BY AUGUST 1, all of New York was talking about the disaster. “HALF A HUNDRED DEAD,” screamed the front-page headline in the New York Times. “HOSPITALS ARE FILLED,” read another. “PITIFUL SCENES IN THE MORGUE.” At the latest count, forty-seven people had died, and of the seventy or so injured, many were expected to perish, victims of one of the most common, yet horrific, tragedies of late-nineteenth-century urban America: colliding trains.
The story was familiar. Two evenings before at 6:45 P.M., the West Jersey and Seashore excursion train had left Atlantic City, driven by engineer John Greiner with fireman Morris Newell stoking the engine. Only minutes later Greiner saw the Reading express train on a perpendicular track flying toward the same crossing he was approaching. Since his train had the white flag, which meant the Reading train had the “stop” signal, Greiner assumed he had a clear track ahead of him. But as the Reading train continued to thunder toward the crossing, Greiner shouted to his fireman, “My God, Morris, he’s not going to stop!” With a collision imminent, Greiner ran to the engine’s steps and prepared to jump. For a moment he stood on the steps and watched the ground rush by. Then, with a change of heart, he returned to his duties in the cab.
A second later the crash came. The Reading train struck Greiner’s excursion train in the middle of the second of its six coaches, killing over forty people instantly. The engine of the Reading express was smashed to pieces, and its engineer, Edward Farr, was killed on the spot. While most of the excursion train’s cars derailed, the engine continued untroubled along its track for several hundred feet, after it was severed from the rest of the train. Greiner jumped from his cab and ran back to the rest of the train. “When I got back to the scene of the accident,” he recounted, “the sight which met my eyes was appalling. Dead bodies were strewn about everywhere, and the cries of the dying and injured filled the air. It was a heartrending spectacle.”
Survivors later described to journalists the horror inside the train. Charles Seeds was sitting with his wife in the fourth car of Greiner’s train when the front part of his car “was smashed to kindling wood.” Seeds called to his wife to follow him, and jumped out the car’s window. He hurt his leg when he hit the ground, and as he looked around, he could not see his wife anywhere. When he jumped back up into the window, smoke filling the car blinded him. Through the gloom inside, Seeds saw a glittering object. He reached out and picked up his wife’s gold pocket watch, its chain broken by a piece of heavy timber that had just grazed her. Now finding his wife alive nearby, Seeds grabbed her by the hair and pulled her through the window to safety.
In the late-nineteenth century police did not use “Do Not Cross” tape, and within hours, thousands of spectators surrounded the wrecks. People continued to flock to the site for days. In Atlantic City, the usual greeting of “Are you going to the boardwalk?” gave way to “Are you going to the wreck today?” And as one newspaper affirmed, “Everyone went.” The dead were wrapped at the scene in blankets and sacks, then placed in another train car for return to the station, to be stored temporarily in the baggage room. Visiting the site, though popular, was traumatic. Benjamin Maull, a veteran of the Civil War, said seeing the wreck affected him more than any scene of carnage he had witnessed during his four years of service.
Less than two days later, speculation was rife among newspapers that Farr, the driver of the Reading train that ran the signal, had a friend in his cab at the time of the accident. “That raises the suspicion that he may have been more occupied in conversation than in watching signals,” the editors of the New York Tribune noted.
The paper also sought to comment on the tragedy of the accident’s many victims. Men who died on the battlefield, the paper believed, earned a measure of glory in the process. “Tornadoes and earthquakes and fire and flood kill thousands, but man bows submissive to the resistless elements. There is even something grand in being a victim of Nature. But to meet death from the blind fury of a Frankenstein, to suffer and be crushed by the misbehavior of one’s own creations, to go out for pleasure trusting in the perfection of civilization and have that civilization turn and rend one, is to fall without any compensation.” Industrial and technological developments such as trains—the “perfection of civilization”—had conquered the vast distances of the nation, but at a price. In the modern era people faced new and horrible agents of death.
IN URBAN AND INDUSTRIAL centers like New York by the end of the nineteenth century, human disasters appeared to have largely replaced natural disasters. Few New Yorkers could remember the massive death tolls that had accompanied the cholera epidemics in the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s. The Great Fire of 1835, which had destroyed over six hundred buildings, was a distant memory. More recently, the Blizzard of 1888 had killed hundreds of people all along the eastern seaboard, from Maryland to Maine. But no one in New York expected another two-foot snowfall in March anytime soon, while the last cholera epidemic of 1892 appeared to prove that that disease had been defeated for all time.
Modern, scientific, industrial people had evidently conquered the natural disaster. Science and germ theory had certainly ended cholera epidemics, and by the summer of 1896 the city’s Board of Health and Department of Sanitation were together making great progress stamping out dysentery and other infectious diseases. Science had even seemed to overcome weather itself. True, in May a great tornado had twisted its way through St. Louis and East St. Louis. Yet in the end it caused mainly property damage, and only about 250 people died. New York’s own man in the U.S. Weather Bureau, William “Prophet” Dunn, noted that the St. Louis tornado had been “predicted” by E. B. Garriott of the Chicago Bureau, allowing precautions to be taken and countless lives to be saved. The St. Louis “disaster” was so mild, in fact, that it could not even delay the Republican National Convention to be held there the very next month.
Human-made disasters like the New Jersey rail accident now seemed the norm. Recent events had demonstrated iron and steel’s greater capacity to kill and maim on a massive scale than mere water or wind, fire or ice. Indeed, most Americans marked their lives by the still recent Civil War. If anything, that human-made disaster put nature to shame. What hurricane could have killed 600,000 with such efficiency and cold-bloodedness? What fire could have found fuel for four long years?
