1 Death certificates are a tricky archival source. While they supply an enormous amount of information, they were filled in by hand by doctors and coroners who were simply overwhelmed by the volume of heat-wave victims. Names were frequently misspelled, and in at least once case, doctors filled in two certificates for one person. Moreover, duplicate copies of the same certificate were frequently transferred to microform. Any errors, while inadvertent, are completely the responsibility of the author.
2 As noted before, this refers to various ailments listed as the “direct” or “contributing” cause of death, including “exhaustion,” “sunstroke,” “asthemia,” “thermic fever,” and the very common “insolation.”
3 At least one parent an immigrant.
4 These were three black Americans and one Chinese American.
5 One unknown, listed as “no name.”
6 Often listed as “laborer” or simply “lab.” Women’s labor included “housework,” “domestic,” and “cook.”
7 Often listed as “none” and including children. “Housewife” as opposed to “housework” is included in this category, as the doctor/coroner was attempting to make a distinction between the two.
Note on Sources
By 1896, the era of an agricultural diarist like Thomas Jefferson noting detailed weather observations had passed. Housewife Elizabeth Merchant might have exclaimed, “Quite a hot day!” in her diary, and Theodore Roosevelt and Whitelaw Reid may have noted the extreme heat in a few of their letters. For the most part, however, New Yorkers of that August did not stop to take special note of the heat wave in their personal writings.
With the very nature of heat waves making them different from other great disasters, there are no specific manuscript collections, reports, books, articles, recollections, or memorials that address that tragic week. Press reports provided many dramatic stories from the heat wave but a very inaccurate record of deaths. As the daily lists of deaths and prostrations derived from police reports only, the newspapers did not record deaths that involved no call to the police. Instead, the death certificates from Manhattan and Brooklyn provide a detailed record of both the number of deaths and the victims themselves.
Each death certificate gives an enormous amount of information: name, date of death, age, color, martial status, occupation, place of birth, length of time in United States if foreign, mother’s and father’s names and birthplaces, place of death, “Class of dwelling: A tenement being a house occupied by more than two families,” direct and indirect causes of death, duration of disease, and sanitary conditions. The death certificates offer intimate portraits of the heat wave’s victims, many of them the poor, tenement-dwelling, immigrant laborers of the Lower East Side.
Archival and Manuscript Collections
Brooklyn Death Certificates, 1895–1896, New York Municipal Archives
William Jennings Bryan Papers, Library of Congress
William Bourke Cockran Papers, New York Public Library
Henry Cabot Lodge Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society
Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, New York Historical Society
Manhattan Death Certificates, 1895–1896, New York Municipal Archives
William McKinley Papers, Library of Congress
Elizabeth Merchant Diaries, New York Public Library
New York State Weather Bureau, Report for the Month of August 1896, State Commissioner of Agriculture, New York State Archives
Office of the Mayor, Subject Files, Mayor William Strong Administration, 1895–1897, New York Municipal Archives
Reid Family Papers, Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Library of Congress
Weather Bureau, Report of the Chief of the Weather Bureau, 1896, 1896–1897, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Archives
Newspapers and Journals
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York Evening Post
New York Herald
New York Journal
New York Sun
New York Times
New York Tribune
New York World
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