Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake In A Crack in the Edge of The World, author Simon Winchester studies the disaster of the San Francisco earthquake and how it led to Chinese immigration and the rise of the Pentecostal movement.
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Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The disaster in Pakistan comes as the city of San Francisco prepares to mark the centennial of the great California earthquake of 1906. Because that part of the country was far less populated a hundred years ago, the volume of death and destruction was far smaller than we saw in Pakistan this weekend, though we may not be so lucky next time around. Writer Simon Winchester is just out with a new book on what happened that April Tuesday morning and why it happened. It's called "A Crack in the Edge of the World."

If you have questions about the San Francisco earthquake and fire, about the geologic forces that created them, the response to the disaster or its effects on America, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is Simon Winchester joins us now from the BBC Studios at Broadcasting House in London.

Simon, always nice to talk to you.

Mr. SIMON WINCHESTER (Author, "A Crack in the Edge of the World"): And you too, Neal.

CONAN: We'll get to San Francisco in just a minute, but the coincidence is uncanny. Can you tell us--you're a student of geology and obviously wrote a lot about plate tectonics in this new book. What happened in South Asia?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, specifically, the India plate, which detached itself from somewhere near Madagascar 100 or 150 million years ago, has been moving northwards relentlessly for all of the intervening time at about 46 millimeters every year. And as it's doing so, it's been twisting to the left in a counterclockwise direction and colliding--it has been colliding for the last many millions of years--with the Eurasian continent, which is the continent that I'm sitting on here in Britain, where Moscow is, where Beijing is, which is a vast, vast continent which encompasses most of Europe and most of Asia. And the collision between these two plates causes the Himalaya Mountains, it causes the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. And in throwing these mountains up, it causes an immense number of earthquakes, because whenever you look at a mountain range, it's there in all its beauty and all its majesty because of very, very destructive forces of nature. And that's exactly what happened two days ago, another sudden shift which made parts of the Himalayas presumably a few millimeters higher. It's part of the building process as the India plate slams into the Eurasian plate.

CONAN: In the broadest sense then, this was predictable, not of course in terms of date and time, but sooner or later in much the same way as the San Francisco earthquake was.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Exactly. And the only thing one has to say is about that which is preventable, which reflects something that is preventable, is that in earthquake-prone zones, you should not build high-rise buildings out of substances that are going to fail whenever they're shaken. And the Magalla House(ph), the high rises in western Islamabad which came down and killed many, many people, should never have been built. It wouldn't be built, wouldn't be allowed to be built in California. By the same token, on any plate boundary, which are those parts of the world that are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, buildings should be built very strongly. Of course, it's impossible in very poor countries like Pakistan, but certainly high rises should never go up.

CONAN: I know that in previous lives as a correspondent, you visited this part of the world which is both beautiful but politically as well as geologically unstable.

Mr. WINCHESTER: It is. I mean, I lived in India for three years and traveled around in Afghanistan and the upper reaches of Pakistan many times. And when your correspondent was talking a few moments ago about Muri. I mean, I have dozens of friends in Muri, who I will presumably, once the telephone lines are open, call to find out how they are. It is beautiful, it is stunningly lovely, but one has to remember--and I'm afraid this is part of what geologists do--you don't look at landscape with a sort of Wordsworthian romantic view of it. You look at it and say, `That is beautiful because immense forces created it.' And these were the immense forces at work that we've seen.

CONAN: Let's turn to your new book, "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906." And I was curious because one of the things you--we were talking about these great plates, the Indian plates smashing into the great Eurasian plate. In the course of this book, you traveled the breadth of the great North American plate from Iceland--and we don't think of Iceland as being part of North America, yet geologically it is--all the way to that `crack in the edge of the world' near San Francisco.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, technically speaking, the North American plate is even bigger than that. Technically, it runs from the center of Iceland right over to Magadan in Siberia. So North America, the continent, sits on a plate which is much, much bigger than itself. But its western edge, a part of it, also coincides with the coast of California. And so yes, I, to try and do research on this book, I traveled from Thingvellir, which is a steep cliff in the very center of Iceland where, as it happens, one of the world's first parliaments, the Althing, convened almost two centuries ago, through Greenland and down to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and then down to the Appalachians and then crossed the continental United States until I got to the other--it's not a cliff, but it's an equally sharply defined border/boundary between the North American plate and the Pacific plate, and that is the mischief maker, as I call it, the engine that creates all the trouble in California, and that is the 700-mile-long San Andreas fault.

