Six Bits or Bust: Insurance Litigation over the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

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In 1906, California fire insurance policies excepted coverage of a variety of losses caused by earthquake. During and after their great tragedy of that year, San Francisco property owners wondered if their damages resulted from the uninsured quake or the insured fire. Citizens and leaders praised underwriters who paid claims in full, and condemned those who denied or compromised liability. Setting aside both the condemnation and the praise, one might reasonably ask what the policies legally covered. It was a vital question for policyholders and underwriters alike. While the sparks still flew and the firestorms still raged, British consul general Walter Courtney Bennett predicted, “If the insurance is not paid the city is ruined. If it is paid, many of the insurance companies will break.”

A battle of words and images arose as soon as the battles against the flames died down. San Franciscans took elaborate care to refer to the “fire,” not the “earthquake.” Photographs were said to have been taken, destroyed, or doctored in ways that might support the contention that a building had been

either severely toppled—or wholly unaffected—by the temblor. Partly this was to convince the outside world that the losses were the result more of fire, a casualty to which many cities were subject and which is susceptible of prevention, than of an inscrutable act of God. But partly the words and photographs were intended as opening skirmishes in the coming fights with the insurance companies.

Originally published in Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society - Fall/Summer 2011.

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