ON JULY 16, the day after Bryan won the Democratic nomination in Chicago, he received a long letter from Pennsylvania congressman Joseph Sibley. At the American Bimetallic League convention in Memphis that June, Sibley, a fervent silver advocate, had urged the creation of an independent silver party to challenge both the Democrats and the Republicans in 1896. At the time, Bryan had sided with outraged Democratic leaders and defeated Sibley’s motion, but not without offering the disappointed Pennsylvanian an olive branch: “We say to all parties, go on with silver at your front and we shall not envy you one laurel on your brow.” With the Democratic National Convention meeting the next month, such a statement appeared a savvy piece of diplomacy on Bryan’s part, since he hoped to muster behind him the party’s silver forces, Sibley included. Indeed, after Bryan won the nomination, Sibley emerged as one of several serious contenders for the vice presidential slot on the ticket.
Having failed to secure the presidential nomination on July 15, Sibley had written a frank letter to Bryan about his candidacy and the upcoming campaign. Sibley opened by saying that he would have preferred to see the nomination go to Colorado senator Henry Teller, another dedicated silver man. If not Teller, Sibley would have preferred himself because, he said, “I felt confident that I had strength that you did not.”
Sibley advised Bryan that in the current campaign, Pennsylvania would be a battleground state, and he urged the nominee to give speeches in Pittsburgh, Altoona, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. “But do not waste your time in New England and New York,” Sibley warned. Perhaps Sibley was addled by his defeat at the hands of Bryan, for he went on to offer the candidate completely contradictory advice. “The battleground is not in the South or the West; the battle must be fought in the enemy’s territory, and it will be won in the enemy’s territory.” Bryan’s reaction to Sibley’s candid missive is unknown. Clearly he ignored the contradictory advice from a one-time rival who questioned Bryan’s strength as the party nominee. Yet something about that phrase “enemy’s territory” must have struck a chord with Bryan.
At two o’clock Friday afternoon, August 7, the Bryans boarded the train in Lincoln, beginning their slow journey east to New York. Although the Madison Square Garden speech set for August 12 would mark the official start of the Democratic candidate’s campaign, by the time Bryan reached the city, he had already addressed thousands of people in half a dozen states. A genius at extemporaneous speaking, with the physical strength to stand for hours and the lung capacity to project his voice to the back of even the largest crowds, Bryan was never at a loss for words.
Before departing, accompanied by a pack of newspaper reporters, Bryan addressed the hometown crowd that had gathered at the depot. “In ordinary times I would have desired to have the notification take place at my home,” Bryan said. “But this is not an ordinary campaign, and, feeling that the principles in which we are interested should rise above any personal preferences which we may have, I expressed the desire to be notified in New York, in order that our cause might be presented first in the heart of what now seems to be the enemy’s country, but which we hope to be our country before this campaign is over.”
Almost immediately that single phrase—“enemy’s country”—went out over the wires and soon appeared in newspapers throughout the nation. Bryan would later complain that the phrase “was picked out for criticism by our opponents, and often used in a sense entirely different from the one intended by me.” Later Bryan biographers, too, have complained that the eastern press in particular ripped the phrase out of context “and pointed to it incessantly as proof of his hatred and fiendish intent toward the propertied classes.” Yet the context of the speech does not serve to make the phrase less explosive, and in truth, he was clearly echoing the widespread sentiment that followed his nomination, as expressed by Congressman Sibley: New York was the heart of the enemy’s country.
Even if the press had taken the phrase out of context, it was still an inexcusable and embarrassing slip by a candidate so early in the campaign. This was the drawback of continually speaking off-the-cuff and the exact sort of mistake McKinley sought to avoid through his carefully orchestrated front-porch campaign.
The casual reference to “enemy’s country” was also evidence that Bryan had yet to transcend his rural base and embrace a truly national political identity. While a national figure for years as a leader of the silver forces, he was nevertheless in many ways still a local politician, a man who had never represented a constituency larger than that of Lincoln, Nebraska. Even the silver issue was largely a regional issue, with little appeal for a national audience.
Bryan’s trip to New York was also a political journey. He now addressed crowds drawn not only from the rural populations of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, but from the cities and towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The experience of the reporters and national press pouncing on those two simple words must have deepened Bryan’s resolve to depart from his normal form and read his acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden.
Not all New York papers wielded Bryan’s words against him. Democratic papers like the New York Herald obviously relished depicting the upcoming campaign as a crusade against the moneyed interests. “Bryan Coming to Meet the Foe,” a Herald headline declared. “The candidate goes East to conquer.”
From Lincoln, Bryan’s train stopped in Omaha and then crossed the Mississippi to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It stopped at all the small towns along the way, and Bryan obliged the crowds by giving short speeches. In almost every town Bryan did his best to shake hands with everyone, starting with the ladies. It was hard, hot work, getting his hands pinched and grabbed while standing in the meager shade of the last car’s back platform. But Bryan was in his element, a natural campaigner who exuded sincerity and sympathy. “He wore his campaign hat of white felt,” one observer noted, “a handkerchief was loosely knotted around his neck, and a linen alpaca coat and the absence of a waistcoat gave him the air of an easy going traveler who was ready to meet everybody along the route just as one farmer could meet another and stop for a little while to talk about the crop and the weather.”
The effects of the heat were visible in Bryan’s very appearance. The handkerchief around the neck served to protect Bryan’s throat, while the absence of a waistcoat was a necessity. The heat wave that was settling on New York had already devastated the prairies and the Midwest. Before Bryan’s departure, Nebraska had seen the temperature hit 94 degrees. Long before arriving in New York, Bryan suffered the full effect of the heat wave.