CONAN: One of the--there are many misconceptions about the earthquake and fire which followed that you try to correct in this book, but one of them is in fact that exactly where it happened has been misidentified for many, many years.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes, it's always been thought that it happened at the point of greatest displacement of the Earth. The Earth, at a town called Olema, which is about 20 miles, 30 miles north of San Francisco, moved nearly 21 feet, which is an extraordinary displacement. If you can imagine a fence breaking and then reassembling itself 21 feet to the left, that was what was assumed was to be the epicenter. And it's indeed--there's a small local industry that--people buy hats saying `I was at the epicenter' or `I survived the earthquake' or that sort of thing. In fact, it's nowhere near there. It's actually south of San Francisco off Daly City.

And there's this strange story around at the moment which is that a geologist and local historian created a beautiful brass plaque which he wanted to put up at the precise point in Daly City where the epicenter was and said to the mayor of Daly City, `I think this would be very good in a historical context to get it right and to show where this amazing historical event actually had its center.' And the Daly City mayor said, `No, no, this would be frightfully bad for the image of Daly City; we can't possibly have this associated with the earthquake,' and turned the poor fellow down. So the plaque is still in his basement, I think, and Daly City suffers under the illusion that it had nothing to do with the earthquake.

CONAN: Well, in an odd way, it seems that the reaction in San Francisco was much the same a hundred years ago, that, well, there may have been a slight tremor, but not really an earthquake. All that damage, that was a fire.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, precisely, and that was put out by the commercial barons of the city at the time led by the most important commercial baron, the Southern Pacific Railway Company, which said it would be bad for investment if it was put about that San Francisco was an inherently unstable city. Now what the earthquake did was, as everyone well knows, is it broke the gas mains, it brought down electric wires, it made coal fires from early morning cooking fires fall out into the street, igniting the gas. Huge fires broke out. And because the water mains had been broken, the firefighters were completely unable to put the fires out. So a fire raged for three days, three and a half days, and completely devastated that part of San Francisco that had not already been knocked down by the 48 seconds of shaking. But Southern Pacific Railway said, `It was the fire that did the damage; it wasn't the earthquake. That was,' as you say, `relatively trivial.' Well, that really is a gross canard. The earthquake was what caused everything. San Francisco is a city which, above all else, is extremely vulnerable to earthquakes because it incautiously was built on top of one of the most active fault lines in America. There's no getting away from it, and no public relations is every going to massage that fact away.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Winchester about his new book, "A Crack in the Edge of the World." If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is

And let's talk with Terri. Terri's calling us from Chico, California.

TERRI (Caller): Hi. Considering what you were just saying about the railroads trying to alter news of what had happened, I had heard that the city fathers or the railroads or whomever had actually gone so far as to have photographs retouched in an effort to minimize the news about the effects of the earthquake and subsequent fire. Do you know anything of that?

Mr. WINCHESTER: I do. And while I'm more than happy to publicize other books that write about this, there's a wonderful book by Gladys Hanson, who was a former archivist, city historian who wrote a massive book about seven or eight years ago now called "Denial of Disaster," in which she showed some of these luridly retouched photographs which tend to blur over the fact that buildings have been collapsed, but paint wonderful bursts of flame all over them to suggest that the real damage was done by fire. So spin and spinmeisters were very active in 1906 in San Francisco.

TERRI: Fascinating. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Terri.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Thanks, Terri.

CONAN: Spin and spinmei--interestingly, you also paint a picture of a pre-earthquake San Francisco that is not quite congruent with our romantic image that has come down to us from history.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, unless, of course, you watch that wonderful Clark Gable/Jeanette MacDonald film, 1934, "San Francisco," which has...


Mr. WINCHESTER: ...some remarkable special effects. I mean, it's a very, very good earthquake sequence in the last 15 minutes of the film. I think that paints a relatively--I mean, a sanitized but nonetheless relatively accurate picture of a San Francisco given over to an endless saturnalia. I mean, this was a city which had a hotel called the Hotel Nymphomania to satisfy the needs of the miners that came in for the gold rush. This was a bad, sinful city in many ways. It didn't start to become respectable until 1890, 1895. And always the veneer of respectability was pretty thin. So it was a rollicking, rambunctious town.

CONAN: There's a wonderful ditty that you quote in the book about--I hope you remember it; I don't--but it's something along the lines of if the city was struck down by God for its sins, then why did the whiskey...

