ONLY WHEN THE heat wave had reached its end did New York City’s government make even the smallest efforts to relieve the plight of the poor. As the heat wave had settled on the city, Mayor Strong had done nothing, not even calling an emergency meeting until almost the very end of the ten-day crisis.
If there were two public officials who might be considered the heroes of the heat wave, they were Charles Collis of the Department of Public Works and Theodore Roosevelt of the Board of Police Commissioners. Right from the beginning Collis experimented with altered work hours for his men. He also instituted the practice of “flushing” the steaming streets of the Lower East Side using teams of men with fire hoses. Roosevelt, too, took some individual initiative in responding to the crisis. He ordered that police wagons be pressed into service as ambulances to take the stricken to city hospitals. And at the mayor’s meeting on August 13 he recommended, in concert with Wilson of the Board of Health, that the city purchase ice and distribute it for free in the city’s poorest districts.
Not only did Roosevelt go along with this course of action, but he took it on himself to personally supervise the distribution via police precinct houses, attempted to stop any fraud from taking place, and made a point to see how the city’s poor used the ice. Through his distribution scheme Roosevelt in effect busted the ice trust controlled by Charles Morse, and he came into intimate contact with the poor’s suffering during the height of the heat wave. The heat wave, then, had a profound effect on the future progressive president and trust buster.
Hundreds of victims of sunstroke and heat exhaustion filled the city hospitals during the week. Bellevue Hospital reported its busiest day in years. Its Sturgis Pavilion, generally used for operating cases and closed during the summer, was opened specifically to deal with heat cases. Soon it was filled with patients wilting on cots and buried in ice baths. Students from the Training School for Nurses left their classes to assist Bellevue’s doctors. Meanwhile, the coroner’s office could not keep up with all of the new cases being brought in and soon had a backlog of sixty bodies awaiting examination and determination of death.
Still, the official response to the heat wave remained almost non-existent. Only Commissioner Collis seemed to understand that the city must adjust to the crisis, temporarily change policies, and perhaps introduce new ones.
Pulitzer’s New York World took credit for another of Collis’s innovations during the heat wave, one that certainly brought some relief to the working poor of Lower Manhattan. The commissioner’s son Lloyd, the World claimed, had read the paper’s “graphic accounts of midsummer misery among the dwellers in tenement districts,” and had devised a plan to hose down the streets of the Lower East Side, cooling the burning asphalt and flushing away the rotting and stinking detritus. The commissioner had approved the plan and had passed it along to the acting commissioner of Street Cleaning, Captain Gibson, who served in the absence of Colonel George Waring. With Gibson’s approval, Collis had marshaled the twenty-five men of his department’s hydrant gang and split them into five divisions of five men each, with each group equipped with a horse and wagon and fifty feet of hose.
At eight o’clock on Monday evening, August 10, the teams assembled at the corner of Canal and Ludlow, near William Seward Park. Collis addressed his troops: “By 12 o’clock tonight we shall have thoroughly washed every street in this section between Houston and Division streets. Let each gang take a street. Hitch on to every fireplug and don’t spare the water. It’s a terrible night, and many lives may depend upon the way you work. Flood the streets and cool the air. Now go ahead.” With hundreds of boys playing in the hoses’ streams and their parents watching from the sidewalks and tenement windows, the street cleaning men washed down five miles of streets by midnight, cleaning the gutters and cooling the air. “Down went the mercury a good ten degrees,” the World claimed. The next night three times as many men were to be employed flushing the streets around Mulberry Bend and Chinatown.
Collis sent Mayor Strong a report regarding the “flushing” of the streets the night before. “It was a great boon to the poor people in the tenement district,” Collis wrote. “Parents literally brought their children in the street to have the water poured on them and there was at least 50,000 little ones to whom it was a perfect holiday. Many of the adult citizens thanked me and everybody seemed to think it was a good thing.”
Collis’s department continued its plan of watering the streets on the Lower East Side. During the night, about ten miles of asphalt below Houston were hosed down. “The work thoroughly nullified the retentive heat in the paving stones,” said the Tribune, “and made existence more tolerable for the dense population of the territory during the night.” “Monday and Tuesday nights in the tenement-house district will not be soon forgotten by the East Side,” the paper continued in another place. Yet as gleeful as the overheated women and children seemed as they wallowed in the water, the desperation that made them lie down in the filthy torrent of these street-borne rivers actually seemed to border on the pathetic.
COLLIS’S IDEA TO shorten the workday and confine working hours to the coolest parts of the day was not repeated citywide. Only the mayor could have issued such an order, and there is no evidence that other department heads followed Collis’s lead. In fact, New York City displayed a sort of bureaucratic inertia in response to the heat wave.
When a reporter suggested that the Parks Commission should also limit the work hours of its men, Commissioner McMillan, rather than taking action, consulted the counsel for the city about the legality of permitting men to work fewer hours while charging for a full day. The literal-minded parks commissioner acknowledged it would be “an act of humanity” to cut down the hours of manual labor but doubted that this would be accepted by the city comptroller, as state law mandated an eight-hour day. Corporation Counsel Scott replied that he did not believe the city comptroller would “quibble over such a matter” as “a man could not be driven to his death, even by an act of the Legislature.” Scott even cited the example of Collis and the Department of Public Works, illustrating Collis’s leadership in making an emergency decision during the crisis.
Still, most city departments made no changes, and city workers suffered terribly as a result. Roosevelt’s police were among them. The overworked police force, constantly responding to calls of prostrated citizens and helping remove horse carcasses, had not been allowed to make any changes in their heavy regulation summer uniform. On Monday alone 208 officers had been sent to the hospital and another 85 sent home ill. In the past few days 6 policemen had died. Theodore Roosevelt’s end-of-the-year report to Mayor Strong would note that doctors had been called to station houses to treat sixty cases of severe heatstroke in 1896. In 1895 the number was only ten. Moreover, Roosevelt reported ten police deaths during the two-week August heat wave, more than in any other entire month that year.
