Smoke on the Water: The Tragedy of the S.S. Morro Castle

There are few things more terrifying than being on a sinking ship at sea, but one event that probably rises up to the same level of a sinking would be finding yourself on a ship that was on fire out on the open ocean. The Lusitania, the Titanic, the Britannic and the Wilhelm Gustloff were all famous ships that sunk at sea. But how many people could name a ship that turned into nothing short of a flaming, red-hot, smoke-belching fire floating out in the middle of nowhere?

Probably not many. And yet, the disaster that befell the S.S. Morro Castle was one of the most famous ship-fires in history.

Morro Castle the Coast-Hugger

The S.S. Morro Castle was built in January, 1929, with construction finishing about eighteen months later. She was christened in March of 1930 and was finally completed in August of that year, by which time, the Great Depression had taken a firm grip on the United States of America. The S.S. Morro Castle was a direct result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1928, which allowed American ship-companies to construct new ships to replace their aging steamers, with the government subsidising as much as three-quarters of the cost of the construction of each ship.

The Morro Castle, the second ship of that name constructed by the Ward Line; a steam passenger-and-mail ship company that transported people and mail between New York and Cuba, operating routes up and down the Eastern U.S. seaboard. The Morro Castle’s route was between New York City in the United States and Havanna, Cuba.


A postcard of the S.S. Morro Castle

The Morro Castle was designed as a relaxing and luxurious cruise-ship. sailing up and down the U.S. eastern coastline, something that she managed to do, despite the crippling effects of the Great Depression, which robbed her of many of her most promising and high-paying passengers. For four years, the Morro Castle sailed thousands of miles up and down the U.S. coastline, a trip from New York to Havanna taking just 59 hours. Part of the reason why the Morro Castle was able to keep such a steady cliente was because she was allowed to stock, transport and serve alcoholic beverages (which were illegal in the United States from 1920-1933). As a result of this, most of the passengers onboard the Morro Castle often boarded her with the desire to take part in a week-long, totally legal booze-cruise, up and down America’s Atlantic coastline. The low ticket-prices (due to the Depression) meant that a wider range of passengers could be found onboard the Morro Castle. The Depression did have the positive effect in that more people were able to afford a relaxing cruise now, due to the drop in prices. Anyone from honeymoon couples, families, socialites, wealthy businessmen and married couples wanting a romantic, anniversary cruise.

Where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire

For four years, the Morro Castle was a successful, popular cruise-ship, transporting a wide variety of people from lovers to couples to wealthy businessmen and families, to socialites and millionaires up and down the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the Depression, business was going well and there didn’t seem to be anything in the world that could stop the Morro Castle’s wonderful career.

That all changed in early September of 1934.

It was the height of the Depression in 1933-1934; more people were out of work and unemployment in the USA had reached the dizzying level of 25%! The broadway musical, “Anything Goes” was weeks from its premier. If not for the disaster of the Morro Castle, the musical would’ve been known as “Hard to Get”, a comedy set onboard a transatlantic ocean-liner steaming from England to New York City. The recent tragedy at sea, however, caused the show’s writers to change the title and the majority of the script in light of these terrible, recent events.

So one of the most famous songs in history, “Anything Goes”, was born. And on the S.S. Morro Castle, literally anything did go…terribly wrong.

The Morro Castle steamed out of Havanna Bay, past Morro Castle, the coastal fort that gave it its name, on the 5th of September, 1934. Things were going well. People were happy, the weather was fine and there wasn’t a whiff of danger anywhere in the air. Over the next two days, however, conditions at sea and onboard the ship, worsened dramatically. The weather began to steadily deteriorate, with increasing cloud, stronger winds and occasional rain making this voyage more treacherous than previous ones. Many passengers spent their time indoors due to the rough weather. On the evening of the 7th of September, the Morro Castle’s captain, Robert Willmott, had his dinner served to him in his own quarters. Shortly thereafter, he complained of stomach-troubles and died a few hours later of a heart-attack. Many of the Morro Castle’s regular passengers must’ve felt immense sadness at this event, for Capt. Willmott was a popular man with his passengers and crew and was fond of socialising with the people onboard his ship. William Warms, Chief Officer onboard the Morro Castle, took over command of the vessel as Capt. Willmott’s immediate subordinate. Some people questioned whether Capt. Willmott had died a natural death; passengers and crew began to suspect murder and a future sabotage of the ship by communist agents, who might have boarded the Morro Castle before it left Cuba. The ship’s physician, as well as three other doctors travelling onboard as guests, examined Capt. Willmott’s body and agreed that he had died of a heart-attack.

But Acting Captain Warms had no time to think of conspiracies and plots. Weather did not improve; the winds and the sea grew progressively rougher, making the voyage even more tricky than it already was. Warms had to concentrate on keeping the ship safe and on-course.

At about 2:50am on the morning of the 8th of September, disaster struck. A fire had started in the First Class Writing Room on B Deck. Within minutes of its discovery, the fire, which had previously been confined to a small locker, spread rapidly. With the Morro Castle sailing so close to the U.S. coastline, Warms’ original decision was to steer the ship hard a’port so that he could beach the vessel on the coast, giving panicking passengers a chance to escape the flaming ship with their lives. The seriousness of the fire, however, meant that he had to postpone this action until much later in the emergency.

The death of Capt. Willmott had severely scrambled up the chain of command onboard the Morro Castle. Since Warms was now captain, the First Officer became Chief, Second became First, Third became Second, and so-on down the line. While this doesn’t sound very serious, it should be noted that each officer had very specific duties to attend to. The sudden reshuffling of officers meant that the men had to suddenly carry out duties which they had not yet been trained to do.

Upon the discovery of the fire, the crew did not tackle it immediately with fire-extinguishers as they should have done, but instead returned to the bridge to report the incident to the acting captain. This wasted precious seconds, during which the fire might have been controlled. This and their further failure to close fire and smoke-doors allowed the blaze to spread from its confined space in the cupboard of the Writing Room, to all over the ship in a matter of minutes. Within half an hour, the Morro Castle was a floating fireball. Crew untrained in fire-drills hooked up fire-hoses to the various fire-hydrants around the ship and turned them on in an attempt to fight the flames. However, the design of the Morro Castle’s plumbing meant that only six hydrants could be operated at any one time. In their frenzied attempts to control the fire, the crew forgot this and turned on more than the maximum number of hydrants. This caused a severe drop in water-pressure which rendered the hoses completely useless for the task that they were installed for!

Passengers, either roused by the crew or awakened by the smoke and flames, tried to make their way to the lifeboats, however the flames and smoke made navigation of the ship very difficult. Many people found themselves trapped near the stern of the Morro Castle as they tried to escape the fire which was burning amidships. More unfortunate was the fact that this was where many of the lifeboats were located.

Calling for Help

George Alanga and George W. Rogers were the Morro Castle’s two radio-operators. Alanga, already awake, roused his colleague who took control of the ship’s wireless set and sent Alanga to the bridge to ask if the captain wished to send out a distress-call. The bridge was absolute chaos. The fire had disabled the Morro Castle’s steering, which had forced Capt. Warms to abandon his plan to beach the vessel. Alanga heard Warms shouting to Chief Engineer Abbott to keep the boilers fired up so that the crew would have enough water-pressure to fight the flames. Abbott was heard to say to the acting captain that it was “too late now!”

Unable to get Warms’ attention in the confusion, Alanga ran back to the wireless-room, telling Rogers that “They’re all crazy up there!” Rogers insisted that Alanga get Capt. Warms’ permission before he sent off a distress-call and sent his colleague back to the bridge. On his second trip there, Alanga finally got the acting captain’s attention, who asked him to send out an SOS distress-call.

Flames were approaching the radio-room now and the fire had been burning for twenty-five minutes before Rogers finally sent out the fist distress call about 3:20am. Other ships in the area had noticed the smoke and flames and had radioed the nearby coastguard post to ask if a ship was in danger. At 3:10am, the main electrical systems on the ship began to fail. While the radio remained functional, the lights onboard the Morro Castle went out.

The heat of the flames started playing with Rogers’ radio-set. The batteries on the radio-reciever exploded, spraying acid all over the place. Rogers was unhurt and was relieved when he discovered that his transmitter was still functional. While he would not be able to recieve messages, he could still send them, and quickly sent out several distress-calls for help.

By now, the fire had fully taken hold of the Morro Castle and Warms realised that any attempts to put out the inferno were in vain. He initially ordered that the ship be steered by using the engines; cutting off power to one engine and transferring it to another so that the ship could be steered by its propellers alone. Unfortunately, the fire had advanced so greatly that by this stage that engine-room crews were unable to man their posts without risking serious injuries. Warms ordered the anchors dropped so that lifeboats could be safely loaded and lowered. By now, the ship was about five miles off the coast of New Jersey.


An aerial photograph of the S.S. Morro Castle, taken during the early morning

Impatient or terrified passengers could no-longer wait for the officers to do anything. In desperation to escape the floating inferno, many jumped from the ship into the water. Crewmembers who were supposed to be manning pumps and fire-hoses abandoned their posts, stole life-jackets, lowered boats and rowed away. Other crewmembers, less cowardly than their colleagues, aided passengers into lifeboats or found them lifejackets. The Morro Castle had a total of twelve lifeboats, with a capacity of 816 people. However, in the panic and confusion, only six of these boats, starboard boats #1, 3, 5, 9 and 11, and port lifeboat #10, could be lowered safely. Between them, they could carry 408 passengers, but rowed away with only a total of 85 people onboard; mostly crewmembers.

With the other lifeboats inaccessible, other crewmembers started throwing deckchairs and life-rings over the side of the ship. Passengers in the water could hold onto them and use them as flotation-devices. As with the Titanic, passengers who jumped into the water from the stern wearing their lifebelts risked breaking their necks when they hit the water. This was caused by the boyancy of the lifebelts, which sprung up when they hit the water, while the wearer’s bodyeight went downwards. This caused the belts to hit the wearers on their chins, giving them whiplash or even breaking their necks and killing them instantly.

