Come along get you ready wear your bran, bran new gown,
For dere’s gwine to be a meeting in that good, good old town,
Where you knowed ev’ry body, and they all knowed you,
And you’ve got a rabbits foot to keep away the hoodoo;
Where you hear that the preaching does begin,
Bend down low for to drive away your sin
And when you gets religion, you want to shout and sing,
There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight, my baby.
FROM THE SONG “A HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN,” 1896
DURING THE 1896 campaign Mary Bryan recorded in a small notebook the many gifts her husband received from well-wishers. These included: “One pair of suspenders. One cane. One band wagon. One mule. One silk bed quilt. . . . One ostrich egg.”
Canes were the most frequent gift, made from materials such as petrified wood, fish vertebrae, and antelope horn. The head of one cane represented an eagle with diamonds for eyes—after one large public reception the Bryans found the diamonds had disappeared. A fungus that bore a resemblance to Bryan was sent, as well as an egg with a shell formation that suggested the candidate’s initials. Rabbits’ feet arrived in large quantities. “If there be virtue in the hind foot of a rabbit procured under the most favorable circumstances,” Mary wrote years later, “Mr. Bryan should have won this election. It is difficult to imagine that his opponent was more adequately supplied with rabbits’ feet; plain, furry little feet, feet mounted in every ingenious form . . . came to us with such frequency that they are not included in the notebook record.” As a Christian, William Jennings Bryan likely rejected such totems, although at the speech on the night of August 12 he would need help from every quarter to “keep away the hoodoo.”
In Brooklyn, the Russell family of Huron Street particularly suffered on the day of the big meeting. Patrick Russell, seventy-three years old and a retired merchant, visited his eldest daughter in Manhattan on one of the hottest days of the year, returned home, and died. His youngest daughter, Mary, was prostrated in the city and taken to Presbyterian Hospital, where she later died. Finally, Russell’s son, Patrick Russell Jr., a clerk in Brooklyn’s Hall of Records, stayed home from work to attend to his family and to funeral arrangements. His wife became prostrated, and after fetching a doctor for her, Patrick himself succumbed to the heat and died. His wife was not expected to recover, which would make four deaths from heat in one family within twenty-four hours. It is quite possible that as a clerk in the Hall of Records, Russell had been exceedingly busy with filing death certificates. The day before he died, Brooklyn recorded 178 deaths, more than twice the number of deaths on August 8, and nearly three times the more normal number of 64 deaths recorded on August 4. Now the Russell family death certificates would be among the 147 filed that day in the Brooklyn Hall of Records.
With the Herald Square thermometer again hitting 103 degrees, while the official reading by Mr. Dunn reached a laughable 92, New Yorkers suffered through their ninth day of killer heat. Perhaps 200 New Yorkers perished from the heat in Manhattan alone, with the total number of deaths easing only slightly from the record of 386 the day before. New York’s laborers continued to bear the brunt of the heat wave, although fifty infants under age one died on Tuesday, August 11.
As the airless, windowless tenements baked their inhabitants, the heat wave decimated entire families, like the Russells of Brooklyn. At 228 West Nineteenth Street, one black and white crepe streamer and one deep black streamer hung from the doorbell, announcing to visitors the double tragedy that occurred. The five members of the Abbott family—the widowed mother, two sons, and two daughters—occupied an apartment on the second floor. By all accounts they were an exceedingly close and happy family, especially the relationship between the mother and her son Edward. Thirty-four years old and a driver for the milliners H. O’Neill and Company, Edward had returned home from a hard day’s work on Saturday feeling tired but not seriously ill. No one in the Abbott house was particularly worried as Edward was young, with a strong physique and excellent health. The next evening, however, Edward suddenly fell ill from the heat and lost consciousness. The summoned physician tried to revive him, but after only five hours Edward Abbott passed away. Within only twenty-four hours, then, the young Abbott went from feeling merely tired to dying. It was a shocking example of how quickly the heat could claim an otherwise healthy young man.
With the family gathered around Edward’s bed, sixty-two-year-old Mrs. Abbott now complained of feeling ill, and a physician was once again summoned. With their mother in bed and attended to by a doctor, the remaining Abbott children made arrangements for their brother’s funeral to take place the morning of August 12 at St. Francis Xavier’s Church. At eight o’clock the evening of August 11, Mrs. Abbott died. In the morning a 10:00 AM mass for the repose of the souls of both mother and son was said, and their bodies were later buried together. Until the time of the mass, the bodies of mother and son lay side by side in the stifling tenement they had called home. Flowers and small tokens brought by friends and relatives lay on the two coffins. One observer noted that between sobs of grief the mourners asked one another, “Who shall be next?”
The treacherous swathe of pavement in front of city hall, recently come to be known as “Death Pass,” continued to claim victims that day, as a “shabbily dressed” man succumbed on the hot asphalt. His identity was unknown, as was true for many victims. New York Hospital alone recorded four cases of deaths without any names associated with the bodies. One man who died suddenly at Broadway and Murray could only be described as having “dark hair and sandy mustache” and wearing a “dark coat and vest and striped trousers.” It was a telling commentary of life in the rapidly expanding city, one filling up with tens of thousands of additional immigrants every year.
