index | by subject | by year | biographies | books | SF Activities | shop museum | contact

Synopsis of the San Francisco Police
and Municipal records of the Greatest Catastrophe
in American History.

By Thomas S. Duke
Captain of Police, San Francisco

Published with Approval of the Honorable
Board of Police Commissioners of San Francisco

As this great disaster has been the theme of numerous able historians, the main events will be but briefly dealt with, and we will then pass to the events known only to those who for three days and nights battled "amid the crash and roar of the burning city," constantly risking their lives to rescue others and to procure provisions from burning stores in order to prevent a famine.

The great earthquake occurred at 5:14 a. m., April 18, 1906. As the shock shattered the principal water mains, the fire department was practically helpless and as a result, the fires which were started by the overturning of stoves, crossing of electric wires, the liberation of chemicals by breakage of containers, etc., rapidly spread until a territory of 4.7 square miles in the heart of the city was burned, and a loss approximately estimated at $275,000,000 was incurred.

The City Hall was a mass of ruins after the earthquake, so Mayor E. E. Schmitz proceeded to the Hall of Justice, where his first orders were issued.

As the earthquake rendered the jails unsafe, he ordered that all petty offenders be released, while those charged with more serious offenses were sent to San Quentin State Prison.

Reports reached headquarters that thieves were burglarizing wrecked stores and deserted homes, and it was also learned that in the Mission district the body of a woman was found, the finger upon which she wore several valuable rings having been amputated, evidently by some thief.

The next report was to the effect that rowdies were breaking into saloons and helping themselves to liquor.

As the police were busy conveying the wounded to the temporary hospitals and had no time to arrest thieves even if caught in the act, and no place to incarcerate them if arrested, the Mayor issued his first order to Chief Dinan under the "law of necessity," which was substantially as follows:

"Apr. 18, 1906.

"As it has come to my attention at thieves are taking advantage of the present deplorable conditions and are plying their nefarious vocations among the ruins in our city, all peace officers are ordered to instantly kill any one caught looting or committing any other serious crimes.

"E. E. SCHMITZ, Mayor."

About 8 a. m. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, U. S. A., called at the Hall of Justice, and after a conference with Mayor Schmitz, he placed his troops at the disposal of the Mayor. From that time until conditions became normal, the soldiers worked in conjunction with the police, either in preserving order or distributing provisions.

Shortly after the troops began patrolling the streets the first looter was caught while he was making an attempt to burglarize Shreve's jewelry store at Post and Grant avenue. He was turned over to a soldier who killed him and left his body to be consumed by the fire.

The Morgue, which was only constructed for ordinary occasions, was soon filled to overflowing with the bodies of victims of falling walls, etc., so the target range of the Central Police Station was turned into an emergency Morgue for the time being. But as the fire was rapidly approaching that building, the twenty-eight bodies placed there were temporarily buried in Portsmouth Square.

Of the 478 bodies finally recovered a great number were unrecognizable because of their mangled condition. It will never he known how many were killed, as the heat of the fire was so intense that the bodies were reduced to ashes in many instances, but judging from reports of persons missing and other circumstances, the number has been estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500.

On Third street near Mission, a building collapsed in such a manner as to pinion an unknown man to the ground. His cries attracted people on the street, who attempted to rescue him, but at that time the fire had reached the rear end of the building. Realizing that he would soon be burned to death he begged the bystanders to kill him. After some hesitancy, a large, middle-aged man stepped forward, and after a few words with the unfortunate prisoner, he whipped out a revolver and shot him through the head, killing him instantly. He then requested the witnesses to accompany him to the Hall of justice, where the Mayor, who after hearing the circumstances and seeing the man's distressed appearance, commended him for his humane act.

Among those killed was Dennis Sullivan, the able Chief of the Fire Department, who was asleep in his room at the Engine House adjoining the California Hotel on Bush street.

The engine house was a two- story structure and a massive brick chimney fell from the top of the eight- story hotel crashed through the engine house roof and struck the Chief. He was removed to the Presidio Hospital, where he died on April 22.

The greatest damage done by the fire was in the Harbor Police district, commanded by Captain John Martin; the Southern district, commanded by Captain Henry Colby; the Central Police district commanded by Captain Thomas Duke and the Mission district, commanded by Captain M. O. Anderson.

As it seemed that the fire would sweep the entire city, about 200,000 panic stricken people took advantage of the free transportation furnished by President Harriman of the Southern Pacific Railroad and left the city. Another hundred thousand, who lost their homes, camped in the public parks and graveyards, many gladly taking advantage of the shelter afforded by the vaults for the dead, especially during the rainstorm beginning on April 23. Because of this storm the police took possession of all vacant buildings and placed as many families in each as the building could comfortably hold. It is estimated that about 2,000 families were provided for in this manner.

On the morning of the earthquake it became apparent that immediate steps must be taken to prevent a famine. Police officers were therefore detailed to seize all suitable conveyances and remove the contents of all grocery stores which were in danger of being burned. This work was kept up for three days and nights, and as a result the contents of 390 grocery stores were delivered to the refugees.

On April 19 it was learned that several large ships, which had been heavily loaded with provisions previous to the disaster, were about to leave for foreign ports. To prevent this a police guard was placed on board the vessels, and as an extra precaution Lieutenant Frederick Green was instructed to procure the tug "Sea Rover." With a squad of eight officers on board this vessel, the exit from the harbor was blockaded from April 19 to 24 inclusive. By this time provisions were arriving by the trainload and the danger of a famine had passed.