Cruise Director Smith, along with radio-operators Alanga and Rogers, was one of the heroes of that fateful day. Calm and collected in the midst of chaos, he rallied the passengers together on the stern of the flaming ship and explained to them as best as he could, the safest way to deal with the situation at hand. He implored passengers not to jump into the water. They should dive if they entered the water at all. And even then only after the ship had stopped moving, for the suction from the propellers might cause them to drown or even worse, be sliced up like mincemeat!

Chief Engineer Abbott, however, personnified cowardice during the disaster. Instead of reporting back to the engine-rooms after seeing the captain, as he was meant to do, Abbott, along with twenty-six other crewmembers, commandeered a lifeboat with a capacity for sixty-three and, with three passengers onboard, lowered away and rowed directly for land, five miles away, not even bothering to stop and pick up passengeres in the water. “It was a moment of shame for all those who believe in the tradition of the sea”, Capt. Warms said later.

Eventually, Warms gave the order to abandon ship. By now, many of the passengers had already done so. Along with radio-operators Alanga and Rogers and ten others, Warms stayed onboard ship until the end.

Rescue Efforts

A total of six vessels responded to wireless-operator Rogers’ calls for help; one freight-ship, three ocean-liners and two coastguard vessels. They were, in order of response:

S.S. Andrea F. Luckenbach.
S.S. Monarch of Bermuda.
S.S. City of Savannah.
S.S. President Cleveland.

These four were later joined by U.S. Coastguard vessels Tampa and Cahoone.

Despite the overwhelming response from nearby vessels, rescuing passengers in the water was not easy. The rough conditions at sea made it hard for lifeboat-crews to spot the heads of panicking Morro Castle passengers, bobbing in the waves. The Luckenbach had only two lifeboats to rescue passengers with. The Monarch of Bermuda and the City of Savannah, both proper-sized ocean-iners, were able to lower more lifeboats to aid in the rescue of struggling swimmers. The S.S. President Cleveland was unable to find any survivors and soon steamed off.

Eventually, local radio-stations heard of the unfolding disaster and telegraph-wires buzzed hot with the news. Telephones rang and the word spread up and down the New Jersey coast that the S.S. Morro Castle was in danger. New Jersey Governor, Harry Moore took to the skies. Using an airplane, he flew around the ship, taking photographs, but also dropping floating markers into the water so that lifeboat-crews at sea-level could more easily identify struggling swimmers. Eventually, passengers from the stricken liner, both dead and alive, began washing up on the New Jersey coastline. People from the nearby towns ran forward to aid the survivors ashore and to help treat their injuries. Private fishing-boats and pleasure-yachts were either skippered by their owners or commandeered in the emergency, and were sailed out into the surf in an attempt to rescue more people.

Townsfolk set up field-hospitals and relief-stations, treating and nursing the injured and recording the names of survivors. They helped passengers find friends and family whom they’d become seperated from in the chaos and helped to retrieve dead bodies from the surf. Of the 549 passengers and crew onboard the S.S. Morro Castle, 135 of them either burned to death or drowned, trying to escape.

The Aftermath

The fire onboard the S.S. Morro Castle remains one of the biggest maritime disasters in the world. In the days after the disaster, the Morro Castle drifted ashore and beached itself near Asbury Park, New Jersey. The fire burned for another two days; it was decided that the ship was a total loss, anyway, so no great efforts were taken to try and put the fire out any faster than nature intended to. From September, 1934 until March, 1935, the ship remained beached near Asbury Park. Due to its closeness to shore, for the next few months, the ship became something of a tourist attraction. People came from all over the nearby states to view the charred wreck…and even to touch it! When the tide went out, it was possible to wade out to the Morro Castle and feel it with your hands!


The smouldering hulk of the S.S. Morro Castle, beached off the coast of New Jersey; 1934. You can still see four, unlaunched lifeboats onboard; three on the port side, and lifeboat #7 hanging lopsidedly on the starboard side (to the right of the second smokestack)

Eventually, in mid-March of 1935, the Morro Castle was towed away for scrap.

An investigation into the disaster revealed many things about the deficiencies in the ship’s design, as well as the conduct of the crew. With a few notable exceptions, such as Cruise Director Smith, many crew and officers abandoned their posts and fled from the ship in lifeboats. Those that remained manned their posts poorly, allowing the fire to spread. Those already in the lifeboats made no effort to save passengers already in the water, instead rowing directly for land. Despite trying his best, even Capt. Williarm Warms came under fire from the inquiries. It was established that he never left the bridge to examine for himself, the full extent of the fire and never engaged the ship’s emergency steering or electrical systems, when the main ones had failed.

Acting captain William Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott and Henry Cabaud, Vice-President of the Ward Line, were all sentenced to prison-terms, charged and convicted of willful negligence. Capt. Warms and Engineer Abbott appealed their convictions, which were later overturned. Warms had been thrust into the position of captain when Capt. Willmott died and was in no position to effectively command the crew in the event of an emergency. Abbott abandoned ship because he was unable to do his duties properly due to the spreading of the fire.

Chief wireless operator, George White Rogers was praised as a hero in the disaster, for sending out distress-signals when no official word from the bridge had come that he should do so. His fame was short-lived, however. He was convicted of trying to murder a policeman, Vincent Doyle, later in his life. Doyle tried to prove that Rogers had also set the Morro Castle on fire, but this was never proved. Eventually, Rogers was arrested for murdering a neighbouring couple of his for their money. He was convicted and died in jail in 1957.

The Morro Castle disaster is famous for advancing fire-safety at sea. Thanks to the Morro Castle, ships were renovated or built with automatic fire-doors, better fire-alarm systems and fireproof materials were used to build walls and ceilings in cabins. Mandatory firefighting training on all ships, which is a law today, was a direct result of the wholly inefficient way which the fire was fought onboard the Morro Castle, over 70 years ago.

There are a few strange facts about the Morro Castle disaster: Unlike the Titanic, the Hindenburg, the Lusitania and even 9/11, it has never had a feature-film or even a television-movie produced about it. And the ship’s radio callsign (KGOV) is still registered to the ship by the FCC, and is therefore unavailable for use by radio-stations. On September 8th, 2009, the first-ever memorial service to the Morro Castle disaster was held in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on the 75th anniversary of the disaster, and on the very spot where the ship came aground, so many decades ago.

 

Time in Motion: The Story of the Sea-Clock, or Harrison’s Chronometers.

Special Note: This article will concentrate on the life work of Mr. John Harrison, an 18th century clockmaker who, through literally decades of work, changed maritime navigation forever. It is not meant to be an in-depth look at the history of finding longitude, which is something that would take up the space of several articles!

A Problem at Sea

These days, navigation at sea is pretty easy. You have GPS, you have radio, you have compasses, clocks, maps and a million other navigational aids to get your ship from A to B nice and safe…dependent, of course, on the weather. But that’s now in the 21st Century. Three hundred years ago, maritime navigation was nowhere near as easy. Mariners were in constant danger of getting lost at sea due to not knowing where they were, how far they had travelled and how far they still had to go. On a ship at sea with limited supplies and limited time to find safe harbour, not knowing your position was a serious safety-hazard.

As everyone who’s passed highschool geography ought to know, the world is divided up in a grid by lines of latitude (horizontal lines that wrap around the earth and which stack up on each other), and lines of longitude, which go around the earth from east to west, meeting at the North and South Poles at the top and bottom of the globe. Back in the early 1700s and even before this, taking one’s ship out to sea was a dangerous endeavour. Once beyond the sight of land, it was very difficult to fix one’s position, and therefore know how far your ship had travelled.

The position of the sun changes at noon, due to the curvature of the earth; this is why at extreme points on the earth, such as near the poles, you might have full sun at midnight and nothing at all at midday. Sailors were able to determine their north-south latitude position by measuring the angle of the sun at noon against the horizon. This measurement obtained, they were able to mark on a chart, how far north or south they were of the midpoint of latitudes, the Equator. However, finding out how far east or west you were of a given position was considered impossible, because this required knowing very accurately, what the time was.

“Okay so you need to know what the time is to find your spot on the earth. Get a clock or a watch, dunk it on the ship and let’s go!” you probably say.

It isn’t that easy.

Clocks in the 17th and 18th centuries were large pendulum clocks (also called ‘grandfather’ clocks). Although a pendulum clock could keep almost perfect time on land, its ability to keep accurate time at sea was greatly diminished due to the fact that sailing ships rock, pitch, roll and sway on the ocean waves. Such aggressive movements threw the pendulum’s swing (and thus, the clock’s timekeeping abilities) off-beat, rendering the clock useless. The only watches available were old-fashioned pocket-watches, which, although they required no stable surface to keep time, unlike the pendulum clock, they were often not manufactured to such a level of quality as to keep time accurately at sea. Pocket-watches often varied several minutes a day. While to us a minute of difference either way doesn’t sound serious, a minute lost or gained at sea meant being off your position by as much as four degrees. If again, this doesn’t sound serious, it actually meant the possibility of being off your course and position by a matter of several miles.

Telling Time at Sea

While there were several proposals put forward on how to accurately determine a ship’s longitude, the one which most people are familiar with today, is the one involving time. The earth revolves at a constant rate. A full 360 degrees in twenty-four hours, or fifteen degrees each hour. By knowing the time at two places at once, a navigator could calculate fairly easily, his ship’s position of longitude.

If a ship left England at noon and sailed for America, it would be able to determine its position by checking the time on its sea-clock or marine chronometer, as is the correct term. When the chronometer showed it was noon in England, the navigator had to wait until it was noon onboard his ship and record the time-difference. A difference of two hours meant the ship had travelled thirty degrees (since the earth turns 15 degrees each hour). In theory, this was simple, but as I mentioned, the clocks available in the 1700s meant that keeping accurate time at sea was all but impossible.

