THEODORE ROOSEVELT, William Jennings Bryan, and the killer heat wave all departed New York City at around the same time. On Saturday, August 15, the Bryans took leave of their host’s home en route for upstate New York. “Saturday morning we brought to a close our very pleasant sojourn with Mr. St. John and his mother,” Bryan later wrote in his account of the 1896 campaign. These were his final words on the trip to New York. He made no further mention of the speech, the failed receptions, the criticism of the city press, or his frosty reception by New York Democrats.
There have been few instances in American history of a presidential candidate suffering such a reverse of fortune so quickly and so early in the campaign. On August 8 Bryan had started from his home in Lincoln, aboard a slow, eastbound train that allowed the candidate to stop and make dozens of speeches to thousands of people. He built anticipation for the most important speech of his career, more important even than the “Cross of Gold” speech that had won him the nomination in Chicago. With this single speech in Madison Square Garden, in the heart of “enemy’s country,” he had tried to win over skeptics and take the East by storm. No doubt he and his managers envisioned a repeat of the scene in the Chicago auditorium of only the month before: a spellbinding performance of the Boy Orator followed by a half-hour demonstration that would sweep aside all doubt surrounding the Great Commoner, the presidential nominee of both the Democrat and Populist parties. Only a week later, Bryan was slinking off to lick his wounds, forbidden by campaign managers even to continue his tour.
In their continuing autopsy of his New York visit, the newspapers noted one previous time when a politician had come to the city and shaped his own destiny and that of the country by way of a historic and well-received speech. On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln addressed an audience at Cooper Union. Although he had been defeated two years before by Stephen Douglas in the Illinois race for the U.S. Senate, their debates had given Lincoln a national profile.
Lincoln went to New York in 1860 with handicaps equal to Bryan’s in 1896. Both were seen as westerners with little to offer America’s greatest metropolis. In 1896 Bryan’s Nebraska had been a state for only thirty years, while in 1860, Lincoln’s Illinois had been a state for only forty years. Lincoln and Bryan were both perceived as political ingénues. Lincoln had served one term in the House of Representatives, Bryan only two. By the time of their New York speeches, neither man was seen as being especially “presidential.” Lincoln was a rough-hewn, gangly, small-town lawyer with a nasal twang New Yorkers found grating. Bryan was a self-righteous demagogue and small-town lawyer and editor, with a brash campaigning style that New Yorkers found off-putting. Both men came to the city with reputations as noted western orators (the New York Timescalled Lincoln “that noted political exhorter and prairie orator”). Both men sought to portray themselves as cool-headed moderates, avoiding rhetorical extremes and flowery language, while enunciating more rational and pedantic discourses. And, worried how the national press would report their speeches, both men resorted to reading from a prepared text.
The response that the city gave the two men could not have been more different, with historic consequences. Horace Greeley’s Tribune called Lincoln “one of Nature’s orators, using his rare powers solely and effectively to elucidate and to convince, though their inevitable effect is to delight and electrify as well.” Two months later Lincoln received from the Illinois legislature his first endorsement for the presidency.
In contrast, days after his Garden speech, Bryan still had to defend himself over its failure and the resulting shift in his campaign schedule. Still, his New York supporters came to his defense. The young New York congressman William Sulzer visited Bryan on Friday, August 14, and left their meeting with a complacent smile. When asked whether Bryan had a fighting chance, Sulzer became excited. “A fighting chance!” he exclaimed. “He will sweep this country like a tidal wave!”
Democratic newspapers remained equally committed. Hearst’s Journal kept up the drumbeat for Bryan in Friday’s edition, comparing the Great Commoner to the Great Emancipator. “New York City then,” the paper said of 1860, “bowed to chattel slavery, as it now bows to money slavery. Its motto was ‘Cotton is King.’ It was as subservient to Southern trade as it is now to European money lenders.” Both Bryan and Lincoln, the paper noted, read their speeches “to avoid the unscrupulousness and mendacity of those who were instructed to misreport [them].” And both men had given orations “more statesmanlike and less ‘catching’ and inflammatory than their reputations had led their audiences to expect.” The Journal even argued that Bryan’s “victory” had been greater than Lincoln’s because he faced “powerful and unscrupulous enemies.” Bryan had faced “the entire Eastern press, backed up by the great trusts, syndicates, and combinations of capital of the United States.” He had read his speech because “he knew that the purchasable newspapers of the East were prepared to twist his language and distort his ideas, to corrupt all sources of intelligence for their readers in so far as his mission was concerned.” Bryan could easily have reached into his bag of rhetorical tricks to score a “mere personal triumph.” Instead, he forced the opposition press to set forth the Democratic side of the argument for the good of the entire nation. “It was a great victory,” the paper concluded in a lonely assessment, “and one that will long be remembered in the history of political warfare.”
