1906earthquakesmoke

CAUSE OF DEATH: EARTHQUAKE MADNESS

More deaths from the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake have been found, although these victims died far away at an asylum.

Before getting into that, some bookkeeping is in order. The unofficial death toll for that disaster now stands at 82, with 85 being a reasonable bet. Although the full count can never be known, it’s still likely to fall in the 100-120 range.

This new total of 82 represents two asylum discoveries and an upgrade of three victims to “certain” status. A full list is available as a PDF or a spreadsheet, and a single-page 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake fact sheet can also be downloaded.

Briefly: The upgrades are thanks to clearing up confusion dating back to the time of the disaster. There were four death certificates for “unknown” persons and the monument over the earthquake victim’s mass grave specifies “FOUR PERSONS UNKNOWN.” Rural Cemetery Archivist Sandy Frary uncovered the original death certificate for unknown #1 and found it was for three unknown persons, not a single individual. The monument also lists the unknown as “NOS. 1-4-6-7” which implied seven burials, so this now synchs up with a newspaper story at the time describing a coroner’s inquest of seven unknowns. All this is hashed out in greater detail in a previous article, “WHO LIES BENEATH?” which has been slightly updated to include the new confirmations.

Sandy Frary also came across an obituary I had overlooked. From the Press Democrat, August 13, 1907:


Mrs. L. W. Stebbins, who died in Ukiah, was buried here Monday from the Christian Church, the Rev. Peter Colvin conducting the services. Mrs. Stebbins’ death was directly due to the great disaster of last year. Her awful experiences in those April days racked and wrecked her mind and body. Her reason failed, and she was taken to the state hospital for treatment, but steadily declined in health…

(RIGHT: Smoke and downed lines on Fourth street in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, one of only two photographs believed to have been taken that day. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Emma Stebbins, a 40 year-old housewife who lived on Ripley street, had died at the Mendocino State Hospital at Talmage, near Ukiah. She had been there almost exactly a year, her mind gone because of “earthquake of [April] 18th and death of father,” according to her commitment record. She spent her days staring into space and answering questions incoherently. Then she stopped eating and died.

The Mendocino hospital was the only place in the North Bay for regular people who lost their wits; the asylum in Napa was then used for the criminally insane, and Eldridge (Glen Ellen) was mostly for those deemed “feeble-minded” – for more background on these mental hospitals, read “THE ASYLUMS NEXT DOOR“. Those admitted to Mendocino were usually alcoholics/drug addicts who cleaned up and went home or those with senile dementia who died there. In the wake of the great 1906 earthquake, there was a surge of people whose cause of mental illness was deemed to be the disaster.

Between the April 18 quake and the end of 1906, fifteen people from Sonoma county were sent to that hospital, almost half of them for reasons apparently linked to the quake. Of those six whose sanity was shaken by the shaking earth, three died. Besides Emma Stebbins, Jacob H. Schlotterback of Santa Rosa was sent there (cause: “earthquake of April 18, 1906”) and was dead in less than a month. Like Emma, he refused to eat. Emma and Jacob count as Santa Rosa earthquake victims #81 and 82. Here we’re only collecting names of people whose deaths were attributed to being caught in Santa Rosa’s disaster, but another local who later died at the asylum was William Newcom/Newcome of Healdsburg, committed because of the “shock of earthquake.” Should it be determined he was in Santa Rosa that morning he’ll be added to the list.

Not everyone with earthquake madness went to the asylum. America Thomas died at home about ten weeks later from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock” according to her death certificate, and Elwin Hutchinson, a 15 year-old schoolboy who died at the end of 1906, suffered from “partial paralysis and nervous prostration” (Hutchinson’s death certificate did not specify the earthquake, so he is among the three unconfirmed disaster victims). Nor did everyone with serious mental problems die; Hattie Runyon’s family kept her breakdown secret for two years.

But there was a Santa Rosan who died during the quake at an asylum: 26 year-old Annie Leete, who was working as a waitress at Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara. Agnews was the other general population asylum in the area – the South Bay equivalent of the Mendocino hospital.

The tragedy of what happened there is probably the last great untold story of the 1906 earthquake; the destruction at Agnews was worse than either San Francisco or Santa Rosa by comparison, with over ten percent of staff and patients killed (11 employees plus 107 of 1,075 inmates).


