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Serious charges of looting by members of the U.S. Army surfaced after the earthquake as storeowners in the unburned area around the Montgomery Block began to send demands for payment of looted goods to Gen. Greely. Those claims were rejected by him after he received reports from officers of the 20th and 22nd Infantry, who were stationed at the Appraisers' Building at Sansome and Jackson, as well as around the nearby Montgomery Block in the 600 block of Montgomery Street.
Department Rifle Range,
Rodeo Valley, California,
May 24th, 1906

Respectfully returned to the Adjutant, 22nd Infantry Headquarters 3d Military District, Fort Mason, San Francisco, Cal.,

Relative to the matter presented in this letter the preceding endorsements hereon I submit the following detailed statement. On the morning of April 18th I was ordered by the Battalion Commander to proceed to and guard the U.S. Custom House. I arrived there about ten o'clock and posted a guard about the Custom House. My instructions did not especially contemplate the protection of private property.

When I arrived there the streets in the vicinity were crowded with people and the fire was approaching rapidly from the east and southeast, and was within less than a block of the Custom House, which was imminently threatened. I posted the rest of my men in the building to fight the fire. As soon as the immediate danger to Custom House was over I used my men throughout the rest of the 18th, and during the night to assist the firemen, and in fighting fire on my own responsibility and in guarding the Custom- House and Station "B" Post-Office.

On the morning of the 19th I sent and Officer and a detachment of 20 men to Oakland leaving me only sufficient men to guard the Government's property. On the afternoon of the 20th the Custom House was again threatened by fire approaching from west to north, Company "K" 22nd Infty. under Captain [Daniel G.] Berry came to my assistance [and] together we fought the fire that P.M., again saving the Custom House and the block where the [complainant's] firm is located. Several times the block caught, I had men on the roofs who extinguished the flames during the afternoon and night and to protect it from flying sparks. It was not until 8 P.M. on the 20th when it seemed likely that this block would be saved that I posted a guard in the streets about a block to protect the property.

It will be seen from the foregoing that until this time my force had all it could do in other directions and no attention could be given to other property. In the meantime the fire approached this block on 3 sides and adjacent buildings had been dynamited and windows and doors broken by the blasts. All property located there had been practically abandoned even before my arrival at the Custom House.

Ample opportunity was afforded any passersby to take from any of the exposed stock what he might desire and I have no doubt a great part of this stock was thus taken as Washington street was filled with people who were watching the fire and backing away from its approach.

On the morning of the 21st Captain Berry and I went around and through the buildings of this block, most of the buildings had been entered and the stock of goods broken into and it was evident that a great deal had been taken away. After our guard was posted on the evening of the 20th, no one was permitted inside our lines without a permit from me and I refused no property owner access to his property who could satisfactorily establish his identity and permitted such watchmen as they would vouch for to accompany them. This I did on several occasions. Nor was any property permitted to be taken by any person except what was taken by a relief party under charge of a policeman in uniform who had the authority in writing signed by the chief of police [Jeremiah Dinan]. Even in this case while supplies were taken for use of refugees said to be located at Portsmouth- Square several express loads were taken from different stores in this vicinity.

As to the allegations in the complained I find them to be indefinite as to time, place, persons and so forth, and as my knowledge of localities is hazy, I cannot reply to them except in a general way that any goods were wantonly or maliciously destroyed or taken away after I put on guard the evening of the 20th, I utterly deny.

I also desire to state that the United States was under no obligation or responsibility upon which the slightest claim can be based. As I was not in any sense in charge, custody, or control of any property other than the Custom-house and Post-Office.

I stationed a guard on the streets as soon as I could do so, to prevent unauthorized persons from molesting unprotected property. In addition I would state that other troops of marines, Artillery navy and revenue cutter service were stationed in this vicinity assisting and protecting and saving property.

(Sgd.) Orrin R. Wolfe, Captain 22nd Infty.