While the city fostered associations of every kind, from fraternal orders to reading clubs, from St. Patrick’s for Irishmen to the Harvard Club for alumni, the vast metropolis simultaneously cultivated isolation and alienation. For every club that collected those of similar ideas or origins under its roof, there also existed in the city a charitable organization that ministered to the “fallen” and “destitute.” The famous Water Street Mission was said to have been a “profound benefit to thousands of outcasts,” transforming “fallen men and women” into useful members of society. The House of Mercy and the House of the Good Shepherd tended to “fallen women and girls,” while the Invalids’ Home and Home for Incurables gave shelter and comfort to those awaiting death. A dozen homes existed for the aged, “for men and women suffering from friendlessness and penury.” Even so, for every man or woman indeed saved from homelessness or destitution, countless others slipped through the cracks. The dozen nameless victims of today’s heat provided ample evidence of this sad reality of American urban life. During the past week over one hundred bodies of unclaimed dead had been taken to Potter’s Field on Hart Island. The boat responsible for taking the bodies from the city normally made only three trips to the island each week, but several extra trips had been required during the heat wave. Still, so many unclaimed bodies remained at the morgue awaiting burial that extra staff had to be hired.
While New Yorkers could not help but see the bodies of the dead horses that festered in every city block, other animals suffered as well. The oldest American buffalo in the Central Park menagerie, “Uncle Bill,” died in the intense heat. His body was taken to the Museum of Natural History, where his skeleton would one day be on display. The other animals at the zoo survived but showed signs of stress. “The polar bear immersed himself in the tank of water at the bottom of his cage, and did not look happy. The lions and tigers crawled into the shade. The seagulls and penguins gasped for breath, and the hyena laughed dryly.”
Dogs continued to be gunned down in the street by policemen summoned by nervous pedestrians, frightened by the sight of a staggering and salivating cur. Like the horse corpses littering the streets, not every dead dog enjoyed a speedy burial. On Sunday afternoon a police officer of the Thirty-Seventh Street station shot and killed a dog, and then promptly reported the incident in order that the Board of Health might remove the body. On every night afterward, the police officer reported the incident, as the dog’s dead body remained untouched in front of a Broadway apartment house. After three days of lying directly in the sun, the dog’s rotting body created a fearful stench. Someone had covered the corpse with straw, but the smell remained. The owner of the apartment building had made repeated requests to the Health Department for the dog’s removal, but with hundreds of horses still lying uncollected in the streets, the body of one small dog was a low priority.
In the midst of such heat, ice continued to be a precious commodity. Crowds of children clustered around stopped ice wagons begging for the smallest chip of ice. Most deliverymen were generous with their load and disposed of any ice that would be wasted anyway. Yet ice wagon driver Isaac Franklyn wasn’t so generous to laborer Jacob Gorschkovitch. Gorschkovitch stepped on Franklyn’s wagon to obtain a morsel of ice, and Franklyn responded by shoving the man so violently that he fell and broke his arm. Franklyn was charged with assault. In another part of the city, a ten-year-old boy was knocked down and run over by an ice wagon driven by John Vonstettin. Knowing all the city ambulances were busy, a policeman hailed a passing cab and sent the boy to the Hudson Street Hospital, where he was listed in grave condition. The driver was being held by police to await the result of the boy’s injuries.
With the heat affecting New Yorkers’ minds in such ways, Bryan may have been in more danger than he realized. Over the previous weekend, Martin Broderick, a twenty-five-year-old brickmason from Hudson, New York, and father of two, left his home and family without a word to anyone. From Hudson he traveled to Albany, where he bought a revolver. He then traveled to Chicago to await the arrival of the Bryan train. Upon the Bryans’ departure from Chicago, Broderick boarded the same train and traveled with his revolver all the way to New York. His motive remained unclear. If he had any intention to harm Bryan, he had ample opportunity during the several days’ trip from Chicago to New York. In the age before the massive protection afforded presidential candidates, and only five years before McKinley himself would be felled by a man carrying a revolver under a handkerchief, Bryan constituted an easy target for even an unskilled assassin. One paper identified Broderick as a “Bryan man,” perhaps indicating that he hoped to protect the candidate from injury.
Whatever his motive, Broderick disembarked from the train with Bryan and made his way to the New York home of his brother James on Ninety-Eighth Street. Martin told his brother his story, exhibiting the revolver. Much alarmed, James Broderick finally convinced his disturbed brother to retire and get some rest. The following morning James secured a promise from Martin to remain inside the house while he went to work. Feeling anxious for his brother, at home alone with a revolver, James soon returned from work to find a large and excited crowd surrounding his home. In his absence his brother Martin had shot himself in the breast, inflicting a critical wound. As Martin was being taken from the house, James told a reporter that he believed his brother’s mind “was affected by the heat.”
This strange episode of the 1896 campaign has been entirely forgotten, perhaps because of its enigmatic nature. Was Broderick’s story true or just the fantasy of a disturbed mind? Did he really travel on the same train as the Bryans, and if so, how close did he come to the candidate? Was this an assassination attempt? Bryan may very well have been lucky to avoid an assassin’s bullet, part of the charmed existence he had been leading since his nomination. Madison Square Garden would bring his lucky streak to an end.
