The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt During the summer of 1896, a 10-day heat wave killed nearly 1,500 people across New York City — many of them tenement-dwellers. In Hot Time in the Old Town, historian Ed Kohn describes the disaster — and how a little-known police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt championed the efforts to help New Yorkers survive the heat.
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The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt

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The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt

The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

It's been an oppressively hot and humid summer in much of the United States. For most of us, the heat is an annoyance, but it can be deadly, as the heat now gripping parts of Russia demonstrates.

Our guest, historian Edward Kohn, has written a book about an intense heat wave that gripped New York City in 1896, which he says is one of the worst natural disasters in American history. It killed roughly 1,300 people, far more than the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Kohn says the heat wave affected the career of Theodore Roosevelt, who was a police commissioner at the time.

Edward Kohn is an assistant professor of American history and chair of the American Culture and Literature Department at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. His book is called "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt."

I asked him to begin with a reading from the book.

Mr. EDWARD KOHN (Author, "Hot Time in the Old Town"): (Reading) Heat waves are not like other disasters. Heat kills slowly over days. It does not leave marks on the victim's body, nor does it destroy buildings or leave any physical evidence of its destructive force. There is no single moment when a heat wave strikes, no specific time allowing survivors to recall the moment when it began.

Heat waves produce few dramatic photos or visual images like rubble and flames. Victims of heat can remain unaware that they are being slowly killed, suffocating alone in a closed, airless space.

An assassin strikes quickly and flees, but heat lingers, remaining in the same room with its victim for days. The city itself becomes an accomplice to heat's murderous effects. Anyone who has ever lived in a city during extreme heat knows that cities bake their inhabitants in ways unknown to rural areas. In later years, this would become known as the urban heat-island effect.

DAVIES: And that was our guest, historian Edward Kohn, reading from his new book about the 1896 heat wave in New York. It's called "Hot Time in the Old Town." Well, Edward Kohn, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. KOHN: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: I want to begin by talking a little bit about the housing and public health conditions in New York at the time. A lot of poor people lived in the city, a lot of immigrants. How dense were the neighborhoods these folks lived in?

Mr. KOHN: Oh, yeah, these neighborhoods, you know, small precincts would have perhaps 100,000 people. These tenements that most of the working poor, especially immigrants, of New York packed into on the Lower East Side, basically if it was a two-room tenement, that'd mean you would have two families there, perhaps five, six people sharing a room. Sometimes even, if there's a little extra space on the floor, the families would lease it out or rent it out to single men.

It was so densely packed that, in fact, most people couldn't even live, really live, inside the tenement itself. And so the streets in front of tenements and the rooftops and the fire escapes were so filled with people all of the time because really there was just, you know, no room for everybody to actually fit inside these tenements, which were just, you know, squalid, suffocating, very little access to direct sunlight, air or running water.

DAVIES: And talk a little bit about, you know, their structure, the building materials.

Mr. KOHN: Yes, these are basically made out of brick and stone, which is almost like - these become, during the summertime, like, you know, pizza brick ovens. I mean, the temperatures inside would easily reach 120 degrees.

And so for 1896, it's not just that, well, they don't have air conditioning, and they don't have electric refrigeration. I mean, it really is both the working and living conditions that end up killing so many.

This is also the time of, you know, 10-hour workdays, working six days a week, doing manual labor. I mean, most New Yorkers at the time aren't lawyers and stockbrokers. They're working with their hands out in the sun.

DAVIES: And in a fair number of cases, people actually were employed in their homes, right, doing piecework of one kind of another?

Mr. KOHN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's a very common thing in New York at the time, rolling cigarettes, doing piecework like for textiles and tailoring, making little, you know, paper flowers to sell on the street.

You know, by 1896, it's also three years into a terrible economic depression that hits the Lower East Side terribly. There's thousands of people out of work, thousands of people homeless, and so you have this massive population in New York that's already living this marginal existence, and then you have a natural disaster like a 10-day heat wave. It just pushes thousands of them over the edge.