For many weeks after the earthquake all saloons in the unburned district were kept closed by order of the Mayor. In some instances a disposition was shown to ignore this order, and the result was that every ounce of liquor in the establishment was turned into the sewer.

When it became apparent that the Hall of justice would be destroyed by fire, all valuable police records were removed to Portsmouth Square and left in charge of a detail of officers, consisting of Detectives Charles Taylor, George McMahon and others. These officers were provided with provisions but no water was obtainable. The fire rapidly surrounded the square and the officers became prisoners. The heat was terrific and the cinders, which were falling like hail, were constantly igniting the canvas spread over the records. As there was a saloon across the street which had not at that time caught fire, a raid was made on the place, and for the next wenty-four hours bottled beer was used to keep the canvas from igniting, and thus the records were saved.

Several insane patients were confined in the Receiving Hospital in the City Hall building on the morning of the earthquake, and when the building began to rock and the walls began to fall, their condition can be better imagined than described. Officer Frank Parquette made his way through the wreckage to their rescue, and by the use of much tact succeeded in getting them into the Mechanics' Pavilion, which was utilized as a general hospital, until the fire drew near.

photograph of SFPD Officer Max Fenner, killed by the 1906 earthquakePatrolman Max Fenner, known as the Hercules of the Police Department, was standing opposite the Essex Lodging House, a seven-story brick building on Mason near Ellis street, when the earthquake occurred. He observed that the front wall of the building was tottering and at the same time he saw a woman run out of the building onto the sidewalk. He tried to warn her of her danger, but as she did not move he rushed over toward her. just then the whole front of the building fell out, and while the woman ran inside the doorway and was unharmed, Fenner was instantly killed and his mangled body was buried in Portsmouth Square until the fire subsided.

As has been previously stated, no water was available for fire-fighting purposes, so dynamiting squads were operating near the fire line under the supervision of the army and police officials. By the use of this explosive great structures were leveled to the ground for the purpose of checking the fire. Captain of Police Henry Gleeson and Lieutenant Charles C. Pulis, U. S. A., were in command of a detail on Sixth street. They had placed a heavy charge in a building located on Sixth street near Market and lit the fuse. This burned much more rapidly than expected, and before the officers could escape the explosion occurred and they were blown out into the street, where considerable wreckage from the building fell upon them. Both men were rendered unconscious. They were removed to the temporary hospital at the Mechanics' Pavilion, thence to the Presidio Hospital, where they eventually recovered.

During the height of the conflagration, Officer Edward Leonard, accompanied Deputy L. K. Jones into the City Tax Collector's office in the ruins of the City Hall, and records were saved which enabled Tax Collector J. F. Nichols to collect over $1,000,000 in taxes.

A volume would be required to record the many heroic deeds performed by the firemen and police during those three eventful days and nights. And it must he remembered that the majority of them labored with little nourishment and no sleep, and with the knowledge that their homes were destroyed and the fate of their families unknown. Officer James Connolly had concluded that his entire family had been killed, but a week later he located them in Vallejo, Cal.

On the evening of April 19, Officer T. Flood was about to enter his home at 1722 Hyde street with the intention of saving some articles from the fire which was fast approaching. The officer's uniform was burned and he was in civilian clothes. Just as he was about to go up his front stairs, two men came out of the front door. Flood demanded that the strangers state what business they had there, but the only answer he received was a blow on the jaw which knocked him down. Flood's assailant then kicked him on the side of the head, splitting his ear. The officer drew his revolver and killed him but the other man escaped. The body was taken to Portsmouth Square for temporary burial, but the dead man's identity was never learned.

As there were only a very few pipes in the city from which water could be obtained for many days after the fire, it was distributed for cooking purposes by means of the street sprinkling wagons.

For several days after the earthquake the city was in absolute darkness at night time, as no lights were permitted in houses; but on April 22 Mayor Schmitz issued the following order:

"Lights are permitted in houses between Sunset and 10 p. m. only, unless sentinels are convinced that some latitude should be allowed in case of sickness.

"As all chimneys were more or less injured by the earthquake, no fires will he permitted in houses in grates, stoves or fireplaces unless the occupants hold a certificate issued by an authorized chimney inspector. Said certificate to be posted in a conspicuous place in front of the building.

"The importance of this provision is emphasized by the fact that no effective means are at hand for stopping fires.

"Our greatest danger in the immediate future may be expected from unavoidable unsanitary conditions and every person is cautioned that to violate in the slightest degree the instructions from the officers will be a crime that cannot be adequately punished,.

"All persons, except suspicious characters, will be permitted to pass sentinels without interruption.

"E. E. SCHMITZ, Mayor."

The order prohibiting persons from building fires in houses resulted in all kitchen stoves being moved into the street, where cooking was done for many weeks.

After the fire the streets in the burned district were covered with debris, and instructions were issued to force all idle and dissolute men to assist in clearing the streets.

On April 26, Major-General Greely, U. S. A., General Koster, of the National Guard, and Mayor Schmitz entered into an agreement to the effect that the regular soldiers should police one-third of the city, the National Guard one-third and the regular police one-third. This continued for some weeks until the police took complete control. The regular army also had charge of the distribution of all food and clothing shipped to San Francisco for relief purposes.

Unfortunate Death of Heber Tilden
Killing of Frank Riordan
Killing of Joseph Meyers
Killing of an Unknown Man

Return to top of page