DURING THE SUMMER of 1896 Theodore Roosevelt fled Manhattan and his troublesome work as police commissioner as often as he could. As in his youth, the Roosevelt family summered on Long Island, offering him a needed reprieve from his public dispute with fellow commissioner Andrew Parker. The time at Sagamore Hill acted as a balm. Leaving on Sundays to return to his duties in the city must have caused him intense pain. He always remembered life there in the most idyllic of terms: the snow-covered woods during winters, the “blossom-spray of spring,” and the deep, leafy shades of summer, when he and Edith would spend entire days rowing out on Long Island Sound, sometimes accompanied by one of their boys and sometimes lunching on one of the small uninhabited islands. Perhaps these very images flashed through his mind during the train ride back to the city, giving him strength for the work ahead.
AFTER THE JULY Chicago convention, William and Mary Bryan had checked out of their hotel room and prepared to return to Nebraska. Adding up his expenses for the week, Bryan noted that he and Mary had spent less than one hundred dollars, “a sum probably as small as anyone spent in securing a Presidential nomination,” he would later write.
Thrift was of great importance to Bryan’s political persona. Bryan was sitting with his friend, journalist Willis Abbot, when a message arrived from a railroad company offering the Bryans use of a private Pullman car for their return trip to Nebraska. “Mr. Bryan,” Abbot said, “you should not accept this offer. You are the great commoner, the people’s candidate, and it would not do to accept favors from the great railroad corporations.” Bryan agreed with his friend, and the journalist helped popularize Bryan’s title as “The Great Commoner.”
Wherever the Democratic nominee went, crowds formed, and local officials convened great outdoor meetings. Bryan and his wife ventured to Salem, Illinois, then St. Louis and Kansas City, before heading back to Lincoln, Nebraska. Dark clouds and the threat of rain could not deter a huge crowd from welcoming home Lincoln’s favorite son, the man whose name now echoed across the country, from newspaper headlines to private letters. The crowd roared its approval and escorted him to the capitol building, where he spoke to the adoring hometown crowd. “I desire to express tonight our grateful appreciation of all the kindness that you have shown us,” Bryan proclaimed in his booming voice, “and to give you the assurance that if, by the suffrages of my countrymen, I am called to occupy, for a short space of time, the most honorable place in the gift of the people, I shall return to you. This shall be my home, and when earthly honors have passed away I shall mingle my ashes with the dust of our beloved State.” Although a touching sentiment, this promise would not be fulfilled. Upon his death in 1925 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Bryan’s trip west from Chicago—the cheering throngs, the speeches, the newspapermen hanging on his every word—must have made an impression on the candidate. It certainly did on his wife. “Our very house had altered its appearance,” Mary recalled of their return to Lincoln. “Streamers of bunting festooned it from porch to eaves; small boys sat in rows along the roof; the crowd which filled the front yard overflowed into the house; flowers and smilax decorated the crowded rooms. It was a symbolic atmosphere. The public had invaded our lives.” Yet it was an adoring public, a public that shared the Bryans’ rural origins and small-town values.
Bryan knew he had already won over the men and women of America’s prairies. The real battle would take place not among western farmers but among the bankers and industrialists of America’s cities. This was why Bryan wanted to give his opening campaign speech in New York, “believing,” he said, “that it would arouse the enthusiasm of our supporters to attack the enemy first in the stronghold of the gold sentiment.”
In late July, Bryan came to another controversial decision, one that would haunt him the remainder of his life. Bryan, the “Boy Orator,” author of the “Cross of Gold” speech, and one of America’s greatest public speakers, decided he would read his Madison Square Garden speech from a prepared text. In doing so, he would be following closely in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.
Just as the Civil War remained the great watershed by which late-nineteenth-century Americans measured the life of their nation, Abraham Lincoln remained the great American figure by which most Northerners measured their politicians and, indeed, their own lives. “When an ordinary man dreamed of the future of his son,” an historian wrote half a century ago, “he thought of Lincoln as embodying everything he wanted his own boy to be.” Lincoln influenced both William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt in profound ways. A civilian commissioner during the Civil War, Roosevelt’s father returned home to tell stories of taking rides through wartime Washington, DC, with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Not surprisingly, as an aspiring Republican politician Theodore Roosevelt often sought to cast himself as a latter-day Lincoln.
For William Jennings Bryan, born in Illinois, growing up about one hundred miles due south of Springfield and eventually destined to make his career in a town named for the sixteenth president, Lincoln’s legacy was everywhere. Like most young midwestern men, Bryan studied Lincoln and, after reading his biography, wrote, “He was ambitious and is the most humble statesman we have ever had. He had an eloquence which seemed born of inspiration. He spoke the truth and with it won the hearts of his hearers. . . . He is a good character study.” Humility and inspired eloquence were the very characteristics that made Bryan a national figure, a persona possibly modeled on his understanding of his idol.
Lincoln’s example may have played a part in Bryan’s decision to go to New York and give a career-changing speech. In early 1860, Lincoln had been little known outside of Illinois, having served only one term as congressman and losing his 1858 bid for a seat in the Senate. The ambitious Lincoln had an eye on the Republican nomination for 1860, so when a telegram came inviting him to come east and speak in New York, he jumped at the chance. On the evening of February 27, 1860, Lincoln spoke to about 1,500 New Yorkers at Cooper Union. He reached out to Southerners with a moderate hand and concluded by urging that same moderation on fellow Republicans. The speech was a resounding success that led to his nomination—and to the presidency.
Bryan’s goals for his Madison Square Garden speech were similar to Lincoln’s. Bryan hoped to quiet fears that he was a socialist or anarchist. As only a two-term congressman who had lost his own Senate bid in 1894, Bryan sought to present himself as a true national figure, and not just some rural populist. Perhaps most of all, the Garden speech would test whether, like Lincoln, Bryan’s own appeal could “extend from the podium to the page.” Bryan decided to eschew his customary extemporaneous delivery and read his speech from a page—after all, at Cooper Union Lincoln had read from a manuscript.
