Note: Two things seem of particular interest in these totals. (1) On August 4, and on August 6 in Manhattan only, the total deaths actually went down in 1896. During the same period in 1895, the weather was reported as “cool and delightful,” meaning that the weather probably did not contribute to any extra deaths on those early August days that year. The totals seem simply to fall within the “normal” number of deaths that in Manhattan fluctuated between about 120 and 140 each day. (2) With the heat wave over, in Manhattan by August 17, the total number of deaths were under even the “normal” numbers. This was likely caused by the phenomenon of “harvesting”: The heat wave contributed to the deaths of people who were soon to die anyway, leading to a slight dip in the number of deaths in the days just after a heat wave. I included these “low death” days to provide a more accurate reflection of the mortal effects of the heat wave, rather than giving seemingly exaggerated numbers.


AUGUST 11, 1896, was one of the deadliest days in New York City history. In Manhattan that Tuesday, more than two hundred people died from the heat. As the following numbers illustrate, the heat wave did not strike down New Yorkers indiscriminately. Although clerks, bankers, and brokers died, the heat wave took an inordinate toll among laborers. And although the heat had an enormous impact among the very old and very young, infants and the elderly did not compose a majority of the victims. The “average” victim was a workingman, an immigrant or son of immigrants, who lived in a tenement.

Total deaths (death certificates filed):1 386 

Number identified as heat-related:2 217



Immigrant or child of immigrants3:



Native (white):



Native (nonwhite)4:





Class of Dwelling



















Manual laborer:6










Over sixty:



Age one to sixty:



Infants under age one:



Age not given, but not listed as infant:


Profiles of Some of the August 11 Heat Victims

RICHARD CROKE, fifty-four, was just one of many Irish-born laborers who died during the heat wave. According to his doctor, he died in his tenement home of “sunstroke.”

JOHN A. MAGEE, forty-seven, was born in England, worked as a lumber-man, and lived in a tenement. He collapsed on the street that morning, and several passersby and a patrolman went to his aid. Before he lost consciousness, Magee gave the patrolman his name and residence, but when he arrived at Hudson Street Hospital, he was entered in the record as “Unknown.” When Magee’s brother saw John’s name in the evening paper among the list of victims of heat prostration, he went to the hospital, only to be told that no one of that name had been admitted. After visits to several other hospitals and the city morgue, Magee’s friends returned to Hudson and demanded entrance. There they found Magee unconscious on a cot. He was still listed as unidentified, although among his effects was a pocketbook containing letters and lumber bills that would have easily established his identity, including the name and telephone number of his employer. He died the same day of “insolation,” with the contributing cause of death listed as “shock.” The hospital superintendent told reporters they had simply been overwhelmed, having attended to over three hundred patients that day.

CLARENCE BRUSH was that rarity, a son of native-born New Yorkers. Better off than most families who suffered tragedy during the heat wave, eight-month-old Clarence lived in a flat and might have survived the heat wave had he not begun teething. The doctor attending him listed “heat exhaustion (teething)” as the direct cause of the infant’s death.

MARGARET HARVEY, fifty-six, was born in Ireland and lived with her husband in a tenement. In addition to dying from “exhaustion,” her doctor noted that she died of “hyperpyrexia due to heat.” Probably the doctor sacrificed accuracy trying to be fancy, as hyperpyrexia occurs when the body’s temperature is not just elevated but actually set at a higher temperature. Margaret most likely died of simple hyperthermia.

The experience of EDWARD HILDEBRANDT after he died illustrated the confusion in the coroner’s office during the heat wave. Examining and processing hundreds of bodies inevitably led to mistakes. Both Manhattan coroners examined Hildebrandt, who was in his mid-thirties, lived in a tenement at East Ninety-Seventh, and died at Bellevue. But each coroner listed his age differently (one said thirty-four, the other thirty-six) and gave Hildebrandt different occupations (one said “carver,” the other “fireman”). Both coroners agreed on the cause of death: “insolation.”

JOHN SULLIVAN, sixty-five, was a widower from Ireland who at one time worked as a watchman. Like many elderly in the late nineteenth century without family or means of support, he ended his life destitute. John lived and died at the Home for the Aged of the Little Sisters of the Poor on Seventieth Street, a Catholic charitable order that cared for nearly five hundred men and women over sixty years old. He died from “asthemia.”

