San Francisco, 1906: The Law and Citizenship in Disaster
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San Francisco, 1906: The Law and Citizenship in Disaster


Using the city of San Francisco and the earthquake and fire of 1906 as a case study, this paper examines the use of violence to impose public order, while seeking to show that disaster can affect the laws of a community. In San Francisco, the belief that martial law was in effect led to a power shift. The confusion created a unique situation in which city leaders contradicted the very law they were seeking to enforce, and obliterated the rights of citizens in the name of protection and public order.

In the scholarship of the 1906 disaster, most works that consider the military involvement in disaster tend to downplay the events, which so many memoirs, eyewitness accounts, and newspaper reports described from that year. This paper uses those primary sources to show how Mayor Schmitz and the military leaders directly affected the scale of the urban disaster that followed the earthquake by essentially seizing power through the military. The mayor’s illegal declaration and actions caused confusion in the city and altered the parameters of citizenship. Secondary research in both the field of history and the field of disaster studies will allow this paper to explicate the laws of the federal, state, and city government, which will explain the extralegal and illegal activities of the leaders of San Francisco and the effect those actions had on the catastrophe.

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