BY EARLY AUGUST obstacles to Bryan’s visit to New York were mounting. He faced significant defections from the party, most recently former Democratic congressman William Bourke Cockran. Originally elected in 1886, Cockran was a longtime Tammany man and in 1884 had even crossed swords with a young Roosevelt. Early that year Roosevelt had chaired the City Investigating Committee of the New York State Assembly, charged with looking into corruption in the city departments run by Tammany appointees. Cockran served as counsel to Sheriff Alexander Davidson, who ran the Ludlow Street jail like his personal fiefdom. During Roosevelt’s questioning of the sheriff, Cockran came to his client’s defense with pointed remarks directed at Roosevelt. Two years later, during the 1886 mayoral campaign, Cockran, by then a top aide to the new Tammany boss Richard Croker, helped convince Abram Hewitt to run as the candidate representing a united Democratic Party. Hewitt, with Cockran’s help, crushed Roosevelt at the polls.
As he toured Europe in the summer of 1896, Cockran had followed closely the news coming out of Chicago, as Bryan won his party’s nomination and the Democrats adopted the silver platform. By the time of his return to America on August 2, Cockran had been mulling over the consequences of the nomination for more than three weeks but stayed silent on the subject except to various fellow travelers. Now he was ready to talk.
Stepping off the American liner Paris, Cockran had immediately been set on by a reporter for the New York Sun. In his interview Cockran condemned Bryan and the silver platform in the strongest language possible.
Q. What is your opinion of the present political situation?
A. I regard it as the gravest in the history of the country, exceeding in importance the crisis of 1860. The secession movement was but an attempt to divide this country between two Governments, each of them designed to protect property within the limits of its jurisdiction. The movement launched at Chicago is an attempt to paralyze industry by using all the powers of Government to take property from the hands of those who created it and place it in the hands of those who covet it. This is a question of morals as well as of politics. No political convention can issue a valid license to commit offenses against morality, and I decline to follow Mr. Bryan in a crusade against honesty and the rights of labor.
Q. Do you mean to say that you will actively oppose the Democratic Party, or abstain from active support of it?
A. In a contest for the existence of civilization no man can remain neutral. Whoever does not support the forces of order aids the forces of disorder. If I can do anything to thwart a movement the success of which I would regard as an irreparable calamity not only to the country but to civilized society everywhere, I shall certainly do it. Q. What do you think of Tammany’s action in indorsing the ticket? A. I simply cannot understand it. . . .
Cockran would become one of the most powerful voices among Bryan’s opponents. Less than a week after Bryan would give his Madison Square Garden speech, Cockran would rebut Bryan at another Garden rally that Roosevelt would admiringly call “a phenomenon.” Clearly Bryan would have his work cut out for him, winning over skeptical Tammany and hostile New Yorkers.
NEWS OF THE MOST recent defection from the Democrats must have brought a smile to Mark Hanna’s face. With only three months to go until the election, Hanna appeared on the verge of achieving his longtime goal of placing William McKinley in the White House. Hanna was so identified with McKinley that after the latter’s June nomination, many pundits joked that it was really Hanna who had been named Republican candidate for president. Hanna was perhaps all of the things McKinley was not: brilliant, canny, and hyperaware of the dynamics of power. Cartoons often depicted a diminutive McKinley tied to, or in the pocket of, a giant-sized Hanna.
McKinley, on the other hand, had been rising steadily through the Republican ranks both in his native Ohio and on the national stage. He impressed people with his honesty, loyalty, and forthrightness. A Civil War veteran, McKinley had driven a wagon full of hot food and coffee into the thick of the fighting to bring relief to the troops at Antietam. Not only would this simple and courageous act result in a battlefield memorial commemorating the deed, but at the time it brought McKinley to the notice of his regimental commander, future president Rutherford B. Hayes. Serving with distinction throughout the war, McKinley left the army with the rank of brevet major, a title that would follow McKinley even into the presidency. Just as Roosevelt was often referred to as “Colonel,” an acknowledgment of his service in the Spanish-American War, a visitor to President McKinley’s office might announce, “I am here to see the Major.”
After the war McKinley studied law and joined a practice in Canton, Ohio. He soon began campaigning for Republican candidates, including his old commander, Hayes. McKinley was elected to Congress for the first time in 1876 and secured himself a place on the Ways and Means Committee. From this position McKinley would become one of the leading advocates of the protective tariff, which, until the silver question superseded it, was the burning political question of the day.
Hanna and McKinley had known each other for many years, and their paths frequently crossed both in Ohio political circles and also as Ohio delegates to the Republican national conventions in 1884 and 1888. But it was at the 1888 convention that Hanna began systematically to champion McKinley’s career. “For all these years I have been Major McKinley’s personal friend and admirer,” Hanna told a reporter. “Becoming convinced of the great and good qualities of his nature, of his devotion to principle and of his patriotic motives and feelings, and believing that I had some interest in helping to shape the affairs of my country, I contributed my best efforts to the organization which finally resulted in his nomination.”
Hanna was born in Ohio in 1837 to a Virginia Quaker and a Vermont Presbyterian. “So Scotch and Irish, the staid, determined Quaker and the rigid blood of the Puritan crossed in the child,” the Tribune observed after Hanna’s arrival in New York in August 1896. “The result is somehow apparent in the quiet, sturdy insistence of the man who is today wielding a President-making power.” Hanna worked as a clerk in his father’s wholesale grocery and provision business, taking the firm over after his father’s death in 1861. A few years later Hanna married Augusta Rhodes, daughter of an Ohio coal and iron tycoon, whose various interests Hanna reorganized as M. A. Hanna and Co. Having also inherited from his father a lake schooner used in the grocery business, Hanna began improving the shipbuilding side of the firm until he became the largest steel ship-builder on the Great Lakes as head of the firm Globe Iron Works Company. By 1896 the Ohio millionaire had diversified into oil, banking, city railways, and a controlling interest in the Cleveland Herald.
With Hanna’s backing, McKinley’s star began to rise. Even with all of his own noble characteristics, McKinley certainly benefited from Hanna’s support of American business interests. In 1889 Hanna had traveled to Washington to back McKinley in a failed bid to become Speaker of the House. Though this position would have meant much power over subsequent national legislation, the consolation prize that year of the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship served both men’s interests quite well. As chairman of the committee McKinley introduced the bill that would become the 1890 McKinley Tariff.
This was only the beginning of McKinley’s meteoric rise. Two years later McKinley became Ohio governor and, perhaps more importantly, permanent chairman of the national party convention, which was being held in Minneapolis that year. Although the Republican nominee, President Benjamin Harrison, lost to Grover Cleveland in 1892, McKinley emerged from the convention extremely popular and the party favorite for 1896.