IN 1932, Franklin Roosevelt became the first candidate of a major party to accept the presidential nomination in person at the national convention. With politicians still worried about appearing too ambitious or power-hungry, tradition held that they exhibit some restraint when notified of the nomination.
By 1896 there was little precedent for a candidate to accept the nomination at a huge rally like the one planned for Madison Square Garden that night. Abraham Lincoln had been notified of the 1860 Republican nomination at his home in Springfield and took a couple days to write a letter of acceptance. In 1868 the Democratic nominee, Horatio Seymour, had addressed a room full of people at Tammany headquarters in New York. For the next twenty-four years candidates accepted the nomination of their parties at their homes, in the clubrooms of hotels, or in the legislatures and governors’ mansions where they served. There was only one clear precedent for the Bryan notification ceremony at Madison Square Garden in 1896. It occurred four years before, when Grover Cleveland accepted the nomination on a dangerously hot night in Madison Square Garden.
July 1892 had been so hot that those New Yorkers who were able to had fled the city for the cooler climes of the Long Island and New Jersey shores. Many believed that the seemingly empty city could not provide enough spectators to fill Madison Square Garden for a political rally. Yet on July 20, an estimated 15,000 enthusiastic Cleveland supporters filled the still-new auditorium to hear the ex-president accept the nomination.
It was the first rally of its kind, part of the slow erosion of the republican restraint and decorum dating back to George Washington that kept candidates from “running” for office or openly seeking the nomination. The 1892 meeting also offered a number of contrasts with Bryan’s notification ceremony four years later. Cleveland was a hometown boy addressing the most sympathetic audience in the country. Even the normally Republican New York Times greeted his candidacy with enthusiasm. Every prominent New York Democrat was present that July night, including Tammany men like Richard Croker. That night Police Commissioner Martin not only was present but personally cleared a path for Cleveland. Cleveland gave such a short speech that the text did not even fill a full column in the next day’s papers. Yet he gave his speech without reference to notes, and the Times called it “excellent.” Even so, Madison Square Garden was dangerously crowded and overheated.
Right from the start the meeting was out of control. When the doors opened that July night, approximately 5,000 people dashed into the auditorium to get first pick of seats. One paper likened it to a dam bursting, and noted that women and old men were part of this “sprint” for seats. That some spectator was not trampled was nothing short of a miracle. At another point during the rally the crowd surged forward and actually snapped a guardrail directly in front of the speakers’ platform. Men sprang onto chairs in preparation for leaping onto the platform itself, and one man fainted in the crush. A panic almost ensued, and only the cool demeanors of Cleveland and the other speakers calmed the crowd. In spite of the chaos, New Yorkers of all political shades were unanimous in calling the historic meeting a great success.
Four years made a big difference for the Democrats. Cleveland’s name and portrait were nowhere to be seen even at the national convention in Chicago, let alone at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, Bryan’s nomination and the very Democratic platform were repudiations of the sitting president.
Partly as a result, Democrats themselves were especially divided. Before Bryan’s arrival in the city, many New York Democrats had publicly split with their own party’s candidate, and Senator David Hill refused even to take part in the ceremony. Tammany Democrats like Cockran were conspicuously absent. New York did not seem a hospitable environment for Bryan at all.
The Bryan campaign had chosen New York City for largely the opposite reason Cleveland had four years before: not because it would generate a sympathetic and enthusiastic hometown crowd, but because it was the “enemy’s country” and needed to be turned to the Democrats’ cause that year. The size and nature of the crowd that greeted the candidate outside the St. John house seemed to have shocked Bryan. He had expected a cheering and adoring throng numbering in the thousands. When faced with a handful of silent gawkers instead, he had quickly retreated through the front door. No, the Madison Square Garden speech was never really for the skeptical and merely curious New Yorkers, but for the country in general. This is why Bryan made the controversial decision to read a long and complicated speech. Combined with the heat wave, it doomed Bryan’s big night from the outset.
“The next day [after arriving] was spent resting and getting my speech into print,” Bryan later recalled. By seven o’clock that night his voice had largely—although not completely—recovered. Even New York’s sympathetic press, such as the New York World, noted that his voice still remained husky and that after only ten minutes of reading his speech his breathing became labored. The effects of the train trip clearly lingered.
While starting the campaign before the official notification had worked wonders for Bryan’s apparently booming popularity, the exhaustion caused by giving several speeches a day in extreme heat took its toll. Simply staying in William St. John’s home resting for twenty-four hours did not allow for the deep recuperation he needed. On the eve of embarking on a campaign the likes of which the country had never seen before, his trip to New York that August may have served as a primer on what not to do. Even the young, powerful Bryan had limits, and he had clearly reached them by the time his train screeched to a halt in Jersey City.
