For 40 years, historian Gladys Cox Hansen has labored in solitary obscurity among the dusty documents and yellowed newspaper clippings. She’s a death scholar of sorts, on a determined quest to honor forgotten victims of this city’s defining natural disaster.
Hansen is compiling a first-ever register of those who died in the devastating 1906 earthquake and three-day firestorm that left much of this turn-of-the-century cultural and financial mecca in ruins, leveling 90% of the city’s structures.
For years, the official number of deceased from the disaster was set by the city at 478 -- a figure widely accepted even though no list was ever compiled. Yet Hansen’s research shows that the real toll is 3,000 or more. Many of the uncounted were immigrants whose deaths were ignored -- a sign, she says, of the era’s bigoted politics and a government cover-up to downplay the quake’s real damage.
At age 79, this petite woman with the strawberry-red hair listens closely to these ghosts of the past, the unremembered Italian longshoremen, Irish nannies and Chinese laborers -- hearing their voices rooting her on as she places names and faces to her growing record of the dead.
Her list started as a part-time project but eventually grew into an uncompromising passion. She considers the people on the list part of her family. “No one should be just left to disappear,” she said. “Even if they find only your bones, your name on some ledger or some other tiny trace you once existed, people have the right to be remembered.”
Hansen, the city’s archivist emeritus and curator at the virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, has reopened a window on this city’s history that’s not Chamber of Commerce romantic but real. Its been lauded by other researchers, including state historian Kevin Starr and Gary Kurutz, curator of special collections for the California State Library, who calls Hansen “San Francisco’s preeminent historian whose work on this subject is way ahead of others.”
Now, for the first time, her project has finally been recognized by city officials here. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last month to raise the death toll in time for next year’s centennial of the April 18, 1906, catastrophe. Hansen’s tally stands at 3,000, but her research continues and a higher figure could be recognized by the supervisors by the time the centennial is commemorated in 2006.
“Even if we’re 100 years late,” said Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who sponsored the resolution for the new death count, “this is about righting an old wrong.”
Hansen’s undertaking received attention thanks in part to the help of Bay Area novelist and screenwriter James Dalessandro, whose historical novel on the earthquake, “1906,” helped reignite interest in the era following the book’s publication last spring.
In 1996, Dalessandro was scouring local bookstores looking for background on the quake when he came across a copy of an unheralded book Hansen had co-authored seven years before: “Denial of Disaster: The Untold Story and Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.”
While the cover-up is alluded to in many histories, Hansen is among the first to offer real evidence. Her oversized book, filled with scores of vintage photographs, tells of how corrupt Mayor Eugene Schmitz plotted with a clique of investors, insurance executives and Southern Pacific Railroad tycoons to downplay the disaster damage and death toll, fearful that the true scope of the devastation would scare off any financing efforts to rebuild the city.
Indeed, early reports were dire. The April 18, 1906, edition of The Times noted that “uncounted bodies of dead men and women are lying in morgues and under unuplifted walls. It is believed that nearly 1,000 lives were lost. The number cannot fall far short of that, and it may prove to be much greater.”
But the number did not rise, at least not officially.
To lessen the impact of front-page news stories nationwide, according to Hansen and others, officials even doctored photographs to show substituted images of buildings that had been destroyed by the earthquake and fire. Hansen also shows how early on in the disaster, with 378 bodies in the city’s morgue, the medical examiner merely added 100 more to the total for believability and submitted that as the official count.
“From page one, looking at this book, a little voice spoke to me and said, ‘Everything you think you knew about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is wrong,’ ” said the 56-year-old Dalessandro. “With all the fabrications and distortions, it became one of the biggest cover-ups of a disaster in American history.”
Striking at 5:12 a.m., the magnitude 8.3 earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed more than 450 city blocks housing 29,000 buildings, including 37 national banks, two opera houses and rooming houses packed with immigrants in what is now Chinatown and the former slums south of Market Street.
But the city never reported any casualties from either Chinatown or the slums, Hansen said. The lack of death there simply isn’t credible, she says. Moreover, her research has found many victims with Chinese, Irish and Italian surnames.
Prior to embarking on his fictional treatment of the disaster, Dalessandro met with Hansen to propose a deal: In exchange for access to her research, he would promote her cause.
Hansen recalls her reaction: “I thought to myself, ‘Thanks for lunch, now drop dead.’ I met so many people who saw me as that kook from San Francisco on this vain search for the dead.”
She later offered up the documents -- convinced the author took her project seriously.
Hansen’s unlikely inquiry began in 1963 when, as head of the genealogy collection in the city library’s San Francisco archives room, she was contacted by people in search of lost relatives who had lived in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake.
Many wanted to know: Was there a list of the dead they could use to help solve a long-running family mystery about the fate of a missing ancestor? Hansen soon learned that there was not -- so she began to create one of her own.
Compiling her data on 3-by-5 cards, she scoured Bay Area newspapers published in the weeks after the disaster for listings of the dead. She read state histories, looking for mention of the 1906 earthquake and names of anyone killed there. She also sent out letters to historical and genealogical clubs nationwide, offering to help determine the fate of anyone who had gone missing following the disaster.
Thousands of people responded. Several letters were addressed only to the “Death Lady of San Francisco.” Hansen got those too. “Nobody else wanted them,” she recalls, “so they gave them to me.”
To help determine whether the person actually lived in San Francisco at the time of the quake, Hansen consulted voting, tax, military and church records, as well as death filings and coroner’s reports.
“We placed most people in the city at that date and time,” she said. “Then suddenly they were gone. Most, if not all, we figured, were victims of the disaster.”
Letters kept by family members suggested many victims had heart-wrenching stories to tell -- such as the saloon-owner’s wife who wrote her sons from a makeshift refugee camp in Golden Gate Park. “Just think of people in splendor,” wrote the woman, who died shortly thereafter, “and to be penniless and homeless in 10 minutes.”
Just a year after Hansen began her research, her list contained 1,500 names. Now that compilation has reached 3,000, a catalog of people who died after being crushed under crumbling buildings or burned in the fires. Some were asphyxiated. Others committed suicide. Hansen includes still others who were shot as looters, a toll that includes some innocent residents mistaken for thieves.
Hansen later transferred her handwritten data to computer. Comparing the 1906 residential directory with news accounts of the demise of particular buildings, she has been able to offer many families a likely scenario of their ancestor’s death.
Her answers have offered a sense of closure for people like Margi Porteous, a Sacramento-area woman who wrote Hansen last year about the fate of her great-grandparents. She explained that her grandfather, born in San Francisco in 1901, ended up in an orphanage.
Hansen helped Porteous track the identities of her ancestors, who died in the quake. “My mom never knew who her grandparents were,” said Porteous. “Gladys Hansen helped us put the puzzle back together. Knowing who those people were helps explain where I came from.”
Alioto-Pier got involved after hearing Dalessandro give a radio interview following the publication of his novel. The author made good on his promise to the historian: the supervisor agreed to support a more accurate toll of the dead.
But Alioto-Pier had her own connection to the disaster: Her great-grandparents met on a boat that rescued survivors from the disaster.
Offering the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington as proof, Hansen can attest to the visceral power of a complete listing of the dead. But the historian wants to go a step further to create a virtual graveyard on her museum website.
“Family members will be able to access the memorial from anywhere in the world,” she said. “That way, people will be remembered.”