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes. The firm was Hotaling's Whiskey, and it's--went essentially if God struck down the town for being frisky, why did it ruin the town and spare Hotaling's Whiskey? Entirely right, yes. There were lots of ironies like that and many of them, of course, are made much of in this wonderful film, which I think people should get out, if they can, from the DVD stores. It's a remarkable film.

CONAN: The--Jeanette MacDonald sings beautifully in it as well.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Absolutely.

CONAN: But let me ask you about another character, and this is a man who reappears throughout your book. Grove Karl Gilbert, who reappears at several stages upon your journey west along the North American tectonic plate, and then finds himself--What?--just across the bay from San Francisco as the earthquake strikes.

Mr. WINCHESTER: It's extraordinary. Grove Karl Gilbert, one of the fathers of American geology, as you say, pops up in all sorts of places: discovering the great meteor crater in Arizona, mapping vast tracks of the West, west of Amarillo, and then having an emeritus position in university at Berkeley, and being in bed, in his cot in Berkeley, when the earthquake went off. One of the four or five people that noticed very accurately the time at which this earthquake occurred.

The first man that really, we think, was affected by the earthquake was a man called Clarence Judson(ph), who was out swimming on Ocean Beach in the extreme west of the far end of Golden Gate Park. He was knocked off his feet by a wave. The sea was curiously lumpy. He stumbled, frightened, ashore trying to get his shoes and his bathrobe and he kept being knocked over by strange forces as if he was drunk. He didn't have a watch with him, but people like Gilbert and others, a meteorologist and other people, all were preparing for an event, and some of them, of course, has remembered that there had indeed been an earthquake in San Francisco in the 1880s, and they kept watches and pencils and notepads by their bed, so the moment the tremor started they noted things like the direction in which the chandeliers were shaking, the inability they had to stand and which way they were thrown by the forces, and managed to scribble down in their notebooks, all of them essentially in concert, five hours, 12 minutes, five seconds, AM. And that essentially is the time that's held good ever since. For 48 seconds after 12 minutes past 5--that's when it happened.

CONAN: We're talking about the Great California earthquake of 1906 with Simon Winchester.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Chris--Chris, calling us from San Francisco.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes, hi. Actually right now I'm sitting beside the Interstate 280 looking at Crystal Springs Reservoir south of San Francisco, and I had run up in the area, and I had always heard that just looking across the reservoir, we're looking at the other plate that is colliding with the North America plate. Is that correct?

Mr. WINCHESTER: You're absolutely correct, Chris. You are driving along 280, which is on the North America plate, and to your right--I don't know whether you're driving north or south, you will see--but to your west you will see the Pacific plate, and if you look very carefully you can see subtle differences in vegetation because the rocks...


Mr. WINCHESTER: ...are different and support different growths of vegetation. The Crystal Springs Reservoir is almost die-straight running in essentially--if you're looking southwards--a southeast by south direction, and the valley in which the Crystal Springs Reservoir is now sited, was discovered in let me say 1757--it might have been a little bit later than that--by a Spanish explorer on the 30th of November, which is the Feast of St. Andrew, which is why he named the valley the San Andreas Valley. And in that valley lies--it is straight--because of the fault that now bears the name the San Andreas fault. So you're standing at one of the great suture lines of the world, and I get--I must say, even to this day--a thrill when I'm standing so close to quite literally the edge of the world.

CONAN: Hmm. I--Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: You mentioned in the book that Grove Karl Gilbert awoke that morning knowing he was in an earthquake and being absolutely thrilled. This was a geologist who'd spent his whole life never experiencing an earthquake, and...

Mr. WINCHESTER: No, you're right. I mean, he had experienced volcanos, he had experienced other extraordinary geological events, but all his life he had wanted to be in an earthquake, and I think all geologists certainly hard-rock geologists--people that like to, you know, deal in magma and plates and tectonics and things like that--wish--obviously, they wish for a harmless earthquake, but they wish to experience one sometime in their life, and he was enormously pleased. Now obviously later, he wrote he was aware that he was caught up in a tragedy, but at the first moment, the thrill that at last in old age I'm experiencing this extraordinary event; my life is now complete.