Los Angeles Herald, April 19, 1906. Note the misinformation about Santa Rosa

Helen Warwick, a writer for the Oakland Tribune who was in quake-ravaged San Francisco just a few days before, wrote “never, in all my life, had I dreamed or imagine anything so totally and absolutely demolished as the Agnew Asylum.” The roof of the administration building pancaked, all five stories of it. Some brick walls fell exposing the infirmaries and some floors collapsed.

It’s impossible to imagine the terror the mental patients must have experienced being captives in their locked rooms as the world seemed to collapse around them. They were lucky no fire broke out and immensely fortunate that hospital superintendent Dr. Leonard Stocking kept a level head. After digging himself out of the debris he freed the inmates without hesitation, mobilizing about forty men into a search-and-rescue operation. Given that the hospital would have been short-handed to supervise over a thousand unconfined patients even in the best of conditions, it was a courageous action.

Dr. Stocking later wrote a report where he claimed “very few wandered away,” but that was putting the best face on it. The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “Scores of the demented escaped from the boundaries of the institution and are wandering, many half clad, about the surrounding country.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported “200 inmates of the asylum escaped and are roaming over the countryside,” although most newspapers were printing 40-50 had escaped.

Rumors of all sorts flourished in the following days. Governor Pardee had a staff to refute wild stories appearing in East Coast press that San Francisco had been hit by a massive tsunami and that thousands were dying of plague. Also circulating was the claim that the superintendent of State hospitals had ordered the shooting of a hundred patients at Agnews to prevent them from escaping.

(RIGHT: Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara before the 1906 earthquake)

For months, papers were describing deranged people arrested around the state as being allegedly Agnews escapees. A man in Los Angeles who attacked a woman at the train station and tried to drag her away; a guy “in a demented condition” found near Fremont; someone in San Francisco who threatened his mother and others with a pistol.

Fortunately, few from the “ward of the desperately insane” seemed to have escaped. Their housing was on the top floor of one of the buildings most damaged, and seven died. Deputies from the Santa Clara Sheriff were quickly on the scene and followed by other officers – by remarkable good luck there was a state sheriff convention underway in San Jose. The most violent 99 patients were sent to the Central Valley asylum in Stockton by train, according to a wire service story, “crowded into two [rail] cars and were raving and yelling. Many of them attempted to jump from the cars and the attendants had great difficulty in restraining them.”

Volunteer doctors and nurses also poured into the grounds of the wrecked hospital, where medical care was provided under the trees to the approx. 180 patients injured. By nightfall a tent city had arisen. Dr. Stocking’s report described it in glowing terms: “..so comfortable and contented are they that many, both employees and patients, ask to be allowed to camp all summer.” But reporter Helen Warwick painted a different picture: “Some were chatting rationally enough, wandering about from one place to another, others stood and gazed, wild-eyed and dumb–an awful rigidity in face and figure arguing desperate insanity. Some were strapped to benches; some threw their hands in the air and grappled with some imaginary foe, while one woman shrieked and screamed, that the walls were falling, falling, and cowered to the ground begging the others to keep them off.”

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THE 1906 QUAKE TEN YEARS AFTER

The Press Democrat is out with its 1906 earthquake anniversary item and it earns a solid D+ for historical accuracy, which is still far better than it has done in the recent past. (EDIT: The grade was originally was a C+ until I read the photo captions and found the slideshow included 1909 damage to the Sonoma mission, among other serious errors.)

There are two significant problems with the very first paragraph in the short unbylined piece, which claims “more than 100 people were killed in a community of roughly 8,700.” Exactly 77 are certain to have died in Santa Rosa and it can be said with high confidence there were at least 82 (see 1906 earthquake FAQ). While it seems very likely that a hundred or more people probably were killed or died later because of injuries there is zero evidence, so using any number higher than 77 is speculation. Also guesswork is claiming there were “roughly 8,700” in the community. At the end of 1906, the PD estimated the population then at 10,990. There is a thorough discussion concerning the size of Santa Rosa in the FAQ, but I have never seen that 8,700 figure used. As with the death count, the PD does not reveal its source of information.

