Almost five decades of exhaustive research by Gladys Hansen, Official Archivist Emeritus of San Francisco, makes Earthquake, Fire & Epidemicthe definitive discourse on one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history.
With coauthors Richard Hansen and Dr. William Blaisdell, M.D., Gladys Hansen offers a comprehensive account of the events leading up to, during, and following the April 1906 Earthquake and Fire that devastated San Francisco. The book includes narratives depicting the firefighters, military personnel, and first responders whose extraordinary efforts helped establish order out of chaos. Of particular significance, the authors discredit the deceitful efforts by San Francisco’s political and business establishment who, to protect the commercial viability of the city, minimized the death toll and diminished the true magnitude of destruction.
Earthquake, Fire & Epidemic offers new documentation and provides insight into the incomprehensible scale of disaster that killed thousands of people, utterly destroyed a quarter of San Francisco’s buildings, and rendered tens of thousands of survivors homeless in the Golden City by the Bay.
This book is devoted to personal stories of real people who experienced the great disaster of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. What we hope to accomplish with this publication is it to do what the original History Committee promised, but failed to do, provide the personal narratives that tell the story of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Many personal accounts are at odds with statements made at the time by politicians regarding deaths, crime, violence and disease in their attempt to minimize this great tragedy and protect the image of San Francisco.
The historical interest of one of us (G.H.) came about because of requests to her at the San Francisco Public Library for specific information regarding who died in the Disaster. Finding that no such information existed she began collecting information about deaths from the earthquake and fire, as well as considerable collateral information and personal narratives from survivors. This logically led to the question of what happened with the work of the original History Committee and the data they collected.
An Earthquake History Committee was formed in 1906, under the leadership of Professor Henry Morse Stephens to compile the history and document the damage to human life and resources resulting from this “Great Disaster.” An important publication was to be forthcoming. But this never happened. Following Stephens death the body of the supposed work simply disappeared.
The San Francisco Examiner in a special Earthquake edition in 1908 described the development of this original committee and provided an interval report.
April 18, 1906, Wednesday. The morning of the earthquake, faced with a disaster of unpredictable magnitude, Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz hurriedly appointed a committee, known as the Citizens' Committee of Fifty, and called those who could be reached for a meeting at the Hall of Justice, at Kearny and Washington Streets that afternoon at 3:00 p.m. Emergency relief measures were all the committee could address that afternoon, and they adjourned to meet again the following morning at the Fairmont Hotel. …As they continued to meet and to deal with many diverse problems, numerous subcommittees were formed.
One of the sub-committees initiated was the Earthquake History Committee which was led by Henry Morse Stephens, eminent historian and University of California professor. The Committee received financing from the Red Cross and the Relief Corporation. For two years the Committee worked diligently gathering material.
In May 1906 Stephens discussed the charge to his committee: …“Since memory is treacherous the first resolution of the committee was to gather together as soon as possible, a record of the personal experiences of as many people as possible during the past ten days with a full realization of the fact that although the memories of individuals might lapse here and there into inaccuracy and might swell here and there into exaggerations, yet out of the collation of hundreds of personal experiences the truth might be reached, as it can be reached through the cross-examination of many witnesses in a trial at law.”
“The next step was to secure the personal statements of individuals and groups of individuals who had taken an active part in the proceedings of the critical period. Then came the securing of the documents which recorded the various steps taken for the government and relief of the citizens of San Francisco. But this was not enough. Behind statements of fact and recollections recorded while memory was still comparatively fresh, was the vast mass of impressions of proceedings and doings day by day, which under our modern civilization finds expression in the daily press.”
“The committee therefore resolved to purchase files of about eight hundred leading newspapers of the United States, not only for the information printed in them by correspondents, but still more for a sense of the atmosphere of the time, which it is the pride of the modern newspaper man to reproduce with skill and accuracy.”
…“In all about thirty thousand narratives of personal experiences were collected, all of them written before the story had become entirely untrustworthy, and all but forgetfull of actuality. Particularly interesting were the personal experiences of the actual shock of earthquake, which, as collated, show not only the various ways in which the shock affected different buildings and different parts of the city, but also the psychological effect upon individuals of varying age and temperament.”
