The Heat Wave of 1896 and the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
By Fresh Air, NPR
During the summer of 1896, a 10-day heat wave killed nearly 1,500 people, many of them tenement-dwellers, across New York City. Many thousands of people were crammed into tenements on the Lower East Side, with no air conditioning, little circulating air and no running water. Families were packed together — with five to six people sharing a single room. Extra space on the floor was rented out to single men — many of whom worked six days a week doing manual labor out in the sun.
“It was so densely packed that most people couldn’t even live inside the tenement itself,” says Ed Kohn, a professor of American history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. “The streets in front of tenements, and the rooftops and the fire escapes were … filled with people all of the time because there was no room for everybody to fit inside.”
Kohn is the author of Hot Time in the Old Town, which chronicles the fatal heat wave.
“This was 10 days [with temperatures reaching] 90 degrees at street level and 90 percent humidity, with temperatures not even dropping at night,” Kohn says. “No wind — so at night there was absolutely no relief whatsoever.”
At the time, there was a citywide ban on sleeping in New York City’s public parks. Kohn says one of the simplest things the city could have done was lift the ban — giving people a place to sleep away from their squalid tenements, which might have prevented many of the deaths.
“They took to the rooftops, and they took to the fire escapes, trying to catch a breath of fresh air,” he says. “Inevitably, somebody would fall asleep or get drunk, roll off the top of a five-story tenement, crash into the courtyard below and be killed. You’d have children who would go to sleep on fire escapes and fall off and break their legs or be killed. People [tried] to go down to the piers on the East River and sleep there, out in the open — and would roll into the river and drown.”
Until the very last days of the crisis, the city government did very little to help its poorest residents survive the heat wave. The mayor didn’t call an emergency meeting of his department heads until the very last day — and even then, it was a little-known police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt who championed the efforts to help New Yorkers survive the heat.
“[Roosevelt is] the one who champions the idea of the city giving away free ice to the poorest people living on the Lower East Side,” Kohn explains. “And he personally supervises the distribution of ice. And after the ice was distributed, Roosevelt took it upon himself to tour the back alleys of some of the worst tenement districts in the United States to see how people were using the ice. So Roosevelt witnessed firsthand how immigrant fathers would chip off ice and give it to their children to suck on … I can’t think how many American presidents have had such intimate contact with the urban poor.”
Kohn says the incident helped shape Roosevelt’s progressive thinking and shaped his future life in political office — first as the governor of New York and later as the president of the United States.
“He was an urban reformer. His origins are in New York urban politics,” Kohn says. “His roots ran deep into the soil of Manhattan, and for the rest of his life, he considered himself a New Yorker” — and went on to become a great champion of tenement reform.
Excerpt: ‘Hot Time in the Old Town’
Prologue – “The Heated Term”
On August 15, 1896, while preparing to depart for a three-week vacation out west, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna, whom he called his Darling Bye. “We’ve had two excitements in New York the past week; the heated term, and Bryan’s big meeting,” he wrote. “The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses, and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence, and we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts.” Roosevelt, then 37 and president of New York’s Board of Police Commissioners, was describing one of the most historic weeks in the city’s history.
The “heated term” was an unprecedented heat wave that hit New York over ten days in August 1896. Temperatures in the 90s were accompanied by high humidity. For the duration, even at night thermometers never dropped below 70 degrees, and over the course of a week and a half the heat wave wore New Yorkers down. The eventual death-toll numbered nearly 1300 victims.
Yet the 1896 New York heat wave remains one of the most forgotten natural disasters in American history. It is in the nature of heat waves to kill slowly, with no physical manifestation, no property damage, and no single catastrophic event that marks them as a disaster. For that reason the heat wave is only infrequently remembered, even though it claimed more victims than the 1863 New York City draft riots or the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.
Our collective failure to remember this disaster may also have something to do with the identities of the victims. While the very young and very old were the most vulnerable, the heat wave also took a terrible toll on the working poor, the death lists containing the names of hundreds of surprisingly young men who were literally worked to death.
