THE CITIZENS OF New York had already suffered a week of killer temperatures. There was no relief on Monday, August 10, a day when the thermometer failed to dip below 90 until 9:00 PM. The tortured inhabitants of the city’s tenement districts gasped for breath in the brick and mortar ovens they called home.
The New York Herald described how, as the day dawned, people desperate for a cool place to sleep were found virtually everywhere. “The sidewalks were lined with men, women, and children. Cellar doors were their mattresses and beds were made in trucks and wagons.” The rising sun revealed a wretched scene: “From block to block long rows of baby carriages filled the gutters, and from street to street there went a wail of misery and discomfort.”
Had he seen them, such sights would have only confirmed for Bryan the hellish nature of American cities. In both Chicago and New York people spoke of little other than the weather, while the cities’ newspapers ran apocalyptic headlines describing the widespread suffering and death. It would be Bryan’s monumentally bad luck that his New York arrival coincided exactly with the height of the heat wave.
MEANWHILE, MCKINLEY’S hometown received an unexpected group of visitors on Monday. With Bryan’s train due to arrive in Canton later that day, about sixty members of the Pittsburgh reception committee traveled to the Ohio town to escort the Democratic nominee into Pennsylvania. While at the train station someone suggested they call on McKinley, since his house was just a short walk away. Forming a line, the Bryan supporters marched to the McKinley home on Market Street.
A surprised McKinley greeted his visitors on the veranda. A spokesman for the Bryan men said, “Major McKinley, we believe that every candidate for the Presidency is worthy of the highest respect, regardless of his political affiliations. The members of the committee, therefore, have called to pay their respects to you as an American citizen.” It was a display of respect and esteem for the opposing party’s candidate rarely seen in American politics.
McKinley returned the proffered words of respect: “We are all of us proud of our country’s history, and we should all be determined to make this Government in the future as in the past the best Government in the world. Of you who disagree with me politically, it is very grateful to have assurance of your personal good will.” The Bryan men applauded and pressed forward to shake McKinley’s hand before returning to the station.
Two Bryan supporters, however, stayed to speak to McKinley and his wife. Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri, the likely Democratic nominee before Bryan gave his “Cross of Gold” speech in Chicago, had finally caught up to Bryan’s train. Originally he and his wife were scheduled to depart from Lincoln with the Bryans as a show of support from the most important silver advocate of the day, not to mention a senior Democratic Party leader. But Bland had begged off several days ago, citing the extreme heat. The Blands had also failed to appear in Chicago to meet the candidate’s train, even though the Bryans had stayed overnight in order to attend church on Sunday.
Their failure to meet before the halfway point of Bryan’s trip, in Ohio, was open to interpretation. Was Bland distancing himself from a Bryan candidacy? Did he feel robbed of the nomination and now took revenge by way of a small slight? As temperatures throughout the Midwest and the East approached 100 in some places, Bland’s original excuse for not catching up to the Bryan train rang true: The sixty-one-year-old Bland and his wife simply thought it too hot—and dangerously so—to travel, accompanying the Bryans on a slow, exhausting, and uncomfortable train trip halfway across the continent. But a half hour sitting in the McKinley parlor chatting with the enemy allowed the press to speculate about Bland’s motives. After their visit the Blands returned to the station to join the Pittsburgh reception committee as it prepared for Bryan’s arrival.
By the time the train arrived, Bryan had already had a busy and eventful day—and night. “Night is supposed to be a season of rest,” he would later write, “but I found during the campaign that the rule could not always be observed.” The Bryans had departed from Chicago on the Pittsburgh-bound train just before midnight, planning to sleep for the duration of their trip through Indiana. But just as they did during the day throughout the trip, supporters and the merely curious had turned out in every town along the way. At South Chicago a large crowd, including a brass band, prepared to give the candidate a rousing reception, even though it was past midnight. The beat of the bass drum must have resounded in the exhausted Bryan’s head, while the shrilling of the trumpets flayed his nerves.
At Delphos, Ohio, the next morning, disaster nearly struck. The train arrived just after 7:00 AM, and already the crowd was too large. The streets around the station were jammed, and people packed the rooftops. Bryan emerged from the train only to offer his apology that he could not make a speech. Just as he finished, the wooden awning of a store only twenty feet from him collapsed with an enormous crash, sending nearly a hundred people tumbling down with it. As people in the crowd began to panic, threatening a crush, Bryan shouted, “Stand still, don’t move.” Incredibly, no one was hurt, and he joked, “If you would get on our platform it would not fall down.” Recovering from their fright, the spectators laughed and cheered as the train moved off. Platform collapses became a common hazard of Bryan’s groundbreaking cross-country campaign, which attracted record crowds.