EDWARD M. TEIN had been appointed a New York police officer less than a year earlier. Only thirty, married, and the son of native-born American parents, Edward died of “insolation,” one of three policeman to die that day.

KATHERINE BRENNAN, sixty-six, a widow originally from Ireland, lived in a tenement. No occupation was listed, although the doctor noted she died of “Weakness of old age” exacerbated by “hot weather.”

ALEXANDER RENHART, fifty-seven, was born in Germany, was married, and worked as a janitor in an office building on Beekman, where he also lived. He died of “excessive heat” and “heart failure.”

EDWARD KEENAN, forty, was yet another Irish immigrant felled by heat. He worked as a plasterer and lived in a tenement. His doctor listed “coma” and “sunstroke” as causes of death but in a flourish of French also wrote “coup du soleil.”

MARY BUSCHNER had arrived from Germany only five weeks before and had been fortunate to find work as a domestic. Evidently the work, in addition to life in a tenement, took its toll, as she died at only age seventeen of “cardiac failure” and “sunstroke.”

LOUISA HOPKINS, fifty-seven, was a married housewife living in a tenement. One of three native-born black Americans to die in Manhattan that day, the attending doctor listed her color as “Ethiopia” and her death as caused by “asthemia” and “cerebral apoplexy due to heat.”

ANNIE SULLIVAN was born in a tenement to native-born parents. Possibly because of the heat, her mother gave birth prematurely, and little Annie lived only seventeen hours. Most likely the same doctor who attended Annie’s birth filled out her death certificate, listing her death as caused by “premature birth” and “exhaustion.”

SISTER MARY of the Roman Catholic Marianites of the Holy Cross had come from Brittany, France, to work at the Asylum of St. Vincent de Paul on West Thirty-Ninth Street. The asylum was established, according to King’s Handbook of New York City, “for the reception, care and religious and secular education of destitute and unprotected orphans of both sexes, preferably of French birth or parentage, over four years old.” Only twenty-three years old, Sister Mary died of “syncope and coma from heat prostration.”

ANNIE BOTCHKISS was born to Russian immigrants on August 6 in a rear tenement at 66 Market Street. She died after only five days of “collapse” and “insolation.”

DIETRICH PRUSHEN, fifty-three, from Germany, died at Bellevue Hospital from “insolation.”

PETER F. KAINE, thirty-three, a widower and the son of Irish immigrants, would have celebrated ten years on the New York police force at the end of the month. He died at home of “insolation” and “pulmonary aedema.” At the time of his death the doctor noted that Peter’s body temperature was 109 degrees.

Another police officer and son of Irish parents died at Roosevelt Hospital. Listed on his death certificate by the attending doctor as “JOHN W. GOOD-WIN,” but by the New York police as “James Goodison,” he was forty-two and died of “thermic fever.”

JAMES P. DOANES, fifty-nine, from Ireland, died of “sunstroke.” At the time of his death the doctor noted, “temperature in rectum 110 ¾ Fah.”

JACQUES GILLES, forty-one, from France, worked as an artist and died of “insolation.”

CATHERINE SOPHIA FREEMAN, twenty-six, was born in Germany, was married, and worked as a housekeeper. She had apparently just given birth, as the doctor listed as her cause of death “prostration from heat” and “lying in period.” For women in the late nineteenth century, especially poor immigrants living in tenements, who were frequently unable to pay for a doctor, surviving the actual birth was only the first step toward recovering health and strength. The “lying-in period” after birth could be long and dangerous, both for the mother and for the newborn baby. At least one charity in the city dedicated itself to such cases. The New York Female Asylum for Lying-In Women was founded in 1827 to “provide free accommodation and medical attendance during confinement, to respectable indigent married women. It also gives the same aid to similar cases at their homes, and trains wet nurses for their profession.” The training of wet nurses was of particular importance for the Freemans, now that Catherine had died and left the surviving Freeman baby without a source of milk. Doctors frequently listed “malnutrition” or even “bottle-fed” as causes of death on infants’ death certificates.

ELLEN CARLIER, fifty-four, was born in Ireland. At the time of her death from sunstroke the doctor noted, “temperature in rectum 111 Fah.”

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