Even on a smaller and more local scale new inventions seemed to turn on their creators with frightening regularity. In 1871 the boiler on the Staten Island Ferry exploded, killing 125. In 1876 a fire begun by a kerosene lamp tore through the stage scenery of the Brooklyn Theatre, killing 276. Trains crashed. Ships sank. Dams broke. The above-ground horse-drawn railway trolleys that plied New York streets would regularly clip an unfortunate pedestrian, taking a toe or an entire foot. And as America industrialized, the dangers to the industrial worker increased: Smelters exploded, chains broke, sparks flew, pulleys snapped, and blades slipped.
The American industrial worker also faced economic dangers. The Panic of 1893 had been caused by railroad overbuilding and the collapse of huge firms such as the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, also known as the Twine Trust. Over the next several years the country experienced a crushing depression. By the time the heat wave struck in August 1896, 70,000 New Yorkers were out of work, and another 20,000 were homeless.
In the eyes of many New Yorkers the unemployment problem was exacerbated by the arrival of thousands of immigrants. Starting around 1890, millions of citizens of southeastern European countries—Italians, Hungarians, Russian Jews—left their homes and made their way to the United States. Two-thirds of the new arrivals would pass through Ellis Island, the new immigrant reception center established off the southern tip of Manhattan in 1892. By 1897 about 1.5 million immigrants had been screened at the center. While many of the new arrivals moved on to other cities, or even returned home, thousands settled in New York.
This was the beginning of one of the largest demographic shifts in world history. Between 1890 and 1900 Greater New York added about 1 million persons to its population. By 1900 over a third of New Yorkers—nearly 1.3 million—were foreign-born, and 84 percent of the city’s white heads of families were either of foreign birth or the children of immigrants.
The new arrivals and the city’s poor packed into the ill-maintained tenements of lower Manhattan. There, ten people might share a single interior room without access to light or fresh air. The toilet often consisted of little more than a single latrine out back used by as many as two hundred people. To climb a dark staircase one risked stepping on playing children or becoming the victim of faceless attackers. In 1890 Jacob Riis had documented the plight of the tenement dwellers in his How the Other Half Lives, taking haunting photos that lit the darkest corners of the Bowery with the new technology of flash photography. Homeless children and exhausted laborers renting a place on the floor for a nickel stared back at the camera.
The conditions on the Lower East Side became unbearable during the summer. To avoid the stifling tenement air, the inhabitants stayed outdoors on doorsteps and roofs, even sleeping there at night, hoping to catch the faintest breeze. In summers, families would keep ice stocked not only to prevent food from spoiling but also to bring down overheated body temperatures. The economic crisis of 1896 had made matters worse, as laboring families were so impoverished they could not afford to purchase ice.
Work in the home compounded the squalor. Tenement rooms doubled as places of work for cigar makers and other pieceworkers, including children. When in the 1880s a bill had come before the New York State Assembly forbidding the manufacture of cigars in tenements, labor leader Samuel Gompers had taken a young assemblyman named Theodore Roosevelt on a tour of the Lower East Side. Roosevelt had not believed the horror stories about the tenements, and Gompers meant to educate the wealthy brownstone Republican. Accompanied by Gompers, Roosevelt came into contact with the city’s poor for the first time, and years later he remembered:
There were one, two, or three room apartments, and the work went on day and night in the eating, living, and sleeping rooms—sometimes in one room. I have always remembered one room in which two families were living. On my inquiry as to who the third adult male was I was told that he was a boarder with one of the families. There were several children, three men, and two women in this room. The tobacco was stowed about everywhere, alongside the foul bedding, and in a corner where there were scraps of food. The men, women, and children in this room worked by day and far on into the evening, and they slept and ate there.
Tenement dwellers daily faced a precarious economic situation. New York’s Lower East Side was dominated by the expanding needle trade, one of the fastest-growing sectors of New York manufacturing. The vast majority of the contractors had their shops below Fourteenth Street, within easy walking distance of the tenements. In 1890, before the slump, 10,000 garment firms had employed around 236,000 workers. In early 1896 the tailors of New York went on strike for more pay against the wealthier contractors who filled orders for the large clothing companies. In good times a tailor might have made $12 or $15 a week, but during the depression he was often lucky to receive only half a week’s work. Now 20,000 tailors, all members of the Brotherhood of Tailors union, were out of work. This meant that about 100,000 residents of the tenements clustered around the intersection of Hester and Essex Streets were without means of support. A reporter walking along Hester Street at night found “at least half of the population of that street seeking sleep on the fire escapes, the stairways or the doorsteps. In most cases, fighting for air, they had carried their blankets and mattresses from their dens, but often I found men and women scantily clothed sleeping, or trying in vain to sleep, upon bare wood or iron, glad of the fresh air—fresh only by comparison with the evil atmosphere of their living rooms.”
The strike had left the tailors in a desperate situation. Local grocers and merchants stopped extending credit to the strikers. Thousands were forced to sustain themselves with “bad fruit, questionable meat, and stale bread,” one New York paper noted. Bad air and bad food combined to make many sick, though they were unable to afford a doctor. Esther Greenhaum lived in a tenement on Essex Street and had fallen very ill. Her husband, a striking tailor, failed to return home, apparently ashamed he could not provide for his wife. Not wanting to ask her neighbors for help, Esther suffered in her room quietly until she cried out in pain. Hearing this, a neighbor summoned a doctor, who asked if Esther could pay his fee. “Yes,” the neighbor woman lied, “she will pay,” knowing that this was the only way to lure the doctor to the tenement. When Esther could not pay, the doctor became enraged. The neighbor cut him off, saying, “God will pay. No one else can.”