William Taylor, with the law firm of Stidger and Stidger, wrote to Secretary of War Taft, in September 1906, to demand payment for losses incurred by one claimant. He wrote, "The matter to which your attention is now respectfully called has been submitted to the Division Commander, Pacific Division [Gen. Greely], and he has directed the Military Secretary 'to say that no further action can be had in the matter at these headquarters.' "

Taylor's letter continued: "At the time of the recent earthquake at San Francisco, and during the days of the conflagration which destroyed the business portions of the city, much looting was carried on, and unnumbered robberies were committed. Among the looters and robbers, the majority of whom it was impossible to identify on account of the chaotic conditions then prevailing, it was observed that soldiers of the U.S. Army in notable numbers were especially active. The fact that these plunderers wore the uniforms of the army of the United States, and bore the regulation arms openly and menacingly, rendered their connection with the Military Department of the Government easy, though their individual identity could not be noted."

The five-page letter was accompanied by 13 affidavits from special police officers, volunteer firefighters and businessmen who each swore they saw soldiers looting businesses in the unburned blocks surrounding Sansome and Jackson streets.

Appeals to Secretary Taft caused the Division of the Pacific to begin an investigation by the inspector-general's office.

Hearings on the matter continued into early 1907, and on February 2 of that year Captain Wolfe testified before the Army hearing at Fort Mason. A stenographic transcription of his testimony was found in the National Archives. The Division's Inspector General, J.L. Chamberlain, asked the questions.

FEBRUARY 2, 1907

Captain Orrin R. Wolfe, 22nd Infantry, being sworn testified as follows:

Q. On the 18th of April, 1906, after the earthquake, where did you take station with your company in the city of San Francisco?

A. At the United States Appraisers' Building; I arrived there about 10:30 a.m.

Q. Are you familiar with the building known as the Montgomery Block, located on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets?

A. Yes sir, I know there is such a building stands there - I didn't know that it was called the Montgomery Block, but I am familiar with the building which you describe.

Q. Did you on the 18th of April place a guard in the vicinity of this building?

A. I did not sir. On the morning of the 18th as soon as I arrived I posted a squad on each face of the building of the Custom House, placing two sentries out with each squad. Before this even as the company was halted and in line I gave instructions that no man was to leave the immediate vicinity of the building. The rest of the company was held within the building until the firemen came to me and asked if I would let them have some men to assist in carrying hose, which I did.

At no time on the 18th were my men stationed in the vicinity of the Montgomery Block. I think it was on the 21st that I feared the Custom House was surely going - I sent word to my regimental commander that I would like have some more troops, and he sent Captain Berry's company. We then fought for several hours and saved the Customs House. Then, for the first time, I walked around the block bounded by Washington, Montgomery, Jackson and Sansome streets, with Captain Berry. We noticed nearly all the stores except for those that had iron shutters and doors, had been entered.

We came back to the Custom House and as this block contained a number of liquor stores that I didn't know were there before, and as I had ample men then, I put several sentries around different portions of the block; I also put a sentry on Washington street in this block and near Montgomery, where we were getting our fresh water from for cooking purposes, it was an old restaurant, and this is practically opposite what I understand to be the Montgomery Block.

The orders were in general to allow no one to enter or to take anything from any of these buildings unless by authority. As I remember it the relief for these sentries was held on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets. That afternoon, when Captain Berry and I inspected this block, I observed an express wagon backed up at the Montgomery Block on Washington street with a policeman in uniform removing groceries. I inquired of the policeman where they were going and was told that they were relief supplies going to Portsmouth Square; as that was not in my territory I did nothing about it.

Q. Did you at any time post sentries or take charge of the block referred to as the Montgomery Block?

A. I had no sentries posted there; the general instructions were to see that people did not remove anything from the buildings that were left standing.

Q. Did you at any time have any of your sentries posted on Washington Street between Montgomery and Merchant streets?

A. No sir, I did not.

Q. Did you at any time make a personal inspection of this building on its various faces?

I entered the side on Washington Street with Captain Berry on the afternoon of the 21st. I entered a grocery store on the Washington street side with Captain Berry. I never went on the Montgomery street side of this building. To the best of my knowledge that street was, on the 18th and 19th, guarded by a detachment of Marines, which had its headquarters at the Sub Treasury. On the morning of the 18th shortly after my arrival at the Custom House, I saw Artillerymen patrolling Washington street between Sansome and Montgomery until the fire drove them away; I do not know whether they were posted there or not.