John Harrison

After a series of catastrophic shipwrecks in the early 1700s, it was decided that the British Government had to put some serious thought into the safety of British sailors. In 1714, the year that King George I came to the throne and heralded the start of the Georgian Era, a board was set up, called the Board of Longitude. Its purpose was to judge and examine any and all schemes for successfully determining a ship’s position of longitude at sea. A prize of twenty thousand pounds sterling, was offered to any person or group of persons who successfully produced a device or a method by which longitude could be accurately determined at sea.

Enter John Harrison.

You couldn’t possibly find a more unlikely person to be the man who would change history so momentously, and who tackled the biggest technological problem of his generation. John Harrison was born in 1693. In 1714, he was a mere twenty-one years of age. John was born in the village of Foulby in West Yorkshire, the first of five children. His father made a modest living as a carpenter.

In 1700, the Harrison family moved to the village of Barrow-Upon-Humber in North Lincolnshire, the village where Harrison would spend almost the rest of his life.

In the 18th century it was common for children to follow their parents into their chosen professions. Watchmakers gave birth to watchmakers, lawyers to lawyers and carpenters to carpenters. With his father’s occupation as a carpenter, it was inevitable that John Harrison would follow his father into the woodworking trade. Only, instead of working on furniture, young John concentrated on something else. Clocks. He spent countless hours examining, disassembling and reassembling clocks and watches, until he knew them as well as he knew himself. One legend goes that when he was sick with smallpox in 1699, he was given a pocket watch to play with while in bed. He spent hours winding up the watch, holding it in his hands, looking at it, listening to it and opening it up to look at all the fiddly little moving parts inside it. By his early twenties, Harrison, who had previously been a bellringer at the local church as well as an apprentice carpenter to his father, officially decided that he would become a clockmaker. He completed his first, fully-functional clock in 1713 at the age of twenty.

Harrison was very good at what he did. A perfectionist with perhaps a slight twinge of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Harrison went over his pendulum clocks over and over and over again, checking and re-checking everything to make his machines more accurate. Considering that Harrison never had any formal education, never went to school and never went to university, he was doing very well in understanding such complex machines as mechanical clocks. Harrison had quite a reputation for his clocks. In an era where a good clocks kept time to a few minutes a week, Harrison’s clocks boasted accuracy to a few SECONDS a MONTH.


This clock, manufactured almost entirely of wood, was completed by John Harrison in 1717, at the age of 24!

The Longitude Prize

Sooner or later, Harrison was bound to find out about the longitude prize. With his background in clockmaking, Harrison was quick to grasp the fact that knowing one’s position at sea was best determined by knowing accurately, the time in two places at once: Onboard ship and at a home port. Unfortunately, as he also realised, such clocks as those which existed in the 1700s, were woefully inaccurate for the task which they would have to perform. Harrison, like so many others before him, recognised these problems with a clock keeping time at sea.

1. Temperature. Mechanical timepieces keep different times in different temperatures. Hot temperatures cause them to slow down, cold temperatures cause them to speed up. This is due to the wood or the metal inside the timepiece reacting to the temperature around it.

2. Humidity. Moisture affects how smoothly a clock runs. Condensation brought about by rapid temperature-changes could cause a clock to rust or collect water, which would slow it down.

3. Motion. The rocking, rolling, plunging and heaving of early sailing-ships meant that the clock or watch would be subjected to massive amounts of sudden and violent movement. A significant enough jolt, such as that produced by a ship sliding down the trough between two waves to impact against the next wave coming foward, would be enough to throw a clock off its accuracy, rendering it useless. And even without the storms, a swaying, rocking ship would not allow a clock’s pendulum to swing back and forth reliably enough to keep time.

To solve all these problems, Harrison knew he had to do some very careful thinking. By the 1720s, Harrison’s experience in clockmaking and timekeeping was significant. His fanaticisim with accuracy meant that he tested his clocks to make sure that they kept perfect time under every single variation he could think of. He solved the problem of clocks keeping time through temperature-differences by placing two clocks in two rooms in his house during a frigid day in winter. He built a great fire in the fireplace of one room and kept the other room freezing cold. He synchronised both clocks and then kept a check on how fast or slow each of the clocks were and adjusting their pendulums correctly.

Despite never having gone to school, despite never being taught how to read and write except through his own determination, Harrison wrote reams and reams of paper, covering his research into the affects of temperature, lubrication and the use of various metals had on his clocks. After years of research and experimentation, Harrison was ready to have a shot at the Longitude Prize.

There was just one problem.

Due to the great inaccuracy of clocks at the time, no scientist, naval or government official believed that any clock could be produced that would ever keep time at sea. This prejudice against clocks was widespread and it even included one of the most famous scientists of the day: Sir Isaac Newton. Harrison knew that he would have to be incredibly good with his work if he ever had a chance of claiming his twenty-thousand pound prize.

Time and Patience

Harrison made a total of five marine chronometers in his life, three clocks and two pocket-watches. His first clock, “H1”, was presented for trials in 1736. Harrison was forty-three years old.


A model of H1. The two counterweights at the top of the clock (linked by the metal coil in the middle) were designed to swing back and forth, to act as shock-absorbers against the rock and roll of the ship

H1 was taken for trials and Harrison accompanied his creation on his first and only trip to sea. His ship, the HMS Centurion, travelled from England to Portugal, docking in Lisbon. From there, Harrison caught the HMS Orford back to England. The crew of the Orford were much impressed by Harrison’s newfangled invention and praised him for his efforts. The Board of Longitude was also sufficiently impressed to pay him two hundred pounds sterling towards the development of another clock.

Harrison’s next clock, H2 was completed a few years later. Harrison knew that his clock had to be stronger and tougher. It was a machine, not a showpiece. This clock was more boxy and compact than H1, but it kept time just as well.


An old photograph of H2

The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) meant that Harrison wasn’t allowed to take his newest sea-clock on a trial voyage. Military officials were worried that the clock might fall into enemy hands. Instead, the Board of Longitude gave Harrison another five hundred pounds towards further development of his machines. The result was H3.


John Harrison’s marine chronometer officially called “H3”

While Harrison was happy with H3, he soon decided that he’d been wasting his life all these decades. While Harrison’s clocks all kept wonderful time and while they could be used at sea successfully, Harrison just wasn’t convinced that this was the right way to go. Clocks were bulky, expensive, delicate machines that took up space on a ship which had very little space to give. Frustrated, Harrison gave up on trying to make marine clocks and instead did a complete, 180-degree turn and considered manufacturing a marine watch instead.

The watch in the 18th century was the pocket-watch. A large, round, bulky thing, but small for the period. Most watches were expensive, but kept only mediocre time. Harrison was sure that he could improve on then-current designs, and come up with a masterpiece.

To help him in this endeavour, Harrison consulted a man named John Jeffreys, a professional watchmaker. Jeffreys agreed to manufacture a pocket watch for Harrison. But there was one catch. It was to Harrison’s own personal design. Jeffreys accepted the challenge and set to work.

When the watch, now known as “H4”, was completed, it was so incredibly accurate that Harrison was probably slamming his head against the wall at his own stupidity for wasting his life fiddling around with clocks instead of pocket-watches! H4 took six years to complete and was finally ready for testing in 1761, by which stage Harrison was nearly seventy years old!

Far too old to go to sea again, Harrison’s son, Joseph, agreed to test his father’s watch. Joseph boarded a ship, the HMS Deptford and set sail for Jamaica. After weeks at sea, Joseph Harrison determined that his father’s watch was off by a mere…five seconds.


Harrison’s masterpiece: H4

The Board of Longitude were not pleased. And neither would you be, if everything you said was wrong was suddenly proven right, and a watch or a clock could keep accurate time at sea! The father-son team of John and Joseph Harrison awaited their prize-money of twenty thousand pounds.

Which never came.

The Board of Longitude demanded another test. The outraged Harrisons had no choice but to oblige them, if only to prove them wrong, and Joseph Harrison packed his bags for another voyage, this time to Barbados. The watch didn’t fare quite so well this time, with Joseph making the inaccuracy to be thirty-nine seconds out. But things were made even worse by the appearance of a man named Nevil Maskelyne.

Maskelyne was easily Harrison’s arch-rival in the race for the Longitude Prize. Maskelyne was a proponent of the ‘Lunar Distance’ method of determining longitude at sea.
The moon moves at a constant rate around the earth; twelve degrees a day. By measuring the angles between the moon and sun before one left England and measuring these angles later when the moon was over the horizon, one could determine how far one had travelled.

There was one big problem with Maskelyne’s lunar-distance method. It was highly complicated; and most seamen were not mathematics whizzes who specialised in geometry. While Maskelyne’s method did work, Harrison believed it wholly impractical at sea due to how long it would take to calculate distance.

Claiming the Prize

Upon Joseph’s return to England, the Harrisons once again presented their results to the Board of Longitude. This time, the Board could not ignore the papers in front of them. Once is beginner’s luck. But…twice?

The Harrisons demanded their prize and were eventually offered ten thousand pounds sterling, if they agreed to turn over H4 for duplication by other watchmakers. The Harrisons did so, but the money was not forthcoming. In a twist of fate that must’ve made John Harrison rip his hair off his head, his rival, Maskelyne, was made Astronomer Royal, and thus, a member of the Board of Longitude, who could therefore influence the Board’s decisions. Maskelyne managed to find a loophole in the criteria for claiming the prize-money and effectively told the Harrisons to get lost and that they weren’t allowed the twenty thousand pounds.

Infuriated, Joseph Harrison took a pen and a piece of paper and in a very bold move, wrote directly to the one man he was sure could help him and his father claim the money which they knew was theirs.

