There’ll be girls for ev’ry body in that good, good old town,

For dere’s Miss Consola Davis an dere’s Miss Gondolia Brown;

And dere’s Miss Johanna Beasly she am dressed all in red,

I just hugged her and I kissed her and to me then she said

Please oh, please, Oh, do not let me fall,

You’re all mine and I love you best of all,

And you must be my man, or I’ll have no man at all,

There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight, my baby.

ROOSEVELT REMAINED IN North Dakota for the remainder of August and early September. Even while hunting and camping, the police commissioner continued to do good work for the party. While he was away, Roosevelt’s article on the American vice presidency appeared in the journal Review of Reviews. While giving an overview of the history of the office, and pointing out the absurdity of Bryan running with two vice presidential nominees, one a Democrat and one a Populist, Roosevelt used the article to excoriate Bryan and Tom Watson. Roosevelt called Bryan a “sham and a compromise,” as he represented a middle ground in the “Popocrat” coalition. Watson, however, Roosevelt viewed as truly destructive. “Mr. Watson would be a more startling, more attractive, and more dangerous figure,” Roosevelt wrote, “for if he got the chance he would lash the nation with a whip of scorpions, while Mr. Bryan would be content with the torture of ordinary thongs.” The article prompted Watson to write to Roosevelt directly, objecting to its “trenchant” tone. Roosevelt apparently did not reply, although he showed the “really very interesting letter” to his friend Lodge.

In North Dakota, as always, politics was never far from Roosevelt’s mind. He talked politics with his cowboy friends, and during his return trip he stopped at the Republican headquarters in Chicago. On September 11, only one day after returning, Roosevelt gave a speech in New York attacking free silver and accusing the Democrats of menacing the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Within a week he and Lodge were campaigning throughout upstate New York, seeking to counter the influence of Bryan, who had just swung through the area on his way back to Lincoln. Roosevelt called the trip “very successful and pleasant.” Mark Hanna apparently agreed, as he subsequently sent Roosevelt on a trip west through Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, which also copied Bryan’s path through those states. Hanna saw Roosevelt, an easterner familiar to those in the West, as a perfect foil to Bryan’s influence, foreshadowing Roosevelt’s role as vice presidential candidate during the 1900 election.

After their campaign trip through New York state, Lodge and Roosevelt took a rather large detour to “drop in” on William McKinley in Canton. For Lodge, safe in his Senate seat for the next thirty years, this was perhaps little more than a courtesy call on the Republican Party leader and next president of the United States. It also served to soothe some bruised feelings, as both Lodge and Roosevelt had supported another candidate over McKinley’s ascension to Speaker of the House in 1890 and had opposed McKinley’s nomination in June. For Roosevelt, the visit, like his many visits to Hanna in New York and his speaking tours for the party, served a more important purpose: to permit him to leave his position as police commissioner and take up a new post in a McKinley administration.

Even with his service to the party that fall, securing Roosevelt a Washington post took some cajoling by his friends. The main obstacle appeared to be McKinley himself. He feared that Roosevelt was something of a hothead with an independent streak who might possess, in Lodge’s own summary of McKinley’s feelings, “preconceived plans which he would wish to drive through the moment he got in.” Roosevelt had gotten a bad reputation. It had cost him the position of assistant secretary of state in 1884, had roused the animosity of Boss Platt and New York machine Republicans, and had almost pushed him out of his job as president of the Board of Police Commissioners. Acting as an independent reformer had helped Roosevelt as a New York assemblyman and secured him appointed posts in the small field of government oversight in Washington and New York City. It was not the strongest or broadest foundation for a higher political office, however.

After spending only three days at home in Lincoln, Bryan left for the longest of his campaign trips, this time leaving his wife at home. Mary was still a mother first, a candidate’s wife second, and she insisted on staying at home as the children began a new term of school that fall. The candidate acknowledged his wife’s value to him and to the campaign. “I had found her a great aid in my travels because she could assist in meeting the reception committees,” he later wrote, “and thus give me more rest between stations. And then, too, she was able to insist upon more reasonable hours and greater freedom from interruption than I was able to do.” Absent from Bryan’s evaluation were his wife’s charm, grace, and popularity on the campaign trail and the kind words reserved for her even by the most hostile presses of the East. If in 1896 Bryan revolutionized the American presidential campaign by barnstorming around the country, giving speeches in scores of towns to tens of thousands of citizens, Mary Bryan revolutionized the role of the candidate’s wife. She shook hands, gave receptions, and spoke to the press, all the while smiling as the umpteenth person of the day squeezed her bruised hand.