The mistakes continue into the second paragraph: “Entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and the city struggled for years to rebuild.” Only the courthouse and surrounding commercial blocks were destroyed. About two dozen houses collapsed or were knocked off foundations and many chimneys cracked or fell. Residential damage was blamed mostly on poor construction and no neighborhoods were wiped out. Nor did the city do much struggling to rebuild. Yes, downtown was a mess and major construction zone for the first year, but before the second anniversary the business district was mostly back to normal in lovely new buildings.

I have other quibbles with the anniversary piece. It mentions city hall operated from a table on the sidewalk but that probably was only for about a week before it moved to the business and government shantytown hastily slammed together on the vacant lot at Mendocino and Fifth. The item also states the Press Democrat had its own presses rolling again by the end of the month, which is about the least interesting factoid about the disaster. If anything at all should be mentioned about the PD after the earthquake it’s that editor Ernest Finley argued vigorously that the  needy didn’t deserve aid from the relief fund.

Although the little article gets almost all facts wrong, I still give it a passing grade because of the accompanying photographs, many of which I have never before seen from the PD archives. Check them out – but mostly ignore the captions.

But enough about the PD today; how did Santa Rosa commemorate the earthquake anniversary a hundred years ago? Answer: It didn’t.

In San Francisco on April 18, 1916, an estimated 25,000 packed into the Civic Auditorium to hear a program that included a 500 voice chorus, military band and speeches by the mayor and other luminaries. Was there a public event that day in Santa Rosa?

Nope.

That ten year anniversary was also the day Santa Rosa swore in a new mayor and city council. Was there a moment of silence at the ceremony to honor the dead?

Nope.

That day in 1916 was the Tuesday before Easter and Santa Rosa churches were in high gear, with one church offering a three-hour drop-in service on Good Friday. Were any sermons announced giving thanks for parishioners having survived?

Nope.

The Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat both offered short, mawkish “ten years after” editorials that really said nothing; the “city has arisen phoenix like from its ashes” because energetic Santa Rosans “with a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips” rebuilt the town better than it was before, blah, blah, yada, etc.

The only point to note is the remark in the Republican that “In proportion to its size Santa Rosa suffered more than any other city in the state.” Today the claim that Santa Rosa had comparatively more damage and/or more deaths than San Francisco is another often heard myth. Over 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed by the earthquake and fire and most of their population was homeless or displaced for up to two years. By contrast, Santa Rosa’s relief effort lasted 17 days with no refugee camps or emergency housing. Electricity was restored within a week and most downtown businesses were operating again within four days at temporary locations. There were no fires in Santa Rosa residential areas. No matter how much one squints at comparisons, it’s impossible to honestly claim Santa Rosa suffered more than elsewhere.

A quite interesting article did appear in the Republican a few days later, however, showing a tally of year-by-year building permits issued over the previous decade. It showed furious activity through the spring of 1908, then a flux following general economic trends. This data will be of great interest to local historians.

SANTA ROSA TEN YEARS AFTER
City Has Arisen Phoenix Like From Its Ashes And Anniversary Is Cause for Thankfulness

This morning ten years ago, Santa Rosa was visited by the greatest calamity in its history. The entire business part of the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire; many lives were lost, and the list of wounded was long. The property loss was estimated at nearly five million dollars. Some doubted that the town would ever be rebuilt, but most Santa Rosans were more hopeful, and some even predicted that the work of restoration would be complete in five years. But ten years was more generally regarded as the time that would probably be required.

It can be truthfully said today that the restoration is finished, and that the new city is architecturally far better than it was at the time of the disaster. Nearly every building destroyed has been replaced by a building that is larger and finer. The courthouse, the city hall, the banks and hotels are Class A structures, worth many times what the former ones were worth and a credit to the city in every way. The postoffice, the Masonic Temple, the Native Sons’ building, the high school annex, and many handsome business structures, testify to the enterprise and the energy of the people in this town that was stricken. It has been a wonderful recovery.

