Yesterday’s Crimes: Chaos and Carnage After the Great San Francisco Earthquake

After last night's jolt, a look back at the great earthquake that made San Francisco what it is, and ended what it was.

Police Sergeant Jesse Cook was standing on Market Street near the old Washington Street Produce Market when a massive foreshock hit at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906.
“There was a deep rumble, deep and terrible, and then I could see it actually coming up Washington Street,” Cook said. “The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me, billowing as they came.”
Cook was soon thrown down to cobblestoned street hard, but he survived. All around him, streetcar tracks twisted and snapped apart. Chimneys and building facades made from bricks and sandy mortar crumbled with that initial jolt, crushing people and workhorses below.
The roof of the Denver House Hotel on Third Street crashed through two floors, killing two people and injuring 18 others. The Brunswick Hotel on Sixth caved in on its 300 rooms.
The shaking stopped after a little more than 20 seconds. While the foreshock devastated what are now South of Market and the Embarcadero, the Western neighborhoods built on bedrock instead of shipwrecks and muck were mostly spared. People thought the earthquake was over, but it hadn’t even started yet.
After a 20 second respite, another quake hit the city, far worse than the first. City Hall in the triangle formed by Market, Larkin, and McAllister Streets was damaged by the first shock, but was utterly destroyed by the second. The homeless, who then as now slept at Civic Center, were buried underneath mounds of mortar dust and the remains of Grecian columns.
The hospital that was in the basement of City Hall was rendered useless. The next closest hospital, City Emergency Hospital, became a mass of busted roof beams and chunks of plaster.
The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake had gone on for nearly 60 seconds, ending at 5:14 a.m. It registered a magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter scale, making it 30 times more powerful than the Loma Prieta Earthquake that collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and the Oakland Freeway in 1989.
After the earthquake, fires raged through San Francisco, eventually burning through 4.7 square miles of the city’s most densely populated real estate. With water mains and pipes sheared or broken by the shaking, firefighters could only get a trickle of water to flow out of fire hydrants if anything at all.
Army troops under the command of Brigadier General Frederick Funston used dynamite to combat the flames, but this often exacerbated the situation, creating a firestorm that lasted for three days.
Mayor Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz was a better bagman for political boss Abe Ruef than he was a public servant, but the disaster compelled him to perform his elected duties. With City Hall gone, Schmitz coordinated evacuations, firefighting, temporary hospitals and food distribution from the Hall of Justice.
When reports started coming in of mass lootings and even corpse mutilations, Schmitz deputized 60 volunteer police officers and declared that all looters were to be shot. Unfortunately, trigger-happy troops and volunteers gunned down a pair of prominent citizens along with thieves.
Joseph Meyers, Superintendent of the Children’s Playgrounds was surveying a refugee camp at Colombia Square on Eighth and Harrison Streets on April 19, 1906.
As flames advanced towards the square, Meyers got into a shoving match with a National Guardsman named Bush. During the scuffle, another national Guardsman named Joseph Steinman shot Meyers dead.
Steinman claimed that he thought Meyers was going to pull a gun on him. Some witnesses later testified that Meyers was drunk. Another witness said that Steinman and all the soldiers in the square were drunk, and still other witnesses swore that just about everybody in the square were sloshed after a nearby brewery was looted.
Despite the judge in the case instructing the jurors that Mayor Schmitz’s declaration of martial law was void and illegal, the jury returned a not guilty verdict for Steinman after just 15 minutes of deliberations.
On April 22, millionaire merchant Herbert Tilden took a break from almost nonstop driving of injured people to shelter in his oversized automobile to visit his family in San Mateo.
When he returned, volunteer police at 24th and Guerrero waved Tilden through their makeshift checkpoint after seeing the large Red Cross flag on his car. Tilden drove for two blocks and came to another security checkpoint and thought that the Red Cross flag gave him a free pass.
The “citizen police” at 22nd Street were really just vigilantes not even deputized by Schmitz. They opened fire on Tilden, and he died behind the wheel. Three of the wannabe cops were charged with murder, but as with Steinman, the jury returned a very quick not guilty verdict.

Related Stories