To the usual list of causes of death by earthquake (crushing, burning, etc.) add this surprising contender: Lockjaw.

A little Press Democrat item that appeared ten weeks after the 1906 quake noted that “quite a number of horses” were injured from stepping on rusty nails, and “a number of people have also been laid up here.” It makes sense; with the streets coved in debris and cleanup crews working by manual labor, there were constant opportunities for wounds that could introduce lockjaw-causing bacteria. And according to a 1907 medical text, 3 out of 4 people with acute tetanus died in that era.

(Obl. Believe-it-or-not sidebar: Tetanus was also the leading cause of death on Independence Day. So common was lockjaw caused by fireworks or cap pistols that early 20th century medical books referred to cases as “4th of July tetanus.” A 1903 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assoc. found that there were 406 deaths from tetanus linked to that holiday that year, with a mortality rate of 95% for anyone injured in this manner.)


Quite a number of horses have been suffering with lameness here as the result of running rusty nails into their feet and have had to be given medical treatment. So far there has been no case of lockaw among the equines.

In San Francisco between thirty and forty horses have been dying of lockjaw every week since the debris has been scattered about the streets. The Breeder and Sportsman is authority for this statement.

A number of people have also been laid up here on account of their pedals having been pierced by rusty nails, but the poor horses have suffered the most.

– Press Democrat, June 28, 1906

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