CONAN: And the reaction to it--there--well, we're running out of time in this segment, so we're going to have to carry this conversation over. Simon Winchester is with us from Broadcasting House in London to talk about his new book "A Crack in the Edge of the World." It's about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or you can send us your comments or questions by e-mail: We'll be back after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we're talking with writer Simon Winchester about his new book "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906." If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255. You can also send us e-mail: And let's get another caller on the line. This is Nell. Nell's calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

NELL (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

NELL: Thank you. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NELL: I understand that the publicized death toll from the earthquake and the fire was dramatically different than the actual death toll from the fire and the earthquake. What was behind trying to cover that up?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, precisely the same public relations spin that I mentioned in connection with the Southern Pacific Company. Once again, this lady, Gladys Hansen, has been very assiduously working in her retirement in a little office in San Francisco collecting all the names of those who she truly believes are victims.

NELL: Wow, what a person.

Mr. WINCHESTER: The total victim figure was some--in the low hundreds, some 5, 6, 700. The coroner's office is still very vague about it, but she believes that something like 6,000 people died. I mean, a much, much larger--by a factor of 10--and she promises that on anniversary day, the 18th of April, 2006, the official register will be finally published so that we can have--to use the well-used word, you know, that's common in America these days, closure--we can have some sort of closure about this disaster. But it looks like the figure is about 6,000, with about five times that injured, and a figure of about 225,000 people that were rendered homeless.

CONAN: Nell, you were trying to get in there?

NELL: Well, that's it, but I just thought that was so--that is really amazing that this one person is taking this on. Well, I appreciate your answer. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Thank you.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Thank you very much, Nell

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Nell. This cover-up--obviously the city fathers in San Francisco wanted to restore their city, get it back on its feet, and these numbers would have been shocking.

Mr. WINCHESTER: They would, but I think it's probably an appropriate moment in this conversation to talk about the response because quite honestly compared to what's happened in the United States in the last month, the response of the country to the wounding of her city, a city that she was generally so fond of because it represented so many of the dreams of westward moving Americans, the response was astonishing and astonishingly good. Perhaps I can outline what happened, how people not particularly shining examples of humanity, each and every one of them, but they rose to the occasion and turned this crisis--to the improvement of the crisis to some advantage.

For instance, the local Army commander, a man called Frederick Funston, who was a fairly dreadful individual--he had committed all sorts of atrocities in the Philippines, he had been brought back to possibly run as Teddy Roosevelt's vice presidential candidate but had made some frightful racist remarks and was dropped from the ticket and made the number-two in the San Francisco Army garrison. The number one, the chap called Adolphus Greely, was away at his daughter's wedding in Chicago. When the earthquake happened Funston was bounced out of bed, realized that it was a major crisis and that he had to take charge, and take charge he did. He found a man with a horse, he scribbled a note, said, `Go down to the presidio, give this to the adjutant of the Army base.' The note said, `I want as many soldiers as you can find; march them in full battle dress with fixed bayonets, present themselves to the mayor of San Francisco.' A hundred and fifty-three minutes later, two hours and a half later, after the shaking had subsided, the soldiers--two companies were there--presented themselves to the mayor.

Another unprepossessing character, a very corrupt man--he was a violinist in a jazz band, the president of the city's musicians' union, but he arose to the occasion too. Without any fear of the consequences, he said, `I've got soldiers; we're going to promulgate an order saying any looter will be shot dead. They'll have a shoot-to-kill policy. I want lots of dynamite from these soldiers because fires are breaking out and we need to blow up buildings as firebreaks. I need to commandeer a boat and send a message from the telegraph office in Oakland, which I imagine is still working--it was--he sent a signal out saying, `San Francisco has been badly injured; we need help.' Congress, when the message was received in Washington, met at 4:30 the next morning. President Roosevelt and William Taft, his secretary of War, authorized relief trains to start speeding over the Rockies a few hours later. The first relief train arrived from Southern California at 11:00 the night of the earthquake. Within a week, every single tent in the possession of the American Army was in San Francisco, providing housing for the homeless. Within 10 days, one in 10 of the entire American standing Army was there.