The living conditions of New York’s poor were dire. By August 1896 the entire country had been suffering through a severe economic depression for three years. Millions were out of work. New York, experiencing a wave of massive immigration, seemed particularly hard hit. The tenements of the Lower East Side teemed with recent arrivals who could scarcely afford food or medical care. The combination of poor living conditions, poor working conditions, poor diet, and poor medical care, with temperatures inside the brick tenements easily reaching 120 degrees, killed hundreds of New Yorkers.
Roosevelt’s compared the heat wave to a cholera epidemic for good reason. Although the heat wave was not an epidemic by any medical definition, the slow unfolding of the tragedy resembled the periodic outbreaks of cholera that had plagued New York throughout the century, more than it did such spectacular disasters as the Great Fire of 1835 or the Blizzard of 1888. Like cholera, the heat in August 1896 struck quietly and undramatically.
New Yorkers remembered 1832’s cholera epidemic as the worst they had ever experienced. That summer the disease had swept through the city. Those who had the means to leave town did so as quickly as possible, leaving the New York almost half empty. For the poor souls that remained — quite literally, the poorest of the inhabitants — some neighborhoods took on the cast of Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death.” Pedestrians risked being trampled by the hearses that plied the streets day and night. The air was hazy from the burning of the sick’s bedding and clothing. Dead bodies lay in the street untouched by the living who were scared to approach them, while rats feasted on those buried in shallow graves. A simple stomachache might indicate a symptom of the dreaded disease. Turned away from private hospitals over 2,000 sick New Yorkers swarmed into Bellevue. Attendants stacked bodies in the morgue while patients lay dying in hallways. In the end over 3500 died.
It would take concerted preparations to defeat cholera. Epidemics recurred in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. Finally in 1892, with a new epidemic sweeping across Europe, New York officials prepared to combat the epidemic on the basis of the latest advances in microbiology. Indeed, the city prepared as if for war, readying a special corps of doctors, hospital ships in the rivers for quarantine patients, and an army of workers to scrub and disinfect 39,000 tenements.
In the end, New York won the war. Although the epidemic of 1892 killed 2500 Russians each day, only nine New Yorkers died, and the dread disease would never menace the city again. Defeating cholera illustrated what steps a determined nineteenth-century city must take to prevent a catastrophe from killing its citizenry. In 1896, however, New York City made no concerted effort to combat the heat wave as it had cholera only a few years before. The results were tragic.
Yet it is difficult to entirely blame government officials for failing to respond to the heat wave crisis. The especially insidious and subtle nature of heat waves made it difficult to combat the 1896 “heated term.” Furthermore, decades before the New Deal or Great Society reforms, there was simply no social safety net for the poor. During the Depressions of the 1890s government officials had once again eschewed any responsibility for the poor, the hungry, or the unemployed. “It is not the province of the government to support the people,” New York governor Roswell P. Flower sniffed. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed that “while the people should support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.” Clearly “the people” were on their own.
No surprise, then, that the city failed to respond to the crisis of the heat wave. The mayor did not even bother to call an emergency meeting of department heads until over a week into the heat wave, when it was almost over. Only a handful of city officials addressed the crisis. The Commissioner of Public Works changed his men’s work hours to the coolest parts of the day, and arranged for the streets to be hosed down — or “flushed” — to cool them off and wash away the filth and garbage. Theodore Roosevelt recommended that the city purchase and give away free ice to the city’s poor. This simple and relatively cheap measure may have saved many lives, and marked Roosevelt’s continuing education as an urban reformer. Despite these small efforts, the heat wave illustrated the way New York failed to care for its neediest citizens during a great disaster.
The same week of the heat wave witnessed the start of the 1896 presidential campaign. While Republican nominee William McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, conducting his campaign from his front porch, his adviser Mark Hanna came to town to open the Republican National Headquarters. Hanna took time to consult with Republican party leaders about campaign matters, including raising money and arranging campaign speakers. One Republican ready to take the stump for Republican nominee was Theodore Roosevelt.