During the ten days of the heat wave, the city refused to lift the ban on sleeping in parks. On August 8 the drunken John Hughes fell from his roof, while baby Lewis Citron fell from the fire escape where he and his father were sleeping. Both died. Desperate New Yorkers had little recourse but to seek comfort on the tenement roofs or down at the piers. On August 10 several people drowned, and others continued to fall from their buildings’ rooftops and fire escapes. All of these victims of the heat wave were seeking the slightest relief from their suffocating apartments. The New York World noted the problem and the city’s ultimate responsibility for these deaths. “The suffocating heat at night has driven thousands of people to piers on the East and North Rivers,” the paper said, using the Dutch name for the river on Manhattan’s western shore before the British renamed it Hudson. “It is not permissible to sleep in the parks at night. Over in Brooklyn the park officials have suspended their regulations so that thousands of men and women, in whose apartments the temperature approaches that of a Turkish bath, have been allowed to take quilts and pillows into the parks and stretch themselves under the trees for a cool sleep.”
The paper held out the slim possibility that “the sleepy Park Commissioners of this town may awake to the fact that humanity demands something of them in this emergency.” It continued, “There was a record yesterday of more than a dozen persons who fell from roofs and fire-escapes, whence they had gone to gather whatever breeze was blowing and to secure a night’s sleep. Some of these folks were killed and the rest were seriously injured. Many who went to sleep on the piers fell into the water and were rescued with difficulty. Three or four of them were drowned.”
Lifting the ban on sleeping in parks constituted perhaps the simplest gesture the city might have made in response to the heat wave and one that could have saved lives. Not only had the “sleepy Park Commissioners” done nothing, few city officials had taken steps to relieve the plight of New Yorkers during the crisis. “Up to this time the only city bureaus which have taken any cognizance of the heat plague are the Street Cleaning and the Public Works departments,” the paper noted, referring to the flushing of the streets specifically. “When men, women and children are forced to the roofs and the fire-escapes and to the hard planks of a pier in order to obtain a night’s rest,” the writer concluded, “it certainly seems as if the time had come to throw away ‘Keep off the grass’ signs in the parks and to suspend any rules or regulations which prevent the public from resting in the parks after dark.” It was a rare call for government action during the heat wave and might have pressed the mayor to finally call an emergency meeting of departments the very next day.
Other city departments had been dealing with the demands of the heat wave all week. In the twenty-four-hour period ending at noon on Wednesday, August 12, more deaths were recorded than ever before in New York’s history. The filing of these 335 death certificates placed a great burden on the two clerks in the coroner’s office, who themselves risked prostration from their increased workload. “The filing of certificates,” said the city registrar, Dr. Tracy, “is somewhat a matter of physical capacity. Most of the time we have two clerks busy writing burial permits. They can write so many permits and take in so many certificates in twenty-four hours and no more. Their full capacity is taxed now, and many persons are waiting in line for permits most of the time.”
Desperate measures had to be taken to get the job done. Even the coroners had been drafted into doing clerical work, simply to allow families to bury their dead. In a poor bit of timing, Coroner Hoeber was on vacation during much of the heat wave, making even more work for the personnel who remained. Hoeber’s secretary, Joseph Cassner, pitched in to take up the slack, and by noon on Wednesday had worked thirty hours straight. Throughout the city funerals were delayed as the four coroner’s physicians could not keep up with requests to visit every home with a corpse and make a ruling on the causes and circumstances of death. The four men made heroic efforts to crisscross the city, visiting tenements often miles apart while climbing hundreds of flights of stairs. All of this exertion, of course, occurred during the most extreme heat any of them had ever experienced.
The dedication of the men of the coroner’s office illustrated the readiness of some city officials to make sacrifices and even risk their own health to address the current crisis. While there was no central authority directing efforts from the mayor’s office, virtually every city department was forced to accommodate itself and its personnel to the heat wave in some way. With the Board of Health’s contractor responsible for removing dead horses completely overwhelmed, the city’s sanitary superintendent, Dr. Charles F. Roberts, was forced to take other extraordinary measures. On Wednesday, August 12, he wrote to the chief inspector of the Division of Contagious Diseases, Dr. Charles S. Benedict, with instructions to have the entire disinfecting corps of his division stop their normal work around the city and focus instead on disinfecting and deodorizing the bodies of dead horses. Clearly Roberts worried that the current “heat epidemic” might lead to a true epidemic and an entirely new health crisis. With a great pile of twenty-seven dead horses at the Second Avenue car stables, this was a real and frightening possibility.
Other city department heads continued to make small but important decisions affecting the lives of New Yorkers. By order of Commissioner Collis of the Public Works Department, the free baths in the East and Hudson Rivers were ordered to remain open all night to provide relief from the heat, with separate times given to men and women. “The City’s Free Baths to Be Never Closed,” one headline announced on Wednesday. This was another move by the city that reflected the seriousness of the heat wave, as the floating baths in the rivers were designed expressly for hygiene and not recreation. For now, the ability of the poor to find some relief via the floating baths all night long, although counter to their original hygienic purpose, probably saved lives. Once again, a small step made by a single department head, without reference to the mayor, made a significant difference in the quality of life of New York’s suffering poor.
Commissioner Collis continued to take the lead among city officials in addressing the heat wave in other areas. On Wednesday, August 12, he doubled the number of men in each of the five “gangs” to ten, and they continued their work hosing down the blistering asphalt over almost an entire square mile of streets and alleys between Houston and Grand. Moreover, Collis maintained the changed work hours for his men, limiting work to the coolest hours of the day and suspending any work that necessitated laboring in the sun. Unfortunately for this hero of the heat wave, in later years inefficiency in road repairs along Park and Fifth Avenues, as well as his close association with the Platt political machine, would leave the commissioner of Public Works open to harsh criticism.