DAVIES: Did many of these dwellings have running water?

Mr. KOHN: If they had running water, the most they had was perhaps a common sink in the hallway, something that was almost - you know, shared by scores of people, always filthy, always stopped up. And if you're on the second or third floor during summertime, when the water pressure drops throughout the city, probably you didn't have any water at all.

Most of the tenement dwellers were getting their water from a common outdoor spigot. And so trying to stay hydrated, as we all try to do, you know, today, or just to keep yourself or your children or your apartment clean, I mean, this was a difficult full-time job unto itself.

DAVIES: And where did people go to the bathroom?

Mr. KOHN: People, again, they had either a common lavatory inside the tenement, but very frequently, some of the older ones, you still had - it was very common to have outdoor latrines out in the back.

And so, on the one hand, New York in 1896, it's really this transitional city. I mean, it is this highly urbanized, industrial part of the United States, you know, unlike anything else in North America, but, you know, so many parts of it, you still have people, you know, raising pigs and chickens in the backyards. You still have latrines. You still have - people don't have access to, you know, running water, let alone bathtubs and showers.

And it's exactly I think because of this, you know, rapid immigration, urbanization, industrialization. New York is on the cusp of a new century, on cusp of this, you know, massive change, and people like immigrant laborers living in tenements, you know, they really kind of fall through the cracks of what's taking place.

DAVIES: One more question: How did people bathe?

Mr. KOHN: You got a bucket from the common spigot outside, and you brought it upstairs, and you had the family sit around it, and you dipped a rag in, and that was a bath. I mean, you didn't actually sit in a bathtub. That's just an incredible luxury that only people of, you know, Theodore Roosevelt's ilk living in Gramercy Park could enjoy.

DAVIES: So the heat wave begins Tuesday, August 4th, lasts for 10 days. Give us a sense of the intensity of these conditions as compared to heat waves that people experience today.

Mr. KOHN: I mean, this past summer we've had quite a few heat waves, you know, three days, maybe five days. This was 10 days, 90 degrees at street level, 90 percent humidity, temperatures not even dropping at night. Sometimes the temperatures don't even drop below 90 degrees until well into the evening. No wind, so at night there's just absolutely no relief whatsoever.

And, you know, the official temperature sometimes says, well, it's 89, 90 degrees, but New Yorkers are going by the Herald Square thermometer in Herald Square, and the temperature is well into the 90s, close to 100, well over 100 in the sun every single day, 10 days straight.

DAVIES: And what are some of the things that happened to people living through that kind of heat and humidity in these conditions?

Mr. KOHN: I mean, one of the simplest things that the New York City government could have done was to lift the ban on sleeping in parks during the night. So people could have gone to Central Park and tried to get a, you know, breath of fresh air.

The city government didn't do that, and so one of the things that people did was they took to the rooftops, and they took to the fire escapes, trying to catch a breath of fresh air. And inevitably, somebody would fall asleep or get drunk, roll off the top of a five-story tenement, crash into the courtyard below and be killed.

You'd have children who would go to sleep on fire escapes and would fall off and break their legs or be killed. People would go down to the piers on the East River and try to sleep there, out in the open, and would roll into the river and drown.

And so, certainly, it's not just people dying of heat stroke. There are all these other kind of bizarre ways that people, you know, meet death during the heat wave.

DAVIES: At the most basic level, physically what would happen to people when they endure these conditions day after day?

Mr. KOHN: Literally, their body starts breaking down. Your internal organs start shutting down one by one. And some of the manifestations of it are, you know, extreme headaches, extreme dehydration. There are stories of people just, you know, trying to drink gallons and gallons of water, trying to rehydrate themselves and stop feeling so thirsty, but by that time, they're so far into the heat stroke that there's really nothing to be done for them.

