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Illustration by Mario Zucca.


At the dawn of the last century, holy war broke out in San Francisco. Its declaration was announced on the front page of the Nov. 25, 1900, San Francisco Call: "Hell Cannot Be Swept Away On Light Metaphor." Rabbi Jacob Nieto's sermon claimed the fiery underworld was an abstract concept rather than a literal reality, spurring fundamentalist ministers to counter that hell was not only real, but necessary. "The world needs it," they claimed, "as a logical, inevitable conclusion of that part of human life which breeds misery, misfortune, and suffering."

Today, the appearance of such an article in a major metropolitan daily — let alone atop page one — would be considered bizarre. A century ago, however, it was eerily timely. Misery, misfortune, and suffering were coming to San Francisco, and right quick. In that very week, hell — or, Nieto might argue, a metaphor for hell — would visit the city. Multitudes would be swallowed in a fissure and plunged to fiery death and torment below.

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.”
The glass works’ roof “was black with people.”
Jonn E. Hare, San Francisco Examiner
The glass works’ roof “was black with people.”
“Sectional drawing of the glass works furnace room illustrating how the accident happened.”
San Francisco Examiner
“Sectional drawing of the glass works furnace room illustrating how the accident happened.”
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.

Whether this was an act of retribution for man's wickedness is a debate best left to the theologians of the last century. In our century, however, San Francisco's "Thanksgiving Day Disaster" remains the deadliest fate to befall spectators of an American sporting event — and, all but indisputably, the gruesomest. And yet, like the victims of the tragedy, the memory of "The Most Dreadful Calamity In Our History" has fallen down a hole, to oblivion.


"Thanksgiving Day dawned clean and bright and a fairer day could never have been desired by the veriest of football enthusiasts," chirped the San Francisco Bulletin on Nov. 29, 1900. "It was the kind of weather that brings out the holiday throng, the glory of fine fabric, of brilliant color, of beauty, and all that."

"And all that" had come a long way since the inaugural meeting of the California and Stanford football squads, a small-time affair in 1892 that was delayed for more than an hour because Stanford team manager Herbert Hoover neglected to bring a ball. By the turn of the century "The Big Game" had transcended a mere sporting contest, blossoming into a social event. Like San Francisco Giants opening days in the present, the mayor and all the political, industrial, and cultural movers and shakers made an appearance. The elite of yesteryear, however, traversed unpaved roads to a part of town in which they would likely seldom set foot. The hulking grandstands of Recreation Park, on 16th Street between Folsom and Harrison, were deep within a sprawling industrial zone. Lumber yards, tool and die shops, and metal works dotted the landscape; the yowling of stray dogs and the odor of canine excrement likely emanated from the city pound two short blocks away.

Into this neighborhood massed the largest crowd to ever witness a sporting event west of the Mississippi. They clutched newspapers in which front-page headlines actually used the word "Rah!" up to six times. Some 19,000 onlookers packed the stadium, and thousands more milled about in the dusty streets.

For those unable or unwilling to part with the hefty sum of $1 for a ticket, however, there were other ways to catch a ballgame.

Like many turn-of-the-century cities, San Francisco's sporting grounds were hastily erected amid active factories and warehouses. Thousands of eyes turned to the neighborhood's newest addition, the nearly completed San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works, just across the street from the ballpark. The plant occupied an entire block between Folsom and Harrison on 15th Street, and was slated to commence full production the following Monday; the fires of its gargantuan east furnace had been kindled only days earlier. Its rooftop offered an enticing endzone-to-endzone view of the field from above the ballpark's northern wall. The indigent, the impulsive, the reckless, and the devious advanced on the glass works.

Testimony at the subsequent coroner's inquest described scenes resembling the breaking of a siege. Young boys dug beneath the factory's 8-foot wooden fences topped with 2 feet of barbed wire and threw open the gates to the waiting masses. Factory management claimed the interlopers broke down portions of the fence or piled up lumber seized from a nearby barrel manufacturer and climbed over it.

The year 1900 was a rotten one for factory superintendent James Davis. In February, a Call article headlined "Thrashed His Employer" noted that a San Francisco and Pacific glassblower who didn't take kindly to Davis' criticism "beat him so severely he is now confined to his bed." Facing oncoming hordes, the same paper now reported, Davis impotently waved a metal pipe at the trespassers as they streamed past him and seven factory employees.

Well before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, the factory's shiny, corrugated iron rooftop was packed with 500 to 1,000 spectators. It "was black with people," reported the Chronicle. "So densely were all the roofs packed, it was a matter of comment among the multitude which thronged the stands on the Folsom Street side."