ALTHOUGH POLICE COMMISSIONER Roosevelt remained at home on Long Island during the height of the heat wave, his police continued to be in the vanguard of city employees responding to the crisis. When a man or woman fell in the street due to heat prostration, a policeman was called to attend the victim and find some conveyance to a hospital, putting serious stress on the heavily dressed police force. On August 11 alone six patrolmen and one police captain fell victim to heat exhaustion while on duty.
The police continued to hunt down “mad” dogs in the street, while turning a blind eye to the frolicking of small boys in the city’s public fountains. They also responded to the many strange incidents that accompanied the heat wave. On August 11 police had been called by Mrs. William Grimm to a tenement on West Forty-Second Street. Mrs. Grimm had left her baby in its carriage on the sidewalk as she went to get her husband his supper in their ground-floor apartment. When she returned, the carriage was empty. A neighbor, David Wheeler, passing by the carriage sitting in the sun on one of the hottest days of the year, believed the infant on the point of collapse. He took the baby up to his room one floor above, stripped it, and placed it in a bath.
When another neighbor told her that Wheeler had taken her child, Mrs. Grimm ran up the stairs and found her baby lying naked on a cot in Wheeler’s room. Although Wheeler told his downstairs neighbor of his good intentions, Mrs. Grimm refused to believe him and summoned the police to report her baby’s kidnapping. The judge hearing the case dismissed it after hearing of Wheeler’s benevolent actions, and the New York Herald agreed with its article title, “Samaritan After All.” It was not recorded whether the judge reprimanded Mrs. Grimm for leaving her baby unattended on the sidewalk on a day when the temperature in the sun hit 135 degrees. Inside or outside of the tenement, the heat wave meant suffering and death for New York’s children.
Even so, many observers noted great improvements in caring for the very young as representatives of the Board of Health went door to door checking on children’s health. Only on Tuesday did the Times give credit to the Board of Health for “securing the improvement in the construction and sanitary appurtenances of tenement houses.” The “terrible mortality among young children,” the paper asserted, had been greatly relieved by “the close inspection of food supplies, and especially of milk, by the Board of Health.” Riis, too, noted that fifty so-called summer doctors were dispatched into the tenements, with free advice and medicine for the poor.
Despite these efforts, and despite the aid of charitable institutions, the city’s gravediggers “work over-time, and little coffins are stacked mountain-high on the deck of the Charity Commissioners’ boat when it makes its semi-weekly trips to the city cemetery.” Sadly, the coffins of little Mamie Brandy and Garret Kirwan joined dozens of other little coffins making their final journey.
WHEN ROOSEVELT ATTENDED meetings in Mayor Strong’s office, as he did on August 13, he may well have contemplated that this was an office he might have occupied. After all, Roosevelt had been offered the chance to run for mayor in 1894 as he had in 1886. Only his wife’s concerns about money stopped him from running as a reform Republican. Instead the mantle had fallen to William Strong, a millionaire merchant and banker who had no such financial restraints. Strong, too, was a reform Republican, and he won the grudging support of party boss Thomas Platt. Strong’s election was aided by the Lexow Committee’s report on city corruption, especially in the police department. Vowing to run the city on business principles and heedless of patronage, Strong’s appointments of Colonel Waring to the Street Cleaning Department and Roosevelt to the Police Commission signaled to the Good Government Clubs and Citizens’ Committees a commitment to reform. Various forces would conspire to unseat Strong after only one term, including voters’ grave displeasure with Roosevelt’s own war on Sunday drinking.
Strong came to the conclusion to call a meeting only after speaking to the Health Board’s president, Wilson. Wilson recounted for Strong the death statistics of the previous week, noting that they were comparable only to the epidemic of Asiatic cholera that had struck the city forty years earlier. Apparently it was Wilson who first raised the subject of distributing free ice to the poor. At the mayor’s meeting an emergency appropriation of $5,000 was made in order to purchase ninety-five tons of ice. As Roosevelt occupied seats on both the Board of Health and the Police Commission, it is quite possible that he had a hand in the decision as well.
Aside from the ice appropriation, however, little that was new came from the meeting. Flushing the streets, keeping the floating baths open all night, and the changed work hours in some city departments were steps already taken by individual department heads. The only other new decision possibly resulted from the critical Tribune article of the day before attacking the city’s “sleepy Park Commissioners.” Now the city decided to throw open the parks at night and ordered the police not to prevent people from going on the lawns or stretching themselves out on park benches. “This order refers, of course, to persons seeking relief from the excessive heat,” the order sent to police stated. “Officers are instructed to be vigilant in preventing mischievous boys and disorderly persons from abusing the privileges set for them in this order.”
Responding to the criticism directed at the Park Commission for lagging so far behind its counterpart in Brooklyn, Park Commissioner Samuel McMillan told the press that day that the city was only formalizing what had been unofficially understood by police for some time. McMillan said that the Commission had long ago instructed police officers that if people wanted to sleep in the parks during the “hot spell,” they should not be discouraged from doing so. “Why, we’ve been doing this ever since the hot weather set in,” McMillan told a reporter. “We don’t intend to make a practice of it. We were in a position where we could afford to be lenient with those who were sufferers from the heat. But we are not going to throw the parks open for the benefit of those who are covered with disease and vermin. It won’t do to have such persons sleeping on the benches.” Echoing the order to police, the policy to throw open the parks was merely a temporary remedy during the heat wave and not meant for those who had no other place to sleep. While McMillan may have asserted that this had been the city’s policy since the heat wave began, most New Yorkers remained unaware of it until his announcement. A Central Park policeman noted that the number of people sleeping in the parks had been relatively small, as it was “not generally known that they would be permitted to sleep among the cool breezes which are supposed to blow among the trees there at night.”
Most of the responses to the heat wave had not challenged the basic tenet that charity must be left to private interests. Flushing the streets, changing work hours, and leaving open the parks and public baths constituted fairly mild responses that fell squarely within the purview of the city departments. Giving away free ice was an exception.