IT WAS THE AGE of reform. While the suffering of the urban poor in New York had led to the rise of labor radicalism and various efforts at city reform, in the West and South farmers also sought relief from the tyranny of eastern business interests. Farmers relied on credit, but bankers from eastern cities like New York controlled the money supply. They also relied on the railroads to bring their crops to market, but the railroads collaborated to set rates, giving large discounts to big customers like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, while squeezing the individual customer with higher rates. Manufacturing interests kept tariffs high to protect American industry from cheaper imports, but this raised the prices of everyday necessities. Banks, railroads, big business, and political leaders made their headquarters in the big cities of the East, while there appeared to be nobody willing to be the voice of the farmer. The North-South division of the Civil War had given way to new American divisions, that between city and country, farmer and banker, East and West.
In 1892, 1,300 delegates from various labor and farmers’ groups met in Omaha, Nebraska, to form the People’s Party. The Populists, as they would come to be called, adopted a platform that included many of the remedies agrarian and labor advocates had been discussing for years: government ownership of railroads, redistribution of wealth through a graduated income tax, the eight-hour day, and direct election of U.S. senators. Many of these ideas would remain the cornerstone of the so-called Progressive Era, the age of reform that lasted through the First World War and culminated in women’s suffrage and Prohibition.
Central to the Populist platform was reform of the money supply. By 1896 the United States had been on the gold standard for almost a quarter of a century. Every paper dollar circulating in the country was backed by an equal value of gold. For business leaders, this placed the American dollar, and thus the whole American economy, on a sound foundation. Gold-backed currency kept inflation down and reassured European lenders of the dollar’s stability. For farmers, however, the gold standard kept their crop prices low and placed a stranglehold on credit, the lifeblood of the farming sector. The solution for many was not to go off a metal-based currency altogether, but rather to expand the backing of the dollar with both gold and silver. Bimetallists believed this would increase the supply of money, allowing easier credit and modest inflation that would result in higher prices for their products.
Since 1890, when he ran for Congress for the first time, William Jennings Bryan had emerged as one of the leading advocates of bimetallism. Born in 1860, Bryan had been raised on the prairie soil of Salem, Illinois. Deeply influenced by his father, who was both a Baptist preacher and a local judge and politician, Bryan studied law with an eye toward politics. Yet even as an aspiring lawyer, Bryan always had something of the preacher about him. In college he won awards for his skills as an orator, and his initial ambition had been to enter the clergy. Settling in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bryan became involved in the Democratic Party, whose state leaders were delighted to let the young orator speak on behalf of the party. In 1888 Bryan had campaigned for Democratic nominee President Grover Cleveland. In 1890, at age thirty, Bryan became only the second Democratic congressman elected in Nebraska.
In light of the economic crises of the 1890s, the issue of the money supply soon became pressing. In 1892 Grover Cleveland returned to the presidency largely on the issue of tariff reform, but the economic crisis of the following year brought to the fore the money supply question. Calling a special session of Congress, Cleveland called for the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. This act, backed by farming and mining interests, required the government to purchase massive quantities of silver every month. Special Treasury notes were issued for the silver purchase, notes that could be redeemed for either silver or gold. The plan backfired when investors turned in the Treasury notes for gold, thus depleting the nation’s gold supplies. Anti-silver forces blamed the Sherman Act for the 1893 crash and called for its repeal before the country’s gold supply dwindled even further. In addressing Congress over the repeal, Cleveland pointed out that in the three years since the Sherman Act, gold bullion reserves had decreased by more than $132 million, while silver reserves increased by more than $147 million. Repealing the act would send a strong message about the soundness of the American dollar and, Cleveland hoped, revive the economy.
Speaking against repeal of the Sherman Act, Bryan addressed the House of Representatives in his typical preaching style, with biblical references and vivid imagery:
[The president] won the confidence of the toilers of this country because he taught that “public office is a public trust,” and because he convinced them of his courage and his sincerity. But are they willing to say, in the language of Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him?” Whence comes this irresistible demand for unconditional repeal? Are not the representatives here as near to the people and as apt to know their wishes? Whence comes the demand? Not from the workshops and farms, not from the workingmen of this country, who create its wealth in time of peace and protect its flag in time of war, but from the middle-men, from what are termed the “business interests,” and largely from that class which can force Congress to let it issue money at a pecuniary profit to itself if silver is abandoned. The president has been deceived. He can no more judge the wishes of the great mass of our people by the expressions of these men than he can measure the ocean’s silent depths by the foam upon its waves.
In the end the “Boy Orator” was unsuccessful, and the Sherman law was repealed. Cleveland had scored a victory but split his party in the process. Moreover, “free silver” had become the burning issue of the day, and Bryan one of its leading voices.
IN 1894 BRYAN lost a bid for the Senate, and by 1895 he had become the political editor for the Omaha World-Herald. Bryan used his job as a forum for his ideas and maintained his place as a leader of the silver forces. Like the rest of the country, Bryan looked ahead to the political showdown of 1896. With Cleveland stepping down after two nonconsecutive terms, Republicans, Democrats, and even Populists would be vying for power, while within the Democratic Party, silver advocates sought to place a bimetallism plank in the party’s platform.