Like most New York observers, the Evening Post disagreed. In a blistering August 14 editorial, the paper that had been associated with reformers such as Carl Schurz and E. L. Godkin used the Garden speech as a means of mercilessly ridiculing the Democratic presidential candidate. The Postnoted the “considerable anxiety” felt in some Republican quarters before the speech, as Bryan’s opponents feared a great oratorical success like the one he had achieved in Chicago. “In place of vague fear,” the paper said, “inextinguishable laughter has come. Mr. Bryan has broken his prestige, and broken it fatally, as it now appears.” On the heels of his well-publicized and dramatic trip East, Bryan had either “to achieve the most brilliant success, or lose everything.” In deviating from his strength—extemporaneous oratory—the Post likened Bryan to a comedian who tries his hand at heavy tragedy. Not only had he decided to depart from his role as fiery orator to become a cool statesman, but he had failed to inform his audience of this change. “The Madison Square Garden audience felt not only disappointed, but tricked,” the paper said.
The Post also drew parallels to Lincoln, believing that the Nebraskan, in coming to New York, sought to achieve the same sort of influence on the East the Illinoisan had. Before February 1860, New Yorkers viewed Lincoln as a “rough-and-ready Western lawyer,” while the Cooper Union speech showed him “the sinewy reasoner, the well-equipped thinker.” The difference, the paper claimed, was the vulgar opinion of the East had been wrong about Lincoln but correct about Bryan. Lincoln did not have to change his character to win over New Yorkers. Bryan, however, “had to force a sea-change upon himself” and to “assume virtues he had not.” But the greatest difference, the Post editorial concluded, lay in the fact that “Lincoln could appeal to the patriotic instinct and the sense of national honor, while his foolish young imitator has to argue for the cause of private dishonesty and public disgrace.” This last was a dig at the Democratic silver platform more than Bryan himself, and it revealed that much of the criticism directed at the candidate really had more to do with the issue of the gold standard versus bimetallism. Yet the Post only echoed what virtually all the New York papers concluded about the speech. The Journal might claim Bryan’s likeness to Lincoln, but few in the city would have accepted that comparison. Bryan was no Lincoln, and the Cooper Union speech, one of the greatest unknown speeches in American history, soared high above the Boy Orator’s pedestrian effort.
Just as the Bryans did on August 14, Lincoln, too, had sat for a portrait while visiting New York. Lincoln visited the studio of Matthew Brady, destined within only a few years to become the greatest contemporary chronicler of the Civil War. Before his nomination for the presidency, before his controversial election without appearing on any Southern ballot, before Fort Sumter and four years of Civil War, and more than five years before his assassination, the Lincoln who visited New York in 1860 looked impossibly young. In his Brady photo, he is clean-shaven, with sunken, hooded eyes that give him a grave, unhappy look. The photo was taken just three weeks before William Jennings Bryan was born.
WITH BRYAN ALREADY on the ropes, the knockout punch was still to come. And the punch would come from within his own party. In a move calculated to shift attention away from Bryan completely, the Democratic Honest-Money League had arranged for William Bourke Cockran to be the keynote speaker at yet another rally to be held in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, less than a week after Bryan’s speech there. In choosing a foil to Bryan, New York could not have found a better man than Cockran. If Bryan had only recently been labeled the Boy Orator of the Platte, Cockran had long been viewed as one of America’s leading public speakers. Even across political lines, the admiring New York press was already assuming that where Bryan had failed, Cockran would succeed.
Cockran had gained an international reputation through his oratory that was rare for a man who never advanced beyond local New York politics. The record of people praising Cockran’s speeches is almost endless. A British member of Parliament called Cockran “the most eloquent orator of his time among the English-speaking peoples, if not all nations.” Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential military aide and close companion, Archie Butt, once wrote, “One is fascinated by his power of oratory. Leonine always in his appearance, he looks like a lion ready to spring when he is speaking. His voice is like a low rumble of thunder, then has the sweetness of the lute in it. I had not heard him for years, but the moment he uttered his first sentence I felt that he had grown both in power and in sympathy.” In 1910 Butt still served as aide to Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft. Riding home together after Cockran’s speech, Taft turned to his aide and said, “Archie, you now see the difference between declamation and oratory. I believe Cockran is the greatest orator using the English language today.”
Cockran also made a deep impression on the young William Jennings Bryan when they first met at the 1884 Democratic National Convention, when Bryan was only twenty-four. Although Cockran was only thirty, he had already achieved a prominent place in Tammany Hall and was but a few years from taking a seat in the House of Representatives.
At the convention, Cockran sat with Irish-Catholic Tammany delegates, led by boss John Kelly, all of whom were hostile to Grover Cleveland’s nomination. Their opposition had led to rumors that Cleveland was anti-Catholic. Cockran rose to defend Tammany’s position, decry the invocation of religion in the proceedings, and affirm the ultimate unity of the Democratic Party. Cockran called for calm and unity among the bitterly divided delegates:
If my word of warning be heeded, you will find that every element of contest will be stilled; that although we may have been divided by the wild waves of factional tumult, as soon as the gavel of the chairman declares the nomination made we will become calm and placid as the bosom of the lake in summer. Though we may have been divided before we entered these halls, we are but the countless rivulets that go to make up a mighty stream, and which though turbulent and violent while they are flowing in their separate courses, after they have passed the point of confluence, merge together and roll their united course to the sea in a majestic tide, all powerful in its strength and restless in its force.
Even the Cleveland supporters in the galleries joined the ovation that followed his speech. Cockran had scored a personal and political triumph that would lead the New Yorker to Congress.