The next day at Crestline, Ohio, an onlooker snapped a picture of the Bryans. Both William Jennings and Mary Bryan look directly into the camera. Mr. Bryan wears a dark suit with his trademark kerchief tied around his neck, and his hat tilts back from his face, slightly covering his bald pate. A watch chain hangs from his waist, and his hand is being gripped by an enthusiastic well-wisher, although Bryan does not seem even to notice it. His smile is wry and tight-lipped, while Mary Bryan gazes into the camera with a broad smile and bright eyes. Her hat is slightly askew as she tries to balance a large bouquet of flowers in her left hand. A man described by Bryan as “an enthusiastic silverite” shakes her right hand, pulling her slightly toward him. Having been on the campaign trail for only a few days, Mary Bryan looks a little dazed and overwhelmed.
In Mansfield, Ohio, Bryan addressed an issue that would dog him throughout the campaign. Less than seventy miles from the Republican stronghold of Canton, he touched on his relative youth and lack of military service. “Here [in Canton] are some who believe that only in times of war can people prove their patriotism,” Bryan began. “I was too young to prove my patriotism in the time of war, but I glory that in a country like this every year presents a battlefield and every day gives those who live in the country an opportunity to prove their devotion.” It was a fair attempt to puncture this particular criticism. In a nation only a generation removed from the Civil War, Americans continued to define themselves and their country in the context of that great conflict.
The heroes of 1896 were, to a man, Civil War heroes, and America’s most ubiquitous war memorials commemorated that war. Bronze statues and Civil War veterans could be found in every town in America, including those along Bryan’s route that week. Some veterans wore their threadbare uniforms every day, while others hobbled along streets missing an arm or leg. Other men like McKinley continued to wear their Civil War ranks as badges of honor. That simple title “Major” in front of McKinley’s name spoke volumes to the average American in 1896. Bryan knew this, knew the impossibility of competing with it, and could offer only the excuse of his age and the claim of devotion. These were poor substitutes.
Men like Bryan and Roosevelt, born just before the war, were doomed to live in its shadow, which created in them a sense of inferiority and incompleteness that bordered on emasculation. No wonder that when war broke out with Spain in 1898, both Bryan and Roosevelt jumped at the chance to prove their worth and their manhood.
THE CLIMAX OF Bryan’s August 10 trip came at Canton, where cheers of “Hurrah for McKinley!” competed with cheers of “Hurrah for Bryan!” Rolling into McKinley’s hometown at just around 1:00 PM, Bryan could not have failed to note the many McKinley banners displayed by the crowd. If the East was the “enemy’s country,” then Canton perhaps constituted the front lines. A speech there was bound to be interrupted by cheers for the Major, and Bryan, in the gentlemanly style of nineteenth-century politics, would continually be forced to shower praise on his Republican opponent. Nevertheless, Bryan stood atop the platform and launched into a speech in front of a hostile crowd numbering in the thousands.
From the beginning of his speech, Bryan referred to McKinley as his “distinguished opponent” and declared himself glad to be able to testify at his home “to his high character and great personal worth.” This elicited loud cheers from the crowd of locals. The Democratic candidate noted that while McKinley was their neighbor, Bryan himself sought to be a neighbor like the Good Samaritan. “In this contest I hope to be the neighbor of those who have fallen among thieves,” Bryan boomed. “He is a neighbor who, in the hour of distress, brings relief.”
Turning to the free coinage of silver, he declaimed that whether in Omaha or Canton, he trusted that the neighbors of the two candidates would vote as they saw best, “although it may result in keeping your distinguished citizen among you as a neighbor still,” he joked. Some of Bryan’s supporters in the crowd jeered, “That’s where he belongs!”
As his speech ended, so ended the stop in Canton. No one suggested they march to McKinley’s home, and the train readied to leave. The train rolled out of town and toward Pittsburgh.
Bryan arrived in Pittsburgh just before 7:00, exhausted from his trip. Once again, thousands met the candidate’s train at Union Station, and the police had to force a path through the crowd to the Central Hotel. Bryan emerged briefly onto his hotel room’s balcony, bowed to the cheering crowd, but said nothing. He was saving his already strained voice for a large rally to be held that evening in the Grand Opera House.
After dinner the couple made their way to the opera house, and Bryan began to speak at 9:30 PM. One observer called his voice “husky,” saying it “showed signs of failing under the severe strain of the past few days.” The immense gathering in one of America’s biggest cities made this an important campaign stop, but Bryan could squeeze out only fifteen minutes of campaign boilerplate before heat and exhaustion made him stop. Flanked by representatives of the mine workers’ and steelworkers’ unions, he said little that was new, repeating his belief in the people of the United States and in their ability to make the correct judgment on every subject.
Despite his brief Pittsburgh speech, Bryan displayed his inexperience in a national campaign. Even in his foreshortened remarks, he repeated his jarring reference to the East being “enemy’s country,” an odd thing to say in any city east of the Mississippi. While the Republican press had enjoyed repeating this phrase on the eve of his arrival in New York City, portraying it as the sort of gaffe a young, inexperienced demagogue might make, in fact he seemed to like this particular turn of phrase. Furthermore, he lapsed once again into the martial rhetoric of one who had never experienced battle, pledging that during the campaign “not a single private in the ranks will stand nearer to the enemy’s lines than him in whose hand is the standard.” And once again he almost guaranteed a frosty reception in New York City. How many times would he refer to that city as “enemy’s country” before arriving to give perhaps the most important speech of the campaign? This was but one of the factors conspiring to make his New York visit a difficult one.