In July 1896, when the Democrats gathered in Chicago for their convention, Bryan brought his wife along, just in case he won the presidential nomination. Far from being a dark horse, Bryan was recognized as one of the leading contenders for the nomination, with the Chicago Tribunepredicting he would be the nominee. July 9 of the weeklong convention was the day set aside for the platform debate on the money issue. As this was not only an important issue nationwide but also the most important issue splitting the Democrats since 1893, the speeches this day were widely anticipated and closely watched.
Bryan, having already established a reputation for oratory, was given a place of honor in the debate and allowed to give the last speech. Democrats in Chicago dozed through the series of poor speeches that preceded Bryan’s and waited for the fireworks. He did not disappoint, giving one of the greatest speeches in American history, replying to the Democratic gold delegates and their defense of American business interests.
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in this country. . . .
Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!
With these final words of the speech, Bryan spread his arms wide, like Christ on the cross.
The delegates went wild. The convention responded to the speech with a roar “like one great burst of artillery,” as one newspaperman described it. The next day Bryan was named the Democratic nominee. The silver Democrats had prevailed.
The telegraph wires to Chicago hummed with congratulatory telegrams. “Thank God we are to have a President who knows that the western boundary of our country is beyond the Mississippi,” wrote former Colorado governor Alva Adams. “Every member of the Nebraskas [sic] wild west exhibition including Indians and representatives of all foreign nations send congratulation to the boy orator of the Platte and the young Giant of the west,” wrote William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Joy seemed widespread throughout the West. Nebraska congressman J. H. Broady tried to capture the scene in Bryan’s hometown: “All Lincoln rejoicing whistles blowing bells ringing and bonfires burning in pride of your genius which rises with the mantle of Jefferson in a blaze of oratory unsurpassed in all the ages and moves towards the chair once occupied by him, for whom this city is named.”
Two weeks later in St. Louis, the People’s Party also nominated Bryan for president, yet, peculiarly, with an alternate vice presidential nominee. The Populists held no love for the Democrats and stood for a different vice president as a means of maintaining their party’s independence. The question of vice presidents reflected the Populist dilemma. The Democratic nominee was Arthur Sewall, who hailed from an old New England family that had made its fortune in shipbuilding. Like other American tycoons, Sewall had diversified into banking and railroads and thus seemed exactly the sort of person the Populists held responsible for America’s ills. Nominating him for elected office would have been like nominating Morgan or Vanderbilt.
Instead, the Populists chose Tom Watson, a Georgia congressman and one of the founders of the People’s Party. Having a different nominee for vice president allowed the Populists a strange sort of independence. It also raised the question of whether Bryan would even accept the nomination, which he deliberated over for several days. The Democratic governor of Texas urged Bryan to accept the nomination and to “discuss nothing but the money question.” Sewall even wrote to him, observing that Bryan’s indecision seemed to be based mainly on not wanting to insult his Democratic running mate by also accepting Watson as his Populist running mate. “I desire that you will do just what you believe is best for the success of the head of the ticket,” Sewall said. “The principles we are fighting for are so paramount to any personal relations that the latter should not have any weight or influence whatever with your action.”
Bryan accepted: He would need those Populist votes come November. But this strange coalition between the Democrats and Populists came at a cost. By allying himself with the more radical People’s Party, Bryan played into the hands of his Republican opponents, as they cried “Anarchy!” and quickly dubbed Bryan the “Popocrat” candidate.
Bryan could now only hope that the Populists would allow themselves to be absorbed by the Democrats. Indeed, by early August “fusion” was the word of the day. Would the Populists simply fold themselves into the Democratic Party? The answer seemed to be a resounding no. The New York Times reported that the Populist National Committee had opened its campaign headquarters in Washington, DC. The spokesman for the Populists stated that they would campaign completely independent of the Democrats, “just the same as if Bryan was not the nominee of the Chicago convention.”
In New York, Democrat political leaders were still feeling the aftershocks of Bryan’s nomination. Residents of the country’s financial center, New York Democrats cared little for the silver issue, and Bryan had been nominated against their wishes. “Only two papers in New York supporting your candidacy,” the editor of the then-Democratic New York Mercury wrote to Bryan at the end of July.
Both Republican and Democrat leaders in the city were used to getting their way in national politics because of the importance of New York in national elections. Over the past four presidential elections, New York City alone had provided the crucial margin of victory. Now the city’s Democrats, and the leaders of the Tammany Hall political machine, were faced with the unsavory task of backing a candidate who represented southern and western agrarian interests and offered little to attract New York voters. In 1896 Tammany Hall was a force to be reckoned with. Since 1788, it had produced leading American politicians like Aaron Burr and Martin Van Buren. By mobilizing the massive immigrant base of the city, and seeing to the needs of these newly arrived New Yorkers, Tammany and its minions were able to control much of the politics of the city, from the mayor’s office to the fire department. In the mid-nineteenth century, boss William Tweed had adopted the tiger as the insignia of his volunteer fire brigade, and Tammany quickly adopted it as its symbol. With the importance of New York in national politics, support by the Tammany Tiger could make or break a candidacy. After his nomination Bryan had waited expectantly for news from Tammany. On July 31, exactly three weeks after his Chicago nomination, Bryan finally received a telegram from New York informing him that “Tammany endorsed ticket executive session this p.m.” On the surface this seemed like good news, but a close observer of politics would have noted that the news from New York indicated nothing about New York Democrats endorsing the Democratic platform with its silver plank.