Reading Cockran’s 1884 speech, it might very well have been uttered by Bryan. There was the alliteration that both men employed at every turn. Bryan, too, favored the watery metaphors that Cockran used; in 1893 Bryan told the House of Representatives that Cleveland could not “measure the ocean’s silent depths by the foam upon its waves.” Both men used overt and unapologetically religious language to powerful effect. Indeed, Cockran’s 1884 speech had a tremendous impact on Bryan. He had listened to Cockran in awe of his words and power over his listeners. In such oratory Bryan found something of the divine.
Cockran’s speech was the making of Bryan the orator. True, Bryan had become a competent debater in college. As a young man he had listened to the speeches of Robert Ingersoll, Henry Ward Beecher, and Wendell Phillips, three of the greatest orators of their day. Still, the great model for Bryan’s own political oratory, the father of the western Boy Orator, was none other than an Irish-born New Yorker, William Bourke Cockran. And Cockran was about to help destroy his own creation.
Even as they skewered Bryan after his speech, the New York press eagerly awaited Cockran’s response. The Post claimed that Cockran should be grateful for the “manifest delivering of a Philistine into his hands” and gleefully anticipated “the sport which the lively Irish orator and pungent reasoner will make when he answers Bryan.” The Times claimed that Cockran “has not a superior as a public debater and orator in this country. He has both logic and fire, and appeals to both the reason and the highest sentiment of his hearers.”
Only two days after Bryan’s speech the Gold Democrats had announced Cockran’s own Madison Square Garden rally. It was a move calculated to draw attention and support away from the Democratic nominee for the presidency. It worked. News of the Cockran speech filled the papers and drew national attention. Demand for tickets was so great that the Gold Democrat organizers anticipated a full house. The New York Stock Exchange alone had requested 500 seats. Appeals for tickets were arriving from the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. To make sure that average New Yorkers could hear the speech, only about 8,000 seats were reserved, while the rest would be available to the public. Recalling the spectacle of the police line surrounding the Garden for Bryan’s speech and turning away the thousands who held no tickets, a Gold Democrat spokesman said that police would turn no one away from Cockran’s speech, for which 4,000 more chairs would be placed in the auditorium. Few doubted that Cockran would pack every seat. “His speech will be something worth hearing,” the Times said. “He will fill Madison Square Garden, not empty it.” Even anticipation of Cockran’s speech afforded New Yorkers further reasons to strike at Bryan.
COCKRAN WOULD ALSO be aided by the temperature, which was rapidly sinking to more temperate levels. Still, reminders of the heat wave remained, including piles of horse corpses that still littered the streets. In desperation, some New Yorkers had taken to lighting fires in the streets—not to dispose of the bodies but to keep the smell at bay. Such fires harkened back to the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century and were motivated by the same fear of pestilence.
Pressed by Mayor Strong at the August 14 meeting of department heads, President Wilson of the Board of Health promised the mayor that all carcasses would be removed within the next twenty-four hours, as the contractor sought to remove the final fifty or so bodies. Stories abounded of people and businesses suffering as the result of rotting horses. On the previous Wednesday evening, August 12, a horse had died in front of Pierce and Company’s grocery at Warren and Washington Streets (an intersection that no longer exists because of the West Side Highway built during the Great Depression). Despite requests to have the horse removed, by Friday morning the grocery employees were forced to stop work as a result of the horrible smell. The business closed at a large loss of income. Some wag had placed a sign on the body: “The Board of Health Will Meet Here at 2 P.M.; Mayor Strong is invited to attend.”
The carcass problem was no joke, however. Thomas White, the contractor responsible for removal, had suffered losses among his men and horses during the heat wave. In attempting to remove the estimated 1,500 dead horses on the streets the previous week—nearly the number he removed during an entire year—White lost eleven horses and had six of his men prostrated. White had never seen anything strike down the horses of New York like the current heat wave. And he would know. For thirty years the White family had held the city contract for removing dead animals, which they took to their other family business on Barren Island: rendering plants that transformed the dead horses into fertilizer and glue. It was this business that was primarily served by the city contract to remove the horses. The heat wave ensured a windfall of raw material for the Barren Island plants.
For most New York businesses the heat wave proved a disaster equal to, if not greater than, any hurricane or flood. Losses totaled in the millions of dollars. Retail dry goods stores, whose merchandise was immune to the effects of heat, lost a formidable proportion of their profits simply because of lack of customers. During the heat wave, shoppers stayed home. One store manager claimed that sales at his store during the heat wave decreased by half, and one-third of the store clerks had been given two weeks of enforced vacation. By one estimate, dry goods retailers in the city lost about $720,000 during the heat wave, not including lost wages.
The price of ice meant that storing fresh beef became so expensive that many of the large butchers refused to sell meat except early in the morning. Sales of beef by butchers dropped 70 percent, and many city abattoirs simply stopped work entirely. The estimated 850 retail butchers in the city lost an estimated $230,000 during the heat wave, while wholesale butchers lost another $400,000, both because of the general disposition to stop buying beef during a heat wave and because the retail butchers refused to close contracts made before the heat wave began. Hotels that normally made money through their restaurants also found a sharp drop in trade. During the heat wave hotel restaurants that might usually serve between 250 and 350 diners per night counted only a dozen or so customers.
Green grocers found it impossible to keep their food fresh, and the common custom of spraying the vegetables had no effect. Estimated losses among green grocers was 60 percent, while the market gardeners who brought their produce to the city could not find buyers. This sector accounted for another $100,000 in losses.