– Press Democrat, April 18, 1916
TEN YEARS AFTER

Ten years ago today the Pacific Coast rocked with one of the heaviest earthquakes the world has ever known. Following in its wake came a sheet of flame that completed the work of ruin and destruction. Men retired the night before secure in the belief that they were well established in business, and that the future was secure. They were awakened by the temblor to face ruin, death and misery. In proportion to its size Santa Rosa suffered more than any other city in the state. For blocks Fourth street was a mass of ruins, debris and twisted iron. For a moment the people were stunned, helpless, and it seemed, hopeless. Yet before the bricks were cold, before the streets were cleared for traffic, the work of rebuilding began. Men who had been planning their businesses on a $5000 a year basis immediately outline plans calling for a business of double that amount. Men who had owned buildings of wood, or one story structures, planned at once for modern, fireproof two story structures that would be a credit to any city. With a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips; with not a hint of giving up, they set about their titanic task and have builded a city in ten years, better than was built in course of the slow growth more than fifty years previous. And that same spirit is present today and will be present in the generations to come. The will to do, to surmount any and all obstacles, the belief in one’s ability to perform the task before one, has made possible the wonderful work of the rebuilding of the City of Roses. No greater monument was ever erected in memory of man’s achievement than the achievement itself, in this instance.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 18, 1916
City is Rebuilt In Ten Years
$2,705,000 And More Is Spent

It is a fact known to few people in Santa Rosa that approximately two and three-quarter millions of dollars have been put into permanent building improvements in Santa Rosa in the past ten years. This is one of the mighty proofs of the advancement of this city since its business district was laid low by earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906.

Included within the ten years that have elapsed since that disaster there are many other improvements, such as miles and miles of paved streets, cement sidewalks, curbs and gutters and countless other items that would swell the sum total of city improvements to an enormous figure. There are many other advancements that have been made, but that single total of improvements in permanent buildings, totaling in exact figures, $2,705,302.31, is one of the biggest arguments that Santa Rosa has to show what enormous strides have been made by the city in ten years. From almost nothing to that total in ten years is an achievement for the city which compares favorably with the total expended in San Francisco, considering the size of the two cities for that length of time.

The Republican is indebted to City Clerk Herbert B. Snyder for the actual figures covering building operations. Up to the time that he took office there were no summarized records kept of the building permits granted, and it was necessary to consult old records with the aid of the adding machine and bring them up to date.

In the two years following the earthquake and fire the building operations were especially heavy, but since that time they have maintained a high record. The permits, year by year, from June to July [sic] are as follows:

1906-1907 $894,020.00
1907-1908 684,147.00
1908-1909 119,215.00
1909-1910 123,560.00
1910-1911 115,500.00
1911-1912 93,691.50
1912-1913 231,865.35
1913-1914 214,458.00
1914-1915 145,082.45
– Santa Rosa Republican April 22, 1916

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C-SPAN VIDEO ON 1906 QUAKE: MOSTLY WRONG

C-SPAN has produced a short video about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake that’s certain to become a top reference for information about the disaster, given the cable channel’s reputation as a trustworthy source of impartial information. Unfortunately, that segment is riddled with myths and falsehoods about the quake, I’m deeply sorry to say.

As part of its 2015 “Cities Tour,” C-SPAN presented several short videos about Santa Rosa and its history including a segment on the 1906 quake with Gaye LeBaron, apparently speaking extemporaneously, for a little under seven minutes (you can view it in full here). There are a few slips of the tongue – certainly she meant to say civic leader Frank Doyle had a “paternal” concern for Santa Rosa and not that he was a “paternalistic figure” – but the factual mistakes are more serious and must be addressed. Some items below are slightly edited and presented out of chronological order for clarity of discussion.

*   …a hundred people died here, at least a hundred people that we know of died in this earthquake and that’s staggering.  

FALSE. Exactly 82 are believed to have died in Santa Rosa, and it can be said with high confidence that the total was at least 85 (see discussion). While it seems very likely that a hundred or more people really were killed or died later because of injuries, there is zero evidence. Using any number higher than 82 is speculation.

*   In terms of property damage and life lost, per capita, no town in America has even been as affected by an earthquake as Santa Rosa was in 1906…the damage here was absolutely staggering. If as many people had died in San Francisco, per capita as died in Santa Rosa, it would have been 75,000 dead.  

FALSE. Here Ms. LeBaron is claiming more than 18 percent of the people in Santa Rosa were killed – which would have meant nearly 2,000 dead.