Aside from the New Jersey train disaster, this was the top story of the day. “Tiger Takes the Ticket,” the Times declared. “Swallowed by the Tiger,” echoed the Tribune. Yet everyone also noted that New York Democrats had taken the rather absurd step of endorsing Bryan, the convention’s nominee, but not free silver, its platform. “The resolution that turned Tammany over to the ‘Pops’ ticket absolutely ignored the platform,” the staunchly Republican Times smirked. “The Tiger even could not stomach that. He swallowed the ticket without much of a grimace, but even his stout stomach could not take the platform as well.”
The party was in a state of crisis. Faced with a nominee whose policies they could not abide, New York Democrats were already quietly defecting to support McKinley. Bryan’s campaign had to take action to salvage the support of his own party.
In a bold move to take the fight to the gold-standard capital of the country and reverse Democratic defections, the Bryan campaign decided to come east and officially accept the Democratic nomination at a huge rally in Madison Square Garden. The gravity of the situation facing Bryan necessitated such a move, even before Bryan knew of Tammany’s decision to support his candidacy. Bryan didn’t wait for news from Tammany: Two days before Bryan received its endorsement, he received word from New York that the auditorium had been booked.
The dates of Bryan’s trip to New York were now set. Accompanied by Mary, he would leave Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, August 7, and arrive in New York Tuesday evening, August 11. The following day, Bryan would address thousands at Madison Square Garden, thus kicking off his national campaign in a daring move that might make or break it only three months before the November election.
OUT ON LONG ISLAND, Theodore Roosevelt was also looking ahead to November. Saturday, August 1, was a warm, bright day, the sunlight almost blinding off Oyster Bay, beside which stood the Roosevelt family home, Sagamore Hill.
It was a large house, built near where Roosevelt had summered with his family as a child and initially designed for his first wife, Alice. With so many bedrooms, Theodore and Alice were apparently expecting to have a large family. Then in February 1884, soon after giving birth to a baby girl, Alice Hathaway Roosevelt died of Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the kidneys that had gone undiagnosed during her pregnancy. The same night Roosevelt’s mother, Mittie, died of typhoid fever, which had first appeared to be merely a bad cold. The devastated Roosevelt destroyed his diary entries relating to his wife, left his newborn baby in the care of his sister, and fled west to the Badlands.
Over Christmas 1886, Roosevelt married his childhood friend Edith Carow, and by August 1896, almost ten years after their marriage, Edith and Theodore had filled those bedrooms with four children in addition to Alice Lee, now twelve years old. These were Theodore Junior, who would turn nine the following month; Kermit, age six; Ethel, only two weeks away from her fifth birthday; and two-year-old Archie.
It was perhaps with his growing family in mind that Roosevelt hosted a special guest that weekend. Maria Longworth Storer was a wealthy Washington matron active in her support for the Catholic Church. Her husband, Bellamy Storer, was a former congressman from Ohio and son of a former congressman. (He was also uncle to Nicholas Longworth, another Ohio congressman, and Alice Lee Roosevelt’s future husband.) The Storers were longtime supporters of fellow Ohioan William McKinley. When the economic crash of 1893 had wiped out all of McKinley’s investments, thus threatening his promising political career, the Storers had bailed him out with a $10,000 loan. The Republican presidential nominee was literally in their debt, and Bellamy Storer had his eye on a cabinet post or ambassadorship. Roosevelt was hoping to leverage his friendship with the Storers into a new job in Washington.
Roosevelt had decided to row Mrs. Storer across Oyster Bay before asking her for her support. Perhaps he wanted privacy, not wanting his family to see him as a supplicant. On the other hand, it may have been a shrewd psychological ploy, asking his guest for a favor when she was absolutely at his mercy in the middle of Oyster Bay. It was also typical Roosevelt, always needing an outlet for his seemingly boundless energy.
Whatever the reason, Roosevelt helped his guest into the rowboat and began pulling on the oars, while Mrs. Storer tried to shield herself from the sun. She liked Theodore. Though he was thirty-seven at the time, the “attraction” of Roosevelt, she would later write, “lay in the fact that he was like a child; with a child’s spontaneous outbursts of affection, of fun, and of anger; and with the brilliant brain and fancy of a child.”
Part of Roosevelt’s success was his ability to play on people’s image of him, whether as a cowboy, Rough Rider, reformer, or diplomat. Now rowing the matronly Mrs. Storer across Oyster Bay, he lamented to her that the future of his children depended on his getting a post in a new McKinley administration, without which, he cried, “I shall be the melancholy spectacle . . . of an idle father, writing books that do not sell!” Mrs. Storer assured Roosevelt that something could be secured for him, while Roosevelt promised to support Bellamy Storer in his quest for his own Washington post.
The conversation that warm August afternoon must have come as a great relief for Roosevelt. His current position in New York City had become sadly untenable, despite his long history there. He had been born in Manhattan to a wealthy New York family. From old Knickerbocker Dutch stock, his grandfather Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was one of the richest New Yorkers of his day. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two great New York landmarks. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had started his career in New York, first elected to the New York Assembly from his Manhattan brownstone district in 1881. While in Albany he had served on the Cities Committee, dedicated mostly to legislation regarding New York itself, and in 1884 had chaired an investigating committee looking into the graft and corruption in city departments. He had also championed the Roosevelt Bill, signed by then-governor Grover Cleveland in 1884, taking power from the appointed Board of Aldermen and investing it instead in the elected mayor. Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York in 1886, sacrificing himself at the polls that year to unite a divided Republican Party.