Almost every city trade suffered during the long heat wave. Candy manufacturers and retailers could not keep their wares from spoiling. Bicycle rentals, an enormous business in late-nineteenth-century American cities, calculated an estimated loss of over $100,000. Out-of-town visitors to the city’s downtown wholesalers postponed their trips during the heat wave, causing a loss of as much as $8 million.
Not every business suffered. Charles Morse’s great Consolidated Ice Company did a booming business during the heat wave. Morse’s company had delivered 15,000 tons every day during the week, a Herculean task requiring seven hundred carts and more than 2,000 men working from early morning to late at night. Three men and twenty horses working for Morse died as a result. In comparison, all the smaller ice concerns combined sold only about 5,000 tons daily. In all this meant that approximately 200,000 tons of ice—the equivalent of about fourteen Brooklyn Bridges—had been delivered during the heat wave, solely within the confines of New York City. Hotels and hospitals consumed much of this supply, with hospitals using large amounts for treating cases of heat exhaustion.
The ice business was an exception to the economic disaster visited upon the city. New York was not alone in claiming great financial loss from the heat wave. Estimates in Chicago ran to $10 million, and a million and a half dollars was lost in Philadelphia. In St. Louis, residents compared the human and financial losses to the killer tornado that hit the city in May, killing as many as four hundred people and destroying millions of dollars in property. Such a comparison to a recent natural disaster that took an enormous toll in both lives and property reflected the view that the heat wave and tornado shared similar killer and destructive characteristics, despite the fact that the heat wave did not constitute a single “event” that left obvious property damage. While later Americans ignored heat waves as natural disasters because they did not kill with such drama and damage, those who experienced the 1896 heat wave evidently would have considered the tragic week comparable to killer earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes in the nation’s history.
ALTHOUGH LESS THAN one week separated them, Bryan and Cockran’s Madison Square Garden speeches contrasted sharply. For the Cockran speech there was no police cordon and no mad rush for seats. Top politicians from both parties attended the speech as one of the most noteworthy political events of the year. The New York press showered Cockran with the laurels it had withheld from Bryan. And the temperature that Tuesday evening, August 18, was one of the coolest of that August.
With the Cockran speech scheduled for Tuesday, Roosevelt remained in the city on Monday consulting with Acting Deputy Chief Moses Cortright concerning the police preparations. The next day Cortright would have under his command about four hundred policemen at the Garden. However, unlike the Bryan speech, no streets to the Garden would be blocked and no police line established. No police passes, such as the ones issued for the Bryan speech and subsequently ignored by the police, would be issued. Five different entrances would be used by ticket holders to avoid any crush, and any unoccupied seats would be available to the public. As many as 16,000 people were expected to attend, which would be a crowd greater than any before seen in that auditorium. Now that the heat wave had broken, the police did not bother to take the same precautions to deal with cases of heat prostration at Tuesday’s Garden speech. No hospital was established in the basement, no stretcher bearers were to be placed among the crowd, and no flags with a red cross were to be waved in case of a prostration.
In the days before Bryan’s speech, the heat itself had been the city’s main topic of discussion. New Yorkers had scanned the daily death lists and studied the weather forecasts. Now both Bryan and the heat had departed. Cockran would give his speech on an evening when the day’s high temperature would reach only 73 degrees, the coolest day the city had seen in almost three weeks.
Unlike Bryan’s speech, every prominent New York politician attended the event. One early outburst of applause came when the Republican Mayor Strong appeared. Boss Platt was in attendance, as was Warner Miller. Former governor Flower attended and provided small American flags to the crowd, which were placed on each of the 15,000 seats. Abram Hewitt and E. L. Godkin, two former governors of Ohio, and New York congressmen Coombs and Fowler attended.
Theodore Roosevelt had not attended Bryan’s speech. He had not even been in the city on that fateful Wednesday evening. On August 18, however, not only did Republican Roosevelt attend the speech of a Tammany Democrat, but he also brought his wife. When he entered the Garden he received loud cheers from the crowd and the honor of being the object of the old political chant: “What’s the matter with Roosevelt?” someone shouted, to which the standard reply was, “Oh, he’s all right.” “Who’s all right?” “Why, Teddy!” roared the crowd, as Roosevelt smiled at his reception. He may have also been smiling at the police arrangements for that evening. As the Garden’s doors had been opened two hours early, there was no crush at the entrances, and no mad dash for seats. Before Bryan’s speech, seats had filled in a matter of minutes as people sprinted through the doors. For tonight’s speech all seats were filled an hour before Cockran even appeared onstage, as the band played “Hail to the Chief.”
The auditorium was draped in red, white, and blue bunting. The boxes and galleries were adorned with American flags, while above the upper galleries hung flags with the seals of every state of the Union. The speaker’s platform featured the national shield of the American eagle. Thousands of flags had been used for the decorations of the Garden, not including the 15,000 provided by Governor Flower. When the crowd waved them, the Times said, “they gave an effect that was as picturesque in appearance as it was patriotic in sentiment.”
