The Greatest Fire Alarm In American History

After 100 years, Dennis Smith finds the answer to the question of who saved San Francisco: The firefighters.


Earthquakes are often described as thunderous and frightening, like the sound of an approaching locomotive if you are standing in the middle of the tracks. The ground not only moves from east to west, but also from north to south and in heaving circles. The earthquake of April 18, 1906, began to...


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This order was undeniably illegal, and tantamount to declaring martial law. Funston had to have known it was an illegal order, and wanted to distance himself from it. He did not write: “I ordered out all available troops.†Instead, he wrote, “It was determined to order out all available troops.†The general knew that the only person authorized to order federal troops into an American city is the President of the United States, and then, historically, only after consultation with the state’s governor. He did not want to be in a position where critics would say that he declared martial law in San Francisco, and so he gained the support of a corrupt mayor, Eugene Schmitz, to make it appear that he was acting at the mayor’s request. It was after Funston’s meeting with the mayor, soon after the start of the fires, that the mayor gave his famous “shoot-to-kill†order.

Effects of Martial Law

Even during the great Civil War riot in New York in 1863 where the National Guard was turned out, the request for federal troops and the imposition of martial law were resisted. Martial law has been declared just five times in our history: during the War of 1812 in New Orleans; in 1892, when miners rioted and blew up a mill, killing a man during a strike at Coeur d’Alene, ID; in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson sent in troops to assist the National Guard in the Coal Field Wars of Colorado; in 1934, when Governor Frank Merriam of California requested troops to quell rioting dock workers during a San Francisco strike; and in the protectorate of Hawaii during the period after the Pearl Harbor attack.

However, the most famous citation was when President Abraham Lincoln imposed it during the Civil War. The Supreme Court, though, declared that Lincoln had overstepped his bounds, for, the court said, “Martial law destroys every guarantee of the Constitution.†The court also stated that, “The officer executing martial law is at the same time supreme legislator, supreme judge, and supreme executive,†suggesting that the execution of these supreme powers were like the actions of the King of Great Britain which had caused the American Revolution. The case had to do with an appealing Confederate sympathizer named Milligan, who was sentenced to death in Indiana. The court issued to the President a resounding “No,†saving Milligan’s life and stating that, “Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable; and, in the conflict [the Civil War], one or the other must perish.â€

And, so, the Supreme Court had spoken forcibly in 1863 issuing safeguards against martial law, 43 years before this tragic day in San Francisco. The court did say, however, that the President could declare martial law when the circumstances warrant it, when the civil authority cannot operate: “If, in foreign invasion or civil war, the courts are actually closed, and it is impossible to administer criminal justice according to law, then, on the theatre of active military operations, where war really prevails, there is a necessity to furnish a substitute for the civil authority to preserve the safety of the army and society.â€

But there was no demonstrable “necessity†in San Francisco the morning of April 18, 1906. In almost every account of the catastrophe written by civilians at the time, it is assumed that martial law was declared – even if no pronouncement was actually made.

That Funston was a great man there is no doubt. He was an adventurer and intellect much in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt. And, he was a great military leader, having received the Medal of Honor for his courage in the Philippine Insurrection. But, history is replete with good and great men making mistakes of tragic consequence.

The general’s first mistake of the day was advising the mayor to have a shoot-to-kill policy. The second, a malfeasant misuse of manpower, was sending 1,700 troops into the city of San Francisco, a city at peace and in the midst of a significant life-threatening emergency, with fixed bayonets and ready for battle, as if every encounter of the day would be with an enemy. And, as well, he called for the liquor establishments to be immediately closed, and 600 policemen were used to close the liquor stores and bars when they could have been helping to fight the fires – if they were given, as the soldiers should have been given, sufficient work gloves, tools and buckets.