And little decisions were taken. This wonderful man I love called Arthur Fisk, who was the postmaster of San Francisco, said the people need to be able to tell their loved ones they're all right, so he issued an order saying that `Any letter that is posted in San Francisco and clearly comes from a victim of this disaster but does not have a stamp will not go undelivered for want of fee.' So everyone rose to the occasion and San Francisco got back on its feet, in consequence, very, very quickly, so much better the response than happened after Katrina.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail. `I was in both the Loma Prieta earthquake that struck San Francisco a few years ago and the Northridge quake in Los Angeles a few years ago. The Northridge quake, though smaller on the Richter scale, was much more violent. I also say the reaction by the people in San Francisco and Los Angeles could not have been more different. In San Francisco neighbors were helping neighbors directing traffic, stores were giving away food. In LA, shop owners were shooting rounds in the air.' A, is that fair, and how did people react in 1906?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, generally pretty well. But we're--they helped each other certainly. I mean, there were all sorts of wonderful stories. I mean, the famous story of an orphan infant being found by a woman who had lost her child and who suckled it. I think she was an Irish woman and an Italian child and there was some poem about the Italian child suckled at the font of Erin's goodness. All kinds of very decent human behavior came to the fore after San Francisco in 1906.

But in '89, yes, you did hear the stories; but one sinister thing that needs to be said, though, is that the '89 earthquake in San Francisco did not, as many people think, relieve pressure on the San Andreas fault. The San Andreas fault is waiting like a cocked trigger for it all to happen all over again, and I think although one can look at '89 and the '94 North Ridge earthquake as being sort of dry runs for what may happen yet to come, one wonders in the aftermath of Katrina how the Bay area is going to react to an enormous earthquake, which surely will happen.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Now this is Kathy--Kathy, calling us from Kansas City.

KATHY (Caller): Hi. I too experienced both the '89 earthquake in San Francisco and the one in LA a couple years later. In fact, I got married a couple days after the '89 one in the city. My question is since then I know precautions have been taken by homeowners who have, say, historic homes, and they've bolted their homes to foundations and things like that. Do you think those actions will have much of an effect if a major earthquake were to occur again?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, yes. I think probably a lot of houses will be saved that would otherwise have been ruined. But the infrastructure--we're not sure how strong all of that is. I mean, the Bay Bridge is a classic example. I mean, they're talking about retrofitting it, but the retrofitting is going to take a long, long time to complete, and here you have a major, major highway filled with traffic that carries three and a half miles or whatever it is, between Oakland and San Francisco. In a major quake, we're talking magnitude 7 or above, will it withstand it? Will the Golden Gate Bridge itself withstand it? Will the BART lines withstand it? And I don't want to be a Cassandra about this because San Francisco, rather like Japan, has prepared very well for what is not just a question of a possibility, but a probability.


Mr. WINCHESTER: The city of Oakland, however, which is underlain by the Hayward fault, which is in its own way a much more dangerous fault than the San Andreas fault which underlies San Francisco--I'm not sure how well-prepared it is. And further to that, one has to remember that in places like Baton Rouge, Katrina was well-prepared with the technology. I mean, the Baton Rouge Emergency Planning Operations Center was filled with plasma screen televisions and satellite telephones and all the sort of gizmos that are required in a disaster like this, but it seemed to be lacking the people to take the decision. And I wonder if in the nine area governments around San Francisco Bay whether the people that are going to be responsible have the ability to manage a major, major disaster.

CONAN: Simon, of course, knows that Cassandra may have been unpopular, but she was also right.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, I sort of hope I'm not. I hope that they put in place people like have been recently put into place at the head of FEMA in the United States, people like firefighters and soldiers, people who know how to deal expeditiously and toughly and fiercely when that kind of action needs to be taken. You don't need to be looking over your shoulder at the legal implications, at the bureaucratic consequences. You need to take action; you need to take it fast in order to save lives in a major crisis.

KATHY: And I remember reading in a geology class there's actually a fault that runs through the center of the nation that is, you know, predicted to also have some movement at some time, and these are places that aren't even expecting an earthquake at all to occur.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, I really don't want to be ultragloomy, but what you say is entirely right. The biggest earthquake ever to affect the continental or the contiguous United States was in 1811 in a place called New Madrid, Missouri, at the southern tip of--well, where Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas meet. And it was huge. It rang bells in Boston; it destroyed or damaged a church in Charleston that was later to be demolished in the 1886 earthquake in Charleston. It was very big, and it's a mystery still to geologists. But every day, if you go to the United States Geological Survey Web site, they have a site that updates itself every five minutes with the current earthquakes that are detected--little tiny ones as well as the big ones--every day there's a little yellow square over New Madrid, Missouri, which has experienced shocks all the time. One day there's going to be a big one. The nearest big city: St. Louis. Is that prepared for an earthquake? I very much doubt it, but sooner or later, it's going to have one.