Traditionally, potential presidential nominees did not attend the national conventions. Instead candidates for the nomination let their supporters speak for them in the convention halls and hotel corridors, while they stayed at home awaiting the news. Unlike Bryan, McKinley followed tradition and did not attend the convention in St. Louis that June. Hanna and other Ohio power brokers pressed the flesh and made deals in dimly lit rooms filled with blue cigar smoke. On June 18, the day of the convention vote, McKinley sat in his library in his Canton home, surrounded by a few associates and newspapermen. Out in the parlor a group of ladies attended to his wife. Upstairs in the hallway telegraph machines delivered the latest news from the convention hall, while Mrs. McKinley’s cousin Sam Saxton relayed messages from the telephone. When the men in the library heard over the wire that the Ohio delegation had nominated McKinley, they anxiously awaited news of the crowd’s reaction.
Fifteen minutes passed, then half an hour. Had the convention simply listened politely to McKinley’s nomination before moving on to another candidate? Perhaps the telephone was not working. McKinley lifted the receiver himself to find that someone had left the convention hall phone’s circuit open, and he heard for himself the ongoing pandemonium. A full half hour after his name had been put forward for the Republican candidacy for president, the hall still resounded with cheers. For these men of the late nineteenth century, including Civil War veterans, it was an eerie experience, listening to events unfold six hundred miles away. According to one of the men in the library with McKinley that day, it sounded “like a storm at sea with wild, fitful shrieks of wind.” McKinley easily won the nomination, and Mark Hanna received the congratulations of the delegates.
Hanna’s backing of McKinley had always represented his faith in the need for a sound American financial system based on the gold standard and a high tariff wall surrounding the United States. Now the McKinley campaign would face a worthy opponent in Bryan and have the opportunity to defeat the Populist forces of chaos and anarchy that so many business interests felt a Bryan presidency would herald.
The late nineteenth century had already witnessed the power of anarchy: the Chicago Haymarket bombing that killed eight policemen in 1886; the Homestead steel strike of 1892, which left sixteen dead and steel magnate Henry Frick wounded by an assassin; and the Pullman strike of 1894, which had left thirty-four dead. For men like Mark Hanna, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan, what lay behind the violence was not inequity in the workplace or frustration at the impoverishment of the worker. No, the forces of socialism, communism, and anarchism seemed to threaten the very Republic itself. A McKinley presidency would strike these forces a deathblow.
MONDAY, AUGUST 3, was not unusually hot for the time of year. This made Officer Wiebers’s suffering all the more peculiar. Assigned to keep order during cases brought before the judge at Jefferson Market Court, Wiebers perspired all through the day, barely making it to the end of the proceedings. True, Wiebers was a large man, tall and fairly stout, and tended to suffer during warm days. But the temperature inside the court was not at all exceptionally high. Still, by the end of the day Wiebers was close to collapse and had to be helped out of the courtroom.
Wiebers’s fellow court officers commented on his condition as they helped their nearly overcome comrade out of the chamber. Fetching some cold water, one of the other officers poured it over Wiebers’s head in an effort to revive the prostrated policeman. Opening his uniform to make his breathing easier, Wiebers’s fellow officers saw the cause of his suffering: He was wearing a heavy flannel shirt over an undershirt of homespun wool, nearly a quarter of an inch thick. The clothing was “suitable for an arctic campaign,” one man noted.
Once Wiebers was revived, the other court officers teased him. “Did you think it was Christmas?” “Has your best girl given you the cold shoulder?” “Are you training to be a jockey? You only need to sweat off about 200 pounds.”
Wiebers asked his partner, Mahoney, to send the other men away, and confided to his friend that all his summer underwear had been stolen from the clothesline in back of his home on West Twelfth Street. The thieves had even taken Wiebers’s much-prized sets of silk underwear sent to him by his cousin, an officer in the German army. Not having the money to replace the underwear, Wiebers had decided to try to make it to his next paycheck at the end of the month wearing his woolen winter underwear.
The other officers offered him their advice on how to recover the underwear. The recommendations ranged from the use of blood-hounds to trapping the thief by setting out even more underwear. “And mind you, sew them to the line,” Officer McGuckin advised. But they all stopped to listen as the most senior man present, Officer Carr, cleared his throat and prepared to speak. “I think,” he said slowly and with great deliberation, “that there can be no doubt that some dishonest persons took those things.”
Exasperated, Wiebers told the men, “I want the clothes, and if you fellows can’t help me, shut up.” With that he stood up and stormed out of the room. “It is a fact,” the court reporter from the Times observed, “and a rather curious fact, that no one suggested reporting the matter to the police.”
AFTER MORE THAN A year of trying to make the New York City police a serious crime-fighting organization, Theodore Roosevelt could not have been happy to read such a comical account of his men. Roosevelt had a good relationship with the newspapers, having befriended journalists like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. And early on, the press had given Roosevelt rave reviews as he made his midnight inspections around the city.
But now even the press had turned against Roosevelt and his police. The fight to close saloons on Sunday, the resulting Republican losses at the polls, and the shabby dispute with Parker on the police commission had soured the fourth estate on “the biggest man in New York,” as one Chicago paper had called him. Roosevelt was dangerously close to leaving the New York police department a laughingstock.
Always aware of the power of the press and public opinion, Roosevelt had made a great effort to explain his actions and motivations. When at the beginning of his Sunday Excise crusade the New York Sun had questioned why Roosevelt would act against public sentiment, Roosevelt had replied with a statement that began, “I do not deal with public sentiment. I deal with the law.” Roosevelt also pointed out that lax enforcement resulted in a system in which saloon keepers bribed policemen or hid behind political influence. For Roosevelt the problem was having a law “which is not strictly enforced, which certain people are allowed to violate with impunity for corrupt reasons, while other offenders who lack their political influence are mercilessly harassed. All our resources will be strained to prevent any such discrimination and to secure the equal punishment of all offenders.”
Equal enforcement of the law, and equal treatment of all citizens by the government, was a hallmark of Roosevelt’s thought. It underlay many of his beliefs about good government, the evils of the spoils system, the need for an American civil service based solely on merit, and police promotions based on meritorious service rather than political influence.
Years later in 1903, after becoming president, Roosevelt gave a speech at the New York State Fair in Syracuse that described what became known as the “Square Deal.” “We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less. Finally we must keep ever in mind that a republic such as ours can exist only by virtue of the orderly liberty which comes through equal domination of the law over all men alike, and through its administration in such resolute and fearless fashion as shall teach all that no man is above it all and no man below it.” “Orderly liberty which comes through equal domination of the law” might have been Roosevelt’s motto for his time on the police commission and his crusade against Sunday liquor selling.
