“How many people were killed in the Charleston earthquake?” This is a common question with no straightforward answer.

According to the “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston, S.C.” maintained by the Charleston Health Department, twenty-seven people were killed on the night of the quake, August 31. Within a month, forty-nine more earthquake-related deaths were recorded, and seven more in October, for a total of 83 (62 blacks and 22 whites).

Although northern newspapers complained that too many deaths which took place days and weeks after August 31 were being attributed to the quake, the Health Department officials said the real numbers were probably even higher. Part of the problem is a lack of consensus over exactly what constituted an “earthquake death.” For example, a Mrs. Huguelet who lived on St. Philip Street was driven from her house when it caught fire on the night of the earthquake. Already ill, she was taken to St. Francis Xavier Hospital, where she died. The Charleston News and Couries claimed, “The fright and shock and exposure hastened her death.” (To complicate matters further, the city’s official “Return of Deaths” doesn’t list Mrs. Huguelet as having died at all.)

The number of people who suffered injuries was, of course, much higher. Practically everyone was cut, bruised, and lacerated. Knees and ankles were dislocated, skulls were fractured, arms and legs broken. Feet, legs, and arms were so crushed that often the only treatment was amputation.