In the Grand Opera House that evening, with his voice failing and the exhaustion of the day taking a physical toll on him, the temperature inside the packed hall reached extreme levels. While there were no reports of heat prostration in the audience, every observer noted that “the heated atmosphere was almost unbearable.” It was a grim foreshadowing of what awaited Bryan inside Madison Square Garden.
IN NEW YORK, as of Monday, August 10, frantic preparations were still being made for Bryan’s big speech only two days away. One reporter described the situation at the Democratic headquarters at the Bartholdi Hotel as being “a mixed up mess,” as campaign officials ran about on different errands and no one could answer reporters’ questions. All the journalists could report was that New York’s Democratic leaders hoped to host a giant, loud rally like the one that accompanied Bryan’s nomination in Chicago. If they could pull it off, such an event would illustrate his popularity among New York’s working class and maintain what they referred to as his “boom,” or what later political pundits would call “momentum.”
The Democrats planned to pack the Garden with an unprecedented 10,500 seats, with as many as 7,000 more standing. Such a crowd had been seen but once before at the Garden, on its opening night in June 1890. That event had occurred on a mild early summer night. To pack the same hall in 100-degree heat was madness.
No other locale in the United States during the heat wave would have dared bring together such a mass of humanity, while headlines screamed the daily death toll. But the date had been reserved, Democrats from all over the country were even now pouring into town, and Bryan himself was but a day away. “Madison Square Garden,” the Times warned, “promises to be the most uncomfortable, and, some think, the most dangerous place in the country.” The consequences of packing so many people into the Garden on such a hot night “can only be guessed.”
Democrats at the Bartholdi were so absorbed with the planning of the meeting, and so intent on keeping away from the throng of perspiring ticket-seekers, that they overlooked the arrival in town of the vice presidential nominee. To Sewall’s surprise, no reception committee was on hand, and not even a carriage awaited him as he stepped off the train from Boston at Grand Central Station. A solitary figure among the crowd at the busy station, he made sure his luggage was claimed from the train before hailing a hack to the Fifth Avenue Hotel. At the hotel, nobody looked twice at the man with a face begrimed with soot and ash from his five-hour train ride into the city. He wore the common summer wear for gentlemen of the day: light trousers, tan shoes, a yellow alpaca coat, a straw hat, and, like Bryan, a handkerchief tied loosely around his throat. After handing his coat to a bellboy, he registered and then gently put off the newspapermen who approached him. “Wait till I get a bath and a shave, and I’ll be glad to see you,” he said as he headed toward the hotel’s barbershop.
An hour later he sat smoking a cigar, discussing some details of the campaign with reporters, and admitted knowing little of the following night’s meeting. The vice presidential nominee said he did not know who would preside over the meeting, New York senator David Hill having already declined. Sewall said he had not even finished his speech. He did not know when the Democratic presidential candidate would come to Sewall’s home state of Maine, nor how many speeches Bryan would give there if he did. He did not know if Bryan would accept the Populist nomination. He did not know where Democrats planned to establish their permanent national headquarters for the campaign, and he expressed no preference. The only thing Sewall seemed certain of was that he planned to leave the city and return to Maine as soon as possible, probably the day after the speech. With the temperature just outside his hotel room a balmy 90, even at 5:00 PM, such a sentiment was understandable.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT HAD already fled the heat. As of Monday, August 10, he planned to stay out at Oyster Bay on Long Island for the duration of Bryan’s stay in the city. Both the heat and party politics probably contributed to this decision, although as police commissioner he certainly would have had his fair share of work to do the evening of Bryan’s speech. Even so, with the Police Board deadlocked, and his sights set on a McKinley victory and subsequent appointment out of New York, the president of the Board of Police Commissioners stayed home to conduct a letter-writing campaign.
His targets, as ever, were the Storers, the friends of McKinley who had bailed the Ohioan out of financial trouble after the 1893 Panic. Just a week before, Roosevelt had rowed Maria Longworth Storer across Long Island Sound, almost pleading for her to use her influence with McKinley on his behalf. Now he addressed letters to both Bellamy and Maria Storer, noting his own efforts to secure for McKinley’s close friend a cabinet post or ambassadorship to France.