Despite such good intentions and confidence in his crusade, Roosevelt’s actions had brought him only scorn. He now had little hope of career advancement in the city. Roosevelt had no choice but to make another trip on August 3 to visit one of the busiest men in New York, Mark Hanna. Roosevelt himself was only just back in the city after his weekend at Sagamore Hill. And Hanna’s suite at the Waldorf was hardly in the neighborhood of Roosevelt’s office on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan. Like many other Republicans and hopeful office seekers that day, Roosevelt made a special trip to pay tribute to the newest Republican kingmaker. While Roosevelt may not have liked money’s influence in American politics, Roosevelt understood the politics of power and working within the political apparatus. If this meant being a supplicant to a man like Mark Hanna, then so be it. And by the summer of 1896, Roosevelt and Hanna may not have been too far part in their ambitions. If nothing else, Roosevelt and Hanna shared an intense desire to secure McKinley’s election and Bryan’s defeat.
BRYAN’S NOMINATION AND HIS triumphant Midwestern tour en route back to Nebraska had sent a chill through Republican ranks at the end of July. Before the Democrats’ Chicago convention and the “Cross of Gold” speech, Republicans readied to wage war over the issue of the tariff. McKinley’s nomination was meant to affirm Republican support of the national tariff, the single most important issue in recent elections. For most Republicans and their allies in American business, the tariff issue seemed to be even more important in 1896, the third year of a depression. Bryan’s nomination had suddenly changed the rhetoric of the campaign. A fight over the gold standard was not the fight Hanna had been spoiling for, to say the least. With lame duck Democrat Grover Cleveland in the White House and his Democrats split by the silver issue, the Republican nomination had seemingly all but given the crown to McKinley. Mark Hanna even left for a summer vacation, certain that the real work would not begin until later that summer.
But Bryan’s nomination, although not a complete surprise, had immediately shifted the very language of the national contest. McKinley was no gold Republican and had even supported the backing of the dollar with silver earlier in his career. Instead, he was solely the author of the McKinley Tariff, and this was his only campaign theme. Bryan’s nomination now made silver, not the tariff, the burning issue of the campaign. McKinley was not Bryan’s natural foil. Indeed the Republican Party would have been hard pressed to find a pure “gold Republican” to counter either a silver Democrat or a Populist. In Bryan, McKinley faced both, and his candidacy now appeared, the Nation observed, as illogical “as a Methodist preacher would be in an election for Pope of Rome.”
McKinley was no longer a sure thing. Whole swaths of the country that Republicans had counted on seemed in doubt. After Bryan’s nomination, Republicans had to scramble to catch up. Hanna cut short his vacation and worked tirelessly to establish headquarters in Chicago and New York.
Now Hanna did his most important work of the campaign: raising money from the great New York financiers. The amount he raised was unprecedented. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and Morgan’s banking firm each gave the Republicans a contribution of $250,000. This $500,000 was larger than the entire Democratic Party’s campaign war chest for 1896. In the end corporate America would provide the bulk of the $3.5 million that Hanna would send out from the Republican National Committee, twice as much as the party raised for the 1892 election.
Money was not the only difference between the Bryan and McKinley campaigns. Bryan’s Madison Square Garden speech scheduled for the following week would touch off an unprecedented speaking campaign by a presidential candidate. By election day the nominee would travel some 18,000 miles, giving six hundred speeches in twenty-seven states to an estimated 5 million people.
McKinley, himself no great orator, stayed at home. Clearly he could not match the younger Bryan in energy or speaking skill, and trying would only damage his dignity. Except for a week’s vacation in August and three days given to nonpolitical speaking engagements scheduled before the nomination, from the day of his June nomination until the November election McKinley never left his home in Canton. Instead, the mountain came to McKinley.
McKinley’s visitors to Canton reflected a cross section of every American commercial, working, ethnic, and religious group. Hungarian-Americans came from Cleveland. Western railroad men made the two-thousand-mile pilgrimage. Hardware men, commercial travelers, and farmers’ associations crowded onto the McKinley front lawn. Laborers from Carnegie’s furnaces in Pittsburgh donned their best Sunday suits to make the trip. Where Confederate veterans of the Civil War had stood one day, black Republicans stood the next. On some Saturdays the trains arrived from morning until night, bringing as many as 30,000 people to Canton. McKinley spoke to them all.
Despite the seeming spontaneity of the various groups’ excursions to Canton, and the unaffected nature of McKinley’s reception, in reality the front-porch campaign was rigorously planned. In addition to raising money and arranging speakers, Hanna and the Republican National Committee spent a great deal of time and effort arranging these visits to McKinley. The railroads that supported the McKinley campaign with thousands of dollars of contributions also subsidized the trips to Canton with fares so low it was “cheaper than staying at home,” as one Cleveland paper noted.
Once the delegations stepped off the train at the Canton railroad station, a well-oiled reception machinery kicked in. Committees of greeters met the visitors, who were escorted to the McKinley home by uniformed squads of the mounted Canton troop. Bands played music as the parade passed through a town bedecked with American flags and red, white, and blue bunting. Townspeople cheered from the sidewalks. It was as if all of Canton had been transformed into some kind of political amusement park, a Republican Disneyland for 1896.
When the faithful finally reached their destination, the candidate came out of his house, mounted a chair, and addressed the crowd on his front lawn. Just as Hanna and other supporters had once been drawn to McKinley by his warmth and sincerity, now the mass of dusty and tired travelers forgot for a moment their weariness as they basked in the presence of the Republican presidential candidate. The addresses of the delegations and McKinley’s response seemed extemporaneous and from the heart, but in fact, just as everything else, they had been well planned. Spokesmen for the various groups were required to send advance copies of their remarks to be approved and even edited by McKinley. In turn, McKinley’s replies were carefully crafted, both to take account of the individual interests of the delegations and to speak to the larger nation beyond Canton. After all, newspapermen were now permanent fixtures around the McKinley home. A speech of welcome crafted specifically for, say, the St. Louis Methodists for McKinley, would be taken down and printed in hundreds of papers the following day.
As McKinley spoke from the porch, his elderly mother and his invalid wife often sat alongside. The front-porch campaign, then, had the added feature of framing McKinley not just as a politician but as a devoted family man. This sat particularly well with the women who visited Canton that summer and early fall. Although still without suffrage nationally, women had become a moral force in politics through groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. And the National American Woman Suffrage Association had had some success at the state level by the 1896 election: Wyoming entered the Union with women’s suffrage in the state constitution in 1890, and Utah followed in 1896. The issue, however, would not find a prominent place in the 1896 campaign.
