Podcast Episode 357: Scenes From an Earthquake


The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is remembered for its destructive intensity and terrible death toll. But the scale of the disaster can mask some remarkable personal stories. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the experiences of some of the survivors, which ranged from the horrific to the surreal.

We’ll also consider a multilingual pun and puzzle over a deadly reptile.


In the 1600s, a specialized verb described the carving of each dish.

The Earls of Leicester kept quiet in Parliament.


An iconic image: The quake toppled a marble statue of Louis Agassiz from its perch on the second floor of Stanford’s zoology building. Sources for our feature:

Malcolm E. Barker, Three Fearful Days, 1998.

Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, The San Francisco Earthquake: A Minute-by-Minute Account of the 1906 Disaster, 2014.

Louise Chipley Slavicek, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, 2008.

Richard Schwartz, Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees, 2005.

Gordon Thomas, The San Francisco Earthquake, 1971.

Edward F. Dolan, Disaster 1906: The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1967.

William Bronson, The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned, 1959.

Charles Morris, The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: As Told by Eyewitnesses, 1906.

Alexander Olson, “Writing on Rubble: Dispatches From San Francisco, 1906,” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3:1 (Spring 2019), 93-121.

Susanne Leikam, “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 7:1 (2016).

Penny Allan and Martin Bryant, “The Critical Role of Open Space in Earthquake Recovery: A Case Study,” EN: Proceedings of the 2010 NZSEE Conference, 2010.

Brad T. Aagaard and Gregory C. Beroza, “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake a Century Later: Introduction to the Special Section,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 98:2 (2008), 817-822.

Jeffrey L. Arnold, “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: A Centennial Contemplation,” Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 21:3 (2006), 133-134.

“… and Then the Fire Was Worse Than the Earthquake …,” American History 41:1 (April 2006), 34-35.

Andrea Henderson, “The Human Geography of Catastrophe: Family Bonds, Community Ties, and Disaster Relief After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire,” Southern California Quarterly 88:1 (Spring 2006), 37-70.

Kristin Schmachtenberg, “1906 Letter to the San Francisco Health Department,” Social Education 70:3 (2006).

Laverne Mau Dicker, “The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Photographs and Manuscripts From the California Historical Society Library,” California History 59:1 (Spring 1980), 34-65.

James J. Hudson, “The California National Guard: In the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906,” California Historical Quarterly 55:2 (Summer 1976), 137-149.

Michael Castleman and Katherine Ellison, “Grace Under Fire,” Smithsonian 37:1 (April 2006), 56-60, 64-66.

Jack London, “Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake,” Collier’s Weekly (May 5, 1906), 107-13.

“San Francisco and Its Catastrophe,” Scientific American 94:17 (April 28, 1906), 347.

Bob Norberg, “A City in Flames,” [Santa Rosa, Calif.] Press Democrat, April 13, 2006.

“The Ground Shook, a City Fell, and the Lessons Still Resound,” New York Times, April 11, 2006.

“Eyewitness to History,” San Francisco Examiner, April 18, 1996.

“The San Francisco Earthquake,” [Beechworth, Victoria] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, June 23, 1906.

“The Call-Chronicle-Examiner,” [Hobart, Tasmania] Mercury, May 30, 1906.

“Earthquake at San Francisco,” Fitzroy City Press, May 25, 1906.

“The San Francisco Earthquake,” Singleton [N.S.W.] Argus, April 24, 1906.

“Flames Unchecked; Whole City Doomed,” Richmond [Ind.] Palladium, April 20, 1906.

“Beautiful Buildings That Lie in Ruins,” New York Times, April 20, 1906.

“The Relief of San Francisco,” New York Times, April 20, 1906.

“Over 500 Dead,” New York Times, April 19, 1906.

“Disasters Suffered by San Francisco,” New York Times, April 19, 1906.

“City of San Francisco Destroyed by Earthquake,” Spokane Press, April 18, 1906.

“Loss of Life Is Now Estimated at Thousands,” Deseret Evening News, April 18, 1906.

San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project.

Listener mail:

“Virginia philology …,” New Orleans Daily Democrat, June 12, 1878.

“Many old English names …,” [Raleigh, N.C.] News and Observer, Sept. 20, 1890

“‘Darby’ — Enroughty,” Richmond [Va.] Dispatch, Nov. 26, 1902.

“A Virginian of the Old School,” Weekly Chillicothe [Mo.] Crisis, Feb. 9, 1882.

Leonhard Dingwerth, Grosse und mittlere Hersteller, 2008

Rachael Krishna, “Tumblr Users Have Discovered a Pun Which Works in So Many Languages,” BuzzFeed, Feb. 2, 2016.

“The pun that transcends language barriers,” r/tumblr (accessed Aug. 28, 2021).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Michelle Carter. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!