Ezekiel told the Examiner he "counted 27 boys" clinging to the walls and rafters. One of them was Mark Lee, whose coat snagged on a protruding beam. He dangled there as "two companions fell on the top of the oven and were simply roasted before my eyes.... I had to hang there over them while they roasted to death." Thomas Curran clasped a ceiling joist with his legs, like a trapeze artist. "As I clung there, I saw the poor fellow who had been chatting with me strike the furnace. He curled up like a worm in that heat."

Jocz and Jeter saved dozens of lives, though without a delicate touch. In their haste to move the flaming bodies to safer ground, the furnacemen roughly grabbed and tossed men and boys with broken spines and fractured skulls. Those out of arm's reach were hooked with metal poles used to stir molten glass, and dragged by their clothing or flesh along the furnace's searing surface.

Adding a final, surreal touch to the already Hieronymous Bosch-like tableau, cheers and pep band tunes from the game wafted into the factory, mixing with the roaring flames and wailing men and boys.

Future Republican Congressman William Traeger “making his famous place kick” for Stanford.
San Francisco Examiner
Future Republican Congressman William Traeger “making his famous place kick” for Stanford.
Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 30, 1900.
Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 30, 1900.

The crash of the collapsing roof had startled fans within the stadium, who peered toward the glass works. But Berkeley supporters interpreted the noise as some form of chicanery from the Stanford rooters. They began to chant "It's a job!" and "in an instant, all eyes were again centered on the gridiron." In a detail akin to noting the play Abraham Lincoln was viewing while fatally wounded was Our American Cousin, Stanford won the contest, 5-0.

Fans within Recreation Park were among the last in the city to remain blissfully unaware they were mere yards from a charnel house. Area residents swarmed the factory, with many bellowing the names of their missing boys. This scene was repeated at overwhelmed area hospitals and, most grimly, the city morgue. San Franciscans of the era suffered a more intimate relationship with death than those fortunate enough to live in the present day: The average lifespan in 1900 was barely 47 years and infant mortality in large American cities reached 30 percent. As a result, when word of a disaster hit the streets, not only did citizens react by storming the morgue — they knew where the morgue was.

When the coroner's black, horse-drawn carriages approached Merchant Street, the masses surged, and club-wielding police beat back a crowd largely composed of grieving women. The carts disgorged bodies so disfigured they were identified by the contents of their pockets or their apparel. Apoplectic father William Eckfeldt recognized the stockings on his son Willie's shoeless feet. The coroner collected not only human remains but human effects: "In one wagon," reported the Examiner, "were 64 hats, a heap of neckties, and a pile of shoes."

On Dec. 4, the final victim of the Thanksgiving Day Disaster, Fred Lilly, died in the City and County Hospital. In all, 22 men and boys were killed and more than four times that number were wounded, many gravely. Lilly never regained consciousness after fracturing his skull in the fall. Observers noted that, in his delirious state, he still seemed to think he was enjoying himself at the football game.


On Dec. 9, 1979, John Bowen was killed during a Jets game at New York's Shea Stadium when a flying model lawnmower crashed into the stands. The 20-year-old was the sole victim of a spectacularly ill-conceived radio-controlled airplane halftime extravaganza. His death is remembered, however, not just because of its bizarre nature, but because death has visited American ballparks with merciful scarcity. Elsewhere around the world spectators have been crushed, trampled, asphyxiated, or beaten en masse. San Francisco's 112-year-old disaster, however, remains the deadliest day in United States sports history. Our nation's fans have, comparatively, been blessed. And this isn't entirely due to mere good luck.

Underperforming American professional teams, unlike their worldwide counterparts, aren't demoted to a lesser league. Even the worst American squads can invest in expensive stadium upgrades without worrying their cavernous major-league arenas will soon host piddling minor-league crowds. In this country, teams don't serve as proxies in ongoing, centuries-old religious or ethnic conflicts. And American teams don't coddle highly organized violent fan associations serving as incubators for political or nationalistic movements.

You can't have that here. You'd get sued.

The aftermath of the Thanksgiving Day Disaster reveals a sea change in American legal philosophy and even the very nature of American society. San Francisco Superior Court records only go back to 1906 — you can likely guess why — but newspaper accounts don't report a single lawsuit being filed as a result of the 1900 disaster. A couple named Olive and George Houghton, however, made the papers when they sued the glass works in mid-December. A glass truck had collided with a trolley in which Olive was a passenger, crushing her foot. The reason she brought suit and hundreds of disaster victims or their survivors didn't is due to the evolving concept of negligence.