Meanwhile in the enemy’s country, New York’s sound-money forces continued to desert Bryan. Senator David Hill refused to attend the Madison Square Garden meeting, one of many prominent New York Democrats who planned to stay away that night. Other Democrats began actively working against Bryan’s election. The Democratic Honest-Money League had established its headquarters at 15 West Twenty-Fourth Street and asked William Bourke Cockran to speak at a mass meeting on its behalf. The meeting would take place in Madison Square Garden just days after Bryan’s speech. The Bryan campaign could not have received worse news.
BY AROUND FRIDAY, August 7, Roosevelt must have made the decision not to attend Bryan’s speech and indeed to have as little to do with Bryan’s visit to New York as possible. This was not merely a political decision, with Roosevelt the Republican seeking to avoid contact with Bryan the Democrat, Bryan the Populist, or Bryan the Silverite. In fact, during Bryan’s visit to New York, and especially the night of the Madison Square Garden notification meeting, New York’s Finest would be responsible for security.
As president of the Police Commission, Roosevelt might have taken the lead in preparing the police for Bryan’s visit to New York, if not actually directing security himself. After all, the Bryan speech was shaping up to be a fairly enormous affair, with thousands of ticket holders expected to pack the Garden and thousands more listening outside. Providing adequate and effective security for so many people would be almost akin to launching a military operation, deploying perhaps hundreds of officers to man the doors, control the crowd, and watch for pickpockets. Furthermore, based on recent experience in the city, the night of the speech was going to be hot. Having an adequate police presence to prevent a crush of people might actually save lives.
Yet apparently Roosevelt was content to leave these matters to subordinates. It may have been a symptom of his general ennui with being police commissioner and his greater preoccupation with his political future. He planned to stay in New York Friday before departing for Oyster Bay, where he would remain for the duration of Bryan’s arrival and big speech. In other words, while Roosevelt would be one of the few city officials to take steps to address the heat-wave crisis, he actually avoided the city during the worst of the weather in favor of cooler, breezier Long Island.
Friday morning found the police commissioner dealing with the tedious minutiae of his position. For a man with his sights set on Washington, it could be grim and demeaning work. In a short ceremony, Roosevelt officially commended Officer Charles Haas, a policeman who instead of shooting a mad dog had clubbed it to death with a cane. After giving a short speech, Roosevelt presented Haas with a cane a manufacturer had made for the policeman as a reward for his apparently heroic act.
During the night Roosevelt again conducted one of his midnight inspections of the city’s police force. “Roosevelt Sleuthing Again,” a New York World headline would announce the next day. At 11:00 PM he had walked in the rain to the Nineteenth Precinct Police Station, examining the records of several applicants for promotion and inspecting the station. Roosevelt shook hands with Mrs. Linner, the matron of the women’s block, and conversed with a number of women “who were locked up for various offenses.” After visiting the men’s cells and declaring that he would visit several other police stations during the night, Roosevelt went back out into the rain.
WHILE THE UNITED States Weather Bureau representative marked down what would become the official record of New York temperatures during the heat wave, most New Yorkers probably paid more attention to the giant thermometer in Herald Square. The “Herald thermometer,” a fixture of the New York Herald at Thirty-Fourth Street, offered thousands of pedestrians grim visual confirmation of what they already knew. At 6:00 AM the temperature was already 78 degrees, accompanied by high humidity. Over the next two hours the Herald thermometer registered an almost 20 degree rise in temperature, hitting 96 degrees at noon. “There was a rise in temperature and humidity until it seemed as though the safety valve of the weather would be blown sky high,” one paper observed. Yet the temperature did not peak until about 3:30 in the afternoon, when according to the Herald thermometer it hit 101 degrees, exactly 10 degrees hotter than the official record of the day. Deaths were sure to follow the hottest day of the week so far.
Faced with the fourth day of blazing heat, the city might have taken some simple steps to save lives. One step would have been to limit working hours citywide. Commissioner Collis of the Department of Public Works issued an order altering the hours of work for his men. Instead of working the normal 8-to-5 shift, workers were required to report an hour earlier, at 7:00 AM, break from work during the worst of the midday heat from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and complete the workday from 3:00 until 7:00 PM. Collis’s move was based on an early insight that most of the victims of the heat wave were workingmen. Had Collis’s order been copied on a wide scale, even only by city workers, many deaths might have been avoided.
As it was, laborers of New York continued to drop from heatstroke. William Meehan, a longshoreman, died at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Patrick Ronan, described by newspapers as “a laborer,” was prostrated at work on Wednesday but died two days later. A twenty-six-year-old clerk named Thomas O’Brien was overcome on the sidewalk and died before the ambulance arrived, his body then taken to the local police station.
Of the forty cases of heatstroke reported in New York City on Friday, August 7, nearly all were men under the age of fifty. Although the occupation of the victim was not listed in every case, those instances where occupation could be determined lend credence to the idea that mostly young men were struck down after working in the extreme heat.
For the following week, this pattern would be repeated on a daily basis. Relatively young men became overheated at work and either received treatment on the spot or returned home to their baking tenements. Because of their age and fitness, those who received immediate medical treatment still stood a good chance of recovering. For those who simply went home hoping to feel better with some rest, the prognosis was often poor, and the most common result was death.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, Saturday, the street-level Herald Square thermometer hit 103 degrees at 3:30 PM, with 90 percent humidity. “The sun did the broiling and the humidity did the basting,” the New York Herald said. “Perspiration even gave up the terrific struggle and remained within the pores and boiled.”