Q. Was this the store at whose door you saw the wagon with the policeman?

A. I think it was, I am not positive there were several stores of the same character.

Q. What was the conditions in those stores?

A. Everything was in much confusion.

Q. When was that did you say?

A. It was not earlier than the 21st; it might have been the 20th, I am not positive, but it was the day that Captain Berry came to assist me that I entered the store.

Q. Did your men at any time occupy as a guard house or as a sleeping from the room on the ground floor of the Montgomery Block at the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets?

A. Not to my knowledge.

Q. So you know nothing yourself about the face of the building?

A. I know nothing about it.

Q. When was your command relieved from duty at the Custom House?

A. I thing it was on the afternoon of the 22nd, by the 20th Infantry.

Q. Prior to your being relieved was any inspection of this locality made by the Commanding Officer of the 20th Infantry?

A. Yes sir, when they came to relieve me the Commanding Officer of the 20th Infantry, accompanied by myself, Lieutenant Novak and possibly others, went around the block bounded by Washington, Sansome, Jackson and Montgomery streets.

Did you make any inspection of the adjacent block bounded by Washington and Merchant streets?

No sir, not that I remember of at that time.

What was the character of your orders on the morning of April 18th?

A. My orders were to proceed to the Custom House and use my discretion; I understood these orders to mean that my duty was to protect the Custom House and any United States property there was also an adjoining sub-post-office station on Jackson street few doors from Sansome and I placed a guard over that.

Q. Was there much drunkenness among your men during the period that you were on duty at the Custom House?

A. Very little indeed -- one or two men were under the influence; there was more or less drinking as was natural since the whole community was a bar-room and liquor was flowing like water, but I saw no man of my company, nor Captain Berry's company, that was so drunk that he could not walk, and only two or three who were not able to perform their duties at all times.

An officer of the day was regularly detailed and made frequent inspections night and day of the entire district, had there been any great irregularities he certainly must have discovered them and would have reported them - no such report came to me.

On April 18th, when I went to the Custom House it appeared that we were marching into a wall of fire and there were crowds on the street, everybody was panic-stricken and people were backing away from the fire and carrying things in wagons, rushing here and there loaded down and I particularly noticed, as I was standing on the corner of Washington and Sansome streets, that wagons were backed up to the sidewalks on each side and people were loading stuff into them and hurrying away.

The hearings were apparently inconclusive as owners of Garbini Bros. & Company found out from this letter written by Samuel W. Dunning, the Division's Adjutant General.

April 5, 1907. Messrs. Garbini Bros. & Company
541 - 547 Washington Street,
San Francisco, California.


Referring to your claim for $3799.24 for wines and liquors, submitted to these headquarters, I have the honor to inform you that you claim was thoroughly investigated by an inspector, the result of which was submitted to the War Department for consideration, and that the following conclusions of the War Department are, by direction of the Acting Secretary of War, communicated to you:

    "There is no allegation that the property was taken or destroyed by competent military authority. If we accept the statement made by the claimant that the spoliation was the unlawful and tortious act of individual soldiers the following would appear to be the law applicable to the case: 'The United States is not responsible for unlawful acts of its soldiers and employees, and the Secretary of War is not empowered to allow a claim for personal property stolen or illegally appropriated by a soldier." (Par. 783, Dig.Opins.J.A.G.)
    "It is well settled that the United States is not legally responsible for the torts of its officers or agents, whether of commission or omission". Pitman v. U.S., 20 C.Cls., 255; Gibbons v. U.S., & Wall., 269; id., 7Ct.Cls., 105; Morgan v. U.S., 14 Wall., 531.
    Judge Story in his work on agency, sec.319, says "It is plain that the Government itself is not responsible for the misfeasances or wrongs or negligences or omissions of duty of the subordinate officers or agents employed in the public service; for it does not undertake to guarantee to any person the fidelity of any of the officers or agents whom it employs, since that would involve it, in all its operations, in endless embarrassments and difficulties and losses, which would be subversive of the public interests". (Note 1, Par. 784, Dig.Opins.J.A.G.)

    After careful examination of all the documents and exhibits in the case, the Department must refuse to favorably entertain the claim".

Very respectfully,


Adjutant General.


Return to the 1906 Earthquake Exhibit.

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