One of my favorite types of book is one that reminds us of a historical event that was hugely important in its day, but has been largely forgotten in the passage of years. The type of story that makes you wonder why you had never heard of it before. Surely if such a story happened today it would inspire 24×7 news coverage, multiple investigations of every political player involved, and about 7 new government regulations and agencies created to prevent it from happening again. Yes, that type of story.
It was with no prior knowledge of the book’s subject that I picked up Hot Time In The Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn (2010). Now, that title is a mouthful, don’t you think?
It is a mouthful because there were several important (some may say monumental) things happening at the time of this heat wave. They were, in no particular order:
-The 10 day heat wave itself, which killed nearly 1,500 New Yorkers
-The rising star of the political scene of the day, democratic populist William Jennings Bryan, riding a wave of political stardom after his nomination for the presidency and his “Cross of Gold” speech just weeks before, traveling to New York to give a wildly anticipated speech.
-William McKinley accepting the Republican nomination and running a fairly stationary campaign from his home in Ohio.
-An ambitious young NYC police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, under constant scrutiny from co-commissioners within the department must simultaneously act to protect the public from the heat wave, arrange security for Bryan’s visit, and work his political connections to try to land a job in a possible McKinley cabinet.
What I found out from reading this book was that this horrific heat wave may have shaped the American political landscape from that point onwards. No small feat. But as I (hopefully) will describe for you, it did just that.
The Heat Wave
New York City had been experiencing massive population growth in the second half of the 19th Centure. Between 1860 and 1890 the population nearly doubled (from 813,000 to 1.5 million). From 1890 to 1900 it doubled again. The majority of this population was made up of European and Asian immigrants and the remedy for the housing situation for these mostly low-wage workers was the tenement.
By 1900 two-thirds of New York City’s residents were living in tenement dwellings. Cramped, unsanitary, poorly ventilated, these low income apartment buildings played a key role in the disaster that killed countless New Yorkers in August of 1896 (countless because only 1,500 death certificates listed “heat stroke” or made mention of the heat wave itself, although many more deaths were caused by conditions exacerbated by the heat).
Between August 4 and August 13 the heat index for New York City stayed over 100 degrees. Low income laborers who could not afford to miss work were overcome by the heat and died by the score. Some 1,500 horses died on the streets and the overstretched police force could not remove the carcasses. Stray dogs affected by the heat were regularly shot on the street. And people living in tenements found little refuge from the heat, often sleeping on their apartment building’s roof or fire escape in an attempt to get fresh air. A number of deaths were the result of people simply rolling off the roof while asleep.
Kohn does an excellent job describing the inhumanity of the conditions in New York during the heat wave. But he also tells how 37 year old Theodore Roosevelt, as police commissioner, enacted several important measures that helped to save lives -most notably the distribution of free ice in lower income districts. Roosevelt also toured some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and apartment buildings to see the living conditions for himself. It is no surprise that tenement reform was a major platform of the Progressive Era (culminating in the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901). While Roosevelt was certainly not the only hero of this disaster, he gained a great deal of notoriety as a result of his actions and the actions of the New York City police force during the heat wave. And the contacts that he made with the McKinley campaign during the heat wave paid enormous dividends four years later when, fresh off of his success with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt was added to the McKinley ticket as the Vice Presidential nominee.
In the midst of this heat wave New York was preparing to host the brightest political star in the sky, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, a 36 year old populist Democratic congressman from Nebraska, was a supporter of the “Free Silver” movement of the day whose goal was to promote inflation by ending the Gold Standard and backing U.S. currency with silver in addition to gold. Bryan had won the Democratic nomination on a platform of bimetallism and had delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech on July 8 (in which he informs the “Goldbugs” “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The speech resounded throughout the U.S. and Bryan was viewed as the great western orator, and a serious contender for the presidency. As a relatively unknown commodity in the east it was deemed important that he kick off his campaign in grand fashion. His speech on August 12 in New York was to be his crowning achievement.
What Bryan did not know when he embarked on his journey from Nebraska to New York City was that he would be arriving in New York at the tail end of the worst heat wave in the city’s history. In addition, he would be facing opposition by the Tammany Hall Democrats in New York who viewed Bryan as a western outsider. His train journey became a series of whistlestops and as the heat began to rise, Bryan gradually found himself exhausted with a weak voice.
When Bryan arrived in New York the city had already suffered through 8 days of sweltering temperatures. As he delivered his speech on the 12th it was obvious within minutes that this was not to be the messianic “Cross of Gold” redux, but a dry (and LONG) recounting of the free silver platform. In the 100 degree hall, those that braved the elements to witness the power of Bryan’s oratory that they had heard so much about grew bored and walked out.
The speech was a disaster. Bryan’s campaign was effectively over at that moment. McKinley defeated Bryan soundly in the general election three months later.
Kohn does a very good job telling this complex story with the heat wave providing an ever present backdrop to the various events. His description of the living conditions of the working poor in the tenements was eye opening, to say the least. And his research into the death certificates issued during the crisis was thorough.
But to me it is the quality of the storytelling that makes a book a success or a failure. And in that regard Kohn has made his book a success. To connect a heat wave to the future of the next several presidential elections is not an easy task, but Kohn does so in an entertaining, yet educational fashion. A great read for history buffs like me. Buckley recommends!