While Joseph worked on his letters, John went back to watchmaking. In the 1760s and 70s, he created his fifth and final marine chronometer, H5. In 1772, Joseph finally had success.

The two Harrisons had managed to obtain a private audience with the King of England.

King George III listened patiently while the father and son team beat out their case in front of him. His Majesty was moved by their plight and was obviously not pleased at what was happening. He whispered to an aide that the two men had been “cruelly wronged”. After much consideration, George III took Harrison’s latest creation, H5, and performed accuracy tests on it himself, checking its timekeeping day in and day out for ten weeks, from May to July in 1772. George III, though famous for going positively looney, deaf and blind towards the last years of his life, was, amongst other things, an avid lover of science and technology. His observations told him that H5 kept time to 1/3 of a second a day! A phenomenal feat of accuracy in a day and age when a regular pocket-watch kept time to a minute a day! Eventually, the king called the Harrisons before him and advised them on a course of action. He suggested that the two Harrisons petition Parliament into giving them the twenty thousand pounds of prize-money and told them that if Parliament refused, to further add that the king himself would enter the chamber and give the entire house a good talking-to.

Well…no politician wants to be told off in public by his king.

Finally, in 1773, John Harrison got…well…some money. Eight-thousand, seven hundred and fifty pounds sterling, from Parliament, for his efforts.

If we add up all of the money that Harrison recieved for his work, we’ll find that it totals a whopping twenty-three thousand and sixty-five pounds! However, the official Longitude Prize of twenty-thousand pounds was never awarded to anyone, even though it should rightly have gone to John and Joseph Harrison.

Even when Harrison realised how much money he was making, he still wasn’t happy. He’d never recieved the public recognition of his achievements that he’d hoped for. It was as if the people in charge turned red-faced with embarrassment, shoved over a pouch of gold and then slammed the door in his face. By now, Harrison was eighty years old. Harrison had spent almost literally, his whole life trying to solve the biggest technological problem of his age, and he was never even thanked properly.

In the end, Harrison died at the age of eighty-three, barely able to live in retirement for a decent length of time to enjoy his riches. He passed away, aged 83, on the 24th of March, 1776. Ironically…the date of his death, was also the date of his birth, exactly 83 years before in 1693. He was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s Church, in Hampstead, London, alongside his second wife, Elizabeth, and their son William.

Harrison’s Legacy

Some people say that an artist’s work is never truly appreciated until they’re dead. In Harrison’s case, this was almost certainly it. Although he never recieved the fame, fortune and acclaim that he had hoped for in his own lifetime, Harrison’s lifetime of work saw the expansion of the British Empire by making sea-travel much, much safer.

And yet…despite all his efforts, marine chronometers were not widely used, initially. Their high manufacturing cost meant that these amazing machines were out of the reach of all but the wealthiest of seamen; those who had made lots of money as merchant captains or officers in the Navy, who could afford to purchase an expensive and accurate sea-clock for their ships. But as years went by, the use of marine chronometers eventually increased, until they were declared obsolete in the late 20th century, by the coming of GPS.


A marine chronometer clock, of the kind that was common from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. The clock is housed in a special wooden case and is mounted on a gimbal so that it swivels and pivots. This way, the clock always lies flat, even if the ship is rolling and heaving at sea

Harrison’s clocks and watches were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Rupert Thomas Gould, a Royal Navy officer. He is credited with documenting, examining, restoring and preserving Harrison’s clocks and saving them from total destruction. It is thanks to his research and restoration-skills that H1, H2, H3, H4 and H5 are still around today. H1-3 have been reassembled and restored to operational condition. They may be seen at the National Maritime Museum at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. H4 is also restored, but H5 still requires restoration. Only H1, 2 and 3 are in operation, however, since H4 and H5 require significant lubrication to operate successfully, whereas H1, 2 and 3 do not.


H5 (currently unrestored); the last marine chronometer that Harrison made, and the very one which was tested by King George III himself

 

They Go Together like a Horse and Carriage: The Variety of Horse-Drawn Transport

Before the car came along in the 1880s and spoilt everything, land-based transport was always centered around the horse and the various things that it pulled along behind it. Everyone will probably now take a long, tired yawn…go on…it’ll energise your brain for the task ahead: Four pages about the horse and cart.

Horse-drawn transport was a lot more varied than most people would think. Horse-drawn vehicles came in as many varieties as our cars do today. They performed different functions, they could travel at different speeds and they were painted different colours, as well.

So, what were some of the more common types of horse-drawn vehicles that existed during the 18th and 19th centuries?

The Horse and Cart

Duuuuuh!! Yes, the humble horse and cart. A two or four-wheeled wooden vehicle pulled by a single horse: Handy, unluxurious and as interesting as a clump of dirt. Let’s skip this, shall we?

The Dog Cart

The dog-cart was one of the simplest vehicles you could ever find. They could transport two to four people, and a small amount of luggage and were typically pulled by one to two horses. They recieved their name because they were originally used to transport hunting-dogs when the masters of sprawling country estates went out hunting.

The Trap

A trap was a simple, two-seater cart (say, for a husband and wife) which was pulled by one horse. Some traps were so small, they could even be pulled by ponies! Depending on their size, a trap may or may not have had space to carry luggage at the back.

The Barouche or the Caleche

A barouche, a carriage of German origin which was introduced into England in the 1760s, was a light, fast vehicle with only a small leather folding top at the back. Barouches were high off the ground and pulled by two horses. Barouches generally carried between two to four persons (dependent on the size and design of the carriage’s interior), not including the driver. The Caleche was an earlier version of the barouche, which also seated two to four passengers.

The Brougham

When most people think of horses and carriages, they probably think of something along the lines of a brougham, an enclosed carriage for four people with doors on the sides, comfortable seats and glass windows. Broughams were named after Baron Henry Brougham, an English nobleman who died in the 1860s. Broughams were four-wheeled vehicles with room for luggage on the roof. They were designed to be comfortable, discreet, private and fast. The driver sat on the driver’s box up the front and the carriage was pulled by two horses.

The Coach


A royal coach with Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Phillip inside

The coach is probably the ultimate horse-drawn vehicle. They of course, varied in size, style and luxury, but they were commonly seen as the limosuines of their day. They were meant to be large, bold, spacious, luxurious and a show of the owner’s wealth and power. Coaches were lavishly furnished and decorated and very comfortable, often pulled by two or even four horses and transporting anywhere from four to six passengers, not including the footmen (usually two of them) and the driver, more commonly in this context called the coachman. Coachmen had to be particularly skilled with driving and handling horses since the four horses that pulled a coach along meant more reins for the driver to hold onto. The necktie knot known as the “four-in-hand” is believed to be adapted from the four-in-hand knot which coachmen tied with their reins so that all the reins for all four horses could be easily held and controlled with one hand.

Coaches often had carriage lamps on the front of the coach to light the way in the dark, since coaches were often used for long, long journeys, since they were one of the few vehicles capable of carrying large amounts of luggage. In the days before license-plates, the coaches of royalty or the aristocracy often had coats of arms colourfully painted on the carriage doors. Wealthy people who were unable to own coats of arms (they had to be specially issued and granted), had monograms painted on their carriage doors. These monograms and coats of arms identified the coach and its occupants and who its owners were.

Horse Drawn Service-Vehicles

Apart from the various kinds of private vehicles, before the motor car came along, there were also horse-drawn versions of emergency vehicles such as fire trucks, police-vans and ambulances…


A horse-drawn ambulance from 1908


A horse-drawn fire-engine from 1915. Many horse-drawn fire-engines of this era had steam-powered water-pumps onboard, which is what that big metal thing at the back is. Earlier fire-engines had manual pumps. You can’t see it in the photo, but then, just as now, fire-engines were painted bright red so that they could be easily recognised

Horse-drawn ambulances and fire-engines often had various markers on them, indicating that they were emergency vehicles: Red lanterns, crosses, bells and sirens, to name just a few.

Horse-Drawn Public Transport

The Hansom Safety Cab

Often just called a “Hansom”, the Hansom Safety Cab was introduced into the streets of London in the mid 1830s, where it was the main form of taxicab for the next roughly 100 years, until they were finally phased out in the 1920s and 30s with the widespread replacement by motorised taxicabs. The Hansom cab had space for two passengers (three, if you crammed them in good) and the driver. As you can see from the photo above, the driver sat at the back of the cab, instead of the front. His higher vantage point at the back of the cab gave the driver a clearer view of the road and better control of his vehicle; something that was very important in the congested and traffic-jammed streets of Victorian London.

The Hansom was called the “safety cab” because it could go fast, but it could take corners quickly but without fear of being involved in a rollover accident, due to its low center of gravity. Its high wheels kept the cab off the ground and allowed it to travel very fast. It was light enough that it could be pulled by one horse.

The Hackney Carriage

The Hackney carriage, coach or cab, also called the Four-Wheeler or more rudely, a “Growler”, was the larger of the two horse-drawn taxicabs that operated in the 19th century. The Hackney carriage could carry more passengers than the Hansom due to the larger size of its cabin and number of wheels. As the names suggest, the Hackney coach made a hell of a racket when it moved through the cobbled streets of Europe, earning itself the derrogatory title of the “Growler” due to the sound of the wheels bumping, scraping and grindng along the road.

The Omnibus

“Omnibus” is a Latin word meaning “For all”. These buses (yes, that’s what they are, horse-drawn buses!) were popular from the early 19th century until the early 20th century, when the first motorised buses took their place. Horse-drawn omnibuses were either one or two-decker buses pulled by a pair of horses along fixed omnibus lines within crowded cities, and they were an effective way to move large numbers of people quickly around a city along a predetermined and fixed route.