Camped around the McKinley front porch, the newspapermen kept their ears pricked for the magic words “silver” and “gold.” By August 3, though, they had been largely disappointed, as had many of the sound-money advocates around the country. When asked about the silver question, McKinley would quickly change the subject to the tariff. This made Hanna’s New York fund-raising efforts more difficult, as the big financiers waited for McKinley to come out strongly in favor of the gold standard.
About a week before, when McKinley had made a rare trip off his front porch and out of Canton to address supporters in Pennsylvania, the candidate had made a passing reference to the issue. “Our currency today is good,” McKinley stated. “All of it is good as gold, and it is the unfaltering determination of the Republican Party to so keep and maintain it forever.” It was only a small mention of that magic word, but this, McKinley’s first public use of the word “gold” after his nomination, reverberated throughout the country and cheered the sound-money advocates. According to the Nation McKinley had uttered the word “in a somewhat furtive way . . . hastening to take a good pull at the tariff to steady his nerves.”
Yet a passing reference to gold was not enough. What people were really waiting for was McKinley’s official letter of acceptance of the nomination. This carefully crafted political statement by presidential nominees would eventually evolve into the acceptance speech at the national conventions, with Franklin Roosevelt delivering the first acceptance speech in 1932. McKinley’s letter would state the candidate’s official position on the money issue.
They would have to wait awhile yet. On August 3 the papers reported that McKinley was still working on his letter and that it would not be delivered for perhaps another three or four weeks. Meanwhile, Republican planners looked to kick off the official campaign with a mass meeting in Ohio on August 15, three days after Bryan’s speech at Madison Square Garden.
Even McKinley’s hometown was not safe from Bryan’s charismatic presence. It was expected that on his way to New York, Bryan would stop in Canton. The Democrats were making preparations for a grand reception at the railroad station to make a strong political statement of Bryan’s support even on McKinley’s home ground.
MEANWHILE, THE SILVER FORCES were finally staking out their territory in New York. William St. John, playing the role of treasurer for both the National Democratic and the National Silver Committees, opened his headquarters in the Bartholdi Hotel at Broadway and Twenty-Third Street on August 3.
St. John was a rare breed, a New Yorker and former banker who advocated bimetallism as the way for the number of dollars in circulation to keep pace with America’s growing population. St. John had chaired the National Silver Party’s convention in St. Louis at the end of July, and the delegates had consciously thrown in their lot with the Democrats by nominating Bryan and Sewall. Now occupying several large and luxurious rooms on the hotel’s second floor, St. John and his assistants readied for Bryan’s visit to New York.
Democrats across the country, however, continued to defect, and a third-party movement was growing, with sound-money Democrats expected in September to meet at an independent convention in Indianapolis. Many New York Democrats echoed William Bourke Cockran in questioning Tammany’s hasty endorsement of Bryan. Former mayor Abram Hewitt, who defeated Roosevelt for the office in 1886, called Tammany’s action “stupid, an extremely foolish thing.” Former New York governor Roswell P. Flower also called the endorsement stupid and foolish. When a reporter pressed him, asking if he also thought it was premature, the ex-governor brusquely replied, “I think ‘foolish’ and ‘stupid’ about cover the case.” Only weeks after his nomination, Bryan’s campaign was in serious trouble. His trip to New York would make or break his chances for election.
ALTHOUGH NO ONE REALIZED it at the time, the heat wave began on Tuesday, August 4.
Heat waves are not like other disasters. Heat kills slowly, over days. It does not leave marks on the victim’s body. Nor does it destroy buildings or leave any physical evidence of its destructive force. There is no single moment when a heat wave strikes, no specific time allowing survivors to recall the moment when it began.
Heat waves produce few dramatic photos or visual images like rubble and flames. Victims of heat can remain unaware that they are being slowly killed, suffocating alone in a closed, airless space. An assassin strikes quickly and flees, but heat lingers, remaining in the same room with its victim for days.
The city itself becomes an accomplice to heat’s murderous effects. Anyone who has ever lived in a city during extreme heat knows that cities bake their inhabitants in ways unknown to rural areas. In later years this would become known as the “urban heat island effect.”
In a 1967 article called “The Climate of Cities,” William Lowry noted the several factors that combine to elevate temperatures in cities. The concrete, brick, and stone of the buildings and the asphalt of the city’s streets can conduct heat three times faster than soil. Unlike the hills and trees of the countryside, urban walls, roofs, and streets act like a maze of reflectors, bouncing the heat back and forth between absorbing surfaces. Cities contain a variety of human-made heat sources, such as factories and furnaces. And ironically, the sanitary conditions provided by modern sewer systems can intensify a city’s heat. By draining water away, the heat energy that would have been used to evaporate the standing water instead heats the air. Finally, and particularly true for the late nineteenth century, city air contains high concentrations of particulate matter, such as dirt, ash, and soot, that act together to stop the outflow of heat. Cities are perhaps the ultimate greenhouses.
During heat waves, humidity is one of heat’s deadliest accomplices. When a person’s blood is heated above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a body can dissipate the heat in various ways, such as varying the rate of blood circulation, panting, and especially sweating. Sweating cools the body through evaporation, but high humidity retards evaporation, leaving the body unable to cool itself.
As body heat begins to rise, heat-related illnesses and disorders develop. A body’s temperature can rise to 106 degrees in ten or fifteen minutes, but it only takes a rise above 103 degrees to cause hyperthermia, more commonly known as heat stroke. Red, hot, and dry skin, a rapid pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and unconsciousness are all warning signs. If the body’s temperature is not immediately lowered, namely by placing the victim in a cool bath or shower, permanent disability or death can occur. Even survivors of heatstroke can suffer serious permanent damage, such as loss of independent function and organ failure.
The temperature a body feels when the effects of heat and humidity are combined would later be called the heat index. An 85-degree air temperature with 85 percent humidity will feel like 100 degrees. Small increases in either temperature or humidity will have dramatic effects on the heat index. Only a 5-degree temperature increase will produce a heat index of 118. A 90-degree air temperature with 90 percent humidity will feel like 122 degrees. A temperature of 94 degrees with 90 percent humidity feels like over 140 degrees. After only two days of exposure to temperatures like this, the body’s defenses start to break down, and heat prostration strikes.