The only things, the cures that they had was basically if you could get yourself to Bellevue Hospital, even though there was a shortage of ambulances to get you there, doctors could put you into an ice bath, wrap ice around your head and try to quickly lower your temperature.

But it's amazing that some of the doctors' reports and coroners' reports of the victims of the heat wave, when they measured the body temperature of the victims, their body temperature was registered at the time of death at 109 degrees, 110 degrees, even 111 degrees. And the human body is just not meant to live like that.

So to preserve itself, one by one, your body organs start shutting down until you die.


DAVIES: You tell us that the mayor, William Strong, did almost nothing about the heat wave. Tell us what they should have done and whether they learned anything.

Mr. KOHN: Yeah, on the one hand, you know, this is obviously, it's before the progressive era. It's decades before the New Deal, a long time before Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. You know, there is no social safety net. This is complete laissez-faire government.

Again, the United States is three years into a terrible depression, and all during those three years, every level of government - federal, state, city -people are - government officials are constantly saying, well, of course it's not government's job to help the poor, to give food to the hungry.

So on the one hand, it's hard to really fault the mayor and the city for not doing more because that's simply just not in the lexicon of Americans at the time.

But I think there were simple things that could have been done. The first one, as I mentioned, you know, lift the ban on sleeping in parks. How many thousands, tens of thousands of people, might have gotten a good night's rest and maybe had their bodies cool down a little bit if you had thrown open Central Park to people to sleep?

Another thing that was done by the commissioner of public works, the guy responsible for, you know, fixing the streets, he experimented a couple times with changing the work hours for his men to make sure that they weren't out there working in the, you know, the heat of the midday sun.

Another thing that the commissioner of public works championed, the idea of flushing the streets, basically having gangs of men going around with hoses, hooking them up to hydrants and spraying the searing asphalt in the Lower East Side and then bringing the temperature of the entire neighborhood down by a few degrees.

DAVIES: There were thousands of horses in New York City at the time. How did they fare in the heat?

Mr. KOHN: Normally, even just during a normal day, you might have, you know, maybe a couple hundred horses drop dead on the streets. I mean, they just were pulling overloaded trolleys, overloaded carts.

During the heat wave, thousands upon thousands of horses died. And if your horse died in the harness, what did you do? You just uncoupled your harness and moved your cart away, and you left the horse carcass there to rot in the street. The city does have an independent contractor that it pays each year to remove the horse carcasses, but there's just absolutely no way he can keep with just, you know, this terrible tragedy.

And so by the end of the heat wave, probably on every city block, there is a rotting, you know, festering horse carcass lying on, you know, the steaming asphalt, you know, just rotting in the sun, adding this real kind of flavor of pestilence and actually adding a whole new, you know, threat to the health crisis.

DAVIES: And how did the coroners of New York deal with the human loss of life?

Mr. KOHN: I mean, they were just completely overworked. It's really not that big of an office. And if a doctor, if you weren't in a doctor's care at the time of your death, you had to leave the body where it died, not move it, not bury it, and wait for a coroner to come and inspect the body and the circumstances of the death.

And this, during the heat wave, this meant that, you know, these several coroner's officers were crisscrossing the city during, you know, this terrible heat wave, climbing stairs to the tenements, trying to deal with this, you know, huge load, this caseload. And, you know, there were cases where the coroners' clerks became heat prostrated trying to keep up with filing all the death certificates during the heat wave.

At one point, near the end of the heat wave, the coroner actually asked the mayor if he could suspend the rule saying that, well, you can't move or, you know, get ready for the body to be interned until a coroner comes and checks the body because this would mean, you know, literally that a dead body in this heat might be sitting in a tenement, where the temperatures are 120 degrees, for two or three days before a coroner could finally catch up with the caseload and come to inspect the body.

DAVIES: You say that in this circumstance, ice, which was produced, was a precious, lifesaving commodity. Where did anybody get ice in 1896?