WHILE BRYAN PREPARED for the rally that evening, the New York police made the final arrangements at Madison Square Garden. In addition to keeping order and watching for pickpockets, New York’s Finest prepared for the inevitable victims of heat. A temporary hospital had been established in the basement under the supervision of Dr. Charles E. Nammack, chief police surgeon. The police department had supplied a dozen cots, while a representative of the Department of Charities, on hand at the Garden that evening, had arranged for blankets and air pillows to be sent from Bellevue Hospital. A moveable bathtub, tubs of ice, aromatic spirits of ammonia, and special caps made with ice were readied for victims of the heat.
Inside the auditorium itself four policemen were stationed at various points, armed with white flags bearing a red cross. In the event of an audience member falling victim to the heat, the policeman would give the signal to other teams of policemen armed with stretchers and accompanied by one of the Bellevue doctors. While the press would later criticize the police for barring some reporters’ entry, their precautions for victims of heat appeared thorough and professional.
In spite of the total police presence of 275 men inside the Garden, disaster almost struck when the doors were opened at 7:00 PM. Harkening back to the Cleveland meeting four years before, thousands of people immediately rushed through the doors and raced for open seats. “The crush of human beings was frightful,” one observer noted. “It was a panic to all intents and purposes,” said another, “and the weakest was sent to the wall.” As the police tried to “stem the tide,” Patrolman Andrew Devery was struck so violently in the stomach that he had to be taken to the basement hospital, the first casualty of the evening. Another policeman was knocked down by the crowd, and yet another pressed by the crowd so hard against the interior glass doors that he nearly broke through.
Twenty-five policemen had been stationed at the entrance to deal with the crowd, and they attempted several times to form a wedge and cut the crowd in two. Just outside the doors the situation was the same. Acting Deputy Chief Moses W. Cortright commanded the policemen attempting to control the stampede of people. A powerful man of strong build, he took an active role in trying to press the crowd back to prevent injury, and after fifteen minutes of extreme exertion, he became the first heat victim of the evening. Led to the basement by one of his men, Cortright had aromatic spirits of ammonia and an ice cap administered to him by Dr. Nammack. Within the hour Cortright had recovered and wanted to return to duty, but the doctor kept him in the hospital until ten o’clock.
In the end, no case of heat prostration was severe enough to warrant the ice bath, and all of the cases of heat exhaustion came early in the evening during that initial crush at the entrance. Once inside the vast auditorium, the panic subsided. “Strong men drew aside to adjust their garments after the wild stampede,” one reporter observed, “and women gasped their relief at so narrow an escape from physical injury.”
The Garden was hot. One observer noted a temperature of 97 degrees, with the sticky humidity caused by the close-packed thousands. In fact the heat seemed to make more of an impression on the audience than Bryan’s speech. “Sweltering,” was a common word. “Furnace-like,” one person said.
The audience’s suffering was prodigious. “Anything for Comfort,” a Tribune subheading announced, in a special section dedicated to covering only the spectators’ actions in the heat. A number of observers noted that with every coat and vest removed, the audience appeared as a sea of white. “The south gallery which stretched its length opposite the rostrum looked not unlike a laundry with its washing hung to the breeze after the crowd had disposed itself for the season of refreshing,” the Tribune reporter wrote. “Every man elbowed his neighbor with freedom as he wielded his enormous palm-leaf fan after the awkward fashion peculiar to the male sex when in a hurry to cool off after a period of undue exertion, and every fan-wielding arm was innocent of a coat-sleeve. Coats and waistcoats had disappeared. Negligé was the order and it was pressed to the limit of respectable possibilities.”
Right on cue at 7:30, the band began to play, but few in the audience took heed. “The vast majority were looking for a breeze that cometh not from the business end of a brass horn in operation,” the writer for the Tribune continued. “It was not a melody but a blizzard that your New-Yorker wanted, and if Mr. Bryan, instead of bringing his speech, had carried a Rocky Mountain zephyr in his handbag and poured it with unstinting hand upon the perspiring mob he might have counted more surely on ultimate success in this campaign than from any possible effect his speech as a finality made for him.” “The movement of three solid acres of fans,” said the World, “was like the gentle surge of the sea.”
Everyone was aware that this was not an ordinary Democratic rally. The New York Times printed a long list of “Prominent Democrats Not Swallowed by the Populists,” including Grover Cleveland, David Hill, William Bourke Cockran, and Roosevelt’s politically active uncle, Robert Roosevelt. As members of the Democratic National Committee began entering the auditorium, no one let out a cheer, and vice presidential nominee Arthur Sewall’s entrance sparked no interest at all. One newspaper recorded the first cheer occurring at exactly 7:57 PM, when a man in one of the highest galleries shouted, “Three cheers for Bryan,” although the reporter swore the man actually said “O’Brien.” The band then struck up with the song “My Girl’s a Corker”:
My girl’s a corker, she’s a New Yorker
I buy her everything to keep her in style
She’s got a pair of legs, just like two whiskey kegs
Hey boys, that’s where my money goes-oes-oes
It was a ribald burlesque song that included lyrics such as “She does the teasin’, I do the squeezin’,” and “She wears silk underwear, I wear my latest pair,” not to mention couplets like “She’s got a pair of hips, just like two battle ships.” It was at this unfortunate moment that Mrs. Bryan chose to appear on stage. She gazed out at the vast auditorium and seemed to enjoy being the focus of the small tumult that accompanied her appearance. It was unlikely that she was familiar with the lyrics of “My Girl’s a Corker.”
