Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town

Summer was pretty mild in my neck of the woods this year, but I’ve lived through enough scorchers to know how debilitating hot temperatures can be. Edward P. Kohn’s Hot Time in the Old Town: the Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt is an intense narration of a killer heat wave that tortured New York City for ten days in August 1896. By the time it lifted, an estimated 1300 people were dead, along with William Jennings Bryan’s shot at the presidency.

New York turned into an inferno on August 5th. When temperatures rose to 100-plus degrees, working men and horses dropped dead in the streets and tenement dwellers broiled in their badly ventilated apartments. At night suffering city dwellers clustered on rooftops and along the piers, trying to suck cooler air into their overheated lungs. Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt stepped in where city officials would not, hosing down the reeking streets to lower the temperatures and raise the sanitation levels, and campaigning to provide free life-saving ice to the poor.

Small boys cooling their heads in a public fountain
Horses being cooled off in summertime New York

As this fight for life reached its zenith, William Jennings Bryan, populist from Nebraska and Democratic presidential nominee, came into town to convince the citizens of New York that they should elect him instead of Republican candidate William McKinley. But he was so wilted by a long, hot train trip across the country that he read his Madison Square Garden speech from a paper instead of giving the same type of oratory fireworks that secured him the Democratic nomination in the first place. The heat also proved too oppressive for his audience, which left in droves.

Edward Kohn takes a well-rounded approach to this history of a forgotten natural disaster. His descriptions of a city under siege are unsettling in their specificity. He uses statistics when warranted, but prefers to put a human face on the disaster. We could forget a label like ‘victim number one’ but not the story of fifteen-month old Hyman Goldman, who had arrived with his parents from Russia nine months before and died from "exhaustion" on the heat wave's first day. Another tiny victim, Annie Botchkiss was born on August 6 in a rear tenement, and succumbed to the heat only five days later.

On the surface, a book that combines a killer heat wave and an electoral contest appears to be trying to mix literary apples with oranges. But Edward Kohn proves that not even a presidential candidate was immune to the heat’s negative impact.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Death of an Overseer

While browsing the true crime offerings in the Sony e-book store, I discovered an Oxford University Press publication titled Death of an Overseer. The synopsis described it as a cultural and sociological re-interpretation of an 1857 murder in Adams County, Mississippi. I enjoy crime books that aren’t limited to a basic narrative so I bought it, despite its unusually high price for an e-book.

In May 1857 the battered corpse of Duncan Skinner, an overseer on a plantation owned by wealthy widow Clarissa Sharpe, was found in a wooded area near the estate. The original investigators concluded that he’d been killed by an accidental fall from his horse, but the dead man’s brother and other sceptical locals dug deeper and found evidence of murder. Three of Mrs. Sharpe’s slaves confessed to killing Skinner, whose harsh treatment of them was notorious, and were hanged after a brief and sensational trial.

Many Adams County residents believed that a fourth party should have joined them on the gallows: a white Irish laborer named John McCallin. During the investigation, several plantation slaves claimed that McCallin had actively incited the murder by telling them that if Skinner were dead, his way would be free to marry Clarissa Sharpe and give them all “better times.” But in 1857 Mississippi law forbade blacks from testifying against whites, and McCallin escaped arrest. He did not go unpunished, however: the plantation aristocrats ordered him out of the community. His intention to marry a social superior seemed to anger them more than his alleged crime.

Author Michael Wayne, a professor of American history, questions McCallin’s guilt. He analyzes the customs and prejudices of the antebellum South as well as the crime and its racially-biased investigation, and concludes that the Irishman may have been a scapegoat. This approach makes Death of an Overseer a detective story in some parts, a history and sociology lesson in others.

I was pleased to see that Wayne reproduced most of his primary sources verbatim and showed in painstaking detail how and why he reached a particular conclusion. He freely admits that the evidence is open to alternative interpretations and encourages the reader to play armchair detective by placing his voluminous research material at their disposal. (The book’s website at actively solicits new evidence and alternative theories.) This approach is a refreshing respite from the slew of authors who sprout fangs and claws when their ‘definitive’ accounts are questioned.