Private interests, including a city newspaper, had been giving away free ice for some time. For the city to enter the field previously occupied only by private charity, and to actually give something away, was new in its history. Certainly this foray into public charity reflected the seriousness of the heat wave. It also reflected the growing belief that would mature during the Progressive Era that government did indeed have a duty to address the suffering of the city’s poor, whether through tenement reform or health and sanitation measures. Finally, the decision to give away free ice probably had something to do with the recent establishment of a New York “Ice Trust” that had raised the price of ice to the level of a luxury for the city’s poor.
Never in its history had New York City witnessed such a sight. Roosevelt had instructed policemen to inform local residents of the ice distribution as they made their rounds. Roosevelt, the police, and the journalists who covered the giveaway were shocked at the turnout. Hours before the ice even arrived at the precinct houses, hundreds of men, women, and children crowded around the stations clamoring for free ice. “It was to them better than bread to the starving,” the Journal said. “Mothers with sickly babes in their arms jostled with weary men, while children begged for a piece of ice to take home to the sick room.” The Times estimated that 20,000 people had been served ice, so that managing the enormous crowds became a tricky task for Roosevelt’s police.
Such vast numbers desperate for ice complicated the logistics of the giveaway. At first the police had tried to give away the ice on the sidewalk, but they soon moved the ice down into the cellar to better manage the crowds. “The applicants for the ice came with towels, aprons, bags, boxes, baskets, tin and wooden pails, and in fact any and every sort of receptacle,” one witness noted. “A man drove up to the Eldridge Street Station in a wagon, evidently expecting to get all the ice he wanted. He found that it took him nearly two hours to get twenty pounds.”
Roosevelt was right in the thick of things during the evening’s distribution of ice. He made his rounds from station to station around the East Side, including Eldridge station, the precinct house for the neighborhood of the striking tailors. There the police found it difficult to spread the five tons allotted them among the massive crowd of people gathered around the station. In less than half an hour, the entire amount had been distributed. If each person received on average a twenty-pound block, then approximately five hundred people went away with ice. This represented only a tiny fraction of the residents of one of Manhattan’s most densely packed tenement districts.
Near the end of the distribution, the situation became a bit dicey. When the crowd was told that the ice was gone, they refused to leave. Women begged for even the smallest piece of ice for their sick children at home. The scene was repeated throughout the Lower East Side, as ice supplies quickly ran out before even a small portion of the people could be served. Witnessing this firsthand led Roosevelt to ask that the following night’s ice purchase be more than doubled. Over on the West Side at the Charles Street station, only two people appeared asking for ice, and for a time nearly two tons of ice remained, slowly melting in the heat. Apparently the men of that station’s six o’clock shift had not been told by their superiors to inform “the poorer classes” that the ice at the station was meant for them.
Roosevelt was obviously moved by what he saw that night. In an August 15 letter to his sister, he recounted the “strange and pathetic scenes when the ice was distributed.” Such scenes would be repeated the following day as the ice giveaway reached 250 tons. Moreover, as Roosevelt had spent much of the heat wave out on Long Island, touring the Lower East Side that night while overseeing the ice distribution was his first opportunity to witness the suffering of New York’s poor from the heat.
He must have been shocked by the suffering of the police force as well. At Eldridge station he was perhaps told of the collapse of Patrolman William Williamson, who lay unconscious at Bellevue Hospital. He must also have seen a report that Patrolman Walter Bray of the West Forty-Seventh Street station had died only a few hours after suffering prostration. Black bunting and streamers marked the homes that had suffered deaths, as scores of hearses plied the streets. Roosevelt’s position as police commissioner offered him a unique perspective on the heat wave, as he witnessed the suffering of both the poor and his own police officers as they coped with the emergency.
Ice was not the only item in short supply. Alarmingly, newspapers reported a citywide shortage of coffins. In the New York factory of the Brooklyn Casket Company, clerks had been pulled from their desks to help manufacture new caskets. Nearly two hundred men had been working night and day to keep up with demand during the heat wave. Of these men one had been prostrated at work and died, and another lay critically ill from heat exhaustion. Still, the workers had not been able to keep pace with the orders from city undertakers. And the morgue was so overcrowded with bodies that many lay on the floor. Perhaps half of these bodies would not even require a fancy casket from the Casket Company, as they were destined for a mass grave at Potter’s Field. Of the more than fifty bodies at the morgue awaiting interment on Wednesday, twenty-eight of them had received a pauper’s burial. This was but another sign of the toll the heat had taken on New York’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.
BY THE TIME of the ice giveaway Thursday evening, a full day had passed since Bryan’s speech. Only now was the full enormity of what had occurred at Madison Square Garden dawning on pundits and politicos in New York and across the nation. While city newspapers had exhausted their vocabulary describing the heat wave—“blazing,” “scorching,” “searing,” “broiling,” “baking,” “burning”—they now turned to cooler terms to describe Bryan’s New York reception. The Evening Post noted the “chilling effect” of his failure on his managers, while the Times proclaimed in a headline: “FROST FOLLOWS MR. BRYAN.” (The headline for the Chicago Tribune read: “BRYAN GETS A FROST.”) New Yorkers continued to dissect the failure of his Madison Square Garden speech. The Nation mockingly noted that Bryan had now revealed his twin character, “that of a demagogue and that of a solemn economist.” The journal lambasted his “gross” and “incredible ignorance,” which placed him in the “booby class in business.” “He would do much better to stick to his crown of thorns and cross of gold,” an editorial concluded.
All observers blamed Bryan’s reading of his speech, and many noted the effect of the terrible heat. The Tribune noted the great surprise New Yorkers felt on hearing of the speech’s failure. “No one could remember a case where a man of prominence ever came to here with a similar reputation for the possession of great oratorical gifts,” one writer said, “and fell so far short of meeting the expectations of his audience and the public.” As the Post commented, “The great length of his address evidently wearied him as much as it did his audience, suffering as both were from extreme heat.”
