How many died because of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake – and why is this such a tricky question to answer? It should be easy to determine; there were death certificates, and the hybrid Democrat-Republican printed several lists of the dead in the weeks following. The official state report on the earthquake published a couple of years later included a death count, as did a key speech given that year for the dedication of the new courthouse. But none of these sources agree. There were 66 death certificates with cause attributed to “Injuries sustained by earthquake” (or similar); 69 persons listed in the papers; 61 killed according to the state report, and 77 if you believe the number used in the speech. All in all, that’s a lousy statistical uncertainty of 12 percent.

Before wading too deeply, here’s the executive summary: There were at least 82 deaths caused by the earthquake and it can be said with high confidence that a minimum count should be 85 (see earthquake FAQ). An annotated list is available for download as a spreadsheet or PDF file. I believe, however, that the true toll is probably in the range of 120, and even may be two or three times that many. It all depends how you squint at the data. (edited July 2016)

(By the way: Have you already read the first “Body Counts” article?)

Compare the newspaper lists (PDF) with the official register of deaths.1 Four lists appeared in Santa Rosa newspapers between April 19 and May 11 (the date of the last isn’t certain because it is only available as a reprint from another paper), and five names repeatedly appeared which aren’t found in the index.2

How can someone die without receiving a death certificate? Simple: No remains, no official record of death (at least. not without a court order) – perhaps these five unfortunates were all but completely incinerated and their dust scattered, leaving not even the few “burnt bones and ashes” that served to identify four others who were listed as “unknown.” Another possibility is that the body didn’t make it to the town’s ad hoc morgue established in a church Sunday School room. Rev. Monroe Alexander of the 4th Street Methodist Church wrote later that the coroner didn’t get to see all the remains that were found, including a “poor Chinaman or an Italian whom nobody seemed to know.”3

Of those five unofficial casualties, the newspaper indicated three were “traveling men” (salesmen) which might seem like an unusually high number of visitors, but it’s not inconsistent with what we know about the others who were lost that day. Roughly 1 in 4 appears to have been an out-of-towner. And that is why it’s so hard to estimate the numbers; we don’t know how many people were here at the time. The fire and earthquake destruction in Santa Rosa was almost entirely in the commercial district of 4th and 3rd streets, where multi-story hotels were alongside little rooming houses above the stores. A couple of eyewitnesses wrote that most rooms were believed occupied, but nothing can be known for sure – all hotel registers were reportedly lost in the fires.

Locals certainly expected that the death toll in the hotels would be astronomical; Mrs. John Rhoades, in a letter sent to an Iowa paper five days after the quake, wrote that she had heard that 300-400 were dead. And nearly two years later, Herbert Slater, who was city editor of the Press Democrat at the time of the disaster, mused, “…Perchance there may have been many a poor human, who was a stranger within the gates of Santa Rosa, on the morning of the earthquake, whose life went out and whose remains were obliterated by the flames, of which no earthly record is known.”4

Aside from the assumption that there were remains not found, it’s reasonable to expect that many who were seriously injured here died elsewhere – wouldn’t you head directly home If you were a traveler caught in such a nightmare?

Local historian Terry Oden, who compiled the first comprehensive list of Santa Rosa earthquake deaths for the 2006 centennial, found an example of just such a non-local death reported in one of the local papers more than a year later. On the day of the earthquake, Mrs. Bernice Cook “…was visiting relatives in the Piedmont lodging house, which collapsed, and she was injured in the fall of the building. She never recovered from the effects of the injury.” She died in June, 1907 at an Oakland hospital.

Oden found four other collateral deaths besides Mrs. Cook: 5

  Charles W. Palm, a traveling man who died five days after the quake with delirium tremens listed as the cause. A little item in the April 24 Democrat-Republican, however, noted “he was buried in the wreckage of the Grand Hotel, and had several ribs broken, besides sustaining serious internal injuries.” (Mr. Palm, it turns out, has two graves.)
  Mary Crose, proprietor of the Piedmont Hotel where Mrs. Cook was injured, died April 29 with “contusion of right leg” on the death certificate and no mention being harmed in the earthquake.Two days before her death, however, it was mentioned that she was “badly injured but is doing nicely”
  William Tompkins, who died May 3 of tetanus – see earlier post, “Death by Earthquake Lockjaw” for a Press Democrat item that noted “a number of people have also been laid up here” for stepping on rusty nails during the cleanup
  America Lillard Thomas, who died about ten weeks after the quake on July 8, from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock”

Two other deaths in 1906 Santa Rosa were likely related to the earthquake, but are not included in this list because they are more speculative:

  Thomas B. Hood, a saddler and father-in-law of Judge Burnett, lived near the downtown corner of 3rd and A Street and died April 28 from acute pleuritis. Slater wrote of “dense white and red dust clouds” that were kicked up by the collapse of the many nearby buildings, and there was smoke from the fires that raged for two days – conditions that could easily be fatal for someone with asthma or otherwise damaged lungs
  Elwin Charles Hutchinson, a 15 year-old schoolboy who died Dec. 22 from “partial paralysis and nervous prostration.” No obituary appeared for the youth (which in itself is unusual) to explain his disabilty and why his emotional state would prove fatal

All of these people are mirror opposites of the five named only in the newspaper casualty lists. Those people had no death certificates, but the Democrat-Republican (and later, the PD) repeatedly included their names on the list of quake fatalities. By contrast, everyone in this group does have a death certificate, but it doesn’t mention a conclusive link to the disaster. Yet they all deserve to be included on the earthquake death toll, albeit with an asterisk; together, they are the “known unknowns,” to lift the famous Rumsfeldian solpsism.