 

The Graceful Swan: Restoring an Antique ED Fountain Pen

The Subject of Operation

There are all kinds of companies which used to make all kinds of interesting things, but which have since been lost to history. Like Burma-Shave, Rexall, Carter’s (That’s CARTER’S, not Cartier’s!) and Waltham. Add to this list one of the most famous pen-manufacturers in the world: Mabie Todd & Co.

Mabie Todd & Company was founded in New York City in 1860 as a manufactuary of writing supplies, gradually moving into the writing instruments market by making dip pens and pencils. In the 1880s and 90s, with the start of the fountain pen industry, led by giants such as Waterman and Parker, Mabie Todd & Co started making these newfangled ‘fountain pens’ as well, something that continued for several years right into the 1940s and 50s.

This last week, I was very fortunate to purchase an early Mabie Todd & Co fountain pen, a first generation “Swan” model. The Swan pen was made starting in the 1890s and it represented the best quality pens that the company made. Below “Swan” were the “Blackbird” and “Swallow” model pens.

My pen is an early 1900s Mabie Todd & Co “Swan”, made ca. 1908. It’s made of BCHR and it’s an ED pen with a threaded section and barrel and a slip-on cap and you’re going waaaait a minute what the hell are all these acronyms for?

“BCHR” stands for “Black Chased Hard Rubber”, hard rubber being the stuff that all early fountain pens were made of, black being the colour, and chasing being the heat-imprinted patterns that were rolled onto the pen-barrels when they were made. “ED” stands for “eyedropper”. These early fountain pens, such as the one which is the subject of this article, did not come with their own, inbuilt filling-systems like later pens. To fill them up, you had to unscrew them, fill up an eyedropper with ink, and then drip the ink into the pen-barrel before screwing the section and nib-assembly back onto the pen to write with it.

The pen was in surprisingly good condition for something that was over one hundred years old. BCHR is very prone to “oliving” (turning brown and green) if it’s left out in the sunlight. The sunlight leeches the black out of the rubber which was introduced into it when the rubber was being vulcanised for penmaking. This pen had very little noticable oliving, mostly around the cap, but thankfully, that was all.

Structurally, the pen was perfect. No cracks, chips, dings, scratches, gouges…even the smooth panel on the barrel reserved for engraving was perfect, unblemished and smooth. The cap, of the slip-on variety (pens this old did not have screw-on caps) was of smooth black hard rubber with a gold cap-jewel, a gold cap-band and a very large gold pocket-clip. The cap-band has the letters “A.E.E.” engraved handsomely on it. Here is the cap:

The nib of this pen featured a very unique “over-under” or “double” feed. The O/U feed was a common design-feature on very early fountain pens; feeds were not yet advanced enough to deliver enough ink to the nib, so early fountain pens had double feeds to compensate for a lack of inkflow. If ink refused to go along one feed, then it would flow along the other feed, instead.

This is the pen with the cap off and posted on the back of the barrel, which is specially shaped to take the cap:

You might be able to just see the over-under feed on the nib, on the left side of the photograph.

Restoring the Pen

Enough about the aesthetics and the mechanics. What about the restoration!?

Okay maybe “restoration” isn’t the right word. Think of it more as “repair”. I didn’t really restore anything: The cap is still olived and the nib is still a bit grimy…but I did manage to return this beauty to its original working condition. Huzzah!!

Unfortunately, doing this was far from easy. Whoever last owned this pen filled it up with blue ink, put it away in a drawer and then promptly died, or forgot about the pen entirely. The result was that the ink dried inside the pen. Now you hear a lot of people say: “If you don’t use the ink in your pens for a long time, empty the pen and wash it”.

Why?

This is exactly why. When the ink dries…it turns to CEMENT. This pen was jammed shut so tightly, you couldn’t break into it with C4 explosives! The ink had gotten into all the seams and threads inside the pen-barrel and it had dried and glued the whole thing shut. You could look like a pro wrestler and you still wouldn’t have been able to get that pen open to refill it, without cracking it in half like a pretzel first. Regrettably, hard rubber can be very brittle. Hours of twisting and wiggling on my part yielded nothing in terms of the pen opening up. It soon became painfully clear that the way to get into this pen was not through muscles and force, but with patience.

Old eyedropper pens work in the following manner: You unscrew the section and nib-assembly from the barrel. You fill the barrel with ink using an eyedropper (hence the name), then, you screw the section and nib-assembly back onto the pen and write. In this instance, the section, thanks to the blue glue cement inside, was completely unmovable. No amount of squeezing and twisting would get it to budge. To remedy this, I filled a shot-glass with water and a bit of soap and dunked the pen into it, from the nib right up to the top of the section. I removed it every hour or so, to tap it and shake it to get some of the ink out…and boy was there ever a lot of it! Bright royal blue ink! And it kept coming and coming and coming for the next twelve hours! Whoever used this pen before me really loved him some blue ink!

Finally fed up, I changed the water, added some fresh liquid detergent, dunked in the pen and left it overnight. This was necessary, partially because my wrists and arms were so tired from trying to shake and twist open the pen, and partially because the soap and water needs time to seep into the pen and loosen up any leftover ink.

The next morning…today, rather…I removed the pen from the water and wiped it down. Very carefully, I unscrewed the section. Gently, at first. Then, I felt it move. I had to be very very careful opening this pen: there is a very thin line with hard rubber, between sufficient force and accidently crushing the pen, shattering it, snapping it in half and having a pile of antique crap in your hands. I kept unscrewing and unscrewing. I had to turn several times to get the section off the barrel, because by design, eyedropper pens have very long threads (they have to, to prevent leaking). With the pen disassembled, I filled it up with water to flush it out one last time, and then filled it with ink, using an eyedropper that I bought specially for this historic occasion.


The disassembled Swan eyedropper fountain pen. The slip-on cap is on the left, the barrel is on the right. In the middle is the successfully-removed section & nib-assembly. That really long thin black thing you see sticking out the back of the nib is the feed

The pen worked absolutely flawlessly. No dripping, no skipping, no scratchiness, no fading or anything. Perfect inkflow. Not bad for a 102 year old fountain pen, eh? It now has pride of place in my collection.

Special Note:

Pen repairers, collectors and users are divided over the method of soaking a BHR pen in water. Some feel that this is dangerous and that it could damage the colour of the pen, while others actively encourage the use of water to clear out a pen. I’ve used the water-soaking method before without any ill effects and I’m of the opinion that this method is safe to use with antique hard rubber fountain pens, provided that the water isn’t too hot.

 

“She Gave Her Mother Forty Whacks”: The Guilt or Innocence of Lizzie Borden

All countries have their famous criminals: Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, Joseph Fritzl, Ned Kelly and Dr. Joseph Mengele are just a few of these. But what about those people who might have committed a crime, but got off because of a lack of evidence and were declared innocent, and who were hounded by the judgemental public, who had already slapped down the sticker that said ‘Guilty’? These are people we don’t always hear about, or if we hear about them, we don’t always remember them.

Probably the most famous of these people, who got off scott-free in a famous crime where people thought she should have hung, was the chief suspect in one of the United States’ most famous murder-investigations of all time. The crime? Killing her father and stepmother. Her weapon? An axe. Her name? Elizabeth Borden.

One Big Happy Family


Lizzie Borden, 1889

Known to all as “Lizzie” Borden, Elizabeth Andrew Borden (no, that’s not a mistake, ANDREW is her middle name, presumably named for her father, also named Andrew) was born on the 19th of July, 1860. Her father was Andrew Jackson Borden and her mother was Sarah Anthony Borden (maiden name ‘Morse’). Lizzie had one older sister, Emma Lenora Borden, born 1851 and who died in 1927. Lizzie would’ve had two older sisters, but her mother’s second child, Alice, died in 1858, two years after her birth.

Apparently, the Borden family didn’t have much luck in keeping a family together. Mirs. Sarah Borden had three daughters but lost one. Three years after Lizzie was born, Mrs. Borden herself would also die. As a result of this, Lizzie, her sister Emma and her father, Andrew, grew up alone. Alone apart from a lady named Abby Gray, who was Andrew Borden’s second wife, and therefore Emma and Lizzie’s stepmother.

Andrew Jackson Borden was a wealthy man. One of the wealthiest in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Borden family lived on 92, 2nd Street. 70-year-old Andrew was a successful landlord and bank-director. He was able to buy a nice house for his two daughters, his wife, his second wife when the first one died, and his family’s maid. He might have been a bit tight-fisted, but he was fairly generous to his family, giving them enough money to lead comfortable lives with. To him, life was wonderful…but not to everyone else.


Andrew Jackson Borden, Lizzie’s father

The truth was that the Borden Family was probably the kind of family you’d find on Jerry Springer, Maury Povich or on Dr. Phil these days. It was about as harmonious as the Battle of the Somme. While Emma and Lizzie probably loved their father dearly, they were not pleased at all with several of their father’s decisions in life. Andrew’s new wife, Abby, caused all kinds of problems in the house and she and her new stepdaughters just never managed to get along with each other. The family argued frequently and the two Borden sisters often took long vacations to get away from their stress-inducing stepmother.


Abby Borden, Andrew’s second wife, and Lizzie and Emma’s stepmother

Apart from their stepmother, however, the two daughters were also not happy with other things that their father had done. In the years after their mother’s death, Mr. Borden had been dividing up the family fortune, giving away various properties under the Borden name to Abby and her family. This was something which the two Borden sisters did not agree on. They wanted the fortune kept together for them, not given out to strange women who had nosed their ways into their family’s private lives! In the weeks leading up to the murders, things finally exploded. Lizzie and her sister Emma had a terrific quarrel with their father, either about his new wife, or about his handling of the family’s funds and properties. Whatever it was, it caused both sisters to pack their bags and leave home for another one of their ‘holidays’ to get away from their stressful home-lives.