CONAN: Kathy, thanks very much for the call.

KATHY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Winchester about his new book "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Bob--Bob, calling us from San Francisco.

BOB (Caller): Yeah. I thought I'd add another little note. My father was an insurance broker, and he sold fire--broker in fire insurance, and one of the things the companies did to avoid paying their insurance claims was if the building fell and then burned, it wasn't covered. It--because it was the earthquake that caused the damaged. If it burned and then fell, it was covered. So I'd forgotten now, but only about three of the number of insurance companies at the time paid off their claims in full, trying to get out of it by the so-called falling-building clause.

CONAN: Now, Simon, you write about this extensively in your book, about the shameful practices of many of these insurance companies.

Mr. WINCHESTER: I do, and it makes me angry even to think of this. I mean, how shameful. I'm not the greatest fan of insurance companies at the best of times, having just broken my arm and having all sorts of rows with my insurance company about fixing that. But no, it's quite right. It has to be said and it sounds--I'm sounding slightly racist to say so, but there were a lot of German insurance companies practicing and selling insurance in San Francisco. They all refused to pay, packed up their bags and went home, so outfits like Hamburg-American. Many of the American insurance companies did indeed do what Bob suggested. They tried to invoke fallen-buildings clause and prevaricated and tried to get people to settle quickly for 75 cents on the dollar or 50 cents on the dollar. And most people, urgently in need of money, settled.

Some companies, like Fireman's Fund, behaved nobly; they paid out all the money that they had, all their liquid assets and said, `Look, we want to continue to pay but all we can do is issue new shares in the company and give those to you, the victims,' and people took that money and then subsequently, as Fireman's Fund got back on its feet again, they made a great deal of money.

And then I have to say, and this is going to sound unduly chauvinist--here am I sitting in London--but the British insurance companies, Lloyd's insurance companies, behaved impeccably because of a man called Cuthbert Heath, who sent a telegram saying quite simply, `Pay all claims without question.' And the British companies did enormously well, and the reputation of Lloyd's went tremendously, stratospherically high as a consequence. So Germany not good; America pretty good and courageous; Britain very good indeed. But in general, a pretty shoddy reaction from the insurers.

BOB: Right. It's not unlike what's happening down South where the insurance companies are claiming that if the winds drove the water into the houses, it wasn't a flood.

CONAN: Yeah, it's...

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, exactly. Don't get me started on insurance.

CONAN: Simon, you might want to see a doctor about that. The insurance companies aren't going to help fix it.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Oh, is that the way you do it?

CONAN: That's it.

Mr. WINCHESTER: I'm sorry. I'm a child when it comes to getting treatment in America.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the phone call.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Before, Simon, we were talking about the reaction of the geologist who was thrilled. There was a Harvard psychologist named William James, who was also in San Francisco; happened to be there. Delighted to be caught up in this event. Obviously, also, later found it was a tragedy too. But there's this amazing picture that you published in the book of people standing on a hillside in San Francisco watching the fire approaching, and that in the midst of this holocaust one of the greatest responses was this sense of awe and wonder.

Mr. WINCHESTER: It is extraordinary. William James wrote a paper about human response to this stupendous disaster, and it wasn't fear. Obviously, first few minutes people were terrified, but when they realized they were in the midst of a historically important event of gigantic proportions, what did they do? They went to the homes that we're going to be destroyed a few moments later. The women got their prettiest dresses and their most extravagant bonnets and posed in front of the flames that were roaring towards their houses ready to destroy them and had themselves photographed as if they were tourists standing in front of the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an extraordinary reaction; people were seized with awe; realized they need to capture the moment on film because not only were still photographs then being taken by the ordinary people, because cameras were relatively cheap, but there were movie cameras too.

There are, if you go to the National Archives Web site, you can find wonderful movie photographs--very jerky of course--but of the same kind of thing: people posing, sitting in armchairs casually as the flames advanced and buildings continued to topple. It was an amazing human reaction.

CONAN: "A Crack in the Edge of the World" is filled with stories about the famous and the common people about Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore, about Elsa Maxwell--all there during the great earthquake in 1906. Simon Winchester's book is subtitled "America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906." Simon, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Thank you very much indeed, Neal.

CONAN: And good luck with the book.


CONAN: Simon Winchester joined us from the studios of Broadcasting House, the BBC there in London.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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