The following day, in a short talk to reporters, Bryan himself addressed the question of his having read the speech from a manuscript. “I wrote the speech with the distinct purpose of reading it,” he claimed. “I did not care to trust myself to declamatory effect, because I feared I might be tempted to lose sight of the main issue. I knew I was in a gold country, where every word would be analyzed with close scrutiny. I gave my reasons analytically and logically, and I trust my future to that speech, as affording the millions of readers who peruse it an opportunity to judge what the silver question is.”
Bryan was falling back into his old habits. Referring to New York as “gold country” came very close to again labeling the city “enemy’s country.” In fact his next utterances constituted a fairly harsh criticism of the East. “The trouble with many in the East,” he continued, “is that they regard the silver question as a fad, like the measles, to run its course. They will not study it and they regard the West as incapable of forming solid judgment. This is all wrong.”
Bryan was speaking once again as a regional, rather than national, candidate. As he spoke to reporters, he recalled once being quizzed along his train journey by an audience member about the authority for some his statements, when “laboring men” in the audience were able to answer on his behalf. For Bryan, this showed that “ignorance is no characteristic of the West.” While standing in a New York City hotel, he criticized the East while defending the West. As can be imagined, New Yorkers did not appreciate men from west of the Mississippi coming to their city and pointing out their deficiencies.
AS WILLIAM JENNINGS and Mary Bryan, joined by Arthur Sewall, spent part of the day greeting visitors at the Windsor Hotel, their reception revealed New York’s tepid feelings for the Democratic candidate and his ideas of free silver. Expecting a large crowd, William St. John had arranged for Bryan to address the crowd from the front stoop of the hotel, guarded by forty policemen. He was to be disappointed.
One reporter counted “exactly 163 persons” including “several small children, and idle pedestrians, in front of the hotel gazing at the stoop.” With such an embarrassingly small gathering for a street demonstration, the reception moved inside. At this point most of those awaiting Bryan’s arrival simply left. Inside the empty halls, St. John and others paced the rooms with “an air of chill disappointment.” Even after Bryan arrived, very few people approached the candidate and his wife—certainly no one of note attended the reception. Not a single Tammany politician attended.
After the first group of people waiting for Bryan had shaken his hand and greeted Sewall and Mrs. Bryan, there occurred long periods of time when no one entered the reception room at all. Bryan was described as glancing “darkly towards the door,” while Sewall’s “usual gravity would deepen into gloom.” During these stretches the Bryans and Sewall fell into conversation with one another, while just outside the parlor door Bryan supporters tried to entice people into the room in the manner of carnival touts. “Walk right in,” one urged. “Go in and tell him your name and he’ll introduce you to his wife,” said another. “Don’t stand out here; there he is; go right up and speak to him.”
Those who approached Bryan were rewarded with a handshake and a few words. Gone was St. John’s previous warnings against shaking the candidate’s bruised and swollen hands. “Mr. Bryan gave a hearty pressure of the hand to every one as he approached,” one man observed. “His grasp was warm and friendly, and he had a pleasant word for each person.” In the end, only about three hundred people shook hands with the Bryans, and after a short time, St. John called off the reception. Once again the New York trip smelled of failure. The only kind words for Bryan that day were reserved for his wife.
If William Jennings Bryan failed to take New York by storm, at least Mary Bryan was warmly received. “MRS. BRYAN CHARMS ALL WHO GREET HER,” exclaimed a Journal headline. While Hearst’s New York Journal continued to support Bryan and free silver even after the debacle at Madison Square Garden, laudatory remarks about the speech were conspicuous by their absence. Instead the paper offered three full columns to Mary Bryan, in warm tones echoed by much of the rest of the city press. Except for some women who apparently did not approve of her black straw hat, “Mrs. Bryan won the hearts of all the women who called on her yesterday.” Men and women who greeted her came away saying, “She’s just lovely!” “How can Bryan help winning when he won such a wife!” “How magnetic!” “How charming!” When asked about the Madison Square Garden speech, and the subsequent press reports that she had looked “anxious” as people fled, Mary Bryan disputed the claims. “I didn’t feel in the least anxious,” she said and indicated that Bryan’s first speech to Congress had caused her more anxiety. The crowd she called “a grand, noble one.” When someone showed her the morning headlines describing Bryan’s failure, Mary protested, “Don’t ask me to say anything about them, please. I am satisfied with the reception accorded Mr. Bryan, and grateful for the splendid demonstration of enthusiasm. There wasn’t an incident to mar the meeting, and I shall always remember with pleasure this visit to New York.” It was a diplomatic response, more tactful than her husband’s continuing references to “enemy’s country” and his statements about “the East.” When she was asked about Madison Square Garden, the pride of New York, Mary replied that it was “a superb building, especially the exterior.”
While William rested, Mary continued to hold receptions, the last one occurring at 4:00 PM in the hotel’s ladies’ parlor. Dr. Ella Jennings, who at one time operated a dispensary for working women on Tenth Street, had a short chat with the candidate’s wife and came away believing that Mrs. Bryan’s prominent role in the upcoming campaign signaled the changing status of women in politics. “I regard it as the most hopeful sign of the future,” Dr. Jennings said, “that the candidate for the Presidency accords full recognition to his wife. It is a harbinger of the time when a woman shall occupy the Executive chair.” Also among Mary’s fans at the reception was Clara Foltz, the first woman admitted to the California bar, who later moved to New York. “I believe the comradeship shown between Mr. and Mrs. Bryan will have a tremendous influence on social conditions and family life,” Foltz said. “Think how much more of a help a woman thoroughly educated in legal matters as Mrs. Bryan is, can be to her husband, than a mere fashion plate.” Perhaps Foltz was really talking about herself, as Mary Bryan had received no education in legal matters whatsoever.
