Midwest Social Sciences Journal


Social scientists studying natural disasters have generally found an absence of panic, a decrease in crime, and survivors working together to find basic necessities in the days and weeks after a catastrophe. By contrast, political and military authorities implement measures such as martial law to prevent chaos and lawlessness threatening private property. The media amplifies narratives of disorder, creating the perception of uncontrolled masses wantonly committing crimes in a disaster’s aftermath. Historians study natural disasters to view political, social, economic, and cultural structures stripped of their everyday veneer. The 1861 earthquake that destroyed the provincial capital of Mendoza in western Argentina provides an opportunity to examine narratives of disorder in newspapers and in survivor accounts that highlighted rampant looting and attributed these actions to rural peoples and the popular masses. Reports from the earthquake’s aftermath reflected the political conflicts between the hegemonic urban center of Buenos Aires and the interior provinces of Argentina, as well as the social divisions between urban elites and the lower classes. Judicial and criminal records from Mendoza, however, showed a decrease in crime after the earthquake, as well as rates of theft and robbery similar to those before the catastrophe, contradicting popular accounts of pervasive lawlessness.