Roosevelt also gently reminded them of his own ambition. Both Bellamy Storer and Henry Cabot Lodge had discussed his taking the position of assistant secretary of the navy in a McKinley cabinet, perhaps even in a Navy Department led by Bellamy Storer. To Mr. Storer Roosevelt reiterated his willingness to accept such a post but at the same time demurred that “the really important thing is to get you in the Cabinet or at Paris. This is what we must strive to accomplish.” To Maria Storer Roosevelt composed a longer note explaining in detail the way he had pressed Mark Hanna on her husband’s behalf. “I spoke of Bellamy as the man for the Cabinet, either for War or Navy, or else to go to France,” he wrote, saying that “my personal feelings did not influence me, but that for various reasons, ranging from his vote on the Gold Bond Bill to his whole record in Congress and his standing with Catholics, I felt no appointment would do more to strengthen McKinley.” While this might have been a bit of flattery on Roosevelt’s part, it was also good politics. Roosevelt was absolutely right that Storer had a reputation as a sound gold man, as opposed to McKinley, whose pet issue remained his beloved tariff. And the support of the Storers as leading Catholics could help mitigate Democratic support in the cities, especially among immigrants.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s first meetings with Hanna had not gone exactly as planned. With any possible McKinley administration still seven months away, Hanna had apparently given Roosevelt—and probably every other office seeker—something of a brush off. Now he tried to explain this to the Storers. In his letter to Mrs. Storer, Roosevelt related that Hanna had said “at present he was considering nothing but how to elect McKinley . . . I thought it wise not to press the matter further at the moment.” Even so, Roosevelt tried to make clear he had made his best effort. Clearly it was not up to him alone to secure a post for Bellamy Storer, an Ohio lawyer and congressman whom McKinley had known well for years, as opposed to the young police commissioner from New York. Roosevelt’s goal, instead, was to secure a quid pro quo from the Storers. Now that he had raised the topic of a Storer appointment with Hanna, it was up to the Storers to bring their own influence to bear with their close friend McKinley.
WITH THE STREET temperature hitting 95 and the humidity at 70 percent, the heat settling over the city on this seventh day of the heat wave felt like 120 degrees. Hospitals reported twelve infant deaths from the heat, although many more died inside the suffocating tenements. Sixty death certificates were filed that day in Manhattan for children under the age of two, including Charles Bellman, age seven months, and Gladys Shields, age six months.
Before departing the city for Long Island on August 10, Roosevelt had issued an order that may have saved many lives during the last few days of the heat wave. With the city hospitals complaining to the police that their ambulances were “taxed to the utmost caring for heat cases,” Roosevelt ordered that police wagons be pressed into service.
Like flushing the streets or changing work hours, this was a seemingly simple order that nevertheless depended on the individual judgment and initiative of a city official like Roosevelt. Quick treatment for heat victims in a hospital’s ice baths was the best way to save the heat-stricken. Making enough transportation available to carry the sick to hospitals, or to cart away dead horses, might have been the most basic of measures taken by the city, thus saving lives and removing the “flavor of pestilence” that Roosevelt would later describe to his sister. This did not happen—even Roosevelt’s order to provide police wagons was not adequate to handle the body count. Supply wagons, coal trucks, and even the morgue’s “dead wagon” ultimately had to be pressed into service taking heat victims to the hospital.
Meanwhile the heat wave continued to dominate newspaper headlines. “An Epidemic of Sunstrokes,” the Herald declared, as the Tribune announced “DEATHS BY THE SCORE.” Every paper on Monday, August 10, dedicated several pages to the tragedy, listing the victims and often giving an hour-by-hour accounting of the temperature. “The plague of high temperature and high humidity on the city,” the Journal reported, “is eating out its life at a never before equaled speed.” Outside of New York, much of the country continued to suffer through the heat wave. Across the Hudson in New Jersey, many people died from the heat, and the Botany Worsted Mills in Passaic shut its doors so as not to endanger the lives of its 3,000 employees. Even in the farming districts it was reported that farmers had left their fields to escape the heat. With the streams drying up, cattle and other livestock were suffering gravely. In Connecticut deaths were reported in Hartford and New Haven, while Providence, Rhode Island, registered the record temperature of 97. Philadelphia reported a slight easing of temperatures, from 97 degrees the day before down to 93, with a total death toll from the week approaching a hundred. More deaths were reported in Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, and as far north as Michigan and Minnesota.
New York, though, remained the capital of despair. “Manhattan Island was an inferno of brick and stone,” the Journal observed, “radiating heat deadly in its intensity. And over all, gray as the presence of death which it held, was the pall of humidity.” Like the fabled desert city of Is, the sound of whose bells could be heard at sunset, rising up through the sand, New York from a height also seemed to be “in the depths of an opalescent sea.” “But the sound that came from this city under the gray sea was not the vague music of bells,” the paper concluded, “but the heart-stirring dissonance of bereavement and anguish.”
Death and suffering had greeted the Weather Bureau’s man Dunn every day of the heat wave. After a week of unbearable heat, he had altogether stopped answering his phone to give the hourly official readings to the newspapers. In fact, it was reported that on August 10, he had left the city altogether. A reporter had observed him out at Montauk Point on Long Island. The same reporter dryly observed that relatively cool Montauk Point is “at the extreme easterly end of Long Island” and “swept by ocean breeze.” Officially Dunn was out at Montauk Point to inspect the instruments of another weather observer there. However, he had been seen in the company of two boys “riding a tandem.” At that very moment, scores of people were being treated for heat exhaustion in the city hospitals, while city coroners were working overtime on the dead. “When Dunn quits his post things must be in a bad way,” the reporter for New York World wrote. “And they are.”