As Mrs. Bryan and members of the National Committee took their seats on the stage, a man took up position at the rear of the rostrum with an oversized American flag. He waved it at every opportunity, and when Bryan finally appeared, the man carried the flag down and “tried to insert the staff in the resisting palm of the Presidential candidate, who looked unmercifully bored at this effort to make of him a male Columbia posing in a grand tableau for effect.” If planners wanted Bryan to take the flag, they certainly hadn’t warned the candidate. This attempt at theatricality marked an awkward beginning to the proceedings.
The task of introducing the candidate fell to Governor William J. Stone of Missouri. He read his speech from a little notebook and was constantly interrupted by calls for Bryan. The curious New York audience had not come to listen to the governor of Missouri. The high point of Stone’s speech came when he laid into England and asked rhetorical questions that received such “machine-like” responses that one reporter suspected the audience participation had been orchestrated. “Shall we be bound in financial servitude to England?” Stone asked. “No! No!” came the reply. “Shall we follow or lead?” “Lead! Lead!” “Shall we be sovereign or vassal?” “Sovereign! Sovereign!” Finally, the opposition from the crowd overwhelmed his words, and throwing the little notebook aside, the governor lifted above his head a white scroll representing the Chicago platform. “Take this,” he exclaimed to Bryan, “assume leadership, and we will follow!”
Finally, Bryan’s time had come. To the roars of the audience he repeatedly raised his hands to command silence. He moved his jaws nervously as though chewing something. He sat down again, and only when the chairman pounded the edge of the platform with his gavel did the noise cease. Bryan rose again, and one reporter described the candidate in close detail:
He is a tall, powerfully built and strikingly handsome man. His brow is broad and high and his large, firmly curved nose, the mark of ambition and command, juts out between dark, hazel eyes that kindle and flash.
His head is thickly covered with black wavy hair, which curls over and conceals the tips of his finely formed and characteristic ears. His hair is so long at the back that it curves upward from the coat collar. His jaws are wide and strong. His chin is massive, the chin of a born fighter. His upper lip is long and his mouth is large and mobile, almost too large. Mr. Bryan’s mouth is the least pleasant feature in his face. When he speaks he uses his lips as though his teeth projected and there is a curious lisping or hissing sound from many of his words. His neck is thick and sinewy.
His head is massive and high, the sign of a reverent nature. His arms are very long and his hands are big, sinewy hands, carpenter’s hands, practical hands, with strong spatulate fingers, a curious thing to find in an idealist. Mr. Bryan’s hands are not those which are usually owned by imaginative men, and they go far to prove his wife’s often-repeated assertion that he is a deliberate, slow-thinking and laborious man. His legs which were hidden from the audience by the pulpit, are thick and muscular. His feet are broad. He was dressed in a black suit, with a sack coat and a white tie. A tiny diamond sparked on his shirt front.
Bryan held up a thick sheaf of pages, his face pale and his hands shaking, and began to speak. He held the pages close to his face, lowering and raising the manuscript again and again. Perhaps not used to standing in a fixed spot during his speeches, he swayed from side to side as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He did not attempt oratorical techniques of any sort and was hardly recognizable as one of America’s greatest public speakers. “It was not the old Bryan of dash and fire, but a careful man, treading unknown soil,” one man observed.
Within five minutes the crowd began to leave. Bryan appeared not to notice, but Mary Bryan watched the exodus closely and with a worried expression. For the first twelve minutes of what would be a hundred-minute speech, no one in the audience even applauded. Within fifteen minutes, perhaps 2,000 people had left the auditorium, although one New York paper estimated departures at over 5,000. With hundreds of people leaving every minute, the very din of so many shoes made his speech almost impossible to hear.
In the midst of unbearable heat, as it became clear that there would be no repeat of the much-heralded “Cross of Gold” speech, few saw any reason to stay. Some speculated that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the seats were empty by the time Bryan sat down. Others suggested that some people stayed out of “pity” or that so many silverites had come East for the big speech they could not leave before it was over. Many papers noted that the Garden was packed by Tammany “heelers,” loyal party men who had been ordered to stay. Clearly, though, the mass of New Yorkers who had come for the big show was disappointed.
The decision to read the manuscript had been a strategic one, as Bryan knew the text would be reprinted nationally the next day. Yet it was also a tactical error. His success at the Chicago convention had resulted less from the actual text of the speech than from his oratory and its frenzied reception. Had he caused an equivalent stir in hostile New York, this would have been the main story across the country the following day. As it was, he might have indeed given a “temperate and masterly effort,” according to one paper, but most would have agreed with the Tribune’s editorial headline, “MR. BRYAN’S LABORIOUS FAILURE.”
With Bryan’s words overshadowed by the departure of his audience, the significance of the speech has been almost lost to history. Those who listened to him before leaving the Garden that night complained that he was too timid and apologetic. Gone were the attack against the Money Power and the violent rhetoric of burning cities and crucifixion that marked the Chicago speech. Instead, he presented himself as a moderate, even a conservative, ready to defend property rights and the status quo.
