Unearthing the Dead

Former librarian works to reveal the true victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake


In a small room, cluttered with binders and notepads, Gladys Hansen gingerly fingered a letter and began to read: “My grandmother lost her only brother. Was he buried somewhere under the streets of San Francisco?”

The letter was written by a Sonoma, Calif., woman who had heard of Hansen’s lifetime devotion to the dead of 1906.

For more than 30 years, the former San Francisco librarian has dug her fingers into San Francisco’s deep past unearthing the names of those who perished in the great quake and fire. She’s plowed through police files, coroner reports, medical records and hotel logs. She’s taken in stories passed through generations and across the globe.  

“It has remained since 1906 a family mystery,” the letter continued. ”And Uncle Willy’s history has perished along with the man.”

Hansen waved her hand across the din of binders with titles like “houses” and “coroner.” 

“A lot of keeping me going is the stories that come,” said Hansen. “Everyone of these names is the story.”

San Francisco’s official death toll from the 1906 disaster is less than 500 -- but through years of research, Hansen has collected nearly 3,000 names or stories of the dead or missing. She believes the total number of victims may be as much as three times that number.

Hansen said pre-earthquake San Francisco was a “hotel town” filled with sailors, foreign visitors, travelers and prostitutes. Many passed beneath the City’s radar and were never officially logged. After the 1906 disaster, city officials reasoned many of the reported missing had simply slipped out of town.  But Hansen has her own theories on why the City never bothered to compile a list of names of the dead.

“Perhaps it couldn’t have been done at that time for a city to grow,” she said. “To return to some sense of normalcy. And now it can.”

Hansen has become keenly interested in the numerous hotels and boarding houses that dotted the City at the time. Through her research, she is slowly discovering how the quake ravaged the old wooden hotels – and whether the guests ever had a chance to escape.

“Barrett, Johns Aloysius, age 40, Floor six, Room 670, “ Hansen read from a list of guests at the Grand Hotel, which was destroyed in the quake. “So you know darn well that man didn’t get out of that hotel when it rocked.”

Hansen’s research has brought comfort and closure to many relatives who’ve long wondered the fate of their long-lost relatives. Dr. Frank Blaisdell, whose father survived the 1906 quake, said Hansen’s work has put a face to the disaster.

“I think it’s been important that she brings this up and keeps emphasizing the fact that people should not be forgotten and the deaths should not be suppressed,” Blaisdell said. “We should acknowledge what happened in our biggest disaster.”

Hansen’s work delves far deeper than just its human victims. She’ll tell you 15,000 horses perished in the fires – and 15,000 guns were purchased in the days after the quake.

“The only thing I haven’t counted yet are the seagulls,” she laughed.

But Hansen hasn’t yet found the Uncle Willy mentioned in the letter by the Sonoma woman. It’s something that sticks with her as she delves deeper into her research, and the list of dead continues to rise more than a century after the tragedy.   

To find out more about Hansen's work, visit her website.

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