Mr. KOHN: Yeah, the ice is basically either harvested from rivers or from lakes, and it's stored, you know, it's packed in hay and straw, and so it's actually stored even, you know, to be distributed in August during heat waves.

And by 1896, this summer, something new has happened in New York City. An ice magnate by the name of Charles Morse, an ice baron, has come down from Maine, and he has actually consolidated about three-quarters of the independent ice companies into a single, consolidated ice company, basically an ice trust.

And so, long before the summer, people are already worried that he's going to jack up the price of ice, make it essentially a luxury for some of the poorest New Yorkers, and people will die as a result. And this is exactly what happened.

I mean, this is - there's no electric refrigeration. You had a tin-lined, zinc-lined wooden box, and you put a big chunk of ice inside it. That's how you keep food and milk from spoiling in such heat. Most New Yorkers, poor New Yorkers, simply can't afford it.

DAVIES: So when it was clear that the heat was serious and destructive and life-threatening, were there efforts made to make ice more readily available?

Mr. KOHN: Absolutely, and one of the - in a time when the city did virtually nothing, the mayor didn't even call an emergency meeting of his department heads until the last day, the 10th day of the heat wave, I do think that one of the heroes that emerges from this heat wave is Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. He is not the police chief. He is one of a four-man oversight committee of the police department to make sure that promotions and hiring and firings are based on merit and not on, you know, politics and who you know.

And he's only five years away from the White House. In many ways, this was a very innocuous position to hold. But he is the one who champions the idea of the city giving away free ice to the poorest people living on the Lower East Side, in the tenement districts.

And he personally supervises the distribution of ice. And I think one of the things that most impressed me was after the ice was distributed, Roosevelt took it upon himself to tour the back alleys of some of the worst tenement districts in the United States, in New York, to see how people were using the ice.

And so, Roosevelt witnessed firsthand how, you know, immigrant fathers would chip off a piece of ice, give it to their children to suck on. Mothers would wrap a piece of ice in a handkerchief and tie it around the heads of their sick children. And I can't think how many American presidents have had such intimate contact with the urban poor.

So absolutely, I think this is part of the making of Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive president that he'll become.

DAVIES: Now, he was - he's an interesting figure, of course. And he was born as a privileged New Yorker, had at that point run unsuccessfully for mayor, right? But someone who had long been interested in the difficulties of urban life and efforts at reform.

Mr. KOHN: Absolutely. I think this Western mythology of Roosevelt as somehow a cowboy and a man of the West is really misleading and overblown, that somehow really the source of his domestic policies and foreign policies as president derived from these couple years he spent on his Dakota cattle ranch.

Roosevelt was a New Yorker. He was born into one of the most wealthy New York, old knickerbocker, native-stock families. He was Harvard-educated, and he was an urban reformer. His origins are in urban, New York urban politics.

DAVIES: And did he become more popular? Was he recognized for his efforts in distributing ice?

Mr. KOHN: No, not really. I mean, this is, you know, really by the summer of 1896, Roosevelt's career in New York City is really at an end. He's not a very popular person. In his early years, he launched a crusade against having saloons open on Sundays, which made him very unpopular with Germans, with Irish, with a lot of the exact immigrant poor that he's trying to help with ice distribution.

And, you know, the people in the Lower East Side, they weren't going to be voting for a Republican Roosevelt, anyway.

By the summer of 1896, you know, Roosevelt is not doing the ice distribution to get votes. Really what he's doing is he's pinning his hopes on a McKinley victory that fall and a new position in Washington, D.C.

So this isn't something that, you know, it's not the making of Theodore Roosevelt in that it puts votes in his pockets and catapults him into the White House. I think it's the making of Theodore Roosevelt as that it helps make him the progressive and one of the dominant figures of the progressive era.

DAVIES: Well, Edward Kohn, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KOHN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Edward Kohn's book is called "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." You can read an excerpt at our website, I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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