Bryan actually began by quoting his ideological opposite, Andrew Jackson: “‘Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education or of wealth, cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law.’” Bryan’s purpose, then, was not to level society or divvy up the spoils of industry. “Our campaign has not for its object the reconstruction of society,” he proclaimed. “We cannot insure to the vicious the fruits of a virtuous life; we would not invade the home of the provident in order to supply the wants of the spendthrift; we do not propose to transfer the rewards of industry to the lap of indolence.”
A laundry list of all those things a Bryan administration would not do was in itself a recipe for somnolence. Anyone attending that night’s performance expecting a fiery attack on the robber barons and their political allies in Washington had to be disappointed as they listened to him calmly announce, “Property is and will remain the stimulus to endeavor and the compensation for toil.” People not knowing better might have believed they had stumbled into a McKinley rally.
The rest of the speech was a long and dreary defense of bimetallism. Bryan offered nothing new, and certainly nothing as exciting or memorable as the “Cross of Gold.” In fact, the text he read from was really suited only for print and did not allow for passion. One paragraph began: “The theoretical advantage of the bimetallic system is best stated by a European writer on political economy.”
One could barely even call this a speech. It was a treatise, almost an academic paper, and it stimulated a predictable response from the 15,000 men and women sitting elbow to elbow in near-100 degree heat, fanning themselves with “Bryan Silver Fans.” There were no references to the rest of the Democratic platform shaped in Chicago, and students of the 1896 election will be excused from assuming that silver was the only issue discussed there. The platform that year included references to the Monroe Doctrine and sympathy for the rebelling Cubans, references that might have provoked some applause if Bryan had made them. There was a plank against the “importation of pauper labor” as a way of protecting American labor. The Democratic platform’s condemnation of “centralization of Governmental authority” and “the arbitrary interference by Federal authorities in local affairs” might also have highlighted the “Democratic” character of the Democratic platform, while illustrating that Bryan had ammunition in his arsenal other than a single silver bullet. As it was, however, Bryan spent over an hour discussing bimetallism, as New Yorkers by the thousands made for the Garden’s exits.
When Bryan finished, he sat down to enthusiastic but scattered cheers. The next day the sympathetic New York World had the headline: “The Effect Marred by the Vast Auditorium and Terrific Heat—Only Half the Audience Stayed to the End,” and recounted: “When the young orator arose to speak the temperature in the building was 97 degrees of Fahrenheit. But before he finished the thermometer showed a fall of two degrees. The scientific explanation of this fact is that at least 4,000 persons had left the hall. Within five minutes after the beginning of the speech at least a thousand men departed.” This was, the paper said, partly as a result of the “depressing effect of the heat,” leaving Bryan “demoralized by the spectacle of thousands of his hearers marching slowly out of the doors.” Arthur Sewall then stood for a short speech, and the meeting was over.
ONLY THE MOST rabid pro-Bryan supporters claimed victory after the Garden speech. Certainly many blamed the extreme temperature inside the auditorium, a killer heat that had claimed hundreds of lives in New York by the time Bryan addressed his audience. Others blamed his choice to read from a manuscript or his exhaustion from his long, hot train trip east. Still others blamed the entrenched hostility of the East to Bryan’s brand of rural populism. Probably all of these conclusions were correct, and they combined to leave Madison Square Garden half-empty at the end of a speech Bryan himself had called his “greatest opportunity.”
The glee among Republicans was almost transparent as they discussed the speech in their letters. Joseph Foraker, the former governor of Ohio who would win a seat in the U.S. Senate in this election, said, “Mr. Bryan made himself by one speech, and now he has unmade himself by one speech.” Mark Hanna relished the fact that Bryan had talked only of silver during the speech. “He’s talking silver all the time and that’s where we’ve got him,” he said.
To his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt wrote that Bryan “fell perfectly flat here in New York, his big notification meeting has simply hurt him.” To his sister Roosevelt wrote a longer evaluation:
Bryan fell with a bang . . . In his speech he tried to do the “dignified statesman” business, and he merely lost what little renown he had as a wild-eyed popular orator; his only chance was with the people who care for neither dignity nor statesmanship, and this he threw away. He not only hurt himself very much here in the east, but also in the west. I believe the tide has begun to flow against him. The educational work done about finance by the distribution of pamphlets has been enormous, and it is telling. It is hard to reach the slow, obstinate farmer; but all who can be reached are being reached.
The police commissioner’s letter reveals as much about Roosevelt as it does about Bryan’s speech. For Roosevelt, Bryan was a classic demagogue, a “wild-eyed popular orator” who could manipulate the ignorant masses. Yet Roosevelt, despite his anti-Bryan bias, remained a keen observer of American politics. He rightly noted that by going the “dignified” route Bryan had thrown away his advantage as a skilled orator. He was correct that the New York speech marked the exact moment when the tide began to flow against him. Roosevelt was no admirer of Bryan, but he respected the threat that Bryan represented to Republicans that year. After the Garden speech, that threat appeared to have significantly diminished.