The police and hospitals reported that only ten people died from the heat, but this figure is deceptive. Overall, about forty more people died on August 8, 1896, than had died on the same date the year before. Once again urban laborers suffered a heavy toll. Henry Rapp, a forty-eight-year-old cabinetmaker, was overcome by the heat on the way home from work and died even before a doctor could attend to him. Twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Murphy died while working on Pier 35. Philip Frank, a mailman, died at Fordham Hospital after becoming exhausted along his route.
New York’s travails on Saturday were not unusual, as much of the rest of the country continued to suffer as well. St. Louis reported twenty deaths from sunstroke; officials declared the morgue full, and hundreds of horses died in their harnesses. Evansville, Indiana, suffered its third day of temperatures 102 degrees or higher in the shade. Webster, Massachusetts, reported that the mercury hit 104. Kansas City, Missouri, also experienced a record-setting day of heat over 102 degrees. Perhaps the greatest suffering was in Chicago, which experienced a doubling of the death rate. Fifteen persons died of sunstroke, with nearly eighty people prostrated, many of these in serious condition and unlikely to fully recover. Moreover, with so much of the city’s work having been suspended, garbage crews had not picked up the refuse that now sat and decayed in the alleys, “filling the air with fearful, deadly smells.” The city’s drinking water had been rendered largely unfit for consumption, contributing to the high mortality rate.
The situation in Chicago was dire as Bryan’s train rolled into town.
THE BRYANS HAD risen at 5:30 that morning, and at seven o’clock they boarded the Rock Island train in Des Moines bound for Chicago. It was the start of a day that would see Bryan give nineteen individual speeches along the way, as the thermometers in Iowa and Illinois registered close to the 100 mark. A journey of only about three hundred miles, the trip to Chicago was scheduled to take thirteen hours. Bryan had intentionally chosen a train with a schedule that called for a stop at every station between Des Moines and Chicago.
In his speeches Bryan continually made reference to the fact that in previous elections eastern and midwestern states had a monopoly on producing presidential nominees. For him this was a clear illustration of the fact that American political and financial power was concentrated in the Northeast of the nation. In fact, this resulted from the practical realities of late-nineteenth-century America, more than from any conspiracy of elites.
The importance of the Northeast and apparent marginalization of the West was primarily the result of simple political geography. By the 1896 election there were still territories in the western United States that had not achieved statehood. Moreover, several states had achieved statehood only in the previous six or seven years: Washington, Montana, and the Dakotas in 1889; Idaho and Wyoming in 1890; and Utah in 1896. Even Bryan’s own Nebraska had not entered the Union until two years after the Civil War. The 1890 census recorded just over a million residents in the entire state, a number that would barely budge over the next decade. By contrast, in 1896 four American cities—New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Philadelphia—had populations larger than the entire state of Nebraska. A state like New York, then, simply had more electoral votes and more seats in Congress than western states. This gave New York more say over laws and presidential nominations.
Yet Bryan maintained his simplistic hostility toward eastern interests and their most recent puppet, William McKinley. As his train stopped at the small town of Marengo at 10:20 AM, still only a few hours into the day’s journey, Bryan could not help but draw a connection between the name of the town and his own campaign. In 1800 Napoleon had conquered much of northern Italy in the Battle of Marengo. During the presidential campaign friend and foe alike would often compare Bryan to Napoleon, and Bryan himself compared McKinley to Napoleon in his “Cross of Gold” speech: “Why, the man who was once pleased to think that he looked like Napoleon—that man shudders to-day when he remembers that he was nominated on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Not only that, but as he listens he can hear with ever-increasing distinctness the sound of the waves as they beat upon the lonely shores of St. Helena.”
Now Bryan took the Napoleonic mantle for himself. “I have been told by some of those who met me in the train,” he told the crowd during his brief stop, “that the battle fought at Marengo was not more bitter a struggle than the battle that is going to be fought here for the purpose of restoring the gold and silver standard of the Constitution.” While McKinley stayed at home in Canton, it was Bryan who on August 8 passed within only fifty miles of Waterloo, Iowa. Yet as the crowds clamored for Bryan, there was no hint of defeat in the air.
Bryan’s pace was grueling, but he was driven to speak at every stop. Most of the small towns and villages where his train stopped had probably never hosted so great a celebrity as he, even if only for fifteen minutes. By the time the train crossed the Mississippi River around noon, he had already given about ten speeches.
The character of the towns began to change as they approached Illinois. The cities were getting larger and agriculture less prominent. And Bryan was hot and tired. At Moline, Illinois, he and his wife were escorted to a truck from which he gave a short speech as sweat poured from his brow. Mrs. Bryan was handed a bunch of roses, which she began to distribute to the crowd, causing a “pushing, struggling enthusiasm” among the people. After Moline the train entered the coal-mining towns of the Spring Valley region of north-central Illinois. Only one hundred miles southwest of Chicago, miners with coal-blackened faces and smoky lamps on their hats lined the rails to watch Bryan go by.
The train rolled into Chicago at 7:40 PM, nearly thirteen hours after leaving Des Moines that morning and only twenty minutes overdue. The Bryans rode in a carriage to Clifton House, led by the band of the First Regiment. At their hotel, the couple took an hour and a half to wash and rest before appearing on the Clifton House’s small balcony. Bryan gave a short speech, ending with “I am proud to have in this campaign the support of those who call themselves the common people.” This was typical Bryan populism, and it was greeted with loud applause.
Finally the Bryans could return to their room for some much needed rest. It had been a long, hot day: He had given nineteen speeches and shaken thousands of hands. New York was still nearly a thousand miles away. At least tomorrow was the Sabbath, the day of rest.