Bryan’s autumn trip took him through the Upper South, through Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, before arriving in Washington, DC. After a side trip to Baltimore, Bryan headed once again toward the Northeast, traveling to Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. At Yale University, constant catcalls and shouts of “McKinley” interrupted Bryan’s speech. Bryan traveled to Boston and farther into New England before returning to New York City.

On September 29, Bryan stopped in Manhattan to give a speech in Tammany Hall, which was so packed with spectators and so poorly ventilated that the candidate almost collapsed. A later speech had to be canceled. Once again, New York had not treated the Nebraskan very well. In his short speech he made no mention of his previous visit to New York that sultry August. Before leaving, he visited the Bryan and Sewall Campaign Club, which, according to a July telegram, had been established with a membership of 635. Bryan claimed that this club “became a powerful influence in the campaign” under the direction of Congressman William Sulzer. Then where had its 635 members been in August when Bryan visited the city? Why had they not welcomed the Bryans when their boat ferried them across the Hudson from New Jersey or when they arrived at the home of William St. John? In later years the very value of such clubs was to facilitate mobilization of large crowds for campaign events. Either Sulzer and St. John had no communication concerning the August Bryan visit, or this simply reflected another display of political ignorance by St. John.

From New York Bryan made a 570-mile trip to West Virginia, before heading to the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Michigan, exactly the states where Mark Hanna hoped Theodore Roosevelt would counteract the Democratic candidate’s influence. It worked, as on election day Bryan lost the states where Roosevelt campaigned. A large sweep through the Midwest completed the 18,000 miles Bryan traveled during the campaign. With the Northeast almost certainly lost to McKinley, the Bryan campaign pinned its hopes on success in the key states of Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But the enormity of Bryan’s New York failure allowed Mark Hanna to firmly shift the Republican focus to the midwestern battleground states. Of the eight states he passed through on his 1,000-mile train journey from Lincoln to New York City, Bryan lost all except his home state. Almost three months before Americans cast their votes, Bryan had lost the election on August 12, the night of the Madison Square Garden speech. Election night found the candidate in bed, as Mary brought him the state-by-state results. By eleven o’clock the results were decisive. Bryan acknowledged his defeat and sent McKinley a congratulatory telegram.

Almost immediately Bryan began planning to secure the Democratic nomination in 1900. His strategy was twofold: give a series of lectures throughout the country while publishing a memoir of the 1896 campaign. Both efforts were meant to keep positioning the silver question as a burning issue of the day. The sales of the campaign memoir, The First Battle, would eventually hit 200,000. Unwilling to compromise on bimetallism, Bryan refused to welcome back into the party the Gold Democrats who had bolted in 1896. “The gold Democrats, if they come back to the Democratic party,” Bryan stated, “must come as silver men. There is no room for two Republican parties in this country.” In other words, the Gold Democrats were no more than a wing of the Republican Party. Apparently there was room for two Democratic parties, as Bryan rejected the reunion of the silver and gold Democrats. Through 1897 Bryan succeeded in keeping himself and the silver issue in the public eye. He had no way of knowing that a “splendid little war” in the Caribbean would change the course of the 1900 election, his career, and the career of Theodore Roosevelt.

McKinley’s election that November made Roosevelt’s future no less uncertain. Roosevelt had served the party well and selflessly. The vast swath of middle and southern states predictably went to Bryan, all except for North Dakota, practically Roosevelt’s second home. December brought even more doubt as the New York state legislature began proceedings to appoint a new U.S. Senator. A Republican legislature meant a Republican senator, and there were only two serious candidates: Joseph Choate, the old Roosevelt family friend and political adviser, and the boss of the Republican machine himself, Thomas Platt. Nicknamed “Easy Boss” because he was always pleasant and courteous (even when getting ready to stab you in the back), Platt was almost assured of a seat in the Senate. Would this constitute for Roosevelt yet another obstacle to a Washington post?

Showing again his political savvy and ability to compromise, Roosevelt requested a meeting with Platt and turned down requests to speak on Choate’s behalf. Still, months went by without a word from the president-elect or his man Hanna. Inauguration Day came and went, and on the Police Board, Commissioner Frederick Grant now allied himself with Parker. With the main oversight body of the police force so publicly hamstrung, discipline in the ranks began to break down. Despite Roosevelt’s efforts to build a professional force in the city of his birth, his feud with Parker almost destroyed what he had created.