As Roosevelt remained out on Long Island during Bryan’s meeting, he must have gleaned most of his information from the newspapers. This included how well the police performed that evening. In fact, the police preparations were recounted by every New York paper, with mixed evaluations. Most papers gave the police good reviews, noting that they were out in force, well-prepared, and “good-natured.” The fact that a fatal crush did not ensue was directly credited to the police, as was the absence of any heat-related fatalities. The New York Tribune said, “Rarely before in the history of anything belonging to earth and demanding police protection has there been such elaborateness and perfection of detail as were plainly manifested at this meeting.” Many observers noted the wise decision to cordon off the Garden at a two-block radius to prevent a deadly crush at the doors. Only ticket holders, then, would be able to pass this first line of 1,000 policemen still two blocks from the Garden.
The shabby treatment of some reporters resulted in bad marks for Roosevelt’s police. Chief of Police Conlin himself had personally signed entry orders for the benefit of newspapermen, but not every policeman received the message clearly. When the Tribune reporter showed a “burly sergeant” the order signed by his chief, the sergeant asked, “Who the divil’s that?” It took the reporter an hour to cross the police line and enter the Garden. The reporter from the New York Sun was also turned away and wrote a blistering attack on the police the next day.
Roosevelt wrote his friend Lodge with an explanation. “As I know you will see the Sun,” he began, “I wish to say that every other paper in New York, no matter of what politics, spoke in the highest terms of the way the Police handled the crowd at the Bryan notification meeting. The trouble with the Sun was that its reporter got there after the house was full, the notification people having issued just twice the number of tickets that there were seats, and after the house was filled the Police of course had no other alternative than to turn every one back.” The Herald actually defended this policy of the police as well, calling it a “wise” decision, “for had the rush within been permitted to continue there would have been many heat prostrations and a possible panic.”
With the Garden meeting finished, Bryan, Sewall, and their party departed for the Democratic headquarters at the Bartholdi Hotel. There Bryan gave a short, impromptu speech that had more passion, religion, and humor than his two-hour Garden speech. “Some of your financiers have boasted that they favor gold,” Bryan told the small crowd from the hotel balcony, “but you shall teach them that they must carry their ideas far enough to believe, not in gold, but in the golden rule that treats all men alike. I commission you as soldiers to fight and as missionaries to preach wherever you go from now on until election day.”
Bryan declared himself unafraid of the threat of a gold-standard Democratic Party organized to oppose him. “You will search the pages of history in vain to find a battle that was ever won by generals,” he asserted. “They have not a private in their ranks.” He ended with a rousing affirmation that in the United States “every citizen is a sovereign,” and every citizen owed it to himself and his country to exercise the right of suffrage.
The Bartholdi speech, although only a few minutes in length, contained all the religious militancy that the Garden speech lacked. Some in the Garden that night had paid $10 a ticket for the privilege of sitting inside for two hours on one of the hottest nights of the year, packed together with 15,000 other New Yorkers. Those standing for five minutes in the street in front of the Bartholdi Hotel heard a vastly more rousing and “Bryanesque” speech. It cost them nothing.
THE MUCH-ANTICIPATED Garden speech had been almost overshadowed by the week’s heat wave, and the heat wave itself contributed to Bryan’s failure in New York. Now just as the speech finished, the heat began to ease. Thursday, August 13, marked the final day of the heat wave. New Yorkers welcomed slightly cooler temperatures, as the official high recorded by Dunn dropped below 90 for the first time in seven days.
Still, deaths in both Manhattan and Brooklyn occurred at almost double their usual summertime rate, with approximately 170 deaths over the norm. Certificates were still being filed on August 13 for deaths that occurred on August 11. The death certificate for Garret Stephenson Kirwan noted that he lived in a tenement at East 143 Street with his parents, immigrants from Ireland. The doctor who had been attending Garret since Monday listed as the direct cause of death: “Exhaustion from Heat.” Garret was forty-four days old.
Eleven-month-old Mamie Brandy also died on Thursday, the daughter of Italian immigrants living in a tenement at East Thirty-Second Street. Her death was caused by “Heat prostration due to exposure.” The use of the term “exposure” was not at all common on death certificates during the heat wave, and it conjures very serious and heart-rending possibilities. The common late-nineteenth-century use of the word indeed meant “abandonment” of an infant, but the doctor may have simply meant that Mamie had been left in the sun or exposed to the heat in a particularly dangerous way. The coroner chided tenement dwellers for taking to the baking asphalt roofs every night; it is certainly possible that Mamie’s parents had in fact been trying to give their little girl access to some fresh air but instead had exacerbated her heat exhaustion with tragic results. Whatever the explanation for Mamie’s death, she and Garret Kirwan were only two of the eighty-five infants under the age of one to die in New York that day.
Even as the heat wave departed, it continued to devastate the city. The delayed effects of hyperthermia meant that even as temperatures dropped, New Yorkers continued to die by the score. The lower temperatures only gave the illusion that the crisis had passed. Meanwhile, in the tenements, those laborers who had taken to bed sick with the heat days before only now began to die. Continuing deaths among lower temperatures was one of the heat wave’s cruelest tricks.