CONSIDERING THE HUNDREDS of deaths and hundreds more prostrated in the street daily, the hospitals and ambulances were severely overtaxed. Roosevelt Hospital sent word to all of its affiliated physicians to assist the ambulance corps, and medical students were pressed into service. Even after Theodore Roosevelt arranged for police wagons to serve as extra ambulances, one-third of the calls for ambulances still went unanswered. At Roosevelt Hospital every wagon and ambulance that rolled up contained two victims of the heat. The superintendent noted, “We have sent word to the police to get sufferers here by any conveyance at hand—trucks, wagons, cabs, and even wheelbarrows if they cannot do better.” The superintendent of Hudson Street Hospital also admitted that ambulance calls were going unanswered, “but we are finding great relief that our suggestion that carriages be used as much as possible is being freely followed.”
The coroner’s office was tragically overworked. Coroners and their staff were working from sunrise until two in the morning each day. On Monday, August 10, one of the clerks in the coroner’s office collapsed from heat prostration. Amid such heat, the examinations of the dead were necessarily cursory—the quickly decomposing bodies had to be buried, and fast.
A week into the heat wave relatives of the deceased were beginning to complain that no official from the coroner’s office was able to come to their home and issue a death certificate until the body was in the first stages of decomposition. When a reporter asked Coroner O’Hanlon about this complaint, he countered by criticizing the habit among the poor of seeking relief at night on their tenement roofs. “The people of the lower east side especially, think that after a day of torture, relief is to be found on the roofs of houses that have been baking for a day and perhaps, as in the present case, a week,” the coroner observed. “They and their families go to the tin roof and sleep, or try to, and the heat that is pouring up all around them, the residue after the sun has finished his day’s roasting, either makes them victims at once or prepares them for destruction in a day or two.”
O’Hanlon’s grim mood was understandable. On Monday, August 10, alone he had seventy-seven cases on his list for investigation, with over fifty of the cases requiring climbing more than two flights of stairs. The situation had deteriorated such that Coroner Fitzpatrick was moved to write an emergency appeal to Mayor Strong asking for more staff. A further request illustrated the dire situation the city faced: Fitzpatrick asked that the law requiring bodies to be left uncared for until viewed by a coroner be suspended, “as the force of Coroners is altogether inadequate, and the enforcement of the law only works hardship on the friends of the dead and endangers the health of the survivors.”
WITH NEW YORK’S press continuing to mock the efforts of William Dunn of the United States Weather Bureau, including his “fleeing” the city, not to mention his cool aerie on top of the Manhattan Life Insurance Building, and especially his low temperature readings during the heat wave, the New York Journal turned to Dr. Thomas Draper of the New York Meteorological Bureau. For twenty-eight years Draper had manned a set of thermometers, barometers, and wind gauges atop the Arsenal in Central Park.
On August 11 the Journal gave Draper center stage in an article entitled “WHY SO MANY HAVE DIED: Dr. Draper Explains the Conditions of the Long Heat Plague.” “Because of the high temperature, abnormally high humidity, and the absence of wind,” Draper explained. “The temperature has been higher before, but not for so long a time. This heated spell began on August 4,” he noted, giving a table of temperatures that was markedly different from the official temperatures collected by Dunn. Draper observed temperatures both in the shade and in the sun. Even his “shade” temperatures were several degrees warmer on any given day than Dunn’s observations. On August 5, the second day of the heat wave, the official temperature hit 89, while Draper observed a temperature of 95 in the shade. On the same day, he observed a temperature of 131 in the sun. This pattern repeated throughout the heat wave. On August 7, the fourth day of the heat wave, the official temperature hit a high of only 91. Draper, however, recorded 97 in the shade, and 132 in the sun. On August 10, Dr. Draper noted a temperature of 137 in the sun.
Draper emphasized the importance of high humidity and lack of wind, two key characteristics of the heat wave that were absent from Dunn’s observations. “The wind charts show that during the hours of sleep there has not been a strong breeze any night this week,” Draper said, “and on some nights the speed has been less than a mile an hour.” Because wind aids evaporation, humidity reached its highest, most suffocating levels at night. On most afternoons during the heat wave the humidity was only around 50 percent. Yet during the early mornings, from 2:00 until 8:00, the humidity soared to the 80 percent and 90 percent levels. On August 7 nighttime humidity hit 94 percent, and on August 9 humidity reached an unbearable 97 percent. Using a modern heat index calculation, this meant that even during the coolest moment of August 9, when the temperature, according to Draper, sank to 82, the temperature a body would feel still sat at an uncomfortable 94 degrees. During such a night, almost a week into the heat wave, New Yorkers attempting to get a restful night’s sleep were thwarted. With high humidity and no wind, there was no relief. The night of August 11, the eighth night of the heat wave, would prove to be little better, with a low temperature of 81, but with humidity at 85 percent. Workers continued to die by the score, and tenement dwellers continued to bake and gasp on the Lower East Side.
Even the New York Times, a paper usually loath to dramatize the plight of the city’s poor, offered a grim picture of the day’s suffering. “In the tenement-house districts yesterday the suffering was most intense,” the paper observed, “and helpless women and children, enervated by days and days of hopeless, squalid, sweltering, sat or lay drowsily on stoops.”