This is what began to occur on Tuesday, as several people in Manhattan and Brooklyn were admitted to hospitals. Although the month began fairly mild, with the official high temperature on Saturday the first of August reaching only 71, temperatures now rose to the high 80s, accompanied by 90 percent humidity.
Based on the official temperatures recorded by the United States Weather Bureau that day, the high temperature for New York City was 87 degrees. With 90 percent humidity this created a heat index of nearly 110 degrees. Yet as would be noted by New Yorkers virtually every day of the heat wave, the official temperatures for the city were recorded high above street level, where a thermometer was free of much of the urban heat island effect and able to catch at least some small amount of breeze. Down on the street, thermometers regularly recorded temperatures ten degrees higher than the official record indicated, while temperatures inside the brick tenements of the Lower East Side easily reached 120 degrees. This would be the general condition for the next ten days.
The elderly are at great risk during heat waves, and they were the first victims in this case. Sixty-five-year-old Annie Kelly fell victim to the heat on the street not far from her home on West Twentieth Street and was taken to New York Hospital. Fifty-nine-year-old Patrick Murray was overcome on the Upper East Side and was taken to Flower Hospital at Sixty-Third Street. Lersen Present, sixty-three, suffered heat stroke downtown on East Broadway.
In addition to the elderly, New York’s many laborers risked serious injury by working and sweating all day in the sun. Even the healthiest could easily fall victim if undertaking strenuous labor during the heat wave. This was evidenced by an Italian worker named Rolis, who suffered heat stroke and was hospitalized. He was only twenty-two years old.
During the heat wave, heat prostrations became public knowledge when they occurred on the streets or were reported to the police. In addition, the New York coroner and the hospitals often provided information concerning victims of the heat. The extensive newspaper accounts of the heat wave and the lists of victims led previous writers to assert that perhaps 400 New Yorkers died during the heat wave, a number reached by adding up the total number of deaths as reported in the papers. Yet as the vast difference in number of deaths between the same periods in 1895 and 1896 indicates (see Appendix A), this total fails to account for about 1,000 extra deaths, including deaths that occurred in the days immediately after the heat wave.
In later years doctors and social scientists would go to great lengths to define exactly what constituted a “heat-related death.” They concluded that indicators of heat stroke leading to death went beyond simple physiological symptoms, such as dehydration, body temperature, and organ failure. Instead, officials and medical experts would consider both physiological and environmental factors in a heat-related death. An elderly man found dead in his chair without a mark on his body may or may not have been a victim of heat. But if he was found in a room with a temperature of 110 degrees during a heat wave, it can be safely concluded that heat was a contributing factor to his death. And if a young man who worked all day stoking a furnace in the basement of a factory fell ill inside his stifling, airless tenement, in this case, too, heat must have been a contributing factor.
A modern observer of the 1896 heat wave can do the same thing. Even though New York doctors or coroners failed to note “heat” as a cause of death in perhaps 1,000 cases, it is only logical to assume that the ten-day heat wave contributed in some way to these deaths among the very old and very young, the poor and sick, and laborers who could simply not afford to stop working.
According to the death certificates filed in Manhattan on August 4, the first victim of the heat wave may have been fifteen-month-old Hyman Goldman. Hyman had arrived from Russia with his family only nine months before. For three weeks the baby had been suffering from what doctors frequently referred to in the nineteenth century as “cholera infantium”—a common diarrhea suffered by children during summer months that often proved fatal. Already weakened by this affliction, Hyman had little reserve strength when the heat settled on his family’s tenement apartment at 55 Broome Street. According to the doctor the direct cause of his death was “Exhaustion.”
Over the next ten days doctors in Manhattan alone would fill out over 2,200 death certificates—almost double the number during the same period in 1895—using various euphemisms for describing victims of the heat. Many infant deaths were listed as caused by “Summer diarrhea” or “Convulsions,” while adults died from “Asthemia,” “Exhaustion,” “Thermic fever,” “Heatstroke,” “Sunstroke,” and “Insolation.” Little Irma O’Brien, only four months and eighteen days old, died later on August 4 from “Tubercular meningitis,” while the doctor listed as the indirect cause of death “Heat.”
Thursday, August 6, found the president of the Health Department, Charles Wilson, collecting statistics concerning the total death rate for New York in July, including the death rate from “diarrheal diseases.” Wilson evidently liked what he saw, as he put his results in a letter to Mayor Strong highlighting the drop in the death rate as a result of better sanitary conditions in the city. In an accompanying table, Wilson placed the total deaths and death rate for July for the years 1892 to 1896, along with the deaths and death rate just from diarrheal diseases. From 1892 to 1896, total deaths in July had dropped from 5,463 and a death rate of 38.37 per 1,000 to 4,238 and a death rate of 26.29. Deaths from diarrheal disease during July had dropped from 1,635 in 1892 down to 973 in 1896—during an economic depression and even as the population of the city was booming. As such diseases were most common in children—that ubiquitous “cholera infantium” on summertime death certificates—Wilson’s results illustrated how much better the children of the city were faring.
With the temperature climbing, Wilson’s euphoria was sadly out of touch with the disaster about to befall the city. “The remarkable decrease in the death-rate for July and in the death-rate from diarrheal diseases for the same period indicate improved sanitary conditions in this city,” Wilson proudly proclaimed. Wilson penned his remarks in a month that would witness hundreds of “excess” infant deaths from just the sort of diseases against which the Health Department president claimed such progress. Wilson would not send such a letter to the mayor again.
IN LINCOLN, far from the heat, Bryan took a break from receiving callers at his home on Tuesday to work on his Madison Square Garden acceptance speech.
Already expectations ran high. The Chicago Tribune expected the speech to be, according to its headline, “the Oratorical Effort of His Life.” With Bryan and his wife due to board the train to New York in only three days, time was running short. The train was scheduled to stop in every town along the route, with a longer overnight stop in Chicago the coming weekend. Once aboard the train, he would have little time for thoughtful reflection.
While his acceptance of the Democratic nomination in New York would mark the official beginning of the campaign, in fact the minute his foot left the Lincoln train station platform, the candidate would be in full campaign mode, giving a dozen speeches a day that would then speed across the telegraph wires and appear in newspapers the next morning. And with a heat wave already settling over the Plains and Midwest, causing deaths from St. Louis to Chicago, the trip east was destined to be hot, dusty, and exhausting. It was best to sit quietly in the cool of his home and prepare for the tough journey ahead—and the tougher audience awaiting him in New York.