Every factor that would lead to "San Francisco's direst calamity" was now in place. Factory employees wandered the streets in a futile attempt to locate a cop willing to evict the freeloading invaders. Those freeloaders, meanwhile, were massed atop a rooftop only required to withstand 40 pounds per square inch — hardly adequate for a football crowd, even in a hungrier era when the average Cal or Stanford player weighed 170 pounds. Worse yet, fans clambered to the highest accessible point, the 100-foot-long rectangular ventilator rising 4 feet from the apex of the roof. This open-sided structure was supported only by wooden braces — and, ominously, the fans' perch was directly above the hottest portion of the factory.

Forty-five feet below the thousands of stamping feet loomed the squat, 30-by-60-foot east furnace. Fifteen tons of molten glass bubbled within at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature on par with a red dwarf star. This was the only furnace in action that day. More observant fans would have noticed the capping atop the chimney behind them glowing red as it emitted a persistent plume of smoke.

But the action was in front, not behind. And even onlookers who grew uneasy couldn't negotiate the crowd to descend. "I don't know how many hundred people were up there, but there wasn't an inch of standing room to spare," Arthur Schwarz told the Examiner. So they made the most of it: "All of us were laughing and jesting," Charles Taylor told the Chronicle. "Some of the fellows said: 'If this thing breaks, we'll all go down together.'"

Twenty minutes into the game, they did.


Countless thousands of bottles produced at the glass works would eventually be filled with "bitters." The ads for competing brands of bitters riddled the newspapers of the day, each claiming its brew was, truly, the most healthful of wonder drinks.

"This was a concoction with a lot of alcohol and a lot of laxatives," explains Jeff Wichmann, the author of Antique Western Bitters Bottles and an authority on glass factories of the era. "They'd put all kinds of herbs in them. It was supposed to be medicinal. But it gave you a really good buzz."

Crafting the vessels for alcoholic laxatives was not a happy life. Glassblowers, often barely into their teens, produced 100 dozen or more bottles a day in a process combining tedious repetition, intense labor, and danger. Blowers inhaled concentrated doses of the toxic vapors spewing out of the furnaces and befouling the factory; lung cancer was rampant.

On Nov. 29, 1900, the men tending the east furnace were Ignace Jocz and Clarence Jeter. As on any other day, they would have been sweating through sweltering heat and snorting stale, acrid air. Today, however, the roars of the crowd would have permeated the factory's din. And, soon enough, light would permeate the dark factory too, after the roof "Gave Way With Its Burden Of Humanity."

It came quickly and totally. "We could see a Berkeley player kicking the ball and all moved to watch him closely. Then the roof sprung like a gallows trap," Percy Fuller recalled to the Examiner. "I grabbed something and held. Those next to me fell.... I turned to the building's interior and saw a writhing, yelling mass of humanity struggling to get out of a veritable hell." More than 100 spectators disappeared into the gaping hole, pinballed off the joists and crossbeams atop the factory, and fell the equivalent of four stories to the brick floor below.

They were the fortunate ones.

Jocz and Jeter estimated an additional 60 to 100 people fell directly atop the glowing furnace. Had they broken through the brick furnace-top keeping the molten glass within "they would have withered in that heat like a feather in ordinary flame," said the grimly eloquent Jocz. "There were enough of them to have filled the oven."

Had plummeting fans penetrated the furnace, they would have been killed instantly and left no trace — the big oven was three times hotter than a crematorium. Instead, in a series of sickening thuds, they landed on a furnace-top heated to 500 degrees. Those who fell here did not die quickly or painlessly. Rather, they found themselves immobilized with broken bodies upon a surface as hot as a frying pan.

It gets worse: The furnace was secured beneath a series of iron "binding rods." These poles, resembling massive croquet hoops, enclosed the furnace like a cage. A number of the victims found themselves trapped in this cage, pinned between the rods and the red-hot furnace, and struggling to move after a 45-foot fall.

It gets even worse: Victims' falling bodies severed fuel pipes, and boiling oil spurted upon the their wriggling bodies, scalding skin and saturating clothing. The terrible heat of the furnace ignited the flowing oil. Gravely injured victims, already trapped atop the 500-degree furnace, burst into flame.

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.


The majority of those killed and an alarming portion of the maimed were boys — some as young as 9 years old. Boys were the least likely to have $1 — a sum with the buying power of $30 or more today. Boys were the least likely to consider the risks of leaping up and down atop a factory. And, in a coldly Darwinian touch, boys were the ones most likely to be pushed toward the back of the roof, into the least desirable spots farthest from the game action — directly over the furnace.

"We got all but one off the oven," recalled Isidore Ezekiel, a clerk who helped Jocz and Jeter pull the burning bodies off the furnace. "That little fellow, a boy of about 10 years, was actually roasted to death before our eyes.... His clothes caught fire and he simply screamed and lay still."

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.

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.

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."

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.

In the wake of the Palo Alto side's triumph in the 1900 Big Game, a Bulletin scribe claimed the contest would be "talked about as long as the walls of Stanford stand." But that didn't happen. Posterity can be fickle. The results of that bygone football game are known by precious few. The existence of San Francisco's direst calamity is recalled by fewer still.

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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 topcommenter

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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