Lizzie Returns Home

The year was 1892, it was July when Lizzie and her sister Emma packed up their bags and left home to get away from their infuriating father in the latest of their escapades. While both sisters had decided to stay away for several weeks, Lizzie decided to cut her trip short. She returned home at the end of the month, returning to the family’s home at #92, 2nd Street, Fall River, Mass, to this house, which still stands today, as the Lizzie Borden House, a bed-and-breakfast which occasionally gives tours:


The Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, Massachusetts

The house was just as it was when she had left it, except there was an addition to the family, John Morse, or “Uncle John” to Lizzie and Emma, their dead mother’s brother, had come to visit his brother-in-law, nieces, and relatives from his side of the family, who also resided in Fall River.

The Murders

August 4th, 1892. Lizzie has been home a few days now. Her sister Emma is still in a neighbouring town, visiting friends. Her Uncle John, though staying at the Borden house at the time, was not actually at home. The Borden family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, a young Irish immigrant, was upstairs in the attic when she heard Lizzie scream and call out her name. Bridget (called “Maggie” by the family), ran downstairs to find Lizzie standing in the doorway to the living room, staring at the dead body of her father, lying on the couch.

On the 4th of August, Andrew Borden had gone to work as usual. He had returned home at about 10:45 and had been lying on the couch, presumably having a nap. Shortly after, Lizzie found her father’s dead and mutilated body in the living-room.


Andrew Borden, photographed as he was found, lying dead on the couch in his living-room

Lizzie would not allow Bridget to enter the living-room, presumably because she thought the maid would not be able to take the shock of the sight of her dead employer. Lizzie ordered Bridget to run for the family physician, Dr. Bowen. Dr. Bowen lived across the street from the Borden family, but was not at home at the time. Mrs. Bowen agreed to notify her husband at once, when he got home, to visit the Borden house.

By now, word of the murder of Mr. Borden began to spread. Another neighbour, Mrs. Adelaide Churchill heard about the news. She called from her house to Lizzie’s to ask what was wrong. Lizzie responded by saying: “Oh, Mrs. Churchill, please come over! Someone has killed Father!”

Mrs. Churchill hurried over and asked Lizzie where her stepmother, Abby Borden was. Lizzie replied that she did not know. She also told Mrs. Churchill of Bridget’s inability to find a doctor. Mrs. Churchill suggested sending her handyman to try and find a physician and to call for help. At 11:15am, the police-station about 400 meters from the Borden House, recieved a telephone-call to the effect that officers were dispatched to respond to the murder of Mr. Borden.

While the police were on their way, Dr. Bowen had returned home. He went straight to the Borden household to examine the body of the dead Mr. Borden whereafter Lizzie asked Bridget to find a white sheet to cover the corpse. The whereabouts of Mrs. Abby Borden were still a mystery. Bridget the maid suggested that Abby had gone to visit her sister, but Lizzie was sure that her stepmother was home, and asked Bridget to search the house. Nervous to go upstairs by herself, Bridget enlisted the help of Mrs. Churchill and together, they headed upwards.

To understand what happened next, you need to understand how the Borden house was constructed. Upon entering the front door of the house, you are confronted by the front staircase. Beyond the staircase was the living-room where Mr. Borden’s body was discovered, lying on the couch. On the second storey, the bedrooms are situated on the left side of the house, opening onto a central landing, with the staircase, leading down to the entrance-hall, on the right. After heading up the stairs only halfway, Mrs. Churchill and Bridget were able to look through the ballustrades around the stairs and through the open door of the guest bedroom, the door of which opened so that the two women could see directly into the room beyond, without even reaching the landing.

From their position on the stairs, both women were able to see the bedroom with the bed in it, but more importantly, they were able to see under the bed and beyond, to the far wall of the guestroom. Between the far wall and the bed, lay the dead body of Mrs. Abby Borden.


The photograph of Mrs. Borden as she was found in the guestroom. To the right, you can see the bed. Beyond the bed was the door, which opened onto the landing. From the bed, you would have a direct view of the head of the staircase


Another photograph of Abby’s body. You can see the tripod and camera reflected in the mirror of the dressing-table. Between the camera and the table is the bed and behind the camera is the door leading into the landing and the head of the staircase, beyond

Mrs. Churchill ran back downstairs, crying out “There’s another one!”

A few minutes later, Dr. Bowen, who had left the house momentarily to send a telegram to Lizzie’s sister, Emma, returned to the Borden house to resume his examination of the dead Mr. Andrew Borden. His initial examination led him to conclude that Mr. Borden had been struck in the head and face at least a dozen times by a heavy weapon, possibly an axe. Mr. Borden’s wounds were horrific: His nose had been hacked off in the attack, his left eyeball had been cut in half and stuck out a bit from the rest of his body. The corpse was still bleeding slightly when Dr. Bowen examined it. Blood-spatter was everywhere; on the floor, the couch, the walls and the painting that hung above the couch. Dr. Bowen believed that if Mr. Borden had been napping, his attacker had snuck into the room and had attacked Mr. Borden from behind, swinging the weapon downwards onto his face, in order to kill him and inflict the injuries that were present.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Bowen headed upstairs to examine the corpse of Mrs. Borden. He concluded that she too, had been struck by a weapon similar to an axe or a hatchet and was attacked from behind, with at least a dozen blows to the back of the head.

By this time, policeman George W. Allen of the Fall River Police Department had arrived at the house, it was now approaching 11:30am. After ordering a passer-by, Charles Sawyer, to stand guard over the crime-scene, Allen ran back to the police-station and resturned to the house shortly after 11:35, with seven more police-officers. At 11:45, medical examiner Dr. William Dolan, passing by the house, had his curiosity aroused by the number of policemen milling around, and entered the crime-scene to assist Dr. Bowen in his examinations.

The Investigation

After the flurry of excitement regarding the murders had settled down, police and detectives started their official murder-investigation. They interviewed townsfolk, members of the Borden family, shopkeepers who had interacted with the Borden family and Dr. Bowen, the Borden family’s neighbour and family physician. The following facts were established:

August 3rd

1. Abby Borden had gone to visit Dr. Bowen on the 3rd of August, one day before the murder. She alleged that she and her husband, who was not a particularly popular man in town, were being poisoned. They had both been violently sick during the night. Dr. Bowen listed her symptoms and examined them, but did not believe that it was a murder-attempt. Bowen attempted to speak to Mr. Borden, who sent him away, insisting that he was perfectly fine. It’s surmised that the Bordren’s illnesses were not due to poisoning, but rather to bad or poorly-prepared food.

2. Lizzie had visited Smith’s Drugstore, a druggist’s shop in Fall River, and had spoken to Eli Bence, a clerk there, asking to buy 10c worth of prussic acid, which she claimed was for killing insects. Mr. Bence refused to sell the acid without a prior prescription. Witnesses at the store identified Lizzie as the woman who tried to buy the acid.

3. Uncle John Morse had come to visit the Borden family. John Morse was the brother of Sarah Morse Borden, Andrew’s first wife and Lizzie and Emma’s deceased mother. Both John and Lizzie testified that neither had seen each other until the afternoon of the murders, but Lizzie said she was aware that her uncle had intended to pay the family a visit that day.

4. Miss Alice Russell was a friend of the Borden family. According to Russell, Lizzie had come to visit her on the 3rd. She seemed agitated and worried about something. When Miss Russell pressed the point, Lizzie confessed that she was worried for her father’s safety and feared that someone had really tried to poison him.

August 4th

6:15am. Bridget Sullivan, the Borden maid, wakes up. Uncle John Morse also wakes up for the day.
7:05am. Abby and Andrew come downstairs for breakfast.
8:45am. John leaves the house for the day. Shortly after his departure, Lizzie comes downstairs.
8:55am (approx). Abby asks Bridget to wash the downstairs windows. Abby goes upstairs to straighten out the bed in the guestroom, which John occupied.
9:00am. Andrew leaves the house for work. Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, the Borden family’s neighbour, observes Mr. Borden leaving the house at this time.

Sometime after 9:00am. Abby is killed, struck on the head repeatedly from behind.

10:40am. Andrew Borden leaves a shop which he owns, and heads home. Carpenters working at the shop see him leave. He arrives home a few minutes later. The front door is locked and Bridget unlocks it to let him in. Lizzie says that she was in the kitchen at the back of the house, at this time. Mr. Borden goes through the house, passes his daughter Lizzie in the kitchen, who is ironing handkerchieves. He heads upstairs via the back staircase and heads into his bedroom. He returns a few minutes later by the same way and heads into the living-room.
10:55am. Mr. Borden lies down for a nap. It is shortly after this time that he too, is struck repeatedly on the head from behind, killing him and mutilating his face. Bridget is upstairs in her room at this time. Lizzie goes to the barn (more of a shed in the back yard) to search for fishing equipment. She had intended to visit her sister and go fishing with her.
11:10am. Lizzie returns to the house and finds her father beaten to death on the couch. She calls for Bridget, still upstairs in her room, to come down and to go for Dr. Bowen across the street.
11:15am. The local police-station recieves a telephone-call asking officers to respond to an incident at 92, 2nd Street. Within minutes, eight policemen, a passer-by, Dr. Bowen and medical examiner, Dr. William Dolan, are at the crime-scene, taking down witness-statements and examining the bodies.

Over the next few hours, all persons in the house are questioned. Lizzie is asked if there are any tools such as axes or hatchets in the house. Lizzie tells the officer that there are plenty and instructs Bridget to show the officer. A total of four hatchets are found. One had blood and hair on it, which was later determined to be animal blood and hair, and therefore not the murder-weapon. One hatchet had a blade which didn’t look like it could have inflicted the injuries seen. Two other hatchets were covered in dust and probably hadn’t been touched for several months. One of these had its handle broken off at the end. The break looked recent and policemen surmised that this was the murder-weapon and that the handle had been broken during the murders. This hatchet was collected for evidence and was photographed.

