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Berkeley Police Had Hands Full with Quake Refugees

By Richard Schwartz Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 11, 2006

The following is an excerpt from Richard Schartz’s Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees. This is the third in a series of four installments from the book. The Daily Planet will run the last excerpt on April 18, the centennial of the 1906 quake. 


Law and order 

Providing food and shelter was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but Berkeleyans were also concerned about criminals and con men trying to come into town and take advantage of the disruption. 

Berkeley Police Marshal August Vollmer had been on the job exactly a year and a week when the earthquake struck. He was painfully aware that his small band of policemen was no match for the thousands flooding into town. 

By the fourth day after the quake, citizens of Berkeley, led by UC English Professor Charles Mills Gayley, petitioned Governor George Pardee to institute martial law in Berkeley. 

The governor refused, insisting that the civil authorities should be able to “take care of their own affairs.” 

Vollmer set up six special police districts, most of them headquartered in real estate offices in the neighborhoods. He then asked for volunteers to help deal with the “large number of questionable characters” showing up in Berkeley. 

As many as a thousand citizens answered the call and worked largely in pairs on night patrols, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., to prevent fires and crime around town and in the camps. They were told to patrol “wherever there was straw,” referring to the straw used in the camps to make sleeping on the ground more comfortable. 

UC cadets who had not gone to San Francisco were summoned for guard duty, as were their comrades when they returned from the city. Hundreds of U.S. Army veterans were deputized. UC President Wheeler wrote to President Roosevelt that “splendid order prevails” in Berkeley only because “stringent measures” were employed. 

Parents were advised to keep children inside, a 10 p.m. curfew was imposed, and if an able-bodied male in the camps refused work or carried a weapon, he was told to leave town. Many men departed rather than perform forced labor. 

Vollmer stationed officers at train stations and ferry terminals to check incoming refugees and prevent known criminals from slipping into town. Hundreds of criminals and ex-convicts were deported before they had a chance to cause trouble. Officers also patrolled the relief camps looking for pickpockets and other thieves. 

As in any disaster, some people were determined to help themselves to a large serving from the public pot. To prevent undeserving people from receiving relief food, plans were made to deliver each order and have an inspector make sure the recipients were truly in need. 

One person caught absconding with relief supplies was Honora Bentley of 2429 Ninth St., a wealthy Berkeley woman in her sixties with property and cash assets valued at more than $60,000. 

Vollmer spotted her at the YMCA posing as a refugee under the alias of Mary Smith and taking food and clothing intended for San Francisco refugees. He arrested her himself. Although she could easily have posted the $1,000 bail, she let Vollmer escort her to the county jail. The story of her incarceration made front-page headlines. 

Stealing relief supplies became a persistent problem. At one point, Vollmer asked that several apprehended thieves be brought into his office. When the detainees entered, he acted angrier than he actually was. He told them that stealing relief supplies could be summed up in one word—looting. 

“For that there is only one penalty,” he declared. He turned his head away from the men and secretly winked at a deputy on one side of the room, then whipped his head forward and shouted, “Death!” Scowling, he told the deputies to take them away. Word of Vollmer’s threat spread, and the stealing of supplies came to a halt.  

Vollmer was also asked to investigate rumors of local grocers selling government relief food. The government’s practice was to trade its extra sugar and crackers for local grocers’ stocks of soap and rice, which were in short supply in government stocks. He was unable to find grocers who illegally possessed government goods, but did admonish storeowners to keep their prices reasonable. 

Lorin District residents, responding to complaints of “extortionate prices,” met and formed their own committee of 47 members to deal with the problem. One law enacted in Berkeley after the earthquake penalized merchants and express-wagon men who overcharged customers or refused to remain open for business. The penalty for violators was confiscation of the store or wagon, which was then given to someone who could run the business responsibly.  

As both Berkeleyans and refugees began to adjust, many wished they could escape at night to the West Berkeley saloons, which had been ordered to close early, at 8 p.m., the evening after the earthquake. 

In May, as Vollmer was trying keep order and prevent criminal activities, frustrated workingmen clamored for allowing the saloons to remain open late. Others, however, spoke out just as loudly that the saloons should be closed entirely. The initial request to restrict the saloon hours to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. had been made by the San Francisco Relief Council.  

At a May 26 meeting of the Berkeley Board of Trustees (the city council), the trustees were presented with a petition to close the West Berkeley saloons entirely, signed by 170 people. The same issue was about to be discussed by Oakland’s City Council. 

Some Berkleyans believed that it would be useless for the city to close its saloons if Oakland did not do the same. Marshal Vollmer told the trustees that he had not noticed an increase in arrests for drunkenness and did not see that San Francisco men came to Berkeley to drink. He assured the trustees that restricted hours were being enforced. 

One trustee moved that the saloons be closed until those in San Francisco reopened. The motion carried, but was overturned within weeks, when attorneys representing the saloon keepers threatened action. Everyone realized that the Oakland saloons were open for business anyway. 


Earthquake Exodus, 1906 is available at local bookstores. See for speaking dates. 


On April 18 at City Council Chambers, the public is invited to a 3:30 p.m. ceremony at which Richard Schwartz will present Mayor Bates with a Certificate of Honor to the citizens of Berkeley from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Also, following the ceremony, BAHA will sponsor a lecture on the 1906 Berkeley Earthquake Relief effort and the book at the Berkeley City Club at 7:30 that night. Contact BAHA for tickets, at 841-2242. 


Photograph from the book Earthquake Exodus, 1906, with permission of the author, Richard Schwartz. 


Interior of the Stedge Saloon near Berkeley. The early town of Stedge straddles what are now the cities of El Cerrito and Richmond.m