Finally, in early April came word that Roosevelt had been named assistant secretary of the navy. Platt had apparently been convinced that Roosevelt would do less harm in Washington than in New York. Such reasoning would be repeated in 1900, when Governor Roosevelt was being considered for a spot on the ticket with McKinley. Just as he had with the New York police, as assistant secretary of the navy he endeavored to bring modernity and professionalism to the Navy Department. With the hypochondriac secretary frequently out of the office, Roosevelt was left in charge to make purchases and give orders. This included his famous order to Commodore George Dewey to ready the Pacific squadron to attack the Spanish Philippines in case of war.

When war came in April 1898, Roosevelt’s friends urged him to stay on as assistant secretary. In a war in which naval battles were sure to figure prominently, they reasoned, what better way to serve your country—and what better path to advancement—could there be than a senior post in the Navy Department? Roosevelt disagreed. Perhaps haunted by the memory of his father’s having paid for a replacement during the Civil War, and infused by Victorian ideas of manhood, sacrifice, and citizenship, he resigned and became lieutenant colonel of the First American Cavalry, later nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” The regiment adopted the popular “Hot Time in the Old Town” as its song.

After a short spell of training in Texas, and a disorderly disembarkation in Florida, the Rough Riders gave up their horses—there was no room on the inadequate transports—and stepped ashore Cuba as infantrymen. Officers like Roosevelt, however, kept their horses, allowing Frederic Remington to later paint the iconic picture of Roosevelt on horseback, six-shooter in his hand, leading his men up the heights outside Santiago. It was the battle that won the war and the image that placed him in the New York governor’s mansion in 1899 and the White House in 1901.

Just as Roosevelt’s friends begged him to stay in office and avoid active service in 1898, Bryan’s supporters made the same entreaties to the Boy Orator of the Platte. One Bryan biographer comments on such “unsolicited advice” in terms that equally apply to Roosevelt: “Bryan possessed a tough self-sufficiency in making decisions, and he was not one to anguish over them or to seek out the opinions of others.” Just as Roosevelt had, Bryan offered his services to his country. Bryan, however, acted a bit late. With two Nebraska volunteer regiments already organized and shipped out, in May the Nebraska governor belatedly authorized the raising of a third regiment, with Bryan as colonel. Time was slipping away, however, as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders had already arrived in their Texas training camp. Not until July 13 was Bryan officially inducted into the army as a colonel. The pivotal Battle of San Juan had been fought two weeks earlier, on July 1, with Roosevelt’s regiment taking the heights above Santiago. On July 18, Bryan’s regiment of volunteers departed Nebraska for the Florida coast. The day before, the Stars and Stripes had already been raised above Santiago as Spanish troops began their withdrawal from Cuba. By the time Bryan’s train pulled into Jacksonville, Florida, on July 22, the war was over.

The Spanish-American War marked the moment when Bryan and Roosevelt began to battle each other directly. The war marked their divergence on an issue beyond the monetary supply. With the annexation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain as part of the 1899 peace treaty, imperialism suddenly overtook silver as the key issue of the 1900 election. Bryan led the anti-imperialists, although with the American empire already a fait accompli, Bryan’s opposition placed him in an awkward position. Not only did he appear out of touch with mainstream America, but he had actually supported the signing of the peace treaty when it came before the Senate in early 1899.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, had been consistent in his calling for an American empire, given the orders to Dewey to destroy the Spanish Pacific Fleet in the Philippines, and played a decisive role in driving the Spanish out of Cuba. In addition to the income from his best-selling memoir of the war, The Rough Riders, his reward was his election as New York governor and a place with McKinley on the Republican presidential ticket for 1900. Following Bryan’s path across the country, Roosevelt often appeared on the speaker’s dais flanked by the uniformed Rough Riders he had commanded during the war. The results of the 1900 election were more lopsided than those of 1896, with the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket even winning Bryan’s home state of Nebraska. Roosevelt successfully sought reelection in 1904, using “Hot Time in the Old Town” as a campaign song.

Aside from the 1900 election, Bryan and Roosevelt came closest to outright opposition to one another in their differing stances regarding American involvement in the Great War. After deciding not to seek reelection in 1908, Roosevelt passed the mantle of the presidency to his friend William Howard Taft. But he soon became unhappy that Taft seemed to be cozying up to the conservative wing of the Republican Party and undoing Roosevelt’s progressive legacy. Roosevelt challenged Taft for the party’s nomination in 1912. Splitting the Republicans in this manner allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected, with the pacifist William Jennings Bryan as his secretary of state.