William McKinley was a former Ohio governor and congressman who had chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In 1890 he had made the name McKinley a household name after introducing into the House a bill that raised tariffs to historically high levels. The McKinley Tariff, as it became known, and the bill’s namesake both remained the favorite of American business interests. This remained especially true after the Panic of 1893, an economic meltdown caused by overbuilding and a contraction of credit. In February 1893 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had been the first major American business to fall, sending shockwaves throughout the economic system. Credit froze, and by year’s end hundreds of banks and nearly 16,000 more businesses followed. With the current economic crisis occurring on the watch of Democratic president Grover Cleveland, men like John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Steel, and J.P. Morgan of the “House of Morgan” financial empire, looked to the Republican candidate to maintain stability and foster steady growth. This became even more imperative as many Democrats called for the United States to leave the gold standard and back the American dollar with both gold and silver. Seeming to signify inflation and a weakened dollar, “bimetallism” haunted the dreams of American businessmen.
Not all Republicans shared such an intense interest in protecting American business. As part of the progressive wing of the Republican party, Roosevelt had always been more interested in government and urban reform than trade and the money supply. The words “tariff” and “bimetallism” might have been the burning national issues of the various presidential campaigns, but Roosevelt had never been particularly keen on economic issues. Instead, Roosevelt had made his career attacking corruption in New York and had also spent six years as Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, D.C., trying to ensure that the government filled its offices based on merit and not political affiliation.
Despite his high ideals, Roosevelt had had a tough going in New York. Roosevelt always had something of the crusader about him, but by August 1896 one of his crusades had brought him little but scorn in the city of his birth. Attempting to enforce the highly unpopular Sunday Excise Law, mandating that saloon close on the Sabbath, Roosevelt had alienated such important Republican constituencies as New York’s German population, who had switched their votes to New York Democrats in the last election. City and state Republicans blamed Roosevelt, and had even tried to legislate the job of president of the Board of Police Commissioners out of existence. In the face of such opposition from his own party, it was fairly clear to Roosevelt that his New York political career was over. By the start of the 1896 campaign, in spite of his differences with McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was one of many Republicans pinning their hopes on a Republican victory and a new posting in Washington.
As top Republicans descended on New York to plot campaign strategy, the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, also prepared to visit New York. Fresh from his triumphal “Cross of Gold” speech the month before at the Democratic National Convention, Bryan planned to kick off his campaign in what he called “the enemy’s country”. Bryan’s candidacy reflected the split in the Democratic party over the money supply — the gold standard versus bimetallism. Yet the debate over monetary policy simply reflected the larger question of who exactly held power in the United States. Farmers wanted a looser money supply so that credit might be attained more easily, while the resulting inflation would mean higher prices for their crops. For these farmers, American business’s hostility to bimetallism illustrated reflected agriculture’s marginalization at the hands of the “Money Power.” After all, it was reasoned, banks, railroads, corporations, and even political parties kept their headquarters east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. Banks set interest rates, railroad companies set freight rates, and the government adopted a laissez-faire attitude that favored these commercial interests at the expense of the American farmer. The playing field had to be leveled, and backing the American dollar with both gold and silver was one answer. Many had their doubts. Republicans almost uniformly rejected bimetallism. In American cities, laborers feared inflation would dilute their paychecks. Urban Democrats such as New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, therefore backed the gold standard and viewed Bryan’s candidacy with skepticism if not utter distaste.
Bryan’s trip to New York was supposed to change that. Bryan planned to officially accept his nomination at a huge meeting in Madison Square Garden. He would avoid the drama and biblical imagery of his “Cross of Gold” speech in favor of a careful, reasoned defense of bimetallism. By presenting himself as a sane and cautious statesman, as opposed to the fire-breathing revolutionary news accounts had painted him to be, Bryan hoped to win the workingman’s vote and convince skeptical gold Democrats in the urban northeast. Only in this way could Bryan maintain the momentum of his campaign after the Chicago convention.
On Friday, August 8, Bryan boarded the train with his wife in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the heat wave settled across the Plains and Midwest. Across the country, temperatures in New York crept upward, toward the 90s, and as the train sped across the country toward its final destination, it was as if Bryan was bringing the heat with him.
From the book Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward P. Kohn. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.
Originally published by NPR, 08.11.2010, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.