At the end of the reception, as the wives of Senators Stone and Stewart escorted Mary to a private parlor, she received the best news of the day. She had lost her wedding ring in Pittsburgh while riding to Union Station a few days before; the man cleaning the carriage afterward had found it and returned it to the Bryan campaign. Now at the end of a long and tiring day, in which she played the dutiful and supportive wife to the Democratic presidential nominee, the potential first lady again slipped on her wedding ring. The leader of the silver forces had given his wife a traditional gold wedding band.
As of that afternoon, the Bryans still planned to continue with their tour of the East, leaving for Boston at noon the next day. Their stop in Boston was to be followed by a trip to Maine, Arthur Sewall’s home state. Both Bryans spoke of their impending trip with anticipation. Someone asked Mrs. Bryan whether she intended to “carry the war to Bunker Hill.” “We do not intend making an incursion and devastate the country,” Mary replied—“with a sweet smile,” according to one witness, “that was symbolic of peace and good-will.” “We are on our mettle,” she added, “and will do our utmost to conquer convictions.” To the question as to whether she felt confident, Mary Bryan replied, “Why certainly. I feel sure we will win.”
But if Mary was certain, those managing the Bryan campaign were not. Apparently the failure of the Madison Square Garden speech, coupled with the sparse attendance of today’s public receptions, prompted an emergency meeting among Chairman Jones, Senator Gorman, Governor Hogg, Governor Stone, and others on hand to manage the campaign. Just as both Bryans spoke of their imminent departure for Boston, the Democratic leaders were on the point of rejecting a further tour of the East. In particular, some worried that with statewide elections scheduled for Maine the next month, a Bryan tour of that state followed closely by a Republican victory would be a national embarrassment for Democrats. “The evident chilliness that has fallen on Bryan men in this city since his essay reading Wednesday night,” the Times said, “had added to the solicitude of these leaders. The three receptions that failed so lamentably at the Windsor Hotel settled the matter.”
When the campaign managers finished their conference, they announced that the tour of the East had been cancelled. Instead, Bryan would retire to some quiet place for the next two weeks to work on his letter of acceptance. The campaign would not start again until September 1.
While later historians of the 1896 campaign might dispute the relative success or failure of Bryan’s Madison Square Garden speech, Roosevelt and others had it right. The canceling of a further tour of the East, and the suspension of the campaign for an entire two weeks, with less than three months until election day, strengthened the perception of failure even within die-hard Democratic circles. The Tribune called the campaign’s managers “despondent, dubious, and disgusted.” The paper also noted Bryan’s desire to completely abandon the New York party headquarters in the Bartholdi Hotel in favor of a national headquarters in Chicago. Some portrayed this as essentially conceding New York, the most important state in late-nineteenth-century national politics, and even much of the East Coast to McKinley. The Nation characterized the decision to not campaign for two weeks “sad news” to Republicans, since Bryan was losing votes every day that he spoke. “The folly of allowing him to go to Maine and make a lot of speeches which might be followed by a large Republican majority at the State election next month,” the paper noted, “was so obvious that even less wise men than those who are managing the Democratic canvass must see it.”
Now Bryan would retire to some quiet place to write a letter of acceptance, only days after his Madison Square Garden speech. The question had to be asked: If Bryan planned to write a letter of acceptance, then what was the point of coming to New York and formally accepting the nomination at a massive public rally? Why read a speech from a manuscript meant for publication if the candidate planned to write an acceptance letter anyway? The Democrat campaign was in poor shape, and the obvious contradictions only underscored the disastrous ramifications of his decision to read the speech.
EVEN WITH THE heat wave over, New Yorkers continued to suffer and die. On Friday, August 14, the high temperature reached only 80 degrees, bringing the heat wave formally to an end. Because of the delayed effects of heat exhaustion, however, scores of New Yorkers continued to die from the effects of the heat wave. Robert Ferguson, the former telegraph operator at the Mulberry Street Police Headquarters, died from the heat, while Mary Tierney actually died at the Elizabeth Street station house.
Still, with the summer almost over, it seemed likely that the “heat plague” had run its course. In fact, for the rest of the month the official high temperature would only once more reach 80, as New Yorkers enjoyed milder temperatures in the 70s. On August 22 the high reached only 69.
As the heat relinquished its grip on the city, New Yorkers once again focused on the dangers of industrial society. Two more trains collided over in New Jersey. An electrician of the Steinway Electric Railroad got caught in the powerhouse’s machinery and was “crushed in a terrible manner.” In Cleveland, a group of strikers ambushed the strikebreakers at the Brown Holsting Works, killing two. Closer to home, at Ninety-Seventh Street, a two-year-old girl rolled off a pile of sand next to her house and into the path of an ice wagon, which trampled her to death. While the heat may have finished killing innocents, the industrial city, with its rushing trains and whirring machinery, retained its capacity to murder and maim.
Rain broke the heat wave decisively. “After more than a week of drought and death-dealing heat,” the Times said, “rain fell early [this] morning and again in the afternoon and brought to the suffering millions of the Greater New-York the first relief they have had since the hot wave’s arrival.” On Thursday night, New Yorkers had watched the clouds gather and produce frequent flashes of lightning. But no rain fell, as the humidity rose and threatened to make Friday another killer day of heat. Finally, at 3:00 AM the rain began to fall, the air cooled, and a breeze swept the streets. “It was not a boisterous breeze,” the paper observed, “but it was stronger and fresher than had been known in a week, and people were grateful.” The breeze actually penetrated into the open windows of the tenements, and cleared some of the foul and dead air that had long been trapped inside. The rain stopped by morning, and as men and women left for work, clouds still blocked the sun. It was a good omen for a cooler day.
City department heads gathered again on Friday in Mayor Strong’s office to hear a report from Theodore Roosevelt on the previous evening’s distribution of free ice. Roosevelt said the ice had been distributed “in a satisfactory manner” and called for the city to purchase and distribute more ice that day. After the experience of Thursday night, President Charles Wilson of the Board of Health came to the conclusion that ice need not be distributed in every precinct. Based on Thursday’s demand, Wilson drew up a schedule of the amount of ice to be distributed at each station house. Wealthy “brownstone” precincts, such as the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth, would receive no ice, while more sparsely populated districts, such as around Liberty Street downtown, would receive only three tons. In contrast, the poorest and most densely populated districts would that night each receive as much as eleven tons of ice. Cut up into approximately ten-pound pieces, this would mean the station houses at Eldridge Street and Delancey Street would each be able to serve more than 2,000 people.
