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One hundred and thirteen years ago today

It was just a few minutes after 5 a.m. on the west coast of the United States.

And the earth began to shake in San Francisco.

The earliest tremor hit the city 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.1

It was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

San Francisco earthquake 1906

And nowhere is the story of that day told in more stark or poignant terms than in the records of a single office of the San Francisco government.

The Coroner’s Office.

In the death reports of April 1906.

There are 40 entries in the death reports of April 1906 from the first through the 17th. Those entries start with the death of John Bergen of Mission Street at Central Emergency Hospital on 1 April of natural cauuses.2 And the last relatively routine entry in those records was for the death on April 17, 1906, of Charles Monroe. A native of New Hampshire and a retired merchant, the 67-year-old died of heart failure while attending a performance at the Alcazar Theater with his son.3

And then the world changed: “The 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18 with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.9 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). High intensity shaking was felt from Eureka on the North Coast to the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region to the south of the San Francisco Bay Area. Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days. Thousands of homes were dismantled. As a result, up to 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. The events are remembered as one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in the history of the United States. The death toll remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history and high in the lists of American disasters.”4

The coroner’s records show every bit of that disaster in the hundreds and hundreds of entries that follow — many pages of them with multiple entries recorded months afterwards as bones were found and the dead identified.

First was Mrs. Clara McCann of Bryant Street. Initially recorded as Mrs. Jane Doe McCann because the Coroner’s Office didn’t have a first name. Cause of death: fracture of skull.5

Then, simply, Male. April 18th 1906. 6th & Folsom St. Suffocation.6 Male. April 18th 1906. Valencia Hotel. Fractured skull.7

Nathan Johnson, with his brother, wife and baby. Found at Valencia Hotel.8

Male, age 40. April 18th 1906. Found at 163 Turk St. Asphyxiated.9 Baby. Male. April 18th 1906. Found at 163 Turk St. Asphyxiated.10

It’s almost a relief in the seemingly unending series of horrific deaths from fractured skulls, burial under collapsed walls and piles of rubble, asphyxiation and more to come across the death of Alfred Londale that day at Harbor Hospital of natural causes.11

And then the records plunge back into horror. Unknown, received 24 April 1906. 4th & Townsend. Burns.12 Ciro Rifesi, age about five years. Received 25 April. Asphyxia by compression.

A series that reports that “the next 24 bodies were buried at Portsmouth Square and exhumed April 25 & buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.” All died April 18th. None even has a cause of death recorded. Many are simply John Doe.13 The last 12 are recorded on a single page with 23 others.14

On and on through the pages of Book B. “Jane Doe Girl” died at 5th and Howard Streets, and the note reads: “Probably of Desmond family.”15 The same was recorded for another “Jane Doe Girl” on the following page,16 and yet another “Jane Doe Girl” on the page after that.17

And on into Book C. Bones. Louise Manks, 12 years. Elizabeth Manks, 8 years. “Found in the ruins of 179 7th St. by their father Charles Manks who identified the remains by finding some of the springs of the lounge that they sleep on near the remains.”18

It can be devastating when the earth shakes. And we as genealogists can find so much to help tell the stories of those who were lost 113 years ago today in the records of the Coroner’s Office.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “When the earth shakes,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 18 Apr 2019).


Image: Arnold Genthe, “Aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906,” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

  1. The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” USGS, Earthquake Hazards Program, ( : accessed 18 Apr 2019).
  2. San Francisco County, California, Coroner’s Register Death Reports (April 1906), Book A: 1, John Bergen, 1 April 1906; digital images, “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997: Coroner’s Records: Death Reports, Apr, 1906,” ( : accessed 18 Apr 2019); citing California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997, San Francisco Public Library.
  3. Ibid., Book A: 40, Charles Monroe, 17 April 1906.
  4. Wikipedia (, “1906 San Francisco earthquake,” rev. 17 Ap 2019.
  5. San Francisco Co., Cal., Coroner’s Register Death Reports (April 1906), Book A: 41, Mrs. Clara McCann, 18 April 1906.
  6. Ibid., at p. 42.
  7. Ibid., Book A: 46.
  8. Ibid., Book A: 62-65.
  9. Ibid., Book A: 93.
  10. Ibid., Book A: 94.
  11. Ibid., Book A: 102.
  12. Ibid., Book A: 107.
  13. Ibid., Book A: 126-149.
  14. Ibid., Book A: 149.
  15. Ibid., Book B: 32.
  16. Ibid., Book B: 33.
  17. Ibid., Book B: 34.
  18. Ibid., Book C: 145, entry dated 23 Aug 1906.
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