(Do the math yourself: The pre-quake population of San Francisco was about 410,000 and 18 percent of that is 73,000. At the end of 1906 the Press Democrat estimated the population at about 11,000. )

Misleading “per capita” claims have been repeated for decades and are based on overstating the number killed as 100+ and underestimating the size of the Santa Rosa community. There’s a lengthy discussion of this issue in my 1906 earthquake FAQ – which, by the way, has been available on the Internet since 2013.

*   Help came in from outside. One particular man who was visiting here from Kansas got his son to drive him to a bank in Petaluma where he cashed a check for $5,000, and brought it back and gave it to people to clean up… the money that was left he divided it among the churches to help people.  

HALF TRUE. Bertrand Rockwell and his daughter’s husband, James Edwards, drove to Petaluma where Edwards’ brother-in-law cashed the check. The amount was not mentioned at the time, but ballooned in the retelling over the years. It was likely not $5,000; it would have been difficult for a typical auto of that day to carry so much weight in gold and silver coins (Edwards probably owned the 22.5 horsepower runabout seen here).

Rockwell’s donation to the emergency relief effort came out to $692.00, which paid for two days work. There was no mention in any newspapers at the time of him giving money to churches. For more, see: “The Legends of Captain Rockwell” published here earlier.

*   There were three downtown buildings… that survived…the one behind me which we now call the Empire Building, which was actually a bank building in those years. It had been built in 1904 and it was badly damaged but it came back. And just down the street is the Barnett-Mailer building. [Both] survived the earthquake.  

FALSE. The Empire Building was constructed in 1908 (see article). The Barnett-Mailer building at 631 Fourth street was built in 1907 and was on the only block downtown which was completely reduced to rubble.

The third structure mentioned in the video was the old Western Hotel in Railroad Square –  now home to Flying Goat Coffee – which indeed survived the 1906 earthquake, as did many other buildings in the downtown area. Only the Fourth street retail district was almost totally demolished. The map produced by the State Earthquake Investigation Commission shows the scope of damage.

*   The 1906 earthquake gave the town a chance to redesign itself for the automobile which was new. There was a man named Frank Doyle who… went to every merchant in town and talked them into giving several feet of their frontage to widen Fourth street…so they would be adaptable to the automobile which shows a great deal of foresight.  

FALSE. Five days after the disaster – even before all the bodies were recovered – the interim Democrat-Republican newspaper commented, “All the business streets should and must be widened, and now is the time to do it.” The only specific reason given for street widening was to make them suitable for streetcars. In more than a dozen articles that appeared in the papers in the following months, automobiles were never mentioned. Not once.

Frank Doyle, who decades later would become a loud cheerleader for building the Golden Gate Bridge, was then a cashier at Exchange Bank and one of three men heading the citizen’s committee on street widening. From the newspaper accounts, it appears he acted as treasurer handling the money. In the end the civic improvement project was a bust; they managed to widen only two blocks of Fourth street, from the east end of Courthouse Square to E street (for more background, read “Boulevard Dreams“).

There are smaller bones that could be picked in that video, but the last – and perhaps, most important – dispute I have with her narrative is the portrayal of 1906 Santa Rosa as a simple farmtown (“a forward looking town with a lot of prospects”) that emerged transformed, phoenix-like, from the quake ashes and rubble. Once again, that’s simply false.

Santa Rosa certainly looked more cosmopolitan after it was rebuilt; the fires swept away the jumble of 19th century buildings that gave the downtown its “Wild West” appearance. But the earthquake didn’t interrupt Santa Rosa’s thriving underground economy based on gambling and prostitution, with a tenderloin district nearly as large as the one found in Reno. Santa Rosa actually legalized Nevada-style prostitution the year after the earthquake. See the “Wide-Open Town” series of four articles for more on the rough temperament of the place.

Worse, the earthquake thwarted meaningful progress and entrenched Santa Rosa in its old ways. While the progressive movement swept out corruption in San Francisco and other American cities, no reformers had the chance to gain public office here. There were no post-quake muckrakers calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.

So yes, the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake really was a transformative event – only not the one always portrayed. Instead of being the spark that propelled the town into the better days of the Twentieth Century, the disaster looms over our past as the day time stopped. The question to debate is whether it casts its long dark shadow over Santa Rosa still.

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