Uncle John was accosted by police-officers after arriving home shortly after the discovery of the hatchets. He told policemen that he wasn’t sure if the doors to the cellar (where the hatchets were stored) was opened or closed when he left the house that morning.

Policeman Sergeant Harrington and another officer examined the barn where Lizzie claimed to have been, searching for fishing-sinkers. They saw no evidence (disturbed dust, for example) to suggest that someone had been in the barn recently.

3:00pm. The bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden were laid out on the table in the dining-room where Dr. Dolan carried out autopsies on the two corpses.

Upstairs, Deputy Marshal John Fleet interviews Lizzie about everyone’s actions and movements that day. Lizzie, like her sister, held little love for her stepmother, and she reminded Fleet throughout the interview that Abby Borden was no mother of hers.

Over the next few months, police and detectives continue chasing down leads. Eli Bence, the clerk at the drugstore, is interviewed by Sergeant Harrington regarding Lizzie’s attempted purchase of prussic acid.

On the 6th of August, the funerals of Abby and Andrew Borden were carried out. On the 7th of August, Lizzie’s friend, Alice Russell, noticed Lizzie burning a dress in the stove in the Borden house.

The next several months was filled in by the police investigation. Witnesses were interviewed, statements were taken, the bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden (which had not actually been buried on the 6th of August), were retained for further medical examinations. Preliminary hearings before the big trial resulted in Lizzie being arrested and charged with the murder of her father and stepmother.

The Big Trial

These days, big criminal trials have news-reporters out the front of the courthouse, there are journalists, cameramen, photographers, curious townsfolk and police-officials all over the place, either milling in the streets outside, or jammed into the courtroom to witness the “Crime of the Century”.

Remove the camera-men and the suited, microphone-wielding TV-reporters, and this was pretty-much the scene during the Borden trial. The trial was big news all throughout the town of Fall River, and people hurried to grab seats in the courthouse to witness this historic event. The Borden family was one of the wealthier families in town and therefore, one of the most well-known. The deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Borden, and the suspicion that fell on their daughter caused everyone to be hanging on tenterhooks to find out what a judge and jury would think.

Of course, the crime’s impact spread a lot further than just Fall River. The New York Times, in an issue dated August 7, 1892, stated on its front page:

    “The Fall River Mystery”.
    ——————–
    Looking for the assassin
    of Mr. & Mrs. Borden

    ——————–

In interior pages, the paper continued to report…

    “Lizzie Borden’s Triumphs”
    The Evidence Chiefly Relied on for Con-
    victing the Prisoner Ruled Out by the
    Court – The Case of the Commonwealth
    Weakened by Blow after Blow – Lizzie’s
    Friends Very Hopeful of an Acquittal
    And sure that the Jury will
    Not Convict Her.

    The New York Times, August 7th, 1892; original spelling, typesetting & grammar retained

The Borden trial was phenomenal. It went on for fourteen days, and over those fourteen days, the case put forward by the prosecution was hacked to pieces by the defence. The prosecution put it to the jury (made up of farmers and tradesmen) that Lizzie had killed her father and stepmother because Andrew Borden had thought of, or had written up a new will. No such recent document was found, the defence said. The hatchet found by police could not be proven definitively by the prosecution, that it was indeed the murder-weapon. Furthermore, the defence alleged, the prosecution could not definitively say that Lizzie had used the hatchet to bludgeon her parents to death, even if it was the murder-weapon. The Fall River Police Department was skeptical of the then, brand-new forensic technology of taking fingerprints, and thus had no definitive proof that Lizzie had even touched a hatchet.

Another pillar of the prosecution’s case against Lizzie Borden was her attempt at purchasing prussic acid from Smith’s Drugstore. Clerk Mr. Eli Bence was called forward to give evidence to the effect that Lizzie had tried to buy the acid without a prescription, but the defence objected on this point, and the judge ruled Mr. Bence’s testimony as inadmissable evidence.

The trial ended on Monday, the 19th of June, 1893. The jury took just an hour and a half to find Lizzie Borden Not Guilty of the crime of Murder. The New York Times reports it thus:

    Lizzie Borden Acquitted
    ——————–
    Jury declares her guiltless
    of the crime of murder

    ——————–
    The New York Times, Wednesday, June 21, 1893; original spelling, typesetting and grammar retained

The Aftermath

With the trial over, Lizzie and her sister Emma moved out of their house on 2nd Street and moved into 306 French Street, a large, Victorian house which Lizzie named “Maplecroft”. While the two sisters were close before the trial, their relationship gradually broke down over the next few years. In 1897, Lizzie was charged with the theft of two paintings, in an incident that was settled without scandal. Lizzie became friends with an actress, Nance O’Neil, in 1904. This, it seemed, broke the Borden sisters’ relationship forever. They separated and didn’t see each other again. Elizabeth Andrew Borden died on the 1st of June, 1927, age the age of 67…her sister Emma did not attend her funeral. Emma herself died on the 10th of June, that same year. Their former maid, Bridget Sullivan died in Montana in 1948.

The Borden Legend

Your mother or your grandmother or your GREAT-grandmother might know this old-time jump-rope rhyme. It goes like this:

    Lizzie Borden took an axe,
    She gave her mother forty whacks,
    When she saw what she had done,
    She gave her father forty-one!

While certainly not the kind of thing you wanna hear your daughters jumping-rope to, this little rhyme is proof of the “legend of Lizzie Borden”. The Lizzie Borden murder-trials was one of the biggest trials and crimes in the USA, indeed, in the world. It ranks up there, in the annals of great crimes, along with the Lindburgh Baby Kidnapping, Jack the Ripper and Madame Daphne LaLaurie. The Borden killings happened at a time of change, when newspapers were beginning to spread the news and when investigative techniques were beginning to fit into the mould we recognise today. A stereotype of criminal history is the judge or jury convicting an innocent person of a crime that he or she didn’t commit, based on mostly circumstantial evidence. The Borden trial was a complete reversal of this, of a person being acquitted based on the evidence gathered by several months’ investigating by Fall River law-enforcement authorities. Did Lizzie Borden really take an axe to her father and stepmother? Some people believe the answer is ‘Yes’ and that she really did murder her parents by bashing their heads in, while others say ‘no’, and that she was innocent all along. I would like to think that she was genuinely innocent, but that’s not the point of this article, which is in fact, merely to bring to light, one of the most famous crimes in American history.

 

Remembering the Great ‘Quake of 1906: San Francisco Trembles and Burns

The recent Chilean earthquake, registering a needle-shaking 8.8 on the Richter Scale, reminded me of a very famous historical event that happened well over a century ago today, but which is still mentioned in documentaries, in books, in school assignments and probably most famously, in a 1936 film starring Spencer Tracy and Hollywood tough-guy Clarke Gable. The film, appropriately called ‘San Francisco’, brought to the silver screen the true horrors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, in such terrifying realism that it literally sent earthquake survivors stupid enough to watch the movie, to the hospital, suffering from panic-attacks. The film’s famous earthquake sequence, which was a true piece of special-effects wizardry in the mid 1930s, remains one of the most famous snippets of motion-picture entertainment history to this day.

But if something on the screen of a movie-theatre could send people running off in fright, what was the real event like? The one that took place thirty years before? Surely that must’ve been more terrifying than anything that Hollywood could produce, if even the mere artistic mention of it sent grown men and women fleeing from cinemas in the middle of a movie!

The Great Quake of 1906

The Great Earthquake of 1906 is one of San Francisco’s most famous natural disasters. A tremor that lasted only a few seconds reduced the famous coastal city to smoking ruins, killed thousands and left an entire city homeless. The raging fires that started after the earthquake subsided could challenge Chicago and London in terms of ferocity and terror. The destruction of the city was absolute, with only a few buildings left standing, but what was San Francisco like in the early 1900s?

The City by the Bay

San Francisco at the start of the 20th Century, just as it is now at the start of the 21st, was a bustling, exciting, modern city; a west coast melting pot of cultures, styles and nationalities. Built in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, San Francisco’s rapid growth, modernisation and rise in wealth was due in no small part to the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 50s. The Rush had brought thousands of people to California, forcing San Francisco’s population to boom from about 500 people in the 1840s, to 410,000 people by the turn of the century. San Francisco boasted (and still does boast) the largest Chinatown in all of the USA. Its famous cable streetcar-system was iconic throughout the world, its steep streets were only for the athletic or the stupid to try and climb. Intelligent people rode the cablecars which were able to cope with the steep inclines.

Sourdough bread, with its distinctive, tangy flavour was invented in San Francisco at the turn of the century by immigrant bakers who settled there during the Gold Rush. The salty air around Fisherman’s Wharf interfered with the bread’s natural baking process, giving it a slightly sour and decidedly delicious flavour which the city is still famous for today. San Francisco was also famous for its idyllic and picturesque Victorian-style houses which ranged from narrow tenements and terraces to large, grand mansions, all painted distinctive and eye-catching pastel-shades and with their peculiar, angled bay windows. San Francisco was truly a modern, successful, popular and glamorous city. But all this was about to change.

A Rude Awakening

The earthquake that reduced San Francisco to rubble in 1906 struck at the unpardonably rude hour of 5:12am on the morning of Wednesday, the 18th of April, with a jolt so powerful that it threw many people right out of their beds! Modern seismologists now believe that the earthquake that struck San Francisco that morning registered a jaw-rattling 7.8 on the Richter Scale! An earthquake powerful enough to destroy buildings. Records from 1906 suggest that the vibrating lasted anywhere from twenty seconds to nearly a minute, clocking out at about forty-two seconds in total. While this amount of time would often come and go like a sneeze to most of us, when your whole house is shaking, it feels like a lot longer.