Roosevelt reported the difficulty his policemen had detecting fraud among the applicants for ice, unless the police were personally acquainted with them. Roosevelt noted instances when several children from the same family were sent for free ice, which was subsequently resold by their unscrupulous parents. Roosevelt also cited two cases of children of affluent parents applying for ice. One was the daughter of a wealthy plumber, and the other the daughter of a contractor. To prevent such deception, Roosevelt had ordered patrolmen to search out the poorest families on their beats and give them tickets for the ice. Roosevelt ordered that widows with large families be given priority.
That evening, the ice distribution commenced at 6:00. In all the precincts the supply of ice was exhausted by midnight. In the more crowded districts, such as the Seventh, Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth, although each received ten or eleven tons of ice, supplies quickly ran out. As early as 4:00, the neighborhood children began to gather around the station houses. They carried tin pans, pails, baskets, wash boilers, and similar receptacles. The Times gave a detailed description: “These children were a study. Some were fairly clean, more were very dirty. Some were neatly dressed, but the majority wore ragged clothing. Half-fed children, barely able to drag themselves about, were sent by their parents to carry away ten pounds of ice. Nearly all of the applicants were children.” While condescending and nearing caricature, this description was not necessarily inaccurate. Not only were these children the city’s poorest, but after a long, hot summer day and without access to adequate bathing facilities, even better-off children might be seen in torn and dirty clothing. At the Madison Street station, which served the very poor and crowded Seventh Precinct, one observer estimated that five hundred children were waiting at the appointed hour of distribution. All carried tin pails and pans for the ice. When the ice was late arriving, what did these hundreds of children do? Of course, they began banging them together. The “din” that these “unruly” children made, the Times said, was “deafening.”
At the Seventh Precinct station house Roundsman Hulz was in charge of the distribution. A large man, “he showed that his heart was in proportion to his size.” From time to time Hulz lifted small children from the crowd and gave them their ice allotment to prevent them being crushed. Sometimes he addressed harsh words to children he knew did not qualify for free ice. One woman who applied for the ice Hulz recognized as being the proprietor of a “street stand” and the owner of a house. Police took to asking children what their fathers did for a living. “He’s a boss tailor,” one little girl replied. “Then you run home and tell him to buy his ice,” Hulz replied. “This ice is for poor people.” When Hulz asked one “neatly-dressed, but delicate-looking” little girl, “Where is your father?” the girl replied, “I don’t know, sir. We haven’t seen him for six months, and mother is sick and can’t work.” “Come right along,” Hulz said, and picked out a good-sized piece of ice for the girl.
With the ice again rapidly depleted, Roosevelt returned to his office on Mulberry Street. Back at police headquarters by 9:00 PM, he had a long interview with the reporter from the Evening Post. He recounted some of the scenes he had witnessed and some of the ideas he had put into practice. At the Elizabeth Street station, Roosevelt watched a police officer remove children from the line. In response to Roosevelt’s inquiry, the officer noted that the first boy was the son of a real-estate dealer living nearby, said to be worth $75,000. The second boy was the son of an “expressman,” a man employed receiving and delivering parcels, also reputed to own a considerable fortune. In a different precinct, Roosevelt watched as a “Hebrew woman” took away a ten-pound piece of ice. Not long after, however, the police in charge of the line recognized eight children, all belonging to that same woman. A policeman told Roosevelt that he believed they would try to sell the extra ice. All of this greatly offended the commissioner’s sense of honesty and fair play. The ice was meant for the poor, and here were rich people intentionally trying to cheat their way into a piece of free ice—and using their children to do so. Another family was trying to make a profit on the free ice, and in every case this would deprive some needy, even desperate family. At the end of a ten-day heat wave, this was no mere case of harmless dishonesty but deceit that might have life-threatening consequences.
No wonder that it was this pattern of deception in the ice distribution that Roosevelt moved quickly to address. He gave out new orders to the police going on duty at 1:00 that afternoon. Each patrolman would be issued twenty slips of papers, or “orders,” for free ice. The policeman would then give a slip of paper to the neediest people on their beats. No one would be served ice without a slip of paper. Roosevelt was very aware that this meant some people would leave the station houses that evening without ice. But for him it also meant a more orderly distribution system. “Order and Fair Play” might have been his motto, a guide for almost everything he did in his life and career.
This also applied to the “scientific” method of ice distribution Roosevelt developed. The night before, the police had cut the ice into greatly varying sizes. In some parts of the city people received only five pounds, while elsewhere people left the precinct houses with fifteen or twenty pounds. Roosevelt described his remedy for this: “All the ice delivered weighs in the neighborhood of 200 pounds to the cake. In order that all may be treated alike, I shall instruct the Chief to inform his Captains and commanding officers to have each cake of ice cut in twenty pieces or blocks. This, you see, will give to each about ten pounds.”
On the one hand, it was slightly absurd that the president of the Board of Police Commissioners was issuing orders about the cutting of ice. On the other hand, such concern again reflected his obsession “that all may be treated alike.” For Roosevelt, this should not be left to chance or to the whims of local precinct captains. Establishing a fair standard of distribution was the role of his authority and city government in general: to establish the framework of fair play that helped New York’s most underprivileged and powerless get a fair shake, a “Square Deal.”
