Hell on Earth:
The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake
By Chris Oakley
Natural disasters can, and often do, change the course of history; from the meteor said to have wiped out the dinosaurs almost 75 million years ago to the ravages Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans in 2005, there are countless examples of how such disasters can transform the world. In some extreme cases, these catastrophes can shatter whole societies; one of those cases happened in the spring of 1893 right on the United Statesí own doorstep, when one of the worst quakes ever to strike the Americas leveled Mexico City and touched off a sequence of events that not only balkanized Mexico but also threatened to end its very existence.
The poor, still-fragmented Mexico we know today is a pale shadow of the great nation that once stretched from the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Tehuantepec; the 1893 earthquake not only wrecked Mexico City but also substantially weakened the Mexican federal governmentís hold on its outer provinces. With then-Mexican president Portofilo Diaz and much of his cabinet perishing in the quake, the country was plunged into political chaos that ultimately led to many of the outer states being absorbed by Mexicoís neighbors-- some by choice, as when Sonora and Chihuahua accepted an offer to join the United States in 1897, and others by coercion, as when Campeche was occupied by the Guatemalan army in 1901.
The modern Richter scale wasnít available when the 1893 Mexico City quake occurred, but from written accounts by survivors of the quake and photographs taken in its aftermath scientists have been able to estimate the strength of the main tremor as being somewhere between 8.8 and 9.1 with the aftershocks averaging in the high 7 range. Casualties from the main temblor alone exceeded half a million dead or injured; tens of thousands more would perish from disease, starvation, or the civil unrest which plagued the Mexican capital in the days immediately following the quake.
At the time the Mexico City earthquake hit, Portofilo Diaz was in his second tenure as president of Mexico. First rising to power in 1876 in a military coup, his first term in office ended when he was himself overthrown in 1880; in 1884, however, he was able to reclaim the presidency and used Mexicoís army to crush all opposition to his rule. Many historians speculate that had Diaz not been killed in the 1893 quake, he might have eventually been assassinated or driven into exile by his political enemies.1 He was despised by the vast majority of his fellow Mexicans, particularly the Indian communities whose lands heíd commandeered for the benefit of the upper class. In fact, in the days after the quake a macabre joke went around that Diaz couldnít really be dead because God didnít want anything to do with him and the Devil was afraid of him.
While that might be an exaggeration, it certainly reflects the degree of contempt and hate in which Diaz was held by those who didnít share his authoritarian leanings or his preference for lining the pockets of the elite at the expense of the ordinary Mexican. So itís no surprise that there was little genuine mourning when his death was officially confirmed. Some people, in fact, openly celebrated Diazís demise; a few of them literally danced on his grave.
On the morning of April 16th, 1893 President Diaz and his top cabinet officials were gathered in the presidential palace in Mexico City for their usual daily policy meeting; outside, the citizens of the Mexican capital were going about their own daily routines, unaware of the calamity that was about to descend on them all. The clock had just struck 10:00 AM when the first tremors hit...
The epicenter for the quake is believed to have been roughly fifteen miles east of Mexico City. The land around the Mexican capital has long been known to be seismically volatile; as recently as 2002 the city experienced tremors in the 5.5-6.0 range, and geological experts have warned that within the next century the city could be struck by quakes on a scale equal to, perhaps even greater than, the one which wrecked it in 1893.
The main tremor of the earthquake engulfed Mexico City so fast and so violently that most of the cityís residents didnít even have time to look for shelter before they were killed by falling debris or the fires touched off by gas lamps broken in the temblor. One of the first buildings to collapse in the quake was the presidential palace; Portofilo Diaz and at least half of his cabinet ministers were crushed to death during the palaceís cave-in, and even those of his aides who managed to escape alive were so badly injured they had to be carried away from the palace ruins on stretchers.
By the time the main quake ended barely two minutes after it began, Mexico City looked like a war zone and its people were gripped with a bone-chilled terror. With the machinery of civilian government in the Mexican capital ripped apart by the temblor, the army assumed control of the city and declared martial law; joined by the few police who had managed to survive the initial tremors, the army troops tasked with enforcing the martial law decree immediately moved to arrest looters, rapists, and others seen as disturbing the peace. A tribunal was formed to judge those accused of violating the decree; more often than not, the tribunalís verdict was "guilty" and those convicted were put to death by firing squad.
