Just a dozen steps inside the cemetery gate brings you to the mass grave for some of the earthquake victims. Its nearness speaks to the urgency of the times; it was started two days after the disaster struck Santa Rosa on April 18th. By then, the downtown fires were finally out but exhausted volunteers clearing the piles of brick were still coming upon more dead. So when there was a call for volunteers to bury seven unclaimed (and presumably, unembalmed) bodies, a trench was dug at the easiest available spot.

The mass grave also tells stories of the chaos during the aftermath of the quake. There is someone listed on the tombstone who is not there at all and there is the problem of counting the “unknown,” which suggests there are certainly more people under that great concrete slab than the sixteen claimed.

The most likely explanation for the errors is that few, if any, cared enough to make sure it was right. There was no interest in commemorating Santa Rosa’s worst disaster; it was almost two years before the small monument appeared at the site, with no ceremony held. There was no (known) documentation kept of who was in the mass grave; whomever gave the stone cutter the list of names must have cobbled it together from memories and some of the names painted on boards by a volunteer. The list maker certainly didn’t bother to check it against death certificates and other records; if that person had, he would have discovered that Charles W. Palm was actually buried at the county cemetery on Chanate.

Charles Palm, c. 1900. Image courtesy Pam Mortensen (Enhanced))
Charles Palm, c. 1900. Image courtesy Pam Mortensen (Enhanced))
Historians trust tombstones to be accurate, so it was more than a century before it was discovered Mr. Palm wasn’t there at all. While looking in 2012 for information about her great-grandfather, Pam Mortensen came into contact with cemeterian Jeremy Nichols, who noted that Charles Palm was in the Chanate database. His interment there was confirmed when researcher Sandy Frary found an image of his original certificate of death. Since Palm is not at the earthquake memorial site, who is there in his place? The concrete slab has impressed lines that supposedly outline his grave, along with the initials, “C. W. P.” Was another man mistaken for Palm? As a “traveling man” (salesman) from Los Angeles, Palm might have been a stranger, and there apparently were a great many other traveling men in town that day.

Those “unknowns” present other confusing questions. The earthquake monument specifies “FOUR PERSONS UNKNOWN NOS. 1-4-6-7” with lines in the concrete slab outlining four suitcase-sized burials, each with a number. The coroner’s records also lists four “unknowns” and where they were found, all with the notation, “nothing but burnt bones and ashes.” Yet on April 30, the newspaper reported, “Coroner Frank L. Blackburn held inquests this morning over the remains of Joseph Woods, Smith Davidson, Mrs. Heath and child, [Robert] Richard[s], C. W. Palm, T. B. Ward and six unknown persons [emphasis mine] whose remains were found in the ruins…” Huh? Why did the coroner issue four death certificates for six unknowns? And what’s with the “1, 4, 6, 7” ID system?

The solution, I believe, is that the earthquake monument is again wrong. There are not “four persons” there; instead, I think it’s the cremated remains of seven, as the numbering scheme suggests.

“Unknown 1” actually represents three people, which aligns with a death certificate for remains found “near Moody’s shoe store.” The newspaper reported that “The bodies of three unknown persons were brought to the Morgue late Monday evening [April 23] having been found in the stairway of the Princess lodging house. Nothing could be learned of their identity. It is supposed to be a man, woman and child.” The “Princess”was above the shoe store.

“Unknown 4” has to be associated with the separate death certificates for remains found at “Mrs. Ware’s lodging house” and in Dignan’s Drug Store at 500 Fourth street. Most likely these two individuals do not have their own burial numbers because their ashes and bones were commingled by accident.

“Unknown 6” is probably the man whose bones were found in the ruins of the Eureka Lodging house on April 25, a full week after the quake. It would be another week still before the last reported body was found.

“Unknown 7” is more complicated. Read again the account of the April 30 inquest and note that the coroner ruled on the death of Mrs. Heath and child. There is a death certificate for Ceile Heath (the vaudeville performer who called herself “Miss Excelsia”), but none recorded for the child.

Mrs. Heath and the girl appear to have been linked by a newspaper error. Two days after the disaster, the combined Democrat-Republican reported, “The remains of Miss Excelsa [sic], the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house.” In the casualty list that appeared in the same edition, there were separate entries for “Excelia, Miss, Novelty actress,” and “Little girl (unknown), Ramona Lodging House.” But the following lists counted the child twice – both as “Little girl” and as part of “Excelsa  [sic], Miss, Novelty actress and child.” (Note that the misspelling of her stage name reverted to the version used in the original news item.) Apparently everyone forgot that the only connection between the two was that they were found on the same day. Whether the child was buried with Heath or elsewhere is anyone’s guess, but she is certainly another overlooked victim of the tragedy.

For information on the estimated death toll, please see the “Body Counts, Part II” essay.

(This article was revised October, 2016)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article discussed the possibility that local pharmacist Michael H. Dignan was among the “unknowns.” The list of fatalities published the day after the quake included “C Trudgeon, with M.H. Dignan”. Two days later the next list specified, “Trudgen, C., drug clerk, M.H. Dignan”. That April 21 listing expanded identifiers to include employers, but it was unclear if Chester (“Al”) Trudgen, who worked at the Digman drug store, died with his boss. “M. H. Digman” was also named as an earthquake fatality in several pharmaceutical trade magazines. In truth, he survived the earthquake and moved to San Francisco, where he lived until the 1930s.

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