Although barely a town compared to Manhattan in 1896, Lincoln was one of the fastest-growing cities west of the Mississippi. Home to both the state capital and the state university, it was an important railroad center and metropolitan hub of an agricultural hinterland. More than just a sleepy prairie town with farmers in dusty overalls taking their produce to market, Lincoln had an industrial and commercial flavor as well, provided by banks, newspapers, factories, and paper mills. Bryan’s own occupation reflected this, although his law practice of Talbot and Bryan did not keep pace with the increasingly affluent city. In fact Bryan’s legal career seemed merely a platform from which to launch his political career.
In preparation for running for office, Bryan had joined every community and fraternal organization in Lincoln, from the Odd Fellows to the Masons, and from the bar association to the chamber of commerce. He was an Elk and a Moose, a Sunday School teacher at the Presbyterian Church, and a lecturer on moral themes at the YMCA. Through these organizations Bryan became a well-known figure among Lincoln’s political and economic elite, and in them he found like-minded compatriots in what would become his crusade against the moneyed interests of the East. Such groups reinforced Bryan’s ideals of fairness, universal brotherhood, and devotion to the common people.
It was perhaps through these organizations, and the Round Table discussion club founded by Bryan, that the young lawyer with political aspirations began to champion “free silver.” With an eye to winning the Democratic nomination for Congress in 1890, Bryan railed against the McKinley Tariff and echoed farmers’ concerns against falling land and crop prices. Faced with fixed payments for mortgages and railroad rates, the Nebraskan farmer had seen the price of his corn drop from 63 cents a bushel in 1881 to 26 cents in 1890. Wheat fell from $1.19 in 1881 to 49 cents. And the farmer’s land, on which he owed debt based on the land’s value at the time of purchase, had reverted to pre-1870 prices. In some cases land had fallen from as much as $30 an acre during a recent land boom to less than $5 an acre.
Economic cycles, bad weather, and the changing character of America from an agrarian to an industrial and urban country all held little interest for Bryan. When looking for someone to blame for the plight of his Nebraska constituents, the foe always resided in the big eastern cities. This was a fine strategy for a local or state politician from west of the Mississippi. Yet it seemed doomed to failure as a national campaign theme in the United States of 1896.
Bryan’s ideas appeared out of step with his contemporaries. America was now a country that lauded its industrial, not agricultural, output as a measuring stick against the great European powers. Entire states now defined themselves by their manufacturing industries, from Massachusetts paper mills to New Jersey chemicals and Pennsylvania steel. America’s largest city—the nation’s commercial capital—had provided the margin of victory in the last several presidential contests. And that city now prepared to defeat Bryan on two fronts: Both hostile gold Democrats and the heat threatened to make New York a living hell.
Many New York Democrats, rather than preparing for their nominee’s visit, prepared instead for the Sound-Money Democratic Convention due to meet in Indianapolis in September. They worked, as one member of the Sound-Money Democrats’ executive committee told the papers on August 4, “to hold the party true to its traditions and defeat the un-Democratic ticket nominated in Chicago upon a platform that is anything but Democratic.”
IF THE SOUND-MONEY Democrats represented a small but threatening front in the fight against Bryan, a far more serious threat on August 4 came from a single Republican. Mark Hanna was the political dynamo that would defeat Bryan not by matching the Great Commoner’s charisma or oratory, but by building a fund-raising and campaigning apparatus the likes of which the country had never seen. In Canton McKinley continued to receive visitors, including Reuben Herman of Baltimore, who told the Major about the revolt of Sound-Money Democrats in Maryland. Perhaps more importantly, McKinley received some of the advance sheets of the “campaign text book,” the book that would serve as the manual for all Republican writers and speakers for the next two and a half months until the November election. With profiles on the various candidates, the manual also contained sections on platform issues such as the gold standard, the tariff, foreign policy, taxation, labor, and the civil service. At four hundred pages, the manual reflected the sophisticated campaigning technique of “staying on message,” begun only eight years before, in the 1888 election. The textbook clearly spelled out for potential candidates the party’s position on all topics. A stump speaker like Roosevelt may have had no trouble discussing civil service or foreign policy, but he would need to take a close look at the money supply section before going forth to speak for McKinley.
On August 4 Hanna met with representatives of the city’s black Republicans who impressed on the Republican campaign chief the strength of their numbers in the city. According to the Times, “Reference was made to other times when they had been promised large rewards for their support, which they claimed had not been forthcoming after election. They wanted a business understanding at the outset.”
Addressing the needs of black Republicans was a standard promise among city politicians, and even a young Roosevelt had campaigned for the black Republican vote in his failed bid for mayor in 1886. Disenfranchised in the South after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the 60,000 blacks in New York in 1896 usually voted Republican, the party of Lincoln. What the black men demanded from Hanna that day was a headquarters “where all the colored men of the city might rally” and money to maintain the headquarters. Hanna appeared to favor the suggestion; in the age-old move of deft politicians, he established a committee for further study.
If black Republicans represented the least powerful branch of the party in New York City in 1896, perhaps the Union League Club represented the most powerful. Founded in 1863 to show support for the Union cause in a city with sharply divided loyalties, after the war the club turned its attention to civic projects, such as founding the Metropolitan Museum of Art and cleaning up New York city government. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. had been a prominent founding member of the club that had later supported Theodore Roosevelt Jr. for mayor in 1886. On August 4, Hanna had dinner at the club and received the greetings of men who were top contributors to the Republican Party. Yet by simply entering the club’s building, Hanna walked a fine line between the forces of political reform it represented and the state Republican machine run by “boss” Thomas Platt. It was a line Roosevelt himself would walk during much of his political career in New York, attempting to remain as independent as possible while necessarily dependent on the support of the Republican machine run by Platt.
Hanna had already been approached by anti-Platt men over the possibility of running the campaign through a county committee rather than a state committee controlled by Platt. Indeed they had approached Roosevelt over the very same issue earlier in the year, with New York Tribunejournalist John E. Milholland and New York merchant Cornelius Bliss asking the police commissioner for his support. In spite of his fondness for reform, Roosevelt doubtlessly made the right choice in staying loyal to the Republican machine. At the club that night, Hanna himself made it clear to Milholland and Bliss that he would give them “no show in the management of the campaign in any other capacity than as good Republicans. As a faction they will not be recognized, for, as the case was put here by one of Mr. Hanna’s friends, ‘He will use the regulars for his fighting, and will not trust to the militia.’” With his future uncertain and desiring a new post in Washington, Roosevelt made sure he was one of Hanna’s “regulars.”