One of the most rousing moments of the evening came before Cockran even began to speak. He had just been greeted by a roaring ovation and had raised his hands to still the tumult. He waited until the noise had subsided, and when there were only a few scattered people clapping, he prepared to begin speaking. At that moment someone in the audience arose and, using one of the little flags as a baton, began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Before the first verse was completed, the entire audience of 15,000 had jumped to its feet to sing the remainder of the anthem, all the while waving their little flags. The Sun called the spontaneous scene as “perhaps the most thrilling and inspiring ever witnessed in New York,” while the Times said “Few demonstrations such as greeted Mr. Cockran when he arose to speak have ever been seen in this city since war times—if, indeed, there were any then.”
After the singing subsided, Cockran spoke without notes for a little over an hour, about half the time that Bryan had spent reading his speech. Incorporating mention of the anthem into the introduction to his speech, he improvised, “With the inspiring strains of the national song still ringing in our ears, who can doubt the issue of this campaign? That issue, stripped of all verbal disguise, is an issue of common honesty; an issue between an honest discharge and a dishonest repudiation of public and private obligations. It is a question of whether the powers of this government shall be used to protect honest industry or to tempt the citizen to dishonesty.”
Cockran was blunt about the course of action for Democrats. “We must raise our hands against the nominee of our party, and we must do it to preserve the party itself.” Throughout his speech he resorted to withering sarcasm that time and again drew laughter from the audience. Much of this was directed at Bryan himself. “We would look in vain through the speech delivered here one week ago to find a true statement of the issue involved in this canvass. (Laughter) Indeed, I believe it is doubtful if the candidate himself quite understands the nature of the faith which he professes. (Laughter) I say this not in criticism of his ability, but in justice to his morality. (Laughter).” Portraying Bryan as a clown may have been more effective than actually refuting the silver question. The New York papers had begun their portrayal of Bryan as an ignorant buffoon just after the candidate’s Garden speech. Now Cockran completed the picture of Bryan as a well-meaning but terribly ill-informed simpleton.
He reached a crescendo as he took Bryan’s famous speech from the Chicago Convention and turned it on its head. “To him we say, in the name of humanity, in the name of progress, ‘You shall neither place a crown of thorns upon the brow of labor nor lay a scourge upon his back. (Applause) You shall not rob him of any one advantage which he has gained by long years of steady progress in the skill with which he exercises his craft and by efficient organization among those who work with him at the same bench. You shall not obscure the golden prospect of a further improvement in his condition by a further cheapening in the cost of living, as well as by a future appreciation of the dollar in which his wages are paid.’ (Applause).” Cockran had masterfully turned Bryan’s words against him, added the allusion to sound money through the “golden prospect” facing workers with a strong dollar, and in only an hour established Bryan as the enemy of the workingman.
It was a thrilling moment and the height of Cockran’s oratorical career. While he would go on to speak to many large urban crowds in the weeks that followed, leading up to the election, never again would he speak to so large a crowd. Indeed, as Roosevelt would comment to his friend Lodge, few Americans not running for or holding political office would have been able to attract such a crowd. And Cockran was enormously successful in exactly the same place where Bryan had failed so miserably.
The speech caused an outpouring of praise from all quarters, as some even suggested it turned the tide of the election itself. Others echoed the Sun in seeing Cockran’s effort as above partisan politics and serving the larger, national good. Just after the election a Philadelphia paper said, “Bourke Cockran’s Madison Square Garden speech lifted the canvass to that moral plane where thousands of Democrats afterwards stood, and in it may be discovered the characteristic that carried the great orator beyond the environments of the political organization with which his first triumphs were associated.” Republican boss Thomas Platt said, “It was the greatest speech I ever listened to. McKinley’s election is now assured.” Speaker of the House Thomas Reed wrote Cockran, “After your most noble effort last evening you are entitled to the highest honor the nation can bestow upon you.” Roosevelt described the speech to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge as “a phenomenon.” “It is extraordinary that a mere private citizen should be able to gather such an enormous crowd,” he observed, “a crowd quite as large inside the Madison Square Garden and almost as large outside, as that which came to hear Bryan, the candidate for the Presidency. Cockran made a first class speech. I cannot but believe that the tide is beginning to flow against the free silverites.”
From abroad, the twenty-one-year-old Winston Churchill offered congratulations on a speech the future prime minister called “not only a rhetorical triumph, but also a moral victory.” Any change in currency policy, Churchill wrote, should be slow and cautious. “What Bryan is doing is like an inebriate regulating a chronometer with a crowbar.”
Perhaps inevitably, hoping to enlist a promising candidate in their ranks, city Republicans made an offer to Cockran to run for Congress as a Republican from the Twelfth District. He declined. “While the Democratic organization remains a party to the Populist conspiracy against wages, I shall labor untiringly for its defeat,” Cockran replied, “but I will not consent to profit by its overthrow.” Cockran was even considered for a place in McKinley’s cabinet, and Mark Hanna supported the idea of naming the New York Democrat as attorney general. Only when McKinley showed Hanna and others a statement from Cockran proclaiming, “I am a Democrat and unalterably opposed to the Republican Tariff policies,” was the matter dropped.