The writer had apparently walked along Cherry Street, just a block from the East River, and noted how heat-induced torpor had settled on this normally bustling lane. “The motley throng was there like so many dogs impounded in a place of awful heat, where every breath meant a struggle and every struggle a pang. And whatever puff of wind that moved bore heated odors to add to the misery of the sufferers.” Comparing the “motley throng” to a pack of panting dogs was classic New York Times, as was the complaint of the foul-smelling air in the tenement districts. When it came time to sleep, families “sought the heat-belching roofs, or lay, sleepless, panting, on the heat-soaked stones.” As the coroner had noted, in a desperate attempt to draw in a breath of air, tenement residents climbed to the roofs, a practice that continued to sap their strength and contribute to heat exhaustion. “The days of death continue,” the Times announced. “The sun is still unwearied of its scourging.”
The city papers noted that the hottest and most dangerous place on Manhattan Island was the stretch of asphalt in front of city hall. Each day, that overheated part of the city claimed several victims, including a man who threw up his hands and collapsed shortly before noon on August 10. At that moment a thermometer on the steps registered 112 degrees.
Only individual department heads took action. Commissioner Collis of the Public Works Department had already established shorter and earlier work hours for his men. In the public stores, the bonded warehouses belonging to the New York Customs House, sixteen men had been too ill to come to work that day, and the collector issued an order closing the warehouses during the middle of the day.
THE BRYANS’ OVERNIGHT stay in Pittsburgh gave the Democratic candidate an important gift: six hours of continuous sleep. Exhausted and hoarse, and with his hands purple and swollen from shaking thousands of hands during his trip across America, Bryan was already in poor shape for his big speech the following day.
The trip east was just a taste of what he would face during his groundbreaking cross-country campaign in the months to follow. Indeed, weighed against the potential impact of the speech in hostile New York, the train trip itself was probably the more valuable campaign tool. True, perhaps 17,000 people would attend the Garden speech Wednesday night. But many times more people had heard Bryan speak either from the back of the train platform in small towns or in the auditoriums of the big cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh when the party stopped for the night. And millions more read his speeches in the newspapers.
Yet New York was still the key. The Bryan campaign sincerely hoped that a rousing speech in New York City would win over skeptics and make inroads into the urban East. A success there on the scale of his “Cross of Gold” triumph would resonate throughout the country. And New York remained the most important swing state in the Union: Winning it in November would give Bryan the White House. With this fact in mind, he planned to spend the rest of the journey largely silent and would not give any speeches that would further weaken his voice.
The residents of Altoona, Pennsylvania, packed windows and balconies overlooking the station, as railroad workers sat atop nearby boxcars. Bryan and Bland appeared on the rear platform to cries of “Bryan!” and “Speech!” When Bland took on the duty of addressing the crowd, his words were drowned out by cries of “Bryan, Bryan!” People had not left their homes and businesses to crowd onto the train tracks and hear old Silver Dick Bland speak a few rusty platitudes. To repeated demands for a speech, Bryan shook his head, placed his hand at his throat, and called out in a husky voice, “Can’t boys, I can’t.” Understanding there would be no speech, the crowd rushed the train so that both Mr. and Mrs. Bryan could again undergo the hand-shaking ordeal. Throughout the day Bland took over speaking duties as the Bryans shook hands.
The final destination for the day was Jersey City, New Jersey, where the Bryan party would take the ferry across the Hudson to Manhattan. In its coverage of the campaign’s arrival at the train station, the pro-Bryan New York Journal, organ of thirty-three-year-old William Randolph Hearst, made it seem as if every New Yorker had turned out to welcome the candidate. Indeed, the paper had a record of offering wildly exaggerated estimates of the crowds that greeted Bryan all throughout his trip. The entire trip East, asserted the Journal, “was one continuous ovation for the Democratic candidate for the Presidency.” The Bryan party themselves estimated the crowd at Harrisburg that day at only 5,000, while the Journal claimed 20,000.
Even so, the paper trumpeted its inflated figures as proof of a wave of support for Bryan—and, consequently, for free silver. “Unless all the evidence is misleading,” the paper stated, “the silver sentiment throughout Pennsylvania, in New Jersey, and even in New York, is as intense as in the Western States. It may be that the people of the East have not, until quite recently, caught the enthusiasm upon the silver question. But undoubtedly it is strong in the East.” His New Jersey arrival was depicted as a “Riot of Enthusiasm,” in one headline, a “Maelstrom of Cheering Men and Women” that almost engulfed the candidate. The Journal also said that the police drew their clubs in order to regain control but were restrained by Bryan himself. Whether true or not, it was certainly a wonderful example of the Great Commoner’s common touch.
