Our Very Own Emperor

It’s 1859 and San Francisco is reeling from its first real recession, as the end of the Gold Rush sees the city lose a huge portion of its economy. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing and men are losing fortunes. Joshua Abraham Norton was one of those men.

A couple of years earlier, one risky investment left Norton in ruin: he lost today’s equivalent of $40 million in a bungled attempt to corner the market on rice, as the famine in China had depleted the city’s grain imports and the price on rice was at an all time high. He thought it would be a good idea to buy all the rice in the city and hike up the price, but before he could do so, two full ships of rice from Peru sailed into the bay—making his rice purchase nearly worthless. After years of lawsuits and a dramatic fall from grace, Norton returned to the public eye: on September 17, 1859, Norton declared himself “Emperor of the United States”, and years later added “Protector of Mexico” to his title. He preached equality for all and stood up against the bigots of his day. The city accepted the self-anointed Majesty with open arms. The police were ordered to salute when passing him on the street and some establishments accepted his self-printed currency, allowing him to survive and flourish in the ruin of his ruins.

To get a glimpse of the Emperor both in the past and the present, this work utilizes archival material, historical images, expert interview with Norton historian John Lumea and an in-depth and unique look - in full character - at the Emperor himself with professional Norton impersonator Joseph Amster.

Our Very Own Emperor is the love story between the city of San Francisco and its most famous street character, where the real seems eternally mystical.

  • Jake Slaughter
  • Jake Slaughter
  • Joseph Amster
    Key Cast
    "Emperor Norton"
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Student
  • Genres:
    California, San Francisco, History, Gold Rush
  • Runtime:
    10 minutes 7 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    January 10, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    0 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
    Yes - Yale University
Director Biography - Jake Slaughter

Jake is a double major in architectural design and history at Yale University. Passionate about architectecture, wiffle ball, and documentary filmmaking, he is always looking to grow his creative toolkit. He was born and raised in San Francisco and can’t touch his toes.

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