In 1894, after spending six years in Washington as civil service commissioner, Roosevelt had been approached about again running for mayor. He turned the offer down, apparently because Edith did not think they could afford the campaign. Much to Roosevelt’s chagrin, that year a reform Republican very much like him won the election. Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna with some regret: “I made a mistake in not trying my luck in the mayoralty race. The prize was very great; the expense would have been trivial; and the chances of success were good. I would have run better than Strong . . . But it is hard to decide when one has the interests of a wife and children to consider first; and now it is over, and it is best not to talk of it; above all, no outsider should know that I think my decision was a mistake.”
After Republican William Strong became mayor, he offered Roosevelt a place on the city’s Street Cleaning Commission. In other words, the ambitious Roosevelt would have been responsible for hauling away the city’s garbage. He turned the position down, though he still hoped to play a part in Strong’s reform government. Roosevelt wrote a letter to his old friend Jacob Riis, perhaps hoping Riis would soothe any ill feelings held by Strong: “As I told you, I am afraid the Mayor may have taken it a little amiss that I would not accept the position of Street Cleaning Commissioner. I would like to have done so very much, because I want to help him out in any way, and I should have been delighted to smash up the corrupt contractors and to have tried to put the street cleaning commissioner’s force absolutely out of the domain of politics; but with the actual work of cleaning the streets, dumping the garbage, etc., I wasn’t familiar.” It was a diplomatic excuse from someone who simply did not want to be New York’s chief garbage man.
The mayor’s race of that year may also have shown Roosevelt the need to get back to New York and pay his dues locally before the important 1896 election. If he could campaign again for a successful Republican nominee as he had in 1888, he might expect a large reward, like the appointed position he discussed with Maria Storer. From his vantage in Washington in 1894, Roosevelt could see that the Republicans had a very good chance of success in 1896. After all, with Cleveland leaving office, Republicans did not have to battle a Democratic incumbent. There were also the facts of the present economic crisis and the split over bimetallism within the Democratic Party. Roosevelt watched their effects on the historic 1894 midterm congressional elections. In the House of Representatives, Republicans gained 117 seats, while the Democrats lost 113 seats, the largest transfer of power between parties in American history. In twenty-four states in 1894, no Democrats were elected to national office. The year 1896, then, was shaping up to be a Republican year.
Roosevelt had his doubts when Strong eventually offered him the position of one of four police commissioners for New York City. Would such a position be a step back for Roosevelt’s career? As he often did, Roosevelt asked for advice from his close friend and political ally Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Roosevelt wrote, “The average New Yorker of course wishes me to take it very much. I don’t feel much like it myself, but of course realize that it is a different kind of position from that of Street Cleaning Commissioner, and one I could perhaps be identified with.” So unsure of his future at such an important crossroads in his career, Roosevelt exclaimed, “It is very puzzling!” Lodge pressed his friend to take the job.
Roosevelt accepted the position, apparently with the understanding that he would be named head of the commission of four. Since the position was called “president,” Roosevelt enjoyed two years of being addressed in person and in the press as “President Roosevelt.” Following his appointment Roosevelt wrote to Anna of his excitement: “I think it a good thing to be definitely identified with my city once more. I would like to do my share in governing the city after our great victory; and so far as may be I would like once more to have my voice in political matters. It was a rather close decision; but on the whole I felt I ought to go, though it is ‘taking chances.’”
Excited as Roosevelt was for his new job in New York City, Lodge expressed concern that Roosevelt must still keep an eye on national party politics. Lodge knew Roosevelt perhaps better than anyone else. He knew of Roosevelt’s streak of moral righteousness and had seen it in action, up close. In attacking corruption and graft, Lodge coaxed Roosevelt, Just don’t burn your political bridges. The 1896 election was still of paramount importance for anyone interested in ascending to a higher position. “You need not have the slightest fear about my losing my interest in National Politics,” Roosevelt reassured Lodge. “In a couple of years or less I shall have finished the work here for which I am specially fitted, and in which I take a special interest. After that there will remain only the ordinary problems of decent administration of the Department, which will be already in good running order. I shall then be quite ready to take up a new job.”
THE NEW YORK CITY Police Department was the linchpin of corruption citywide. The chief of police admitted to being worth $350,000, although Roosevelt would later speculate he had amassed a fortune of well over $1 million. The money trickled down from there.
Gambling houses and brothels paid the police to ensure against raids. Saloons paid thousands of dollars to obtain a liquor license. Even local green grocers paid perhaps a dollar a day for the ability to stack their produce on the sidewalk. Just before Roosevelt took his position, an investigation had reported on the widespread corruption in the force. The Lexow Commission had concluded that the only remedy for such a rotten organization was to indict the entire police force. Upon taking office Roosevelt was able to force the resignation of the police chief as well as other corrupt officers. Accompanied by Jacob Riis, Roosevelt began to take midnight walks through the city, making sure that officers were on duty when and where they were supposed to be, instead of asleep, in taverns, or in brothels, “partly concealed by petticoats,” as one paper colorfully put it.
Roosevelt’s main and most difficult struggle would be to enforce the Sunday Excise Law that forbade the selling of liquor on Sunday. This was a state law that reflected the rural, upstate temperance vote and had long been flatly ignored in the city. Roosevelt himself was not a drinker, but even he believed the Sunday anti-liquor law to be a bad law. Nevertheless all laws needed to be enforced. Saloons were also the most public and profitable of the city’s illegal ventures, with ties both to the police force and to political corruption. Many saloon keepers were political bosses in the Democratic Tammany political organization, and saloons often doubled as unofficial Tammany headquarters. As a result, Roosevelt was not simply undertaking a moralist crusade against the evil drink but appearing to work in the interest of the Republican Party.
