Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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The Effects of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake on Crime

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco shook with the estimated magnitude of 7.9, though some believe it reached 8.25. Subsequent fires from ruptured gas lines then ravaged the city, causing an estimated 90% of the total damage to the city. Just five days earlier, Folsom  executed its 22nd man, William Gray.


Two hours east of the quake, the gray granite fortress surely felt the early morning rumble, but suffered little to no damage. San Quentin, however, experienced an influx of inmates as prisoners from San Francisco jails were transported to the Marin County penitentiary.

It’s natural to assume crime would run rampant while law enforcement concentrated their efforts on finding survivors and putting their city back together. Surprisingly, crime took a break in the wake of the quake. James Johnston, Folsom’s warden in 1912, called it “a great purifier.”

“It scared the sin out of some people and tore masks off make-believers. Everybody cooked in the street and many slept in the parks, where fresh air and new thoughts could get at them. Button-pushers and bell-ringers took their turn with day laborers cleaning up the debris. There were no saloons to open or close, and nobody seemed to want a drink. The people had before them important business of planning and building a new city while the old still trembled and burned. There was little looting and pillaging.”

Stories are told about my great-great uncle, Tom (who is responsible for me writing Folsom’s 93 in the first place) and his role in the quake. Tom was a teenager in 1906 and his brother (or father—not sure which) was the fire chief of San Francisco—or maybe he was the police chief at the time . . . Anyway, Tom and his friends navigated the city on roller skates, collecting and delivering bodies to the morgue. Between the earthquake and the fire, the death toll reached well over 3,000 and over half of its 410, 000 residents became homeless.

The reprieve from crime didn’t last long. Gas-pipe thugs terrorized the already-stricken residents of San Fran and soon, it was business as usual.