The heat wave that lingered over New York City in early August 1896 killed nearly 1,300 people in Manhattan alone. It is considered one of the worst natural disasters of the late 19th century and claimed more lives than even the Chicago Fire of 1871.
For 10 oppressive days, temperatures in New York City hovered in the high 90s, and when combined with the humidity created a heat index well above 100 degrees F. This might not sound all that serious in this age of air conditioning, but a century ago when the sun baked the brick tenements of New York City, interior temperatures reached as high as 120 F. Corpses of horses that died from the heat littered the streets, and near riots ensued at police precincts where ice was distributed. The staggering death count was coupled with a shortage of coffins.
It isn’t easy to blow the dust off of more than a century of history and make it relevant, but historian Edward P. Kohn has managed to do just that. Kohn humanizes the disaster’s victims, and one almost can feel the hopelessness of tenement dweller John Hughes, who climbed out on a parapet to catch a breeze and fell to his death.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 37-year-old president of NYC’s Board of Police Commissioners, witnessed the suffering first hand, and the misery he saw no doubt helped him formulate the progressive politics he later embraced.
One of the political victims was William Jennings Bryan, who had the misfortune of launching his national campaign during the horrific event. Five minutes into his speech at Madison Square Garden, more than half of the crowd had left because of the sweltering heat. As Kohn points out, in the blink of an eye, Bryan had all but lost the presidential race before even finishing his remarks.
© 2010 King Features Synd., Inc.