The Cockran speech immediately invited contrasts with Bryan’s. The Nation called the Cockran speech at the Garden “immense in every way,” and said, “its effect upon the country as a contrast to the Bryan demonstration of the previous week must have been very great.” The Timescommented editorially in a column entitled, “The Boy Orator and the Man Orator.” The paper noted the great improvement in the organization and the police arrangements of the Cockran meeting. Even the weather had been different. “The queer and picturesque element added to the Bryan meeting by the intense heat was absent last night,” the paper observed, “the spectacle of a coatless crowd relieving itself by the waving of fans. But the management provided an efficient substitute for it last night by furnishing every seat with a little American flag, which produced an effect equally bizarre and more attractive.”
The very replacement of 15,000 waving palm-leaf fans with 15,000 waving American flags provided a fitting symbol to the overall contrast between the two meetings. If Bryan’s speech had sunk into a welter of heat, Cockran’s had soared on a wave of patriotism. But in the end the speeches themselves provided the main contrasts. The Times said that Cockran’s “affluent eloquence flowed on, interrupted only by applause as spontaneous as the applause for Bryan was perfunctory and managed, and by the hearty laughter which Bryan did not once elicit.” In one week New Yorkers had had the chance to observe two of America’s greatest public speakers address differing sides of the same issue and provide a dramatic start to the campaign season. For those who had gone to both Garden speeches, the Times believed “there must have been many who remembered with dim and remote wonder how they had suffered less than a week before in the place in which they were now delighted, and marveled at the vastness of the difference between an orator and a bore.”
Gone were the headlines criticizing Roosevelt’s police and the embarrassing stories of the arrest of a journalist. In his letter to Lodge, Roosevelt took credit for the better police measures. “This time I supervised the police arrangements myself,” he wrote, noting that the chief of police had “run off to the country.” Of course, a week earlier, Roosevelt had missed the Bryan meeting as he, too, had run off to the country, remaining in the cooler climes of Oyster Bay. “Everything went off without a hitch; there was very little legitimate ground for complaint even at the first meeting; it was chiefly reporters’ grievances, as a number of their passes were not honored. This time I saw that they were all honored, and the police kept complete control of the crowd, having them thoroughly in hand; and yet they behaved with the utmost good nature. I determined that I would be able to testify as an eye witness to all that happened.” Roosevelt repeated these observations to reporters. “It would be simple justice for the newspapers to state that the police could do no better than they have done tonight,” he said. “This meeting is a bigger one than the Bryan meeting. I have seen no fault to find with the police. I have been at every point outside, and have nothing but praise for the police arrangements and the managements of the crowds.” Roosevelt may have exaggerated his involvement in the police arrangements. In truth, his main contribution to that evening most likely was to serve as spokesman and booster for the police, especially after the criticism leveled against New York’s Finest only the week before.
Having the Cockran meeting go off without a hitch was a boon for Roosevelt, allowing him to leave the city on a high note. He planned to take a three-week vacation in North Dakota, foreshadowing his leaving New York for good only a few months later. Just as his fight to uphold the Sunday saloon-closing law during the past two years had made any future career in the city virtually untenable, recent events had only confirmed his great desire to leave the city of his birth. The extreme heat, the criticism leveled against the police on the night of Bryan’s speech, and his ongoing feud with Parker must have made the prospect of putting half the country between him and his problems extremely inviting.
In a rare display of weakness, Roosevelt told his friend Lodge, in a letter dated August 19, that he looked forward to his trip West. “I am very glad to go for I think the endless strain and worry had told on me a little.” Despite the failure of Bryan’s speech and the rousing success of Bourke Cockran’s, he told Lodge he still worried that “the hatred of the East among many Westerners, and the crude ignorance of even elementary finance among such a multitude of well meaning, but puzzle-headed, voters, give cause for serious alarm throughout this campaign.” A political animal even when he was hunting in North Dakota, Roosevelt looked forward to having a better understanding of western opinion: “I shall be able to speak more intelligently when I come back from the West.”
His familiarity and even fame in parts of the West would eventually prove valuable to McKinley and the Republican National Committee, although not in 1896. By the 1900 election, however, Roosevelt’s New York origins, his “western-ness,” his reform credentials, and his heroism during the Spanish-American War all combined to make him the party’s choice for vice president.
THE KILLER HEAT wave of August 4–13, 1896, claimed approximately 1,300 victims in New York and Brooklyn alone, making it the deadliest urban heat disaster in American history. The lingering effects of the heat continued to kill even after cooler temperatures arrived by the middle of the month. The heat wave probably claimed its last victim as late as August 21. Seven-month-old Fannie Hertzberg fell ill from the heat on August 13 and died on the twenty-first from what the doctor called “insolation,” a full eight days after the heat wave’s end. Under the “Occupation” section of the death certificate, the doctor wrote “Infant.”
It was a common phenomenon among victims of heat exhaustion that few could remember when they had begun to feel sick. The early symptoms of heat exhaustion could easily be mistaken for normal discomfort, especially among laborers or the poor during an extended heat wave. Such symptoms include heavy sweating, paleness, weakness, tiredness, muscle cramping, and headaches, all of which a working person might regularly experience during a New York August.