IN CONTRAST TO Bryan’s hectic Saturday, McKinley’s day was almost somnolent. The Major greeted members of the Ohio Canal Commission and received a telegram of support from the 250 members of the McKinley and Hobart Club of Red Bluff, California: “No doubt about California. Such enthusiasm for Presidential candidate never before manifested.” This was the extent of McKinley’s front-porch campaign that day, in marked contrast to Bryan’s triumphant and garrulous march to the sea. Bryan was a whirlwind; McKinley was barely a breeze. How could the Republicans hope to compete with the Bryan phenomenon sweeping across the country?
This was where Mark Hanna’s organizing and fund-raising genius kicked in. True, Bryan was an army unto himself, taking his fight directly to the people in small towns and large cities, shaking every hand offered. Hanna, however, commanded an army of speakers numbering 1,400 men, who could be dispatched at will and with their expenses paid to counter the effects of Bryan’s campaigning. Speakers did not just travel along the railway lines and address huge crowds but penetrated into every election district in the nation, holding small local meetings. Simultaneously, using the massive Republican war chest, Hanna and the National Committee sent out millions of pieces of campaign literature.
The Republicans relied on polls to tell them where the most work was needed. For instance, Bryan’s August sweep through Iowa had galvanized much of the state behind the Democratic candidate. A canvass of the state in early September indicated to the Republican National Committee a majority of voters favored Bryan. Over the following six weeks speakers and campaign documents supporting McKinley flooded the state. In October, a new canvass convinced Hanna that Iowa was safe for McKinley. Hanna was right. On election day McKinley won Iowa by over 65,000 votes.
That Saturday, as Bryan headed to Chicago from the west, Hanna headed to the same city from the east, leaving New York to take control of the Chicago Republican headquarters. As the East was fairly solid for McKinley, much of the important work of the Republican campaign would be done out of this midwestern city. Over 100 million campaign documents would be shipped out of Chicago, compared to 20 million out of New York. Eventually 275 different campaign pamphlets would be printed, some as long as forty pages, in English, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Hebrew.
Well aware of the power of print, Hanna and his staff also sent material directly to newspapers. Depending on the paper’s circulation, the Republican committee would send out three and a half columns of material per week ready to be inserted directly into the newspaper. Still, no amount of campaign material or newspaper stories could match the efficacy of dispatching 1,400 prominent Republicans directly to small towns and cities throughout the country. Eager office seekers sought a place on Hanna’s list. None was more eager than Theodore Roosevelt.
AFTER UNDERTAKING AN inspection tour of police stations the night before, Roosevelt attended a Saturday meeting of the Police Board.
These meetings had become a fruitless and frustrating annoyance for Roosevelt. He was forced to preside over a board that was deadlocked by a single member, Andrew Parker, who refused to vote in favor of Roosevelt’s candidates for promotion. Roosevelt’s attempts to remove Parker had been unsuccessful, and time and again the two men had squared off against each other, Parker maintaining an icy calm while Roosevelt grew increasingly flustered.
The Parker-Roosevelt rivalry had made for good copy in the yellow press and had subjected the police to derision. True, Roosevelt had successfully removed the previous corrupt police chief and had introduced a new level of professionalism to the force. Yet his efforts to enforce the Sunday saloon-closing law and the new Raines law, plus the daily spectacle of trigger-happy bluecoats gunning down small dogs in the city streets, had damaged the police department’s reputation. Today’s meeting might create more fireworks for the newspapers, and in light of how things had been going, chances were that they were the sum total of what it would produce.
The meeting was tedious. With the temperature in the room well over 90 degrees, Roosevelt led the board through the items on the agenda, including cases involving officers’ conduct. Patrolman Edward Grey was commended for the arrest of Edward Berg, who, after shooting and wounding a man, then threatened the unarmed police officer with a revolver. Two policemen who had killed suspects, including the notorious James Cody of the Tenth Avenue Gang, were restored to duty after their mandatory suspensions were lifted.
Roosevelt also addressed violations of the Raines law, including the rapid multiplying of so-called hotels and private clubs seeking to serve liquor on Sundays. Roosevelt reported he had gone down to the Oak Street station one Sunday and asked the precinct captain, Vreedenburg, to write a report, which he now read to the commissioners. “Under the old law there were only two hotels in the Fourth Precinct,” the commissioners heard. “Now there are just fifty-two, while others are being opened daily. In addition to this there are innumerable fake clubs. They are all chartered clubs, and in most cases the charter members are the proprietors and their bartenders.” Captain Vreedenburg also noted that in a majority of the “hotels” no lunch was served or could even be discovered on the premises. In some saloons crusts of bread might be found on the floor, and a thin liquid called soup was available, but that was the only food to be seen. The commissioners agreed to send the captain’s report to the chief of police.
By the time Roosevelt moved on to reading a letter of praise for the police from the American Bankers’ Association, two hours had passed inside the sweltering police headquarters. Shirts and handkerchiefs were soaked through, and faces were flushed red. Roosevelt’s fellow commissioners must have assumed he was close to ending the meeting and sending everybody home, or at least to Delmonico’s for a glass of iced tea.
As the commissioners wiped their brows and looked at their pocket watches, Roosevelt surprised everyone by bringing up the sticky question of promotions. Perhaps he felt that the heat might have weakened Parker’s resolve, or perhaps this was Roosevelt’s natural belligerency showing itself. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be picking a fight and directed his remarks squarely at Parker. A reporter for the Evening Post recorded what followed:
“Might we not take up the promotion of Inspectors?” [Roosevelt asked] And, looking at Mr. Parker, added: “Has anybody seen the eligible list?”
