Roosevelt Reaped the Cool Rewards of a Heat Wave

Posted September 13, 2010 at 4:55pm

Today’s Washingtonians know how to handle a heat wave: posh hotel pool parties, lavish beach getaways and the king of all cooldowns, central air conditioning. But how did our less technologically fortunate ancestors — especially the children, elderly and working class — seek relief from the scorching temperatures?

In “Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt,” Edward Kohn chronicles the catastrophic heat wave that devastated Gilded Age New York and how it affected everyone from the laborers in tenements to the politicians in charge. This isn’t the first time that the subject has been written about, but Kohn raises two novel arguments: that the heat wave was responsible for destroying William Jennings Bryan’s political career, and that it was responsible for bolstering that of Theodore Roosevelt’s.

The 10-day heat wave began Aug. 4, killing an estimated 1,300 people. Although official weather bureaus have the temperatures recorded at 87 degrees, most of these readings were taken high above street level, where there was a chance of a breeze. New Yorkers noted that the actual temperatures were at least 10 degrees higher because of what Kohn describes as the “urban heat island effect,” caused by insulation from blacktops, factories and tall buildings.

While many of New York’s politicians — and weather forecasters — fled the city during the heat wave, residents on the Lower East Side remained trapped in their windowless tenements, which were “crowded, noisy, and filled with the stench of garbage, cooking, and stopped up drains.” The brick infernos reached up to 120 degrees inside, forcing tenants to seek relief on dumpster bins, rooftops and fire escapes. However, many babies and adults fell to their deaths as a result.

Lesser-known but equally gruesome results included the rampant deaths of horses. Kohn writes that “every street had a horse carcass rotting in the heat, and the city was unable to cart away the massive number of dead horses.” Another pervasive problem was the rise of mad dogs, which were sought after and shot by police, even in cases when there was no evidence that some of the dogs were actually rabid.

In the midst of all this madness, Democratic presidential nominee Bryan traveled to the East Coast for a big speech in Madison Square Garden. Kohn foreshadows the event as a climatic catastrophe, even titling the chapter “Bryan Fell With a Bang,” blaming his ultimate failure on the heat wave. The New York Times stated that with 15,000 people packed into Madison Square Garden, it “promises to be the most uncomfortable and the most dangerous place in the country,” leading the readers to believe that disaster was bound to ensue. However, other than a stampede at the door, the event went on without incident.

Although thousands of people began to leave only a few minutes into the speech, Kohn isn’t convincing in his argument that it was because of the heat. In fact, the author points out that Bryan unexpectedly read off a piece of paper for two hours, which was much less moving than his fiery “Cross of Gold” speech a few months before. Perhaps that is why the crowd left in droves; it wasn’t because of uncomfortable conditions inside but out of boredom. Furthermore, “much of the criticism directed at the candidate really had more to do with the issue of the gold standard” than anything else. The odds were already stacked against him, regardless of searing temperatures during his speech.

It’s questionable whether the heat wave really destroyed Bryan’s career, but Kohn does make one thing clear: Roosevelt emerged as a leader during the crisis. As police commissioner of New York, Roosevelt “knew the tenement districts and their inhabitants more intimately than any other prominent Republican.”

Roosevelt was responsible for distributing free ice to the poor, increasing ambulances and police patrols, and flushing out the streets with water hoses, all of which had significant effect on the city. His experience during that week in August 1896 also had a tremendous effect on the Tenement House Act of 1901 and “would help shape the opinions and actions of one of the leading figures of the Progressive Era.” Real change would actually take decades, but the heat wave proved to be a turning point in the era of reform.