Then there are the unknown unknowns. Officially there were four John/Jane Does, listed as found in different locations and “nothing but burnt bones and ashes” on the death certificates. One certainly was the child who was always mentioned in conjunction with Ceile Heath, AKA “Miss Excelsia” (see “SEEKING MISS EXCELSA“). But according to the newspaper, three unknown remains were found together on April 23, and the paper a week later mentioned that the coroner had just held inquests that morning over remains that included the Excelsia child and “six unknown persons, whose remains were found in the ruins.” All together, that means the coroner actually saw 7 to 14 total unknowns.

Also a mystery are the missing missing. The report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, which came out over two years later, cites “61 identified dead, with at least a dozen ‘missing,'” which was a bit of a surprise since no missing persons had been mentioned since the weeks immediately after the quake. In those early days, however, telegrams and letters poured in looking for those who were presumed in Santa Rosa and had not been in touch. From the April 24 paper: “hundreds of belated telegrams are being received here daily.” April 25: “the amount of mail matter that is being received here is immense.” Pleas for information about the whereabouts of different missing people appeared in every edition of the paper. A sample:

A lady named Cline is here from San Francisco making inquiries about her missing son… Anderson, George, from East; Bishop, Edison; Gotloff, Fred; Comley, Miss Annie, Vallejo; Hyde, Mrs; Kruse, J., Vallejo; Kane, K.; Kegee, K.; Lee, Andy; Muller, Mrs.; Muller, sister of above; Thurber, Fred; Valley, Mr. …A man named Price, who was last seen the night before the earthquake, when he said he was going to spend the night at the Central lodging house, is missing… Inquiries have been received by the Mayor and Chief of Police for the following persons: Miss Johnson of Marfa, Texas, Mr. and Mrs. William T. Robertson… F. V. Hansler wants information of his wife and child who are said to be here…Parties desire to know the whereabouts of of Joseph Bayes, Eliz McClain, Mrs. W. D. Nichels…

Of those 24 – and again, this selection is just a sampling – only the fate of two is known. A traveling man named “Mr. Robertson” (sans spouse) appeared on most of the newspaper lists, and there’s a death certificate for Joseph Boyes (not Bayes). Hopefully the rest ended up alive and well elsewhere – but like the quest of hunting those who died at home from their earthquake injuries, that’s a marathon race for genealogists to undertake.

Heed the example of San Francisco city archivist Gladys Hansen, who initially compiled a list of 549 fatalities in that city (up from the official tally of 478), then continued to dig deeper. She looked at obscure records, contacted genealogical societies, and particularly sought information on people who actually died outside of San Francisco proper; her list now contains over 3,000 names. The high number of transients that were in Santa Rosa that morning is likewise reason to believe that many later died in places away from here from their injuries suffered on that cool April morning.

…Poor Wayne’s bones were found and just filled a little thin pail. Mr. and Mrs. Carters’ bones were found. They had no chance for escape. A whole box of bones were found yesterday in the Eureka Lodging House. There are still bodies under some of the buildings and a lot of people were burned up that were transient guests….

– Jessie Loranger letter to her sisters, April 27, 1906


1 Register of Deaths Book 60: City of Santa Rosa 1906-1924
2 A sixth entry, “Fritz Tanner from Eagle Hotel” appeared only on the April 19 list, and is presumably an error. All subsequent casualty lists named “Mr. Murphy” and “A. William Westran,” both of whom were tanners staying at the Eagle Hotel.
3 Monroe H. Alexander, “The Earthquake in Santa Rosa,” California Christian Advocate December 27, 1906, quoted in Philip L. Fradkin’s “The great earthquake and firestorms of 1906” pg 160
4 Herbert Slater remarks on the Santa Rosa fires and earthquake presented at the dedication of the courthouse, April 9, 1908; Lebaron collection, Sonoma State University
5 Terry Oden’s list also included Annie M. Leete, a local woman who died in San Jose, and two Indians killed by a falling wall at L. D. Jacks’ ranch. They are not included in this list, which is restricted to deaths in Santa Rosa. If it were expanded to all of Sonoma County, the list would also include the three miners crushed to death at the Great Eastern quicksilver mine in Guerneville and the three killed by the collapse of the El Bonita Hotel at Duncan’s Mills.


The bodies of three unknown persons were brought to the Morgue late Monday evening, having been found in the stairway to the Princess lodging house. Nothing could be learned of their identity. It is supposed to be a man, woman, and child. With the remains of these three, the total number of persons taken to the Morgue since the catastrophe amounts to an even half hundred. The total known deaths now number 64.

– Democrat-Republican, April 24, 1906



Mrs. Bernice Cook, formerly Miss Bernice Pharris of Bloomfield, who was buried in Petaluma Friday afternoon, was injured in the earthquake here on April 18, 1906. At the time she was visiting relatives in the Piedmont lodging house, which collapsed, and she was injured in the fall of the building. She never recovered from the effects of the injury and of late has suffered great pain as the result. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel J. Pharris of Bloomfield. She was a well known girl and her death comes as a shock to many friends in Sonoma county. Her death occurred at the Fabiola Hospital, where she had been taken from her home in Red Bluff.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1907

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