While the Journal tried to turn the near-riot to Bryan’s advantage, most New York papers used it to criticize the arrangements for Bryan’s visit. The large police presence itself was cause for comment, as well as the lack of organization and of a coherent plan to escort the candidate and his party. Before the train arrived, police officers had lined up behind a rope that stretched across the waiting space of the station. A sergeant for the Jersey police told a Times reporter that they had been ordered to keep the crowd away from the candidate. “All men seemed heartily ashamed of their work,” the Times reported. One policeman supposedly said of Bryan, “I thought he was a man of the people, and here he has called out nearly half the Jersey City force to keep the people from seeing him.” Another likened the protection that might be given to the Prince of Wales or the czar of Russia. After the police had stood along the rope-line for half an hour, they were split into three groups: one to keep a path clear for the train, one to keep a passage clear for the Bryan party once they had alighted, and one to act as bodyguards. Several detectives also mingled with the crowd and arrested two pickpockets, causing some commotion before the crowd returned its focus to Bryan’s imminent arrival.
Unlike the cheering Journal, the other city papers depicted a more subdued greeting for the candidate, although they did acknowledge the enthusiasm of the small crowds. Estimates of the crowd from papers hostile to Bryan ranged from 1,500 down to only a few hundred, while the “regiment” of Jersey City police was estimated to be between seventy and a hundred men. About thirty reporters awaited Bryan’s arrival. Also on hand were vice presidential nominee Arthur Sewall, national chairman James K. Jones, and national treasurer William St. John, at whose house the Bryans would stay. Arriving at about 8:30 PM, Bryan stepped down from the train and turned to help Mrs. Bryan down the steps. She then took Jones’s arm as he escorted her through the crowd. The Times called the crowd’s cheers “feeble” and gave an unflattering description of a travel-weary Bryan: “His face was travel-stained, and he seemed very much fatigued. He looked almost like a sick man and not like an Alexander seeking new worlds to conquer.”
In order to avoid the crowd, the Bryans were conducted to the elevator used for lowering baggage to the ferryboat landing. Yet people simply made a dash down the stairs to the landing and were already awaiting the candidate when he emerged from the elevator. Bryan acknowledged the repeated cheers by waving his hat in the air, as Mrs. Bryan, “with a flush of pleasure,” bowed to each side of her.
During their short walk to the ferryboat to Manhattan, however, things became dangerous. The crowd pressed in on all sides, and the members of the Bryan party became separated from one another. Mrs. Bryan was pushed away from Jones, and if St. John had not come to her rescue, observers said, “she might have been badly crushed.” Mr. Bryan fared little better.
Despite the large police presence meant to protect the candidate from just such a situation, the police had obviously failed to make plans among themselves. Instead of forming a box around Bryan and clearing a passage to the ferryboat, the police became mixed with the crowd. One observer called the police arrangements “execrable” and said that “by their disorganized efforts [they helped] to create even worse disorder.”
The Bryans finally boarded the ferry Hudson City with a small remnant of their party. Deck stools were brought for them, “and perspiring and upset by their struggles Mr. Bryan and his wife sat down with the remark that they were glad the struggle was over.”
Suddenly a panic arose when the group failed to find Mrs. Bland among them. It took the aid of two policemen to extract her from the crowd at the rear of the boat and bring her forward. All the while the ferry passengers continued to cheer Mr. and Mrs. Bryan. One young man so attracted Mrs. Bryan’s attention that she handed him her bunch of roses. “This work of favor was the young man’s downfall,” the Tribune said. “Instantly he was set upon by the people around him and in the fierce struggle for the flowers they were totally destroyed.” Ultimately, all parties boarded the ferry without injury, but according to one observer, the reception had been “a gross failure.”
The near-disaster shook Bryan’s host, William St. John. For the remainder of their New York stay, St. John would ring William and Mary Bryan with a large amount of security. He would insist on a vast police presence wherever the candidate went, supplemented by a force of private detectives. St. John would even act as a sort of body-guard to Mary Bryan, rudely shoving well-wishers out of the way. All this would serve to cut the Great Commoner off from the citizens of New York.
CROSSING FROM JERSEY City to Desbrosses Street in Lower Manhattan, Bryan followed one of the most traveled paths across the Hudson, one that dated from the time Native Americans used rafts and canoes centuries before Europeans arrived. Later the Holland Tunnel would open onto the city just a few blocks away, the longest underwater tunnel in the world when it opened in 1927. But with the Brooklyn Bridge still the only major span across the Hudson and East rivers, New Yorkers were absolutely dependent on ferries and had been since the years of New Amsterdam. Indeed, Bryan now crossed at the site of the very first chartered ferry serving Manhattan, the Netherlands Council granting its charter in 1661. After that, the number of ferry services and their passengers increased dramatically, and two hundred years after the first ferry 50 million New Yorkers were taking the ferry every year. By the time Bryan rode the Hudson City across the river, the common saying held that when there was fog in the harbor, half the business population of New York would be late for work.
Bryan’s trip across the Hudson by ferry invited more comment than if he had simply ridden into the city like candidates in later years. Some papers called the Hudson Bryan’s Rubicon; others referred to it as his Delaware, the river George Washington crossed into New Jersey before the Battle of Trenton.