Mr. Parker replied, without taking his eyes from the table: “I don’t know; I haven’t seen it.”
Commissioner Grant, who occupies the seat opposite to Mr. Parker, said: “I don’t know that it would be a wise thing to do. Although, if it comes up, I stand ready to vote.”
Commissioner Parker hesitated a moment and said: “The reason I want the matter to lie over is that when I do vote I want to make a statement. That statement I have not prepared, and of course have not got with me.”
Commissioner Roosevelt then asked: “Do you intend to enter your statement on the minutes? For if you do and you have no objections, I may very likely wish to make a statement also, that, I suppose, will be all right.”
“Oh, yes, certainly,” answered Mr. Parker.
Roosevelt had made plain that he stood ready to answer Parker. The stage was set, then, for a showdown between the two men at the commission’s next meeting—whenever that might occur.
In the meantime the police and the president of the Board of Police Commissioners had their hands full. William Jennings Bryan was due to arrive in only three days, and the heat wave showed no sign of abating.
JOHN HUGHES COULD not sleep. Like thousands of other tenement dwellers during the heat wave, he had taken refuge on the roof of his building at 202 East Ninety-Eighth Street. Hughes made frequent trips over the course of the night to the local saloon, where he purchased buckets of beer called “growlers,” returning to the roof to drink. During one of these trips he met the building’s janitor, William Froome. “This makes thirteen growlers of beer tonight, and I expect to make it eighteen before I get through,” Hughes told Froome as he carried a fresh can in from the street.
After drinking the beer, Hughes stretched himself out on the roof’s low parapet. A woman whose window looked out on the roof called to Hughes that he would roll over and be killed. Hughes drunkenly replied that his death “wouldn’t cost the neighborhood much.” Not long after, Hughes fell asleep on the parapet and rolled off the roof. He fell five stories into the concrete-paved courtyard of his building, where a police officer later found his crushed body covered with blood and the clothing from a wash line broken by his fall.
During the heat wave it seemed all of the Lower East Side could be found sleeping on rooftops or fire escapes. Inevitably people fell to their deaths. Certainly these strange and tragic accidents must be counted among the city’s heat-related fatalities of that killer August.
John Hughes was not the only victim who fell from a great height that night. Two-year-old John Herman climbed to the windowsill of his home on the fourth floor to get a breath of fresh air and fell. Luckily he did not fall all the way to the ground but was caught only two floors below by the fire escape. At Harlem Hospital he was treated for two broken legs. Mary Lessie, tired from the day’s work, fell asleep in her window on the third floor and fell to the yard below. She received severe injuries to her back and was taken to Bellevue Hospital. John Moxkam, overcome by the heat while walking along the embankment at 199th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, fell down the twelve-foot embankment and lay there unconscious until a passing patrolman discovered him. Although an ambulance was summoned, the man’s injuries were so severe that he died before arriving at the hospital. An eleven-month-old infant named Lewis Citron was sleeping with his father on their building’s fire escape when the child fell two stories to the ground. He died shortly after arriving at Bellevue.
One did not even have to fall from a height to fall victim to the heat. An unknown man fell asleep on the pier at West Thirty-Seventh Street, rolled into the water, and drowned. His body was not recovered.
Aside from fatal falls, the epidemic of heat-related mania continued to spread. “They Fought, They Drank, and a Few Landed in Jail,” declared the headline of the New York World describing the “Haps and Humors of a Blazing August Day.” After Henry Garsett paid ice dealer James Bracca ten cents for a block of ice, the iceman refused to climb the flight of stairs to deliver it to Garsett’s residence on the sixth floor. As the two men argued, the ice rapidly melted in the sweltering heat. When Garsett, a clothing merchant, turned to pick up the ice himself, he found nothing but a pool of water. He demanded his money back from Brocca, who refused. Garsett began calling the iceman names, until Brocca hit him in the eye. Brocca was arrested.
During the heat wave many New Yorkers sought solace in alcohol, seeking to quench their thirst or at least escape the terrible reality of the weather. Returning home after consuming a prodigious amount of whiskey, James McNally quarreled with his elderly aunt, grabbed her crutch out of her hand, and knocked her down. He was arrested.
The combination of alcohol and heat can be dangerous. As a diuretic, alcohol promotes dehydration. Alcohol also hinders the body’s ability to control its temperature. Both heat and alcohol dilate the blood vessels, making a person even more likely to become overwhelmed and pass out. On August 9 a thirty-year-old Irish laborer named Patrick Reilly died from the heat. Even so, the doctor listed “alcoholism” as a contributing cause of death. It can never be known how many more heat-wave deaths were caused at least in part by alcohol.
The heat continued to foster strange and aggressive behavior among New Yorkers. At the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal streets, Joseph Belinni drew a knife and stabbed John Carroll. Apparently Carroll was just a spectator to the row between Belinni and his friends caused by the question “Is it hot enough for you?”
Ralph Ethington beat coworker Henry Brown unconscious because he thought Brown had him fired. Jeremiah Donohue stabbed his friend John Cockley three times after an argument. William Hall received permission to drive his wagon through Twenty-Fourth Street, where asphalt was being laid, but one of the workers there, William Brodus, refused to recognize the permit. During the ensuing altercation Brodus slashed Hall with a knife across the cheek. At her restaurant on Greenwich Street, Sarah Jane Grant served a drunken Henry Britton dinner. When Britton demanded a drink, Sarah Jane replied, “You’ve had enough.” “Oh! Have I?” Britton asked, scooping up the silverware and bolting out the door. He was swiftly arrested.
