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The Catastrophic Heat Wave that Devastated Gilded Age New York

by Edward P. Kohn

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-465-01336-4
Publisher: Basic

How a brutal 1896 heat wave may have helped bring about an era of progressive politics.

During ten days in August 1896, New York City experienced unprecedented temperatures combined with extremely high humidity. In this solid history, Kohn (American Culture and Literature/Bilkent Univ.; This Kindred People, 2005) makes good use of vivid details. Hundreds of horses collapsed and expired in the streets, their corpses festering in the sun for days as the municipal infrastructure was overwhelmed. Dogs went mad and were shot. People all over the city suffered from dehydration and heat prostration. Nearly 1,500 died, and, the author writes, a disproportionate number of the victims were poor. Living and working conditions for New York’s lower classes were horrific. Those lucky enough to have jobs often worked extremely long hours, had inadequate food and medical care and lived in unsanitary rooming houses in which the indoor temperatures reached unbearable levels. Municipal officials—including Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners—were simply unprepared to help these unfortunates, who had long been ignored by their government. The crisis even affected presidential politics. William Jennings Bryan, the colorful Democratic candidate, visited the city that week and was so adversely affected by the heat that his campaign speech bombed. Republican William McKinley would later win the election, and Roosevelt would ascend to the presidency in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination. Roosevelt was deeply affected by the human suffering he observed during the heat wave, Kohn writes, speculating that it may have informed his progressive policies as president. The author paints an impressively multifaceted portrait of Gilded Age New York, and while the narrative occasionally dwells too long on national politics, the sections that deal directly with the plight of the working poor are riveting.

Vivid history of a forgotten urban crisis.