The prevailing notion in the days of the Thanksgiving Day Disaster was "contributory negligence" — meaning that if a victim had any blame for his predicament, he was unable to collect. "If you're 1 percent responsible, and even if the other party is negligent, the old common-law doctrine was a complete bar to liability," explains William Gallagher, a law professor at Golden Gate University. Even Clarence Darrow — 43 years old at the time — couldn't have argued the football fans who climbed atop the glass works didn't have at least some responsibility for their suffering. Guided by this stark definition of negligence, the city wrapped up its official inquest before the piles of bloodstained detritus had been collected from outside the glass works' gate. A Dec. 7 verdict by the coroner's jury absolved factory management and the city, placing all blame on the victims themselves.

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28 comments
s1conrad
s1conrad

As a long-time resident of the City, I only know key historic moments: Gold Rush, 06 Quake, WW2, Summer of Love, Milk-Moscone asassinations--but this forgotten tale was riveting (not to mention gruesome).  It proves the layered history of SF is almost endless, and not forgotten

Ckcarter13
Ckcarter13

@followingthis wow I just read this how horrifyingly sad.

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@JamesDRobinson Sorry for my naivete, is shade a 52 book, love earth 2 , keep hearing about shade from podcast. Advertising works.

Egalitarian
Egalitarian

"But there is one last detail, and it's the worst of all: The broken, burning, shrieking victims were, in large part, not men. They were children."Joe, I need help here, how many men is a child's life worth, can we trade?  2.45 men for every child?  While we're at it let's make every man's vote only count for 2/3rds a person since his life is not worth the same as women or children. 

stanflouride
stanflouride

Great (if horrifying) story! Often the phrases 'of-the-century' or 'of-all-time' were and are bandied about by the news media and yet time and time again they are superseded by current events that push them into the shadows of the past.

 

An addendum I'd like to contribute:In 2003 a gentleman who is a member of "Old Blue" the hardest of the hard core Cal fans was taking my Haight Ashbury walking tour, which includes a stop and story about the Haight Grounds baseball stadium (on Waller between Stanyan and Shrader), site of the first few Big Games.My iteration included the story of Herbert Hoover and the missing football and the guy corrected me. He told me the Berkeley players were 'so drunk they could barely stand up' so they stole and hid the football, forcing Stanford to send someone on horseback downtown to buy a new one.Berkeley lost the game 14-10, which may or may not have been a result of their hung-over team.

 

Fortunately, that sort of thing doesn't happen in college athletics any more because we've evolved. Right?

romanmars
romanmars

@BackStoryRadio @sfweekly One of my very first radio stories was about this! Based off John Marr's story in the zine Murder Can Be Fun.

EskSF
EskSF

@burritojustice Thanks! I am speculating, but "Recreation Park" may have been the go-to term for ballparks of the era

EskSF
EskSF

@burritojustice It was gone by 1905. The 1899 Sanborn insurance map refers to it as "Base Ball Grounds." Papers called it Recreation Park

Laura Palmer-Cobb
Laura Palmer-Cobb

That has got to be the saddest story I ever read. Those poor boys. Oh, my heart breaks.

followingthis
followingthis

@Ckcarter13 Yeah. So sad. And they were mostly kids. :'(

JamesDRobinson
JamesDRobinson

It's part of that world @mytruthoryours but premiered a month after the big launch.

joe.eskenazi
joe.eskenazi

I think your self-assessment is spot-on; you do need help here.

 

Best,

 

JE

BackStoryRadio
BackStoryRadio

@romanmars @SFWeekly That's awesome! Is the link online? Looking and wondering whether gone internet illiterate for not finding...

burritojustice
burritojustice

@EskSF I need to do a baseball / sporting grounds summary post, if only to keep track. Too many damn (Recreation|Central)+(Grounds|Parks).

burritojustice
burritojustice

@EskSF I'm guessing it wasn't around long enough for it to really have gotten an official name. (Great article, btw, nicely done.)

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@JamesDRobinson thanks youra gem. Off to give a comic book shop a chance to sell me it and inevetibly buy several other comics I don't need.

JorgeChurano
JorgeChurano

 @joe.eskenazi Egalitarian has a point Joe, and it's a little rude to just shrug it off and make an insult.Why is the detail of shrieking death pangs coming from children and not grown men the worst detail of all? What if it were men? Does this story even get told again? What if it were men, and they were leaving orphans at home. That's pretty sad, isn't it?

romanmars
romanmars

@BackStoryRadio @SFWeekly Nah, it was before you were required by law to post everything online.

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@Dolliedqwmm3 whatever link you sent me does not work

coyotemoon
coyotemoon

@JorgeChurano @joe.eskenazi If we have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand. Children are innocent, and never got to see their potential realized, and left behind horrified mothers, fathers, and siblings who would be forever changed.

BackStoryRadio
BackStoryRadio

@romanmars @SFWeekly I am always happy to be reminded that there was indeed such a time and we didn't just dream it.

 
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