The city appropriated a total of $5,000 to be used for the free distribution of ice, and as of Friday, August 14, had used only a fraction of the money—just as the heat wave ended. Still, from newspapermen to politicians, all agreed that the city had displayed unprecedented largesse in seeking to alleviate the suffering of the poor. One writer spoke of the “unrestrained joy of the tenement dwellers all over New York,” especially the “women and children in the reeking East Side tenement-house district, where a stray breeze is a rare luxury.” The Tribune offered a description of the “motley crowds” clamoring for ice similar to that of the Times: “They came long before the ice itself had reached the stations, and jostled and crowded about the steps, beating their tin pans to impatient tunes, and making of the neighborhood a veritable babel. The crowds were largely composed of children of Hebrew, Italian, and Greek nationalities, with startling variations in costumes and some contrast in the way of complexion, but all thoroughly voluble and for the most part unwashed.” These “unwashed” multitudes of varying complexion “stretched half a block in length,” and “piled three or four deep.” The “combined banging of their pans, and the grind of shrill youthful voices would have given to a third-rate organ-grinder an attack of nervous prostration.”
Roosevelt was not the only one to speak at the second mayor’s meeting of department heads on August 14. Mayor Strong noted that he had received numerous complaints about the dead horses in the streets, many of which had been allowed to fester for several days. One such complaint had come from the offices of the Anchor Brewing Company, asserting that “in no small town or City . . . would a dead animal be allowed to decompose for four days as occurred under our office window last week, notwithstanding the fact that it was three times reported to the ‘Board of Health.’”
Directing his pointed comments at Wilson of the Board of Health, the mayor repeated what newspapers, and Wilson himself, had been saying for days: that the horse carcasses were “a menace to the public health.” Wilson replied that the heat had killed about 1,000 horses during the past week and that the offal contractor had simply not been able to remove them as fast as they died. Wilson estimated that about 180 horses still lay in the streets as of Thursday. While the contractor endeavored to remove them, the Health Department had been conducting a disinfecting campaign, “using as much bromine as it was safe to use to destroy the sickening odors.” The mayor asked Captain Gibson of the Street Cleaning Department whether he could help the Health Department in the emergency. Gibson replied that he would try; he left the mayor’s office to call the Street Cleaning Department’s stables to order two teams with trucks to assist in the removal of dead horses. Wilson then announced that if any businessmen would hire “truckmen” to remove dead horses from the streets, the Health Department would pay the bills.
The Commissioner of Public Works said that flushing the streets would continue in the tenement house districts. The poor children, he noted, received free “shower-baths” while the flushing was in progress, as the children played in the hoses’ streams. Following the lead of the Street Cleaning Department, the Fire Department had recently volunteered to flush the streets in front of hospitals “and had cooled the hospital wards in the most gratifying manner.”
While much of the official response to the heat wave had already taken place by the time of the mayor’s meetings on August 13 and 14, the meetings show that a coordinated city response to the heat wave had been possible from the beginning. At both meetings steps had been taken and decisions made that required either mayoral-level decisions or communication among the department heads, which was fostered simply by meeting together in the same place. True, the meetings offered little new information that could not have been found in the city newspapers all week. The mayor’s observations that he had received complaints about the dead horses, and that he considered them a health risk, were a bit obtuse, as New Yorkers had been complaining about this problem all week. Yet in affirming the actions already taken, such as flushing the streets and fostering coordination among city departments, the meetings showed that the city might have taken the lead in responding to the crisis right from the beginning.
How many lives might have been saved by distributing ice beginning on August 4? How much less foul might the air have been if the city attacked the problem of carting away dead horses a week earlier? How many New Yorkers might have found relief at night in the floating baths and city parks had the rules been changed earlier? No one would ever know. Instead, the department heads met on a day when the temperature inside the mayor’s office was so pleasant, none of the men bothered to remove their jackets.
ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 14, the Bryan party visited Coney Island. Or to be more precise, William and Mary Bryan took the ferry to Coney Island, looked at the nation’s amusement capital from the pier side, and then returned to Manhattan without ever having left the boat. It was an odd trip that probably had to do with the late hour of their visit to the island and the exhaustion of both the candidate and his wife. But it seemed to underscore Bryan’s small-town and western disdain for all things big, eastern, and urban. “Mr. Bryan,” the Tribune speculated, “may have wanted to take himself away from the city that had, even in boiling weather, frosted his choicest blossoms.”
As Bryan’s party of seven, including his host, William St. John, made their way down to the steamboat wharf on the Battery—close to where a dog was recently shot and clubbed to death by a policeman—their progress through the streets went unnoticed. No one waved; no one cheered. Either no one on the street recognized the Democratic candidate for president, or no one particularly cared, as New Yorkers went about their work that busy Friday. Even on the steamboat Perseus, the Bryans remained unrecognized by their fellow passengers. They did not depart from Manhattan until 4:30 PM, and the trip to Coney Island took over an hour. Once at the island, the Iron Pier afforded steamboat passengers a good view of Brighton Beach, especially as the land on each side of the pier curved gently into the water. Looking west the Bryans could see the Windsor, Bay View, Occidental, and West End Hotels, while to the east could be glimpsed the main Concourse, with its various colorful and noisy amusements. Beyond the Concourse the Bryans could probably see the massive Brighton Beach and Manhattan hotels. Apparently, just looking was enough for them. “Mr. Bryan either did not like the looks of the ‘merry-go-rounds,’” one man commented, “or he was tired, or something else was the matter, for he did not leave the boat, but returned to the city with her.”
On their return trip, the Bryans listened to a fellow passenger “very bitterly denouncing me,” Bryan himself later remembered. “After he had exhausted language in expressing his contempt for me and my supporters, he was introduced. Mrs. Bryan and I tried to assure him that no harm had been done by his candid expression of opinion, but he was so deeply mortified he did not enjoy the remainder of the trip.” It is doubtful that William and Mary enjoyed the remainder of their trip either, as the passenger’s comments simply underscored the hostile reception New York had given them. With their departure set for the next morning, the violent denunciation of the man aboard the steamboat may well have been the last words the Bryans heard directly from an average New Yorker. Their boat, Perseus, was named for one of the heroes of Greek mythology, who was told to seek his destiny on the “island of golden apples to the west.”