With the outbreak of the European war in 1914, Roosevelt railed against the “Too Proud to Fight” philosophy of the Wilson administration and called instead for universal military training as part of an American “Preparedness” campaign. After the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, Wilson sent Germany an ultimatum to end its submarine attacks on civilians or risk war with the United States. In protest, Bryan resigned, a move characterized as treason by many Americans. With America’s entrance into the war, Roosevelt, nearly sixty years old, volunteered to raise an entire division of Rough Riders to fight in France. Wilson declined the offer. Instead, Roosevelt sent all of his sons to fight in Europe. His youngest son, Quentin, died when his plane was shot down.

At the end of the war there was some speculation that Roosevelt might successfully run again for president in 1920, although even Republican friends like Henry Cabot Lodge never forgave him for splitting the party in 1912. The election was still far off when Roosevelt’s heart stopped beating in January 1919.

Only eighteen months younger than Roosevelt, Bryan lived for another six years. Most Americans today perhaps still know him best for his role in the 1925 “Great Monkey Trial” in Tennessee. Dayton schoolteacher John Scopes, like Bryan a native of Salem, Illinois, was arrested for teaching evolution to his high school biology class, a violation of a recent state law banning the theory’s teaching. The great Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow agreed to defend Scopes, and Bryan agreed to lead the teacher’s prosecution.

The trial took place during a wilting July heat wave that looked very much like that of August 1896: It covered much of the country, taking victims from St. Louis to New York City. During court proceedings, as Bryan attempted to recall his feats of oratory from earlier days, his face grew flushed. He continually waved a palm-leaf fan and took long swigs from a jug of ice water. Ten days into the trial Darrow called Bryan to the stand for a withering cross-examination, repeatedly getting Bryan to admit his belief in a literal reading of the Bible. As Bryan’s answers drew laughter from the great crowd assembled, Bryan jumped to his feet and accused Darrow of trying to slur the Bible. His hands shook, his shoulders slumped from exhaustion, and sweat poured down his face. The next day, July 21, the court ordered Scopes to pay a $100 fine. On July 26, the Sabbath, William Jennings Bryan failed to wake from a nap following his noonday dinner.

Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, who examined Bryan at regular intervals for over a decade prior to his death that July, attributed the Great Commoner’s death in part to diabetes, but “with the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes Trial.” As so many New York laborers had done during the 1896 heat wave, Bryan had worked himself to death.

When you hear dem a bells go ding, ling ling,

All join ’round

And sweetly you must sing, and when the verse am through,

In the chorus all join in,

There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.


EVEN AFTER THE catastrophe of August 1896, heat waves continued to strike New York City, with severe spells taking many victims in 1899 and 1900. Lessons from the 1896 heat wave seemed limited and short-lived, however. Flushing the streets continued for several years. The city did not, however, adopt a policy of giving away free ice to the poor until 1919, over twenty years after Roosevelt had pioneered the scheme. During a 1905 heat wave, the city again opened its parks to sleepers. “The free public baths were kept open all night during the extraordinary torrid season of 1896,” Commissioner Collis wrote in his annual report for the Department of Public Works, “and should be, under similar circumstances, in the future.” This does not appear to have happened, and slowly the new indoor public baths replaced the floating baths of the city’s rivers.

Today, heat remains the most deadly natural killer in the United States, on average killing more Americans than floods, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes combined. Cities and local authorities have developed a number of responses to heat-wave crises, including automatic “Heat-Wave Response” plans, cooling centers, and door-to-door checks on the elderly. Heat disasters still strike with horrific consequences. The Chicago heat wave of 1995 killed over 700 people. Moreover, the European heat wave of 2003 contributed to an estimated 52,000 deaths, 15,000 in France alone. While the 1896 New York heat wave and modern heat waves seem to have little in common, in reality they occur for similar reasons: heat sources in the city, pollution that traps the heat, asphalt and cement architecture that traps and reflects heat, and the lack of parks and shade. Even such modern entities that should mitigate heat-wave fatalities, such as the social safety net and air conditioners, regularly fail, as government officials do nothing or electric grids break down. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the number of heat-related fatalities could double in less than twenty years. Until governments, media, and average citizens understand that heat waves, while less dramatic, constitute as great or even greater a threat to human life than other kinds of natural disasters, people will continue to die from heat by the thousands.

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