Perhaps writers for the New York journals were too jaded to comment on it, but for Bryan and his wife, there must have been a certain drama to the river crossing. Approaching the city across the relative calm of the water, and watching as the thousands of lights of Lower Manhattan slowly drew closer, must have made a great impression on the two residents of Lincoln, Nebraska. Suddenly after days of hurtling toward the city, covering hundreds of miles a day by rail, the journey seemed to have slipped into a kind of slow motion, as the outlines of new “skyscrapers”—a word already in common usage—hoved into view. Such an arrival into the city was perhaps particularly fitting for the populist Bryan. As a man who made his career railing against the Money Power, of which railroads were one of the most ubiquitous examples, abandoning the train for a ferryboat ride possibly appealed to his sense of right. Bryan was probably unaware that the Pennsylvania Railroad also operated the Hudson City.
After the fiasco in Jersey City, it was a relief to the arriving party that police arrangements were more satisfactory on the New York side. Police held the crowd back until Bryan left the boat, and he was taken out a side door to the entrance of the neighboring ferry slip. Three carriages drove the party two miles to the St. John home, where a small crowd of about 150 people waited. In fact the crowd seemed drawn more by the large police presence than any foreknowledge that Bryan was soon to arrive.
One cabman driving by suddenly brought his horse up with a jerk and asked, “Wat t’ell’s goin’ on here?” “Bryan’s coming,” called out a policeman. “The devil he is,” the cabman replied, as he whipped his horses and drove off. “Just tell him that you saw me.” The Bryans’ carriage soon arrived, and the party walked rapidly into the house, ignoring the cheers from the street. After the door had closed, a loud voice across the street tried to revive the enthusiasm of the disappointed crowd by calling out the first part of the old campaign chant, “What’s the matter with Bryan?”
At that very moment Bryan emerged from the house again and walked out on the steps. A hush fell on the crowd, and the broad base of the stone steps lit by the electric lamps gave the impression of an actor stepping onto the stage. “His pale face was outlined by the electric glare,” one witness described, “his tangled hair fell down over his shoulders, and his eyes seemed to flash in the light, and, as he drew himself erect the audience caught just for an instant a fleeting glimpse of a magnetic pose, such as he might have brought into play when he carried the hysterical and emotional Convention at Chicago along with him.”
Bryan stood on the step and looked both ways down the street, perhaps looking for more people, as the situation in the street below was one to which he was unaccustomed: Here he was in the largest American city, faced with a small and completely quiet crowd of fewer than two hundred people. Unlike his reception in other cities, the crowds that had greeted his arrival in New York, both at the ferryboat and at St. John’s house, numbered under three hundred total. What hope did he have, then, of filling the 15,000-seat auditorium of Madison Square Garden? Bryan turned back toward the house as if to go back inside, and now the crowd erupted into applause and cries of “Speech!” But Bryan only shook his head and stepped back into the house.
By prior arrangement, Bryan had agreed to meet with newspapermen at 10:00 PM, but as the train had been delayed, this meeting did not take place until nearly 11:00. It promised to be a short meeting, since before Bryan appeared, St. John lectured the newspapermen, “Now, with Mr. Bryan, this is going to be ‘How-de-do,’ and ‘Goodby,’” one of the reporters present recounted. “The man is thoroughly tired out. You must not ask him a question. If you have any questions to ask, you may ask them of me, and I will answer so far as I can, or get the answer from him.”
“Now,” said St. John, with a hint of theatricality, “you may see Mr. Bryan.” He then opened a set of sliding doors, revealing Bryan, washed, smiling, and perfectly attired in evening dress, standing amid a bower of flowers sent by well-wishers. To proffered hands Bryan held up his, showing them to be badly discolored and swollen. “You see,” Bryan said in a whisper, “I have had a hard time of it shaking hands from the rear of the cars. They would give me a hearty clasp, and I tell you that the number of times that hand has been wrung has been enough to make me wince.” Noting his rasp, one reporter cautioned him against speaking more and suggested a certain liquor-based cure. “The remedies suggested for my throat,” Bryan laughingly replied, “are limited only by the number of people that I have talked with within the last two days. I will be all right tomorrow.” With that, the meeting with New York reporters was over. St. John announced that the candidate would see no one and give no further interviews or speeches before his appearance at the Garden the following night.
AS BRYAN HAD entered New York, the Democratic National Committee had finalized arrangements for the meeting at Madison Square Garden at last. Over 30,000 applications for tickets had been made, with most of them turned down. Organizers worried that many New Yorkers assumed that the Madison Square Garden meeting was a political rally and thus open to all. They still remembered Grover Cleveland’s notification in 1892, when a crush of people seeking admission had caused women to faint and almost led to a mass panic. To avoid such a calamity, organizers had requested a large police presence, and Chief of Police Conlin had also announced the presence of a police surgeon to care for anyone stricken by the heat.
On the stage with Bryan would be a scattering of leading Democrats, with many prominent absences such as Senator Hill and Tammany politicians. Their places would be taken by leading silver advocates, like Richard Bland, Senator Joe Blackburn of Kentucky, and Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina. Indeed the city seemed to be awash in southern and western politicians. “The buffalo herd is coming,” one fervent free-silver advocate shouted in the Fifth Avenue Hotel corridor. “The stampede is making its way east!”