Thinking the worst was over, New Yorkers began to step back and assess the crisis. The “terrible spell of hot weather,” Whitelaw Reid noted in a letter to a friend on Thursday, “has left everybody in a dispirited and demoralized state.” In a special section the New York Journal noted in a headline, “THE HEAT MORE DEADLY THAN A GREAT DISASTER.” The paper referred to the heat wave as “the greatest plague of heat ever visited in this vicinity, the longest and most fatal,” and compared the five worst days of death to other American disasters. Individual days of the heat wave had killed more people than the Great Chicago Fire, the Great Blizzard of 1888, and even the St. Louis tornado of 1896.
Nevertheless, like every other paper of the time, the Journal greatly underestimated the actual number of deaths. The paper claimed that only 39 had died from the heat on August 9, when the actual number was closer to 170. August 10 was listed as having seen 71 deaths, but the number was closer to 250. Even the most deadly day of the heat wave, August 11, witnessed only 213 deaths, according to the paper. The number was actually closer to 340. The total number of heat-related deaths given by the Journal was approximately 600. This represented well under half the actual number of heat-related deaths during the heat wave, yet still an enormous figure. Even this number would have made the New York heat wave of 1896 one of the worst natural disasters of the nineteenth century. Still, within only a few years the tragic week seemed to have been lost to history.
The fall of even a few degrees of temperature was front-page news in a city enduring ten days of killer heat. “When the heat has been so terrific for so many days,” the Tribune observed, “a slight fall in the temperature is most welcome and readily noticed and appreciated. . . . The change was apparent early in the day. The early riser noticed at once that the air was not so dead and enervating as it had been for the week past. There was a little breeze stirring, too, while in the distance could be seen clouds that held out a hope of rain later in the day.” Except for a few drops falling uptown, however, the promise of rain was not fulfilled. “The great difference that a fall of even a few degrees makes in the comfort of the community when the mercury has been over 90 degrees for more than a week was well illustrated, for the sufferings of the inhabitants of this city were visibly less than they had been Wednesday.”
Yet the city was still in the grips of extreme heat and still coping with the aftermath of the deadly week. One indication of this was the great traffic jam at the East River ferries caused by the eighty-three hearses awaiting transport. The Thirty-Fourth Street, Twenty-Third Street, Tenth Street, and Astoria ferry houses were completely “blockaded” from eight in the morning until eight at night by funeral processions. Police tried to keep the processions in line and orderly, but no sooner had one funeral procession departed by ferry than another one turned off First or Second Avenue bound for the ferry houses. Some hearse drivers even tried to work their way through the crowd heedless of leaving the mourners behind them. The funeral processions spilled out onto First Avenue, blocking a section of that major city thoroughfare for part of the day, as both truck drivers and passengers sought alternative ferry routes or abandoned trying to cross altogether. Just after noon, when both the crush and the heat were at their worst, two women and a driver were overcome, and their carriages were detached from the line and used to convey them home. Several hearses ended up crossing without an attending funeral procession of carriages as the mourners had either become lost or simply worn out by the heat and went home, “leaving the last offices for the dead to the undertakers.”
From the beginning the tailors’ strike had unhappily coincided with the heat wave, making their suffering all the more acute. Now it looked as if the heat wave would assist in ending the strike. Reports today indicated that all the men planned to be back at work the very next day. The tailors had achieved some success as many contractors had signed new agreements with the tailors’ union. Moreover, tailors had opened several “co-operative shops” that received work directly from manufacturers, perhaps frightening some of the contractors. Almost 3,000 men were still on strike as of Thursday. The New York Times noted that “many of these have suffered from insufficient good food during the heated term and the closely packed mass meetings they have daily held, often for hours at a time.” With the contractors caving, the suffering of the tailors had not been in vain.
Violence was still a problem: A “small riot” had broken out in the shop of Samuel Klein, as strikers had tried to oust nonunion men. And the combination of the heat and the strike may have pushed one tailor over the edge. Christopher Prausch had been suffering greatly for days. Wednesday night, unable to sleep like so many New Yorkers, Prausch had instead paced the apartment he shared his wife, holding his hands to his head. Early in the morning, as his wife made breakfast, Prausch suddenly rushed at her, seized her by the throat, and stabbed her with a penknife in the arm and abdomen. He then ran into the street with the knife and confessed his crime to a policeman, saying that a crowd was following and trying to kill him. Officer Logan at first did not believe the clearly demented man, but when they returned to Prausch’s apartment, Logan found Mrs. Prausch faint from loss of blood. While a doctor tended to the wife’s wounds, Christopher was taken away. As he was presented to the magistrate, Prausch suddenly shrieked and threw up his hands before collapsing in convulsions on the floor. The examining doctor declared him “crazed by the heat,” and Prausch was taken to the hospital.
Although the small break in the heat lessened the toll on horses, New Yorkers continued to complain about the remaining carcasses littering the streets. In many cases they had been left to rot in the street for several days while the city tried to keep up with the demand for removal. Public health concerns still existed, and the Tribune optimistically predicted that with falling temperatures, the city would be able to “cope with this peril successfully.” This was optimism indeed, as for over a week the city had done virtually nothing to respond to the grave health crisis created by the heat wave.