No, I’m not referring to my protagonist in the Zodiac Mysteries – Julia Bonatti — although she is a remarkable character and a very talented San Francisco astrologer who solves crimes. I’m referring to Gladys Cox Hansen (June 12, 1925 – March 5, 2017). A Gemini! I’m sure Julia, the astrologer, would appreciate that!
If you’ve never heard of Gladys Hansen, it’s well worth learning about her work. Because if it were not for her, we would still be woefully uninformed about the real history and the aftermath of the great earthquake of 1906 that destroyed San Francisco.
On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m., a quake, somewhere between 7.8 to 8.3 magnitude, ripped the northern 296 miles of the San Andreas fault. Geologists now consider it had a Mercalli intensity of XI, i.e., extreme! It lasted approximately sixty seconds, a very long time for an earthquake. And if you’ve ever been in a quake, you can appreciate just how torturingly long that time span is, as you hang on and pray and hope to survive.
Approximately 28,000 buildings were destroyed, 498 city blocks were leveled and a quarter of the city burned. After the dust settled and the ensuing fires were put out, the powers-that-once-were in the city were determined to rebuild. In order to do that, they had to attract money and investors and there was only one way. They had to lie. A lot!
They worked hard to propagate the myth that fire destroyed San Francisco, not earthquake. They even went so far as to alter photographs to show buildings, destroyed in the quake, still standing. So began a conspiracy of disinformation that lasted for many decades.
Thanks to dedicated researchers like Gladys Hansen we are now closer to the truth. Not all the way there, but at least a lot closer. Gladys was a librarian and City Archivist Emerita of the San Francisco Library system. One day in 1963, well prior to her retirement, she was asked to provide a list of the dead from that fateful day in 1906.
She was sure the library could offer accurate records, but when she searched and found no names and only a vague figure of 478 dead, she was positive this number could not be correct. She later discovered the city never reported casualties from either Chinatown or the slums and she came across many victims with Chinese, Irish and Italian surnames. She’s quoted as saying, “The lack of death [in these areas] simply isn’t credible.”
Gladys decided to make it her mission in life to find and name the dead. She searched all available records — birth and death records, tenant rolls of buildings, voter registration lists, military files, church records and coroner’s records. She requested information nationwide, and letters from other parts of the country came pouring in. Her task was monumental and it continued for years.
Mrs. Hansen created an online museum The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco and in 1989 co-authored a book, Denial of Disaster with Emmett Condon, retired Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. It’s a shocking account of the disaster and the ensuing political machinations.
Here at the museum site, you can find a partial list of “Who Perished.” The research she gathered also led to a cookbook: After the Shake, They Baked, containing actual recipes created by people who were living among the rubble or in Army tents in Golden Gate Park. In fact, I have met people who as young kids remembered living in Golden Gate Park in order to survive. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get a copy of this book from Mrs. Hansen’s heirs, although I would dearly love to have one. With the museum’s permission, here are a few teasers:
Shrimp salad, to be served in a dozen eggs “boiled hard.” This specifies the amount of pickles, celery, parsley, radish and onion to be used, but neglects to mention how many shrimp are needed. The recipe suggests to “chop the shrimps a little.” I guess it depends on how many shrimps a housewife can get her hands on. The amount of butter called for in a fricassee of oysters was defined as the size of an egg. Bread puddings were prepared in covered pots and pies were cooked in Dutch ovens set directly over an open fire. Every recipe is a tribute to ingenuity under hardship.
Finally, In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution, co-authored by Hansen, that set aside the official 1907 death count. At last count, to the best of my knowledge, the number of named dead is well over 6,000 and still counting. But there are undoubtedly many more souls to be found and named.
I wish I could have met Mrs. Hansen at some time during the years I lived in San Francisco. I would have been fascinated by her dedication and persistence. She died just a few months ago on March 5th at the age of 91 from natural causes. Even though she has passed on, we can still read her interviews:
SF Gate: Sunday Interview
SF Gate Gladys Hansen
SF Gate San Francisco Archivist
Gladys once said, “Sometimes I think all those who died are right there behind us saying, ‘Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.’” A remarkable woman indeed. I hope you’ll explore her virtual museum to learn more.
This post first appeared on July 5, 2017 at The Bookwyrm’s Hoard.