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.

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