Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Teddy Roosevelt

From National Public Radio, August 11, 2010:
"The Heated Term"
On August 15, 1896, while preparing to depart for a three-week vacation out west, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna, whom he called his Darling Bye. "We've had two excitements in New York the past week; the heated term, and Bryan's big meeting," he wrote. "The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses, and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence, and we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts." Roosevelt, then 37 and president of New York's Board of Police Commissioners, was describing one of the most historic weeks in the city's history....
During the summer of 1896, a 10-day heat wave killed nearly 1,500 people, many of them tenement-dwellers, across New York City. Many thousands of people were crammed into tenements on the Lower East Side, with no air conditioning, little circulating air and no running water. Families were packed together -- with five to six people sharing a single room. Extra space on the floor was rented out to single men -- many of whom worked six days a week doing manual labor out in the sun.

"It was so densely packed that most people couldn't even live inside the tenement itself," says Ed Kohn, a professor of American history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. "The streets in front of tenements, and the rooftops and the fire escapes were ... filled with people all of the time because there was no room for everybody to fit inside."
Kohn is the author of Hot Time in the Old Town, which chronicles the fatal heat wave.

"This was 10 days [with temperatures reaching] 90 degrees at street level and 90 percent humidity, with temperatures not even dropping at night," Kohn says. "No wind -- so at night there was absolutely no relief whatsoever."

At the time, there was a citywide ban on sleeping in New York City's public parks. Kohn says one of the simplest things the city could have done was lift the ban -- giving people a place to sleep away from their squalid tenements, which might have prevented many of the deaths.

"They took to the rooftops, and they took to the fire escapes, trying to catch a breath of fresh air," he says. "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 fall off and break their legs or be killed. People [tried] to go down to the piers on the East River and sleep there, out in the open -- and would roll into the river and drown."....
...MUCH MORE, including audio, transcript, extended excerpt.