When Roosevelt took office in early 1895, there were between 12,000 and 15,000 saloons in New York City. By the end of June, Roosevelt had succeeded in closing 97 percent of the saloons on Sundays in accordance with the law, stopping the normal flow of 3 million glasses of beer. Roosevelt referred to the Sunday closing fight as a “war,” while the Times called it a “crusade.”
Whatever the label, it made Roosevelt the most unpopular man in New York. He was attacked by Tammany Democrats, of course, but also by German-Americans, who usually voted Republican and enjoyed a traditional drink of beer on Sundays. Some unknown drinker even sent Roosevelt a letter “bomb” that a postal clerk opened to find it packed only with sawdust.
When a U.S. senator from New York, Tammany Democrat David Hill, attacked Roosevelt for wasting police resources enforcing the Sunday law at the expense of fighting crime, Roosevelt responded in a speech to German-Americans, the second largest ethnic group in the city after the Irish. The law, Roosevelt said, was never meant to be honestly enforced:
It was meant to be used to blackmail and browbeat the saloon keepers who were not the slaves of Tammany Hall; while the big Tammany Hall bosses who owned saloons were allowed to violate the law with impunity and to corrupt the police force at will. With a law such as this enforced only against the poor or the honest man, and violated with impunity by every rich scoundrel and every corrupt politician, the machine did indeed seem to have its yoke on the neck of the people. But we threw off that yoke.
Republican senator from Massachusetts George Hoar wrote his congratulations to Roosevelt, saying, “Your speech is the best speech that has been made on this continent for thirty years. I am glad to know that there is a man behind it worthy of the speech.”
Roosevelt’s anti-saloon crusade, however, had proven widely unpopular with the mass of New York voters. Republican leaders blamed Roosevelt for the poor showing among city Republicans during the 1895 Assembly elections, and party leaders had not even allowed him to campaign for Republican candidates. Roosevelt despaired that his efforts at reform had destroyed any future career in the city. As always, Lodge encouraged the younger Roosevelt to maintain a broader view. “You are making a great place and reputation for yourself which will lead surely to even better things,” Lodge wrote. “Remember too that apart from the great principle of enforcing all laws there is a very large and powerful body of Republicans in the State who will stand by you and behind you because you are enforcing that particular law. This may be a narrow view but it is of the greatest political importance.” Lodge hinted that Roosevelt’s path may soon lead to a seat next to his in the Senate.
Despite Lodge’s encouraging words, 1896 had been a tough year. In January Roosevelt had fought to keep his job, in danger of being legislated out of existence by an Assembly bill engineered by Republican leaders. The following month Roosevelt began a dispute with a fellow commissioner, Democrat Andrew D. Parker, which would color the rest of his time in New York.
On the face of it, a bipartisan police commission seemed like a good idea. Yet an equal number of Democrats and Republicans invited deadlock. Moreover, it simply made the commission a new political battleground in the city. While like-minded reformers might applaud Roosevelt’s efforts, Parker had plenty of allies among Democrats and those who desired to continue having the police force reflect political influence. Time and again Parker, in alliance with the new chief of police, threw up obstacles in the path of Roosevelt’s conduct of the commission—holding up officer promotions and not attending commission meetings. In April Roosevelt testified in Albany in favor of a bill to break the commission’s deadlock. He and Parker squared off in their testimony, as Parker accused Roosevelt of playing politics with the police promotions. During Parker’s testimony Roosevelt stalked about the room, unable to contain his rage. The bill died in committee, a defeat for Roosevelt. In May, when the city comptroller lectured Roosevelt about using taxpayers’ money to pay off informants, Roosevelt challenged him to a duel with pistols. In June, unable to remove Parker without a trial, Mayor Strong had decided to bring him up on charges to prove “neglected duty.” Using “evidence” supplied by Roosevelt, the mayor accused Parker of missing numerous meetings and falling behind on paperwork. It was a dull and dreary affair, possibly the low point of Roosevelt’s New York career. While testimony ended in July, the matter was never fully resolved, and Parker would eventually enjoy the pleasure of outlasting Roosevelt on the board. Little wonder that Roosevelt tired of New York and found new hope in McKinley’s nomination.
Even as Roosevelt sought to decrease the political influence of the police force, he actively sought that influence on his own behalf. In this endeavor Roosevelt had a number of important allies. Lodge was in the Senate, and the Storers had McKinley’s ear—the outlook seemed bright indeed. Yet Roosevelt also had to take into account the new kingmaker of the Republican Party, Marcus Alonzo Hanna. Hanna was an Ohio millionaire active in Republican politics who had worked for the past two years to secure McKinley’s nomination for the presidency. His reward for spending $100,000 of his own money in that endeavor was to be named chairman of the Republican National Committee. For Roosevelt to advance politically after a McKinley victory, he would need Hanna’s support.
On July 28 Hanna was in New York to establish his headquarters at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Roosevelt was there to meet him. Roosevelt placed himself at Hanna’s disposal, ready to work for McKinley’s election to the presidency—and his own move from New York to Washington. He had a second talk with Hanna the next day, finding him “a good natured, well meaning, rough man, shrewd and hard-headed, but neither very farsighted nor very broad-minded,” as he wrote to Lodge, “and as he has a resolute, imperious mind, he will have to be handled with some care.”
Roosevelt was not just interested in advancement. He viewed Bryan’s nomination with alarm. To his sister, Roosevelt wrote, “I saw Mark Hanna. I can’t help thinking we shall win in November; but we have to combat a genuine and dangerous fanaticism. At bottom the Bryanite feeling is due to the discontent of the mass of men who live hard, and blindly revolt against their conditions; a revolt which is often aimed foolishly at those who are better off, merely because they are better off; it is the blind man leading the one-eyed.” Roosevelt did not use the word “revolt” lightly, and he vowed to take part in the fight against that dangerous revolutionary, William Jennings Bryan.