The combined stress on both mind and body from the extreme heat and humidity took its toll in various ways and in at least one case complicated assigning a cause of death. Thirty-year-old Ludwig Grobolowitz was overcome by the heat in the evening and died before the ambulance from Bellevue Hospital arrived. Although he seemed to be just another victim of the heat, the ambulance attendants soon discovered that the deceased also suffered from four stab wounds, one under each eye, one in the right temple, and one in the right breast. Days earlier Grobolowitz had fought with another tenant, Michael Franey, in the hallway of their Second Street tenement. Assuming he was the culprit in Grobolowitz’s death, police arrested Franey, but though he admitted fighting with his neighbor, Franey confessed only to kicking the deceased in the leg and certainly not stabbing him. “Sunstroke or Homicide?” the New York Tribune asked, reflecting the macabre choice for citizens in the afflicted city.
By Sunday, August 9, New Yorkers were already suffering through their sixth day of temperatures in the 90s and suffocating humidity. While the Weather Bureau marked the official temperature at 90 degrees, thermometers throughout the city added several degrees as the humidity hit 89 percent. “It was the combination of heat and humidity that swept the town like a plague,” one newspaper reported, “and while the sun was in the zenith it was unbearable.” The combination of heat and humidity would have made the temperature feel like 130 degrees. Some found it too much to bear.
Lewis Pumper, a fifteen-year-old recent arrival from Poland, had joined his two older brothers in America only two weeks earlier. In the current economic climate, Pumper was fortunate to secure work in the bakeshop of John Schwartz on Clinton Street, where he took his meals before returning each night to his subbasement rooms in the home of Joseph Cobell. Arriving just in time for the heat wave soon turned Pumper despondent. The combination of living in nearly airless rooms at night and working in the burning heat of the bakeshop during the day engendered a deep depression that his brothers were not able to relieve. According to newspapers, the brothers had come from a part of Russian Poland “where neither the thermometer nor the spirits of the people rise very high.” One journal mentioned that “the boy’s vitality and courage were deeply sapped by the discomforts of the voyage across in steerage.”
By August 9 the young man could not take any more. In the bakery’s cellar Pumper tied a short leather strap to a water pipe overhead, stood on a stool, and hanged himself.
Cobell, his landlord, declared, “It was the heat that did it. Lewis came from a country where there is little or no hot weather, and to come right into this terribly hot spell and have to work in that hot bakery fairly drove the boy to desperation. There was no other reason for his act.” Perhaps Cobell did not want to consider the effect on Pumper of living in his basement without access to sunlight or fresh air.
FOR THOUSANDS OF sweltering New Yorkers, the only sensible action was to flee the city altogether. Out on Long Island and at the Jersey Shore, hotels were filled to capacity, as were the excursion boats and trains bringing bathers to the region’s beaches. Newspaper declared Sunday, August 9, the greatest day in Coney Island’s history, with an estimated 200,000 people visiting the shore, dwarfing even the Fourth of July celebrations of the month before. Over 100,000 went bathing in the ocean, and the beaches were described as “black with people for a distance of three miles.”
While Theodore Roosevelt was privileged with the ability to escape to his Long Island home to enjoy the breeze off the Sound, visitors to Coney Island were mainly the working-class families of New York. Fares on the steamboats and many railroad lines serving Coney Island were kept low to draw tourists who would spend money in the beachfront hotels, restaurants, bathing pavilions, and various amusements. Originally designed as an opulent playground for the wealthy, Coney Island had long ago transformed from a luxury destination to a popular one. Now visitors could espy the construction of a new amusement park being built along Surf Avenue. Steeplechase Park would be the first of three new large parks built over the next several years, with Luna Park opening in 1903 and Dreamland opening in 1904. By 1907 visitors to Coney Island were commemorating their weekend visits by sending 250,000 postcards across the country. In the meantime, the beaches and streets were dotted with many smaller concerns selling shaved ice, offering cold drinks, taking photographs, giving children pony rides, and even featuring vaudeville shows.
Yet during the heat wave, most people seemed to eschew the offered pastimes and stuck close to the shore and the surf. As one paper described it: “They went to the seashore to seek relief, not amusement. They wanted some little surcease from the awful heat of the past five days. The workers had been looking forward to a day’s outing where it was cool. They awoke very early . . . to find it as hot as ever. Their first thought was of the breeze. When they saw that it was from the sea they knew that Coney Island would be cool and delightful.” The number of people leaving the city was enormous, and the trolleys and steamboats were packed. “People fled as from a plague-smitten city,” the same paper recounted.
With such overcrowding of the transportation network to Coney Island, and the crowds of people at the beaches that Sunday, it was a miracle that people did not collapse by the score on the railroads. Still, tragedy occurred. Reports of drowning came from all over the region. Fifteen-year-old William Brown was swimming in the Hudson with some friends when he suddenly threw up his hands and went under. As all the boys had been playing games and “cutting all sorts of antics,” no one paid much attention until his friends noticed that he had not come back up for air. They tried diving for Brown, but unable to find him, they ran to a nearby police station for help. His body was soon recovered. Two died in Newark, bodies were found in the North and Hudson Rivers, and a little girl nearly drowned after wading in the East River.
The strangest drowning of the day occurred when F. R. Schultz, a baker, choked on his false teeth while bathing at Rockaway Beach on Long Island. Although he was swimming in shallow water at the time, he was unable to help himself and was dragged from the surf by a lifeguard. As the lifeguard tried to resuscitate Schultz, he noticed a bulging in the man’s throat. Pushing his finger down his throat, the lifeguard found a plate with two false teeth on it. By this time Schultz was already dead.