The earthquake caused untold levels of damage. Several buildings collapsed right into the street. The majority of San Francisco’s infrastructure was made of masonary or timber, materials not ideally suited for building in an earthquake-prone area. Many of San Francisco’s new ‘skyscraper’-style buildings were destroyed entirely, or were devoured by the flames that came later. San Francisco’s famous cable-car system was ripped up, twisted around and mangled beyond all practical use. Several lines were damaged beyond repair and many of the city’s iconic cablecars were destroyed in their barns when the structures either collapsed, crushing the cars inside, or caught fire, burning the vehicles where they stood.


A pair of classic, San Francisco Victorian terrace-houses destroyed in the earthquake

The death-toll from the earthquake was originally reported as small, a ‘mere’ 370-odd people had died. However, the true number was considerably higher, and is now believed to have been at least 3,000 or more. The damage to the city was thought to be about $400,000,000 (that’s four hundred million 1906 dollars). About $6-$7 billion dollars today.

The original earthquake was a real shaker. There were at least two aftershocks after it, which caused the next great disaster to strike the city in twenty-four hours.

San Francisco was riding high before the earthquake struck. It was the biggest, busiest and most prosperous city on the US. West Coast before the 18th of April. It was a marvellous and modern metropolis full of the all the latest gadgets and gizmoes, like electrical lighting, telephones, telegraphs, gas-mains and running water. The earthquake destroyed all of these. Power-lines toppled, cutting off telegraph communications, telephone communications and causing a citywide blackout. The rupturing gas-mains which sent natural gas to kitchens as well as the buildings which still used gas-lighting, meant that all it took was one spark to set off a bomb. The sparking electrical wires from downed telephone and telegraph wires soon set the gas on fire and within minutes, the rubble of the earthquake was burning out of control.


Photograph of Sacramento Street, San Francisco, 18th April 1906. At the bottom of the photo you can see the city’s famous cable-car tracks. In the distance, you can see the smoke from the fires that came after the earthquake

San Francisco’s fire-chief had been killed in the original earthquake. His hastily-organised replacement sent horse-drawn steam-powered pump-engines to the sites of as many fires as he could. But only then was the true nature of the disaster revealed.

The earthquake, apart from cutting out power, communications and gas-lines, had also ruptured the city’s water-mains! Taps, pumps and most importantly, fire-hydrants, were all bone-dry! Without any water on-hand to fight the growing fires, the blazes soon spread wildly out of control.

Martial Law and Disorder

The immediate aftermath of the earthquake left people dazed and scared. The world they knew, the world they lived in, socialised in, did business in, in some cases, the world which they grew up in, was suddenly wiped clean. In a world turned upside down, it was only a matter of time before there was a breakdown of law and order. With several unstable buildings around and the spreading fires, it was clear that something had to be done to preserve a sense of calm and order before riots, God forbid, broke out amongst civilians.


This painting shows the destruction of the city from the earthquake and fires. Here, soldiers help bring in food, clothing and other necessary supplies while others guard the supply-dump. Several privately-owned horses, carts, carriages and what few motor-cars there were, were all commandeered by the army or the police after the earthquake, to ferry important necessities into San Francisco

Soldiers from nearby garrisons were sent for and, in cooperation with San Francisco police-officers, US. Army soldiers patrolled the streets, aided the injured, searched for survivors and stood guard around important or unsafe structures to prevent people from entering them, either for purposes of looting, or for their own safety. The mayor declared martial law and instructed any and all soldiers, police-officers or other law-enforcement officers to shoot any persons found looting in the wreckage of damaged buildings. Several hundred people were shot for looting, although it’s theorised that several of these victims were actually home-owners trying to rescue their belongings and executed on the spot before they could offer an explanation for their actions.


This aerial shot of San Francisco was taken a few days after the disaster. It shows the sheer devastation of the fires and earthquake. The airplane having only recently been invented, this remarkable feat of photography was achieved with a camera and a kite!

Fighting the Fires

At most, the earthquake and aftershocks probably only lasted just over a minute, if that. The tremors caused widespread damage, downing power lines, cutting off telecommunications, rupturing gas and water lines, destroying streetcar lines and making roads impassable due to the rubble from collapsed or partially-collapsed buildings. Several famous structures, most notably, San Francisco’s City Hall (which, remarkably, stands to this day) were almost completely destroyed. Several of the city’s brand-new ‘earthquake and fireproof’ buildings (as they were billed as), mostly new skyscrapers, were all destroyed, either by the earthquake or the fires that followed.

Fighting the fires that resulted from the earthquake (due to ruptured gas-lines and sparking electrical wires) was a challenge, to say the least. The loss of running water to the city left the city’s firefighters with few options on how to combat the several infernos that were rapidly growing around the city. To try and at least contain the flames, firefighters, in cooperation with policemen and soldiers sent in to help with relief efforts, used dynamite and gunpowder from nearby army bases to blast their way across town. Buildings big, small, rich, poor, stately and slovenly were all dynamited indiscriminately in an effort to construct a containment line through the city to halt the spread of the fires. Many people had to be forcibly evicted from their houses that happened to be in the way of the dynamite’s path. Many fine, Victorian-style mansions and townhouses that lined San Francisco’s rich residential district…appropriately called “Nob Hill”…were blown to pieces in an effort to stop the fires’ advance. The lack of water meant that the fires burned for three days before they could finally be controlled.

In an amazing spate of mass-arson, several homeowners went about torching their homes, which probably contributed to the fires’ later ferocity. In San Francisco, buildings could, for rather obvious reasons, not be insured against earthquake damage. However, several of them were insured against fire damage. Citizens wanting to try and get some money out of the disaster deliberately set fire to their own houses to claim their fire-insurance payouts.

Search and Rescue

Immediately after the aftershocks, stunned and dazed San Franciscans, police-officers, doctors, firefighters and soldiers started raking through the rubble to try and dig out survivors. Massive refugee camps and field-hospitals were set up on the outskirts of San Francisco to house the homeless and to treat the wounded. Remarkable stories of madness, bravery and foolhardiness spouted from every mouth. One story told of a group of passers-by who ganged together when they heard shouts coming from a collapsed building. They removed some of the rubble and found a man under the wreckage. Efforts to remove the rest of the rubble were in vain, despite the concerted strength of the rescuers present and the man remained trapped to his waist in the rubble. The approaching fires caused many to run for their lives, leaving the man to his unhappy fate, while others continued to try and pry the man free. Pulling him was a waste of time, but they lacked the heavy-lifting equipment or any ropes or jacks to get the rest of the wreckage off of him. Finally, it all came to a head when the fire reached the collapsed building. The man became increasingly frantic, claiming he could feel the flames burning at his shoes, socks and trouser-legs. Desperate not to burn to death, he urged his would-be rescuers to keep trying. A policeman, one of the men at the scene, finally decided that it was hopeless. The man, terrified of his fate, begged to put to death. Rather than let the man burn to a crisp in full consciousness, the policeman took out his notebook, wrote down the man’s personal details and then shot him through the head with his service-revolver.

Furniture, clothing and personal belongings were not the only things that people ran out of their houses with or ran back to retrieve after the earthquake. One story tells of a waiter at San Francisco’s famous Palace Hotel. The earthquake had damaged the hotel’s refrigeration system and the waiter could be seen outside the gutted and quake-damaged structure, handing out free bottles of champagne to passers-by. He probably reasoned that nobody else would drink it anyway, so he might as well give it away.


While it survived the earthquake fairly undamaged, fires gutted the luxurious Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The Victorian-era facade was salvaged from the disaster and the hotel was rebuilt and reopened a few years later. It stands to this day as one of San Francisco’s finest hotels. Soldiers and policemen can be seen outside the flaming structure in this photograph taken after the earthquake


The Garden Court Tea Room in the restored Palace Hotel, as it appears today

Hot off the Presses

News of the San Francisco earthquake spread around the USA and around the world as fast as cables could take it. Within twenty-four hours, telephones were ringing off their hooks and telegraph lines were jammed with Morse Code messages telling the world of the disaster. Newspapers flashed the earthquake all over their front pages and petitions and notices for relief were sent out all over America. Donations of food, clothing and money for rebuilding flooded in.


“Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins” this headline from Apr. 19th says. Below, smaller headlines read: “No Hope Left for Safety of Any Buildings”, “Blow Buildings up to Check Flames”, “Whole City is Ablaze”, “Church of St. Ignatius is Destroyed” and “Mayor Confers with Military and Citizens”

Rebuilding San Francisco

San Francisco had lasted where it was for sixty years before the earthquake happened, and damn it, it was going to last another sixty years. Reconstruction of the city was remarkably swift. By 1915, it was back on its feet again, despite the city looking like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb! Relief, charity and donations for the earthquake’s victims came in thick and fast. Over five million dollars (in 1906) was raised to help San Francisco and its citizens. Wealthy companies and America’s rich and famous of the early 20th century all donated phenomenal sums of money. Andrew Carnegie, for whom Carnegie Hall is named, donated the then staggering sum of $100,000. And he was just one of many people who sent in mindboggling donations to help the city rebuild. The US. Government alone sent in a million dollars, while entire cities and countries, from Canada to as far away as England, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief-funds.

The official death-toll from the earthquake stood at about 3,000 people. It was most likely a lot more than that, since some deaths probbaly went unreported. A lot of things changed after 1906. San Francisco’s famous cable-car system was much reduced, its Chinatown experienced a massive boom in population. The destruction of citizenship and immigration records during the earthquake created a delicious legal loophole for San Francisco’s oriental population, who all rapidly claimed American citizenship, allowing them to jump around the then in-effect “Asian Exclusion Act”, which allowed them to bring their families and relations to America to live with them. San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown remains the biggest in the USA to this day.

The famous Coit Tower was constructed after the earthquake, specially designed to be shaped like a fire-hose nozzle to commemorate the efforts of the firefighters who fought and died during the battle against the flames.


Coit Tower, San Francisco