During the 1896 heat wave, Frank McCoy gave a rare detailed description of what he had felt in the hours before he collapsed from the heat. “I was standing at the corner of Twenty-second Street and Third Avenue last Tuesday,” he said. “My pulse had been high all day and I was more or less oppressed by the humidity. A great many deaths had occurred in the morning and on the day before, and I thought the best thing to do was to keep cool. I drank a great quantity of ice water and perspired freely. All the time, though, my tongue was getting very dry. I could not keep my mouth cool.” Racing pulse was a classic early warning sign of heat exhaustion and the cause for many of the collapsed and overcome victims during the previous week. Drinking a large quantity of ice water was a good precaution, and sweating was a good sign that the body still had the means to cool itself off. Nevertheless, it is probable McCoy could neither sweat enough to cool down nor drink enough to replace the fluid lost by sweating. Feeling his tongue getting dry and unable to keep his “mouth cool” signified dehydration, a dangerous cause of hyperthermia.
A short while later, McCoy continued, “My head began to throb, and it seemed just as though it would burst. My tongue got heavier. A feeling of exhaustion gradually passed over my whole body, and I grew weaker and warmer.” At this point McCoy was on the verge of collapse, already suffering from heat exhaustion. Although still conscious, he was clearly in a state of advanced dehydration, with his body temperature rising rapidly. “Suddenly I felt my skin cracking on my skull. I thought a thousand pounds had dropped right on the top of my head and then a wave of terrible heat swept over me, and I put my arm out to steady myself.” At this point McCoy lost consciousness. “The next thing I knew I was here in the hospital, and they were taking me out of a cold bath. They put me in at 2:05 P.M., and took me out at 3:30. Since then I have been very weak and the shock has dulled my head a little.” One and a half hours in an ice bath was a long time, indicating how elevated McCoy’s temperature must have been when he succumbed. Although his temperature returned to normal, such a severe case of hyperthermia may have left McCoy with permanent damage to the heart or other organs. Three days after his collapse, McCoy was still not well enough to return home.
WITH A CARRIAGE waiting at the curb to take his party to the station, Bryan seized a last opportunity to speak to reporters. In a nice bit of diplomacy, he shook each reporter’s hand warmly and gave him a campaign button with the candidate’s picture. The reporters present were some of the men who had fiercely criticized and mocked him. They had portrayed the Madison Square Garden speech in the most negative manner, spreading word of its failure across the nation. They had lampooned the candidate throughout his New York stay, helping halt the momentum Bryan had built from the Chicago convention and his eastward train journey. Now he said he had been kindly treated by the reporters “personally,” placing a small stress on the word. “The press of your city is against me, of course,” he said, “but you boys have treated me very nicely.”
Then Bryan gave his last speech before leaving New York:
There are two things I want to say. One is that before I came here the New York papers frequently called me an anarchist. I do not believe any of them has called me an anarchist since I came. The other thing is that they speak of me as the “Boy Orator.” If I am elected no other young man in politics will be ridiculed for his youth. There are a great many boys in the country, and I am glad I am young.
I wanted very much to have the opportunity of seeing something of the people of New York. I wanted to meet them and shake hands with them, but my time here has been consumed entirely by campaign work. There was a great deal to be done, and little time for doing it, and I had to work. I hope, however, that I shall yet have an opportunity for seeing your people and talking to them face to face and as man to man.
It was an odd little speech. There was no mention of the Madison Square Garden meeting, although perhaps by that morning there was nothing more to say. Instead Bryan claimed a strange sort of victory in that no New Yorker continued to label him an anarchist—a pyrrhic victory, indeed, if this was the sole result of his New York trip. “I am glad I am young” seemed a trivial observation from the author of “Cross of Gold.” Claiming that he had no opportunity to meet New Yorkers after a four-day stay in the city only underscored Bryan’s isolation since arriving in the city. In America’s largest metropolis, how could the Democratic presidential candidate have failed to come into contact with its citizens? Finally, characterizing New Yorkers as “your people” was little better than calling the city “enemy’s territory.” It was as if Bryan had stumbled on some alien culture, forcing him to communicate with hand gestures and pantomime.
No one bade farewell to the Bryans at the St. John home, and no one even greeted them at the New York Central Railroad Station, where they boarded the Croton local for their trip to Irvington. Aside from the Bryans, Sewall, and General John Brisben Walker, only John Cutright of Lincoln, Nebraska, accompanied the candidate as his secretary. Perhaps never in American history had presidential and vice presidential candidates traveled together with so small a retinue.
At the railroad station the New York Central offered Bryan the use of a special car. Just as he had after the Chicago convention, he declined the offer, saying he was much too poor to afford it, and he did not wish anything he could not pay for. The party paid the regular fare and sat together in the regular passenger car, beginning a journey out of the city that must have come as some relief to Bryan. It also began a two-week stay in upstate New York that afforded the candidate much-needed rest but also effectively removed him from the campaign only ten weeks before election day. Until early September, the normally verbose Boy Orator would remain virtually silent.
While the Bryans settled down for a long rest, the campaign did not stop. As the Democratic candidate sat looking at the Hudson River from the Walker veranda, the Republicans kicked off the Ohio campaign with enormous rallies in McKinley’s home state. With special trains bringing people from all over the state, Senator John Sherman and former Ohio governor Joseph Foraker addressed thousands in Columbus, while McKinley stayed in Canton. Sherman—he of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act—ripped into the Democratic monetary policy as “the doctrine of the Populist and the Anarchist.” Sherman even stooped to “wave the bloody shirt” by noting that “570,000 Union soldiers, their widows and orphans,” would be paid their pensions “with money of less purchasing power than gold coin.” Sherman believed the free coinage of silver to be “a fraud and a robbery, and all the worse if committed by a great and free people.”