Victims of drowning, of falling, of violence, of insanity, of suicide: All these must be included in the long list of heat-related deaths that Sunday.
As it was the Sabbath, a day of rest for most New Yorkers, some relief might have been found by the city’s laborers, who had formed the majority of heat prostrations during the past week. Yet the day’s heat-related deaths shot up to well over a hundred in the city itself, with another forty in Brooklyn. Once again the heat did not discriminate according to age, taking nineteen-month-old John Gleason and sixty-four-year-old Louis Garth within a few blocks of each other. Not surprisingly for a Sunday, most victims died at home, with at least one, John Bober, found dead on the roof of his residence. Several others died in the hospital after having been checked in for heat prostration. William McGuire had been checked into Bellevue the day before but died on Sunday. This suggests that many of that day’s victims died from the delayed effects of exhaustion in the previous days or simply the cumulative effect of nearly a week of temperatures in the 90s.
One would hope that many lives were saved by simply having a day off work in the middle of the heat wave. Unfortunately for New York’s laborers, work would resume the following day on one of the hottest days yet.
Newspaper reports came from around the country of the blistering temperatures and the victims of the heat. In Washington, DC, the official high temperature reached just over 97 degrees, “and the general impression is that to-day has been beyond all doubt the hottest and most uncomfortable of the season,” the papers reported. The very architecture of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for America’s capital contributed to the heat, as the “wide asphalted streets and pavements reflected the heat, and as a general rule it was 10 degrees greater throughout the city than that officially recorded.” The residents of Columbia, South Carolina, suffered through their third day of temperatures over 100, while Baltimore reported fifteen heat-related deaths. Out West the heat ravaged the corn crop, “and unless there is rain soon the situation in Southern Kansas and Oklahoma will become alarming.” Des Moines, Iowa, reported two fatalities. In Springfield, Illinois, the Wabash Railroad shops, employing 350 men, were closed as a result of the extreme heat. Yet it was Chicago, hosting Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, that rivaled New York for the level of suffering and fatalities caused by the nationwide heat wave.
WHILE BRYAN’S VISIT to the city may have competed for headlines with the heat wave in the Chicago Daily Tribune, most of the city’s residents seemed preoccupied by the simple ordeal of surviving the torrid day and suffocating night. If New York’s yellow press indulged its taste for the macabre during the heat wave, the Tribune matched them for every rotting horse and dead dog. In particular the paper reported the situation among the city’s poor, with one descriptive headline declaring, “WRITHE IN THE GUTTERS—Residents in Tenement Districts Suffer from the Heat—Thousands are Driven from Their Homes and Pass the Night in the Streets, Sleeping in Filth—Cobblestones Converted into Pillows—Babies Are Apparently Abandoned by Their Parents and Left to Shift for Themselves.” Chicago was mirroring New York’s misery. “All the horrors of hades were made real yesterday in the tenement house districts of Chicago,” reported the newspaper.
In Chicago, heat had reduced people to animals, as the Daily Tribune reported people crawling on all fours through the streets. Hundreds slept in the gutters and in alleyways. At the heart of Chicago’s tenement district, the streets “were literally packed with half-dead human beings.” Moaning people covered the sidewalks, “their faces in the dirt and filth,” grateful for the occasional drop of rain that drenched them and eased the stench of the streets. The most pathetic sight, though, was that of a baby, “who could not have been more than a year old [lying] all alone in the gutter among the filth that had been dumped from a nearby fruit wagon.” The baby’s head rested on the curbstone where it slept soundly, oblivious to the misery around it.
By Sunday, after five days of blistering heat, Chicago’s streets had become festering rivers of filth. With no rain to wash away the horse manure and urine, nor the organic refuse of the businesses and residences, the blistering heat made every street noxious and dangerous. Venturing out into the street at night to catch a breath of air meant making one’s way amid animal feces, rotting produce, and discarded meat trimmings from butchers.
Ironically, the large rectangular garbage containers found on every street became sought-after perches for individuals and families to rest safely above the muck. “The garbage boxes were a godsend to those who found the streets too wet and filthy to lie in,” a reporter from the Tribuneobserved. “Wherever one of the foul-smelling receptacles was, there was sure to be at least one person stretched upon it. Some of the boxes were covered with an old quilt, and babies, stark naked, lay stretched upon them without any one, apparently, having any fear of their falling off.”
This was the situation in Chicago as the Bryans arose at 10:00 AM, with the temperature already 84 degrees. At the First Presbyterian Church of Englewood they attended a service given by their old friend from Omaha, the Reverend John Clark Hill, who had just been called back to Nebraska to become pastor of a church in Lincoln. Riding in a carriage to and from Englewood, on Chicago’s southwest side, from their hotel at Madison Street and Wabash Avenue, Bryan must have been reminded of the time he had once lived in Chicago, attending Union Law College from 1881 to 1883. Although Bryan was familiar with the small cities of the American West, his nearly two years in Chicago, a city of over half a million residents at the time, constituted his first experience living in one of the country’s truly large metropolises. Indeed it may have been those very years that impressed on him the transient and even corrupting role of the city.
For a number of personal reasons, Bryan’s months in Chicago were most likely miserable. His father, Silas, had died in 1880, when Bryan was a junior in college, and twenty-one-year-old William left for his law studies while his family was saddled with Silas’s debts. He also left behind his beloved Mary for two years. While his mother paid for tuition, Bryan was responsible for paying for his own room and board in Chicago, which he was able to do only by skimping and sacrificing, budgeting himself a mere $4 a week. He lived in a single, windowless room far from the city center. To save the 5-cent transit fare Bryan walked the four miles to school. To support himself he worked in the law offices of an old friend of his father’s, the former United States senator Lyman Trumbull. Working part-time, Bryan swept the floors and managed the office’s supplies of paper and ink.