Hanna also struck a blow against Platt concerning the handling of the millions of dollars in campaign money. He had maintained Cornelius Bliss as Republican National Committee treasurer, a position Bliss had held since 1892. The millions of dollars that Hanna would raise for the 1896 campaign, then, would flow through Bliss’s hands. Opposing Platt and the machine’s dominance of any state campaign that fall, Bliss was able to take a measure of revenge through his position as committee treasurer. Hanna and Bliss decided to hand over to the Republican state campaign only a very small amount of the national committee’s funds, as most Republicans remained convinced that the main fight with Bryan would be in the West. In other words, Platt’s machine that fall would not be fueled by any McKinley campaign funds.
McKinley was not the man Platt wanted running for president. In 1895 at the Republican state convention, Platt had helped engineer a unanimous endorsement of New York governor Levi Morton for the Republican presidential nomination. Morton was known as a sound-money advocate even more than the tariff-championing McKinley, so his chances the following year seemed good. Even Roosevelt had written to Lodge the previous June saying, “This State shows very strong symptoms of going in good earnest for Morton,” and noting he had heard “there is an immense amount of talk about Morton in the West.”
Nevertheless, Morton was a creature of Platt, and as the Republican National Convention drew near in 1896, a revolt against Platt’s coronation of Morton began to grow. At Platt’s urging, Morton had signed the controversial Raines Liquor Bill and the Greater New York Consolidation Act, both of which were seen as conferring more power on the state political machine run by Boss Platt. When Morton then publicly expressed his opposition to the creation of a Greater New York, Platt was forced to reassert his control over his man in Albany. The chastised governor suddenly had a change of heart, and such open subservience to the Republican boss caused his support in New York to dwindle.
With the governor’s image tarnished by his association with the Republican machine, anti-Platt men organized clubs to promote William McKinley’s candidacy as an alternative to Morton. With only three months until the Republican convention, Platt tried to maintain control over choosing the state’s delegates in an attempt to counter the enthusiasm for McKinley and prove to the country that New York firmly supported Morton. Platt called a snap convention to meet in New York City, but his scheme backfired. Someone introduced a resolution supporting McKinley, and amid the frantic cheering a McKinley banner was unfurled from the top gallery, partially covering Morton’s banner. Platt’s men were unable either to take down the McKinley banner or to stop the wild demonstration in favor of McKinley. Although the resolution supporting the Major was defeated, it was a severe blow to the governor’s candidacy and heartened McKinley supporters across the nation.
The national convention itself held even more embarrassments for Platt. Six contested McKinley delegates from New York City were admitted against Platt’s wishes. Platt had claimed that sixty-eight of the seventy-two New York delegates were for Morton, but actually seventeen of those seventy-two backed McKinley on the first ballot. Aside from the remaining fifty-five New York votes, Morton received only three other votes, one from Alabama and two from Florida. Although Platt tried to save face and have Morton named as vice presidential nominee, McKinley’s overwhelming nomination on the first ballot gave the boss no leverage. In the vote for the vice presidential nominee, Morton received only one vote—and that single vote came from Maine, not even his home state. Platt returned from the St. Louis convention humiliated and largely shut out of the great national campaign about to take place.
AFTER THE VIOLENCE AMONG the striking tailors on Sunday, August 2, Theodore Roosevelt toured the precinct houses of the area. Newspapers singled out his Sunday saloon-closing crusade as the reason for the violence. Had the police not been preoccupied rousting Sunday drinkers, a larger police presence among New York’s laboring class might have kept the peace. Roosevelt, however, saw the Sunday closing law as in labor’s best interest.
Years before, Roosevelt had urged labor to make “war on the saloons that yearly swallow so incredibly large a proportion” of workers’ wages. Yet New York labor largely resented Roosevelt’s crusade against the saloons. The previous summer the Commercial Advertiser had noted that at a meeting of the Central Labor Union, the attitude was, “The workingman wants his beer on Sunday, and what are we here for if not to benefit the workingman?” The American Federation of Labor may have believed that if saloons were “not permitted to adjoin the mansions of the wealthy neither shall they be permitted to intrude upon the wage earners’ precincts.” But trade unionists in New York did not agree and focused much of their resentment on Roosevelt personally. Labor leaders noted that while there had been over 8,000 arrests annually for excise violations under Roosevelt, there were only 104 arrests for violations of the factory law in 1895 and only 21 arrests for violation of the law in 1896. Roosevelt might say he was acting in labor’s best interest, but the slight enforcement of a law prohibiting minors from working more than sixty hours a week, and stopping children under thirteen from working in factories, seemed to show otherwise.
Now, on Tuesday, Commissioner Roosevelt tried to take control of the situation on the Lower East Side, issuing orders to precinct captains on handling the strikers. He directed the captains to order their men “not to use harsh measures with the strikers unless actual violence was done and above all not to use firearms.”
Roosevelt had a certain sympathy for the strikers, particularly because of the great poverty and historically bad working conditions of the tailors. Roosevelt frequently noted that he supported the workers’ right to organize but expected the law to be upheld. This included dealing firmly with any violence among the strikers. As police commissioner Roosevelt had witnessed strikes among New York metal workers, bookbinders, cab drivers, and street cleaners. He was very sensitive to the perception among New York’s political and business leaders that one of Roosevelt’s main tasks as police commissioner was to prevent riots among strikers. On almost every occasion afforded to him, whether speaking to the public or directly to the police, Roosevelt underscored his determination to see rioters “put down quick” and “keep in order the turbulent portion of the population.” Addressing newly promoted police captains at police headquarters that July, Roosevelt urged the police to do their duty “like soldiers on the field of battle,” since “sooner or later in this city there will be turmoil and riot.”
This same day 2,000 vestmakers joined the tailors’ strike, complaining that they worked fourteen hours a day for a weekly wage sometimes as low as $5. Now they demanded a fifty-nine-hour workweek—about ten hours a day not including Sunday—and a slight increase in their wages.
While they certainly deserved these modest improvements to their working conditions, the vestmakers’ timing was terrible. Newly unemployed men and women numbering 2,000 represented perhaps 10,000 more residents of the Lower East Side without any means of support. Already a marginal population living and working in horrible conditions, and vulnerable to any disaster or disease, the vestmakers made the decision to begin their strike on a day when the official temperature hit 87 degrees—the lowest high temperature New Yorkers would see for another ten days.