummer and Lazarus - are characters in many Christopher Moore stories.


    Neil Gaiman did a story about him in the Sandman series way back in the 90's.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    I voted for Dick for president in 1968 but missed the inauguration because I was in Vietnam at the time.

    On an unrelated note, there's a dixieland jazz tune, "Emperor Norton's Hunch", which you can find on YouTube.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Turk Murphy hated his music being called Dixieland, but good stuff, thanks for the link.

  • John Lumea||

    Cheers for this piece, Jesse — and for the various links to The Emperor's Bridge Campaign. I'm the founder and president of this San Francisco-based nonprofit — which sounds a little grand, but there it is. ;)

    Re the 1936 Columbia film short: We were very lucky to find the pristine 16mm reel from which the digital scan shown here was made. As far as we know, this is the only public copy of the film with its original Columbia titles. Copies in other collections — including the Library of Congress and the Pacific Film Archive, at UC Berkeley — are of a 1947 reissue by a different company. The Internet Archive partnered with us to make the scan.

    As to our bridge-naming project: This, for some time, has been more of a "campaign /within/ the Campaign." And an important one, to be sure. We'd love to see the California state legislature add "Emperor Norton Bridge" as a second name for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2018 — the bicentennial of the Emperor's birth.

    But, the bridge-naming effort is just one aspect of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign's larger program of research, education and advocacy to advance the legacy of Emperor Norton. We hope your Emperor-saluting readers will explore everything that the Campaign has to offer.

    Thanks again for the mention and the links.

    The Emperor's Bridge Campaign


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