Bryan had arrived in Chicago one decade after the Great Fire had devastated the downtown area. The city had rebounded with astonishing speed. Chicago was growing exponentially, from a population of 100,000 just before the Civil War to 500,000 when Bryan arrived as a student. It was a city of immigrants, with 40 percent of the residents the foreign-born and their children.
Chicago was foremost an industrial city, where huge corporations squeezed the independent businessman and exploited their own workers. Bryan visited the shops of the great Pullman Company, which made the famous sleeping cars for the nation’s railways. He came away shocked at the wretched conditions of the workers and certain of the injustice of a system that allowed the vast majority to share so little of the great wealth being created around them.
It may have been in Chicago that Bryan first developed the ideas that would one day make him the Great Commoner. “History,” he told one of the many discussion and literary societies he belonged to in Chicago, “teaches us that as a general rule, truth is found among the masses, emanates from them; a fact so patent that it has given rise to the old saying, ‘vox populi vox Dei’” (the voice of the people is the voice of God).
But if those masses were exploited economically by the great robber barons, so too were they exploited politically by the great machine politicians. In Chicago, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison ruled absolutely over the Cook County Democratic machine. Harrison believed that Chicagoans had only two desires, to make money and to spend money, and he had special maps printed allowing tourists to find their way from brothel to brothel. In the face of manipulation of the masses by a corrupt elite, the “better classes” of Americans, Bryan believed, had a special duty “to assume the burdens of citizenship . . . To shirk that duty is treason.”
Returning from church on Sunday, the Bryans received many callers at Clifton House, including George W. Peck, former governor of Wisconsin, and General A. J. Warner of Ohio, president of the American Bimetallic League. Mr. Bryan sat for a short time to allow an artist to put the finishing touches on his oil portrait.
Mrs. Bryan, in a summer dress of unbleached linen with black dots, also received guests. When asked about the upcoming campaign and her husband’s speech in New York, Mrs. Bryan spoke frankly. “I tremble sometimes at the thought of Mr. Bryan’s succeeding,” she said. Of the speech: “This speech will have to be entirely different from anything Mr. Bryan has said since the convention began. It will, of course, be more closely criticized and it must be a speech that will require no subsequent explanation.”
Just before midnight, with the temperature still at 85 degrees, the Bryans boarded the slow train to Pittsburgh, due to stop at every town of any size. They would spend Monday night at Pittsburgh before arriving in New York on Tuesday, August 11, a day that would see the heat wave and the death toll reach their heights.
OUT ON OYSTER Bay Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed a Sunday with his family, yet these days he was giving a great deal of thought to the upcoming presidential race and Bryan’s pending arrival. Just days before, Roosevelt had written to his British friend Cecil Spring-Rice: “If Bryan wins we have before us some years of social misery, not markedly different from that of any South American Republic. The movement behind him is most formidable, and it may well be that he will win. Still, I cannot help believing that the sound common sense of our people will assert itself prior to the election, and that he will lose. One thing that would shock our good friends who do not really study history is the fact Bryan closely resembles Thomas Jefferson; whose accession to the Presidency was a terrible blow to this nation.”
In comparing Bryan to Jefferson, Roosevelt meant that both men saw the American yeoman farmer as the foundation of both the spirit and the economy of the United States. In the same letter Roosevelt observed that the “semianarchistic” free silver movement had the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian farmer as its backbone, not the wage-earning immigrants of the cities. In other words, the current revolutionary threat to American democracy came, ironically, from property-owning, native-born Americans, not from the property-less immigrant workers of American cities.
By 1896 Roosevelt had become something of a student of American cities. In 1891 he had published New York, a book that traced the history of his native city from its discovery by Henry Hudson in 1609 to the present. For Roosevelt, the city was the capital of American art, architecture, and commerce, as well as a crucible of different races from which the “True American” might arise.
An adherent of social Darwinist notions of the “survival of the fittest,” Roosevelt saw New York as the place where only the brightest and strongest would survive. While New York could not take the lead in all respects of American life and politics, nevertheless, “its life is so intense and so varied,” he wrote, “and so full of manifold possibilities, that it has a special fascination for ambitious and high-spirited men of every kind, whether they wish to enjoy the fruits of past toil, or whether they have yet their fortunes to make, and feel confident that they can swim in troubled waters—for weaklings have small chance of forging to the front against the turbulent tide of our city life. The truth is that every man worth his salt has open to him in New York a career of boundless usefulness and interest.”
Indeed, according to Roosevelt’s vision of America, cities might be seen as a mark of civilization itself and engines of progress for all nations. If William Jennings Bryan resembled Thomas Jefferson, then Theodore Roosevelt might well be compared to Jefferson’s ideological nemesis, Alexander Hamilton.
Bringing together a varied population in a small and dense island such as Manhattan might create its own unique problems, but it also bred art, ideas, innovation, and wealth. Americans were living increasingly in cities, Roosevelt noted, making the United States largely an urban, not a rural, nation. He foresaw a time when most Americans would live in cities and large towns, and that this would present the country with both unique problems and opportunities. Roosevelt saw that, for better or ill, the American future was an urban one.
Over the next few days Roosevelt would move easily and comfortably from the shores of Oyster Bay to the crowds of Manhattan. Not so Bryan, who having crossed the Mississippi had already entered hostile terrain and was approaching one of his greatest defeats.