By remaining in seclusion in Irvington, Bryan forfeited the field to the Republicans. In the days that followed, no Democrat stepped forward to rebut the Republican attacks. The failure of Bryan’s Garden speech continued to have far-reaching ramifications, as the Democratic Party appeared to concede much of the country and the campaign to the Republicans.
This was good news for Theodore Roosevelt. Soon after the Cockran speech Roosevelt departed for North Dakota and remained there for the rest of August and early September. Hunting and camping in the “Bad Lands” had always restored Roosevelt’s body and spirit after difficult periods in his life. In 1884 this had meant fleeing west after the deaths of his wife and his mother. In 1896 Roosevelt escaped over a year’s worth of criticism concerning his saloon-closing crusade, the hostility of the press and his own party leaders, and, finally, the deadlock on the police commission caused by his feud with Parker. That August, of course, he also escaped the awful heat of the month that had caused so much work for his police and even contributed to officers’ deaths.
Roosevelt had done more than just visit the police stations to supervise the distribution of ice. In a scene that recalled his trips with Jacob Riis into the tenement districts in the early 1880s, and his more recent midnight patrols as police commissioner, he set out to see what people actually did with the free ice. Commissioner Roosevelt visited a number of alleys and rear tenements along Mulberry Street, some of the poorest residences of the city’s poorest street. He expressed being “agreeably surprised” by the way families used the ice. Roosevelt watched as fathers and mothers of large families cracked the ice into small pieces. Some pieces were then placed in a handkerchief or towel and tied around the foreheads and heads of sick infants. While this took place, Roosevelt watched as some people made cooling drinks, while others simply held the chunks of ice in their hands, “from which they bit and chewed constantly.” With some pride, Roosevelt noted that the city’s distribution of free ice was the first time anything of the sort was ever attempted. True, the giveaway had not gone as smoothly as it might have, but this, Roosevelt said, was to due to the short time the police had from the time they received the order until it was put into practice. Roosevelt clearly doubted this would become standard practice for the city during heat waves. “It may never happen again,” he said, “and if it does it will only be in such an emergency as this one.”
Decades later, as he sat down to write his memoirs in 1913, Roosevelt remembered the terrible heat wave and the suffering it caused among the poor. He remembered the streets being flushed and his own contribution in suggesting and supervising the distribution of free ice in the Lower East Side. The fact that Roosevelt could recall such scenes in vivid detail, nearly two decades after they occurred, illustrated what a profound effect they had on him.
While history has forgotten Roosevelt’s role during the heat wave, his actions foreshadowed his progressive presidency. His direct contact with the poor heightened his sense of noblesse oblige he had inherited from his father. Those in a position to help should help, and that included the government, if only during times of extreme emergency. Roosevelt was one of the few city officials even to suggest taking direct measures for relief of the poor. Moreover, he supervised those measures himself in order to ensure fair play. He also followed up on the ice giveaway and witnessed firsthand how families used the ice to cool their drinks or the brows of sick children. Finally, his actions were prompted by the ice trust represented by Morse’s Consolidated Ice Company. Here was a clear case of a trust fixing higher prices that had direct impact on the city’s suffering poor. Giving away free ice helped bust this particular trust.
Late August found Roosevelt the urbanite heading west to hunt and camp and Bryan the westerner watching the boat traffic along the Hudson River. Their vacations left much time for recalling the historic week just finished. That single week in August 1896 witnessed a unique convergence of quintessentially American politics and personalities, with a great, urban natural disaster as the backdrop. In the blink of an eye Bryan had all but lost the presidential race by the time he finished his Madison Square Garden speech. Roosevelt himself had given up on New York politics and hoped instead for a post in a McKinley administration.
The heat wave shaped their careers and characters in unexpected ways. Perhaps Bryan might have given a rousing speech, if traveling to New York during a heat wave had not rendered him hoarse and exhausted. Maybe a New York crowd would have cheered his long speech, had the heat not driven them from their seats. For Roosevelt the heat wave marked another step along the path to a progressive presidency. He ordered city initiatives on behalf of the poor, personally supervised them to make sure all received fair treatment, and witnessed firsthand the suffering of the tenement dwellers.
Finally, the heat wave helped shape the history of America’s greatest city. It ended a strike among the tailors of the Lower East Side, while forcing reluctant city officials to take positive measures to aid its suffering citizens. It also encouraged housing reform, as the tenements themselves indirectly caused hundreds of deaths.
The heat wave cut a swath of death through the immigrant laborers and their families, killing well over 1,000. While the smallest children suffered terribly, as they always did during the summers, in the end it was those children’s fathers who literally worked themselves to death in order to provide a living for their families. The average victim of the heat wave was a workingman, probably Irish, living in the most impoverished and squalid of conditions. As he and his brethren died, the philanthropists of the Progressive Era called for reform on all levels: of working conditions and work hours, of housing conditions, of sanitary conditions, of government conditions that allowed corruption, and of economic conditions that had made New Yorkers of August 1896 so susceptible to death and disease in the first place. Such changes would take decades, but a natural disaster occurring during such an age of reform created a potent catalyst for change.