In 46 states, including California, contributory negligence is no longer a viable legal doctrine. Today, courts weigh "comparative negligence," meaning even victims whose own foolhardiness put them in harm's way can collect. Meting out just how much every party is to blame and how much it's all going to cost now requires judges and juries and lawyers. Lots of lawyers. If the Thanksgiving Day Disaster occurred today, it'd spawn a legal feeding frenzy.

Today, lawyers would pounce on scattered allegations that glass works employees charged boys for spots on the roof. They'd likely allege Davis was negligent in staffing only seven men to guard the plant after the football teams' managers specifically implored him to keep fans off factory grounds — and gifted the factory several football tickets in exchange for doing so. Most damning, however, would be lawyers' dissection of the run-around police gave to factory staff. Glass works employee Jacob Sulling testified that he placed no fewer than four phone calls to police, who told him they couldn't spare any men to clear the rooftop, eventually directing him to track down a Lt. M.O. Anderson who was somewhere in the vicinity. Sulling claimed to have questioned half a dozen policemen in person, one of whom finally informed him Anderson was within the stadium. Police then barred Sulling from entering the stadium and declined to pass a message to Anderson.

Factory employees claimed they first phoned police "shortly after" 2 p.m. — meaning 30 to 50 minutes passed before the roof came down. "The city would be on the hook if this happened today," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor and legal historian at the University of Pennsylvania. In sorting out comparative negligence, she continues, attorneys would parse every detail: "Lawyers love fighting over this stuff."

Front page of the San Francisco Call, Nov. 30, 1900.
Front page of the San Francisco Call, Nov. 30, 1900.
“The bodies of seven bruised and burned victims are laid out, awaiting the arrival of the coroner.”
Jonn E. Hare, San Francisco Examiner
“The bodies of seven bruised and burned victims are laid out, awaiting the arrival of the coroner.”

Today, Bryan Stow can sue the Los Angeles Dodgers for negligence, claiming the team was partially at fault for private citizens beating him in the stadium parking lot because the team's owners should have hired more security and installed better lighting. In 2005, the family of a toddler paralyzed by a drunk-driving football fan successfully sued Giants Stadium beer vendor Aramark in New Jersey for $135 million.

Critics of the legal status quo claim the pendulum has swung too far and American society has grown too litigious; scalding cups of McDonald's coffee are invariably mentioned. But our over-lawyered, tort-friendly society has kept us safe not only from boiling beverages, but rampaging hooligans, substandard stadiums, and the lethal combination of both. Take solace: Americans are less likely than ever to be incinerated at a ballgame.


Just four days after the bodies dropped through the glass works' roof, the story dropped off newspapers' front pages, never to return. Readers searching for details would be forced to hunt through articles about the Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, and other pressing matters: "Miners Frozen and Eaten By Wolves"; or "Gibson The Child-Slayer Is Captured, And Hundreds of Enraged Kentuckians Will End His Life By Fiendish Torture."

Denizens of today's 140-character San Francisco may think of the city of yesteryear as a quaint place moving at a more leisurely pace. But that wasn't so. In less time than it would now take to convert a grass field to Astroturf, Recreation Park was transformed into a steel yard. It struck reporters of the day as hardly surprising that, after the last smoldering bodies were carted out of the glass works, Jocz and Jeter actually went back to work. Factory employees were patching the roof before the end of November; workers were subsequently "spinning glass among the blood stains" — which today might be considered a slipping hazard.

"Newspapers had a way of dropping major stories very quickly," affirms W. Joseph Campbell, a journalistic historian at American University. "The attention span seemed to be pretty thin."

Still, the papers of the day seemed to think San Franciscans would long remember the Thanksgiving Day Disaster, even if they stopped writing about it. "Hector McNeil is dead," noted a San Francisco Call story, "but his memory will live as the first to be buried of the victims of San Francisco's most dire calamity." There was no way to know, however, that in a few decades McNeil and everyone else buried at the Laurel Hill Cemetery would be exhumed and trucked to Colma. There was certainly no way to know the great quake of '06 would soon bring death and destruction to San Francisco on a level that made the Thanksgiving Day Disaster resemble a child's experiment.

Like the rest of the city, the glass works collapsed in the quake and was rebuilt. It burned in 1911 and one last time in 1920 — a fire inflicting $1 million worth of damage on a structure only insured for half that.

By 1926, the large brick-façade building that still occupies the south half of the former Glass Works site was erected; it currently serves as U.C. San Francisco's Mission Center. If invaders ever storm the grounds here, getting the cops to respond ought to be easier than before: A branch of the UCSF Police is on the first floor. An outdoor cafe now sits on the approximate former site of the east furnace. Moving across the street, the former Recreation Park, once a stadium and a steel yard, is now the Flynn Division of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

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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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