Roosevelt and Bryan were more alike than either man would have admitted. While Roosevelt has been compared to his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow progressive Woodrow Wilson, he also shared characteristics with Bryan. Born less than eighteen months apart and with political careers seemingly shadowing each other, Bryan and Roosevelt shared much of the same political and moral world.
Yet their differences are so striking that it is tempting to see the two men as mirror opposites. Certainly they were fierce ideological opponents. With his call for free silver and his railing against eastern, urban interests, Bryan represented the country’s agrarian backbone. Roosevelt’s message, on the other hand, was born of his urban background, with an emphasis on good government, civil service reform, and the need for a level playing field in politics, business, and the law.
Their political views derived from their upbringings. Roosevelt was born in Manhattan to a wealthy family and entered politics at a young age, making his way from the state assembly to Washington as civil service commissioner before returning to New York. He would gain fame in the Spanish-American War and be elected New York governor before being placed on the Republican ticket in 1900. Bryan, on the other hand, came from a modest family background in rural Illinois. First practicing law, he became involved in the Nebraska Democratic Party before being elected to Congress. This was the only political office he held before becoming his party’s nominee in 1896. Bryan was deeply influenced by his Christian fundamentalism, which often made him seem more preacher than politician. While raised a Presbyterian and a churchgoer, Roosevelt did not ascribe to religion as closely as Bryan.
Yet there was always something of the preacher in Roosevelt, too. While Bryan may have made his career with the words “Thou shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Roosevelt would rally his Progressive Party followers in 1912 by saying, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”
Both men had similar ideas about American superiority, Anglo-Saxon superiority, and the duties of citizenship. They were infused with a sense of self-righteousness, a sureness in their cause no matter what the consequences. Roosevelt had already shown this characteristic on a number of occasions by 1896, although his most notorious example would come when he split the Republican Party in 1912, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
By 1896 Bryan had helped split the Democrats with his stand for free silver against the position of Democratic president Grover Cleveland. This was not the last time he would embarrass a sitting Democratic president. In 1915, with the United States still neutral in the war in Europe, Bryan held the important position of secretary of state to Woodrow Wilson. After the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania killed 128 Americans, Wilson demanded that Germany pay reparations and disavow U-boat attacks on passenger ships. Bryan resigned in protest, fearing Wilson would trigger war. A secretary of state undermining his president’s foreign policy in a time of war was unheard of. Newspapers referred to Bryan’s “unspeakable treachery” and noted that “men have been shot and beheaded, even hanged, drawn and quartered for treason less heinous.” To such savage criticism, the fundamentalist Bryan might have replied, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Both Roosevelt and Bryan enjoyed hunting, yet neither were very good shots. Both men had made an effort to build up their bodies, which they relied on during cross-country political campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, though, both lived their entire lives in absolute awe of their fathers. After his father’s death, Bryan recalled that after being enjoined to follow his father’s shining example, he “could not help weeping . . . for I felt so unworthy to take my father’s place.” Roosevelt dedicated several pages of his Autobiography in describing the elder Roosevelt in glowing terms: “My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew.” Both Roosevelt and Bryan suffered through the deaths of their fathers when they were in college, Bryan at age twenty and Roosevelt at age nineteen. For both men, their grief for their fathers seemed to solidify the foundations on which they would build their public lives. A driving desire to live up to their fathers’ examples helped shape two of the most important figures of late-nineteenth-century America.
In the campaigns of 1896 and 1900, Bryan and Roosevelt often shadowed each other across the country. Indeed, with his western ranching experience and heroism in Cuba, Roosevelt served Republicans well by countering Bryan’s popularity in the West. And both men served as colonels at the head of regiments during the Spanish-American War, although Bryan never embarked for Cuba. For Bryan and Roosevelt, service in the military during wartime was an important duty of both the man and the citizen.
These common romantic ideas of the Victorian era hint at the basis of many of their similarities. Reverence of one’s father and of masculinity, faith in both Anglo-Saxon and American superiority, belief in the duties of citizenship and the necessity of fulfilling this duty on the battlefield all made up the creed of America’s civic religion of the time. Despite their differences, and despite their sincere concern for the poor, Roosevelt and Bryan absorbed the beliefs of America’s white, Protestant elite.
AUGUST WAS SHAPING UP to be an eventful month for New York. In less than two weeks Bryan was coming to town to accept the Democratic nomination at Madison Square Garden. McKinley’s headquarters had just opened at the Waldorf, with Hanna leading the Republican troops. Roosevelt’s fate was deeply entwined with that of all three men. As president of the board of police commissioners Roosevelt would be responsible for security at Bryan’s speech at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, Roosevelt would continually meet with Hanna to discuss the campaign and his possible role in it, in service to a McKinley victory.
Atlantic City hospitals remained full as officials identified the dead and injured from the New Jersey train crash. President Cleveland vowed that America would stay neutral in the new Cuban uprising against Spanish rule in the island. And St. Louis was suffering through a killer heat wave. In the past two weeks twenty-two babies had died as a result of the heat. For a week the maximum temperature recorded was 99 degrees. Newspapers reported many people dying every day, with the death rate “increasing at an alarming rate.” Little did New Yorkers realize what was in store for them: a heat wave whose death rate would dwarf the New Jersey railroad disaster.