California Earthquakes: “The Spirit of Humanity” and Mark Twain

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | January 17, 2014

January 17, 2014
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Earthquakes, or more particularly, the ability to nonchalantly speculate on their magnitude as the walls shake, are a normal part of life for native Californians. Visitors, however, are usually alarmed. On the 20th anniversary of the Great Northridge Earthquake of 1994 – the largest to occur along the infamous San Andreas Fault since the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 – we are reminded of visitor Mark Twain in San Francisco enjoying, as he put it, his first earthquake. That was in 1865, he recalled in Roughing It, and when he suddenly felt a great rattle in the street, he thought at first that he’d come upon a promising fight: “an item” for his paper! As the ground rolled beneath him, however, his reportorial instinct was to note the time – and observe buildings collapsing, horses plunging, half-washed children and half-shaved men rushing, pell-mell, into the streets. His gimlet-eye open, he recorded how prominent citizens emerged from saloons in their shirt-sleeves, pool cues in hand, and a Consul’s wife fled her bath in a towel. Having then, experienced for himself what a California earthquake could be like, Twain was quick to respond, we see here Between the Lines, when it happened again, in 1906…

The shock of the earthquake which struck San Francisco on the morning of April 18, 1906 – leveling countless buildings, starting a fire that lasted three days, and taking hundreds of lives – was felt all across the country. New York City was no exception and overnight, organizations were formed to give aid. One of them was the California Artists Relief Society, and it was for this organization that Robert Reid painted the picture, “The Spirit of Humanity,” which Clemens writes so movingly about here, on April 30th:

"The Spirit of Humanity" by Robert Reid. The Richard Lewis Hillstrom Fund.

“I keep thinking about that picture – I cannot get it out of my mind. I think – no, I know that it is the most moving, the most eloquent, the most profoundly pathetic picture I have ever seen. It wrings the heart to look at it, it is so desolate, so grieved. It realizes San Francisco to us as words have not done & cannot do. I wonder how many women can look upon it & keep back their tears – or how many unhardened men, for that matter?”

Photo of devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco
San Francisco, April 18, 1906. Library of Congress.

Clemens, then living in New York City, was devastated by the earthquake. Just two days after the cataclysm, he spoke not only of his experience in the 1865 quake, but how as a young man he had moved to San Francisco to seek, and find, his fame and fortune there. Arriving in 1863 a knockabout reporter from Virginia City, Nevada, he left in 1866 an acclaimed columnist, lecturer and, as the author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country,” a writer of some promise.

Reid’s charcoal and pastel drawing “The Spirit of Humanity” depicted a woman taking a child into her arms, while at her knees another woman knelt. It sold on May 6th – less than three weeks after the San Francisco earthquake – for $250 to New York art dealer William Clausen.

SAMUEL L. CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN). 1835 – 1910. American novelist and humorist. Like Huckleberry Finn, “there was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Autograph Letter Signed (“Mark”), 2 pages, octavo, on black-bordered mourning stationery, 21 Fifth Avenue, [New York City], April 30 [1906]. To ROBERT REID (1873 – 1929), American painter and New York City Clubman.

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