There are 110 pages for January 1906. One hundred and seven pages for February. One hundred and one pages for March. And each of those books has at least one blank page at the end.
And then comes the book that slaps you upside the head — that makes you sit up and take notice. Something changed, you can’t help but think. Something big changed.
And then it hits you — just what it was that changed in April 1906.
April 1906… in San Francisco.
Each sheet bears a header: Death Report, Coroner’s Office. Plus the date and a page number. The date received. Time received. Name of the person and address of the person reporting the case. The name, address and personal information of the deceased. Time of death or when found dead. Place of death. Presumable cause. When the body was received at the morgue. Whether there was an inquest and the verdict if so. An autopsy certificate. A place for a list of witnesses.
And on one side of the two-sided reports, a section for a history of the case:
“Deceased was shot a few days ago,” reads the history section for the report of the death of Soichi Namaya on the first of April 1906.1
“Deceased … went to step from the scow Shasta and made a misstep … and fell into the water where she was Drowned,” reads the history for the death report of Mary Ayscough on the second of April.2
“Deceased has been sick about 10 days they had no doctor to attend to the Child,” reads the history for the death report of two-year-old Ah Fook on April 12th.3
The stories told by the pages are many. The mother, despondent over the loss of a child, who took her own life. The worker who fell from a windmill in Golden Gate Park. The heavy drinker who took one drink too many. The infant suffocated in his parents’ bed. The old man run down by a baker’s cart in the street. The young mother lost in childbirth. The sudden heart attacks. The deaths that must have been the reliefs from long and painful illnesses.
Each death carefully documented. One by one, recorded in detail, day in and day out, one or two — at most a handful — in any given day.
And then came the 18th of April.
The earliest tremor hit at 5:12 a.m., and what has been called the Great Earthquake — centering in San Francisco — hit 20-25 seconds later. According to the U.S. Geological Survey:
The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada. … The frequently quoted value of 700 deaths caused by the earthquake and fire is now believed to underestimate the total loss of life by a factor of 3 or 4. Most of the fatalities occurred in San Francisco, and 189 were reported elsewhere.4
And the death records abruptly changed.
“No. A, male,” reads the report at page 42 of the first of three books required to record the dead of April 1906.5 “No. D, male,” reads the report at page 46, for a body found in the Valencia Hotel.6 “Jno. Doe McKenzie,” reads the report at page 50 of a body found at 115 Haight Street, the cause of death a fractured skull.7 “John Doe F” died on Dillon Place of asphyxiation.8 John Doe P, a male around age 40, also died of a fractured skull; the location wasn’t even recorded.9 “John Doe Louis (works for Paladinio Fish Market)” bled to death.10
Almost nothing was recorded about some of the dead. Only “John Doe, male” is recorded for one man.11 Another “John Doe” died at 3rd and Brannan Streets.12 Another on 6th Street between Mission and Howard.13 A “Jane Doe” at 3rd and Brannan.14
Not all the dead were nameless. William Carr died of asphyxiation at 1547 Ellis Street.15 Max Fenner, a 38-year-old German-born married police officer, died of a fractured skull.16 That was also the cause of death for Lena Crowder, a 41-year-old widow from Sweden, who died at 14 Seventh Street.17
Most have nothing written in the history section. Where there is a note, it is often heartbreakingly sad. “Found with husband & Baby,” reads the note for the death of “Jane Doe Johnson,” who died of a fractured skull at the Valencia Hotel.18 “Found with parents,” says the note for “Baby Johnson,” who died of asphyxiation.19 “Jane Doe Girl” died at 5th and Howard Streets, and the note reads: “Probably of Desmond family.”20 The same was recorded for another “Jane Doe Girl” on the following page,21 and yet another “Jane Doe Girl” on the page after that.22
By the third April book, the records are chilling. “Bones, Part of one person,” reads one record, found at the northwest corner of Howard and Seventh Streets.23 The dates stretch into May for the date received, but the date of death remains the same. “Human bones,” received May 8th, from April 18, 1906.24 Bones, found on 5th Street between Tehama and Clementina Streets,25
It isn’t until the very end of Book C that the death date moves beyond April 18th, and even then the record couldn’t be completed until much later. Henry Manders, a native of Holland, married, age 82, died of shock on the 22nd of April. His death was recorded on the 15th of May.26
But still the deaths of April 18th rolled in. “Human Bones supposed to be Fred H. Stanley.”27 “Chinese Bones Found on Dupont St. 135 ft. north of Washington rear of lot.”28 “Human Bones supposed to be Louis Stambler… 34… Celia Stambler… 30… Rosie Stambler… 10…”29
And page after page of handwritten notes in the back of the last book. “Louise Manks, 12 years. Elizabeth Marks, 8. Found in the ruins of 179 7th St. by their father.”30 “Denis T. Sullivan – Chief of S.F. Fire Department. April 22nd. Extensive burns sustained during the earthquake and fire April 18th.”31 “Annie M. Petrig – 9 days died April 20th of exposure in camp at Presidio foll. earthquake and fire.”32 “Margaret Miles 7 months April 20th Cause of death unknown. Probably due to exposure foll. earthquake and fire.”33
One set of records.
In San Francisco.
Image: H. D. Chadwick, “San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Looking northeast” (1906), National Archives.
- San Francisco County, California, Coroner’s Death Record Book A (April 1906): 3, Soichi Namaya, 1 April 1906; digital images, “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 23 Apr 2013); citing California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997, San Francisco Public Library. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 4, Mary Ayscough, 2 April 1906. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 24, Ah Fook, 12 April 1906. ↩
- “The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” USGS, Earthquake Hazards Program, USGS.gov (http://earthquake.usgs.gov : accessed 23 Apr 2013). ↩
- San Francisco Co., Cal., Coroner’s Death Record Book A (April 1906): 42, 18 April 1906. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 46. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 50. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 51. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 74. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 84. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 8. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 39. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 58. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 78. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 52. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 54 ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 60. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 63. ↩
- Ibid., Book A (April 1906): 64. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 32. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 33. ↩
- Ibid., Book B (April 1906): 34. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 40. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 58. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 64. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 94. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 130. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 135. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 138. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 145. ↩
- Ibid., Book C (April 1906): 147. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