The already hazardous state of affairs in Mexico City was made even more so by the aftershocks which struck it on April 18th, killing many of those whoíd survived the main quake and disrupting the Mexican armyís attempts to enforce martial law. While the army was trying to reassert its authority, roving gangs formed from the roughest sections of the city began robbing and plundering its surviving residents; the city was also plagued by riots as the Mexican capitalís normal food distribution systems remained incapacitated in the days following the original quake.
This chaotic situation not only hampered food and medical relief efforts, it also interfered with the vital work of rescuing survivors and identifying the dead. To cite just one especially famous example, it took more than a week to officially confirm Portofilo Diazís death; armed gangs, some of whose ranks included army deserters and mutinous elements of the very police force that was supposed to be keeping law and order in Mexico City, had fought the government and each other for possession of the ruins of the presidential palace and as a result it was nearly impossible for search parties to get inside until the gangs had been cleared out.
The quake severely disrupted telegraph service to and from the Mexican capital; while estimates vary as to how much of that service was knocked out by the main tremor and subsequent aftershocks, it can be reliably stated that at least 93% of Mexico Cityís telegraph lines were still down ten days after the quake. With civil unrest plaguing the capital, repairing those lines proved a very daunting task indeed. To communicate with each other and with the outside world ordinary citizens, as well as what was left of the Mexican federal government, were forced to use letters hand-delivered by messengers on horseback or (when road conditions permitted, which wasnít often) motorcycle.
With Mexico Cityís sanitation systems gravely hurt by the April earthquake, conditions were ripe for an outbreak of all manner of fatal diseases. The Mexican capitalís hospital facilities, already crammed to the bursting point by those injured in the quake and the civil unrest which followed it, were unable to handle the outbreaks of cholera and dysentery plaguing the city in the days following the main tremor.
Of course, given the hideous blows the city had suffered already, it could have been predicted that the machinery of health care in Mexico City would collapse under the weight of the staggering number of disease victims added on top of those who had died in the quake and its aftershocks and the civil unrest the tremors had helped bring on. What couldnít have been predicted was that this collapse would happen so rapidly; by April 25th, scarcely two days after the first cases of dysentery were reported, there were was only one doctor available for every 450 hospital patients, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of dysentery and cholera or the pain many quake survivors were still suffering literally couldnít be found anywhere. Post-op infection rates among what was left of the Mexican capitalís surgical wards skyrocketed, and many doctors simply walked away from their jobs because they couldnít cope with the mental and emotional trauma the quake had inflicted on them as well as their patients. It would take a miracle to pull the apparatus of medical care in Mexico City back together...
On April 27th Grover Cleveland, who was then in the first round of his second term as President of the United States,2 convened a special session of Congress to propose a bill to aid the beleaguered citizens of Mexico City. Private charities had already contributed a great deal to help Mexico Cityís people, but there was a limit to what they could accomplish-- and though he didnít have all the facts about the damage the earthquake had caused, what he did know made it painfully clear the Mexican government was unable to cope with the disaster. Therefore, Cleveland said, it was time for Washington to step in.
The conservative and progressive sectors of the American political spectrum, normally at odds with each other on the topic of US interventions abroad, united to support President Clevelandís aid proposal. The right saw a chance to defuse potential threats to Americaís southern border and to spread Protestantism in Mexico; the left saw an opportunity to, if not abolish, certainly loosen the class restrictions that had kept the Mexican masses down since Mexico first gained independence from Spain in 1810; and both sides saw an opening for the United States to enhance its standing in Latin America.
The Mexico City aid bill was approved by Congress on April 29th and signed into law by President Cleveland the next day; on May 3rd the first relief convoys from the US to the ruined Mexican capital departed Laredo, Texas under a typically hot Southwestern sun. When the first vehicles of the convoy entered Mexico City about a week later, American officials learned that the situation was worse than even the most pessimistic reports had led them to believe. Civilian authority was virtually nonexistent in the city and the martial law administration which had been imposed by the Mexican army in the earthquakeís aftermath was crumbling away as more and more disaffected Mexican soldiers and police defected to the gangs who were running personal fiefdoms in the heart of Mexico City...
To Be Continued
1For an example of how a successful uprising might have been mounted against Diaz in a timeline where the 1893 quake never happened, see Michael R. Hathawayís essay "Venceremos! The Mexican Revolution of 1907" in the Greenhill alternate history book The Rio Grande Options: Alternate Decisions of Mexican History(copyright 2002 by Greenhill Books in the UK, Stackpole Books in the US).
2Interestingly, Cleveland is the only two-term president not to have served both terms consecutively; prior to his second term the office had been held by Benjamin Harrison, who Cleveland defeated in the 1892 US presidential elections.