…“When at last the vast mass of a ton and three-quarters of material had been assembled and concentrated at Berkeley, the task of segregating and classifying it had to be undertaken. Filing cases and card catalogue drawers were purchased and a staff of University of California undergraduates was organized. At one time or another eleven men were employed at this work. Slowly the material was sifted and began to disappear into the filing cases. An elaborate index was compiled and a definite system of cross-referencing established. The work was slow but thorough.”
…“Every great disaster that has overwhelmed or nearly overwhelmed a great city has been accompanied by or immediately followed by at least one and generally by all three of the following afflictions, a great outbreak of disease, a great outbreak of crime and a great financial and commercial crisis. None of these things occurred in San Francisco.”
…“A special heading in the forthcoming book of the Earthquake History Committee will be given to the legends that have arisen and clustered about the story of the great catastrophe. Some of those legends are old friends which always crop up when any disaster befalls a city from sack or pillage, from fire or flood, such as the tale of the capture of ghouls with their pockets full of human fingers and human ears, which had been cut off by brutal ruffians in search of rings and earrings. Of course nothing of the kind occurred in San Francisco, but the old medieval story was certain to get into circulation and on this occasion it seems to have started from a refugee tale told in Salt Lake City. Why any person, ghoul or ruffian or what-such, should be such an idiot as to carry ears and fingers about with him on purpose that he might be convicted, when he could so easily take the rings or earrings off, after he had mutilated his victims, is one of those things that no man can ever understand.
…“The various stories of shooting by the soldiers and by civilians have grown in the imaginations of some legend makers out of a scant five or six into hundreds and thousands. The death list from the earthquake itself has likewise been exaggerated into absurd proportions. But the most beautiful and most specious legend of all is that which has already been cited of the fierce fight which took place between the Chinese and the Italians in Portsmouth Square, a fight which certainly ought to have come off, and which was most brilliantly described, but which of course never happened at all.”
Stephens survived until 1919; however his later years were increasingly spent trying to build the historical manuscript holdings of Bancroft Library. If Stephens had lived longer he might have completed the authentic history of the Earthquake and Fire, or he might have placed the extensive material collected by his committee in an appropriate archive. Unexplainably, the history using this material was never written by Stephens or anybody else. Most of the original narratives gathered by the committee disappeared after 1927. Was this the result of a giant cover-up? There might be several reasons why the voluminous material obtained by the committee was never released.
1. Accurate information regarding the number of deaths from the earthquake might well have retarded or even prevented recovery of the city. An earthquake is a fearsome thing and had thousands of deaths been acknowledged, investment in the city’s future might well have been curtailed.
2. Insurance companies were not necessarily liable if their insurees were not documented or found.
3. Political blunders, criminal actions, and other foibles might have dictated a cover-up.
Regardless of the reason or reasons, most of the work of the History Committee remains a blank. The personal narratives that were collected disappeared. Most importantly, no official information regarding the names, numbers or types of deaths were provided by the History Committee or by any other official source. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors had quickly "fixed" the count of dead at 478 shortly after the fire and earthquake. Over the years this supposed death toll of 478 for San Francisco, which generally was assumed to include all from the entire Bay Area, remained unchanged despite the discovery of the remains of many additional bodies as the ruins were cleared. Well documented residents disappeared and their bodies were never found. Nonetheless, the toll of the Earthquake and Fire remained 478, unchallenged!
Until 1964 that is. In 1964 Gladys Hansen, research librarian in the San Francisco Public Library's Special Collections, started compiling a list of the dead, since the statistic never came with a list of who the 478 were. When the list passed 500, not long after the search began, it became evident that the listed number of deaths was spurious. Each year of searching turned up more, and more. And still more (Chapter 6).
Then with the initiation of a web site--The Virtual Museum (VM) of San Francisco--additional accounts from survivors were received and continue to come in via that route. What has been obtained are personal stories of real people who experienced the earthquake along with the information about loved ones who died or disappeared. Many accounts of survivors were written in 1906 and never seen outside their own family. Many personal accounts are at odds with statements made by Professor Stephens regarding deaths, crime, violence and disease.
What we hope to accomplish with this publication is it to do what the original History Committee promised but failed to do, provide the personal narratives that tell the story of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.