A FEW MINUTES before four o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, August 5, Sergeant White of the Classon Avenue police station in Brooklyn sat lightly dozing on his watch. A slight young woman appeared suddenly before him, dressed in white, and wearing a straw hat. “I’ve chopped my sister’s head off with an axe,” the apparition announced calmly, although her dress remained unstained by blood. I’m dreaming, White thought, willing himself to wake up, but he was not asleep.
Looking at the petite woman dressed in white, and remembering the heat of the previous day, White assumed he must be dealing with someone afflicted by the heat. Even at that early hour the temperature remained in the high 70s.
Still, he dutifully dispatched an officer to the woman’s home, a tenement basement, the kind of dwelling occupied by the very poorest of New Yorkers. There the officer found Kate Larkin, a thirty-nine-year-old widow, unconscious and her head a mess of blood. The woman in white, her sister Alice Larkin, had struck her about the head with an axe seven times, breaking her nose, fracturing her skull in two places, and lacerating her scalp. According to doctors, her condition was grave.
Neighbors commented that while they liked Kate, they had never cared for Alice, whom they said “was of a peculiar disposition.” When asked why she had apparently tried to kill her sister with an axe, Alice replied, “Sister had not been treating me well.”
IN THE LATE nineteenth century, such stories were all too common. The very word “tenement” connoted to New Yorkers not just extreme poverty and disease but the worst and most senseless violence. Jacob Riis’s account of “The Man with the Knife” describes “a poor, and hungry, and ragged man” who from hopelessness and desperation sprang into a busy street one day and slashed about him, “blindly seeking to kill.”
Contemporary accounts of life in the tenements are marked by brutality: from domestic violence fueled by alcohol to the criminal violence of street gangs. The most famous case of domestic violence in New York was the case of little Mary Ellen, whose story led to the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC)—nearly a decade after the establishment of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
The Mary Ellen case was the first case of child abuse to reach a New York City courtroom, and during the month of April 1874, New York newspapers featured lurid details of Mary Ellen’s abuse at the hands of her “mama,” Mary Connolly. Having been orphaned as an infant, Mary Ellen was “indentured” to the Connollys by the Commission of Charities and Correction, a crude form of early foster care. But Mary Connolly always suspected that the child was one of her husband’s illegitimate children, and she beat Mary Ellen daily with a two-and-a-half-foot leather “cow-hide” normally used in the city for driving horses.
By 1896 the offices of the SPCC housed hundreds of records of child abuse in the tenements. In 1896 reformer Helen Campbell wrote in her exposé Darkness and Daylight of the “screams resound- [ing] through a tenement-house” as children were beaten. She documented just a few of the cases for her readers. Seven-year-old Antonia was found with her hair “matted with blood, and her face, arms, and body were covered with wounds around which the blood had dried and remained.” Ten-year-old Patrick Lacey nearly lost an eye to beatings from his drunken father, and six-year-old Jennie Lewis was found by a police officer on her knees scrubbing her tenement apartment’s floor: “Her face and body were much discolored and covered with bruises, and her emaciated arms were patched with red spots from pinches.”
Criminality extended beyond the family and into all dimensions of life. The journalist Colonel Thomas Knox documented in detail street life among the poor of New York: from petty thievery among even the youngest children to gangs of con men, bank robbers, and murderers.
Like many observers of late-nineteenth-century New York, Knox blamed a combination of poverty, ignorant and brutish immigrants, and the evils of liquor. He also placed great blame on the nature of tenements themselves. “Whoever follows a case of distress to its abiding-place,” Knox wrote, “finds it in part of one room of a tenement-house, and that one room duplicated in wretchedness by range after range of rooms from the oozy cellar to the leaky garret, and that house duplicated by streetsful of other houses, till benevolence stands aghast at misery miles in area and six stories deep.” Knox referred to the individual born into poverty in New York’s crowded and unhealthy housing as “the low tenement victim.”
In Manhattan some wards on the Lower East Side were packed with 250,000 to 300,000 people per square mile. This was shockingly dense, unmatched even in London. By 1900, 1.6 million people would occupy 42,700 tenements in Manhattan alone, averaging 33.5 persons per tenement. By 1916, the Lower East Side would boast about 8,400 tenements occupied by over half a million people, for an average of 60 people per tenement.
The tenement was the breeding ground of crime. Knox wrote, “Ignorant, weary and complaining wives, cross and hungry husbands, wild and ungoverned children, are continually at war with each other. The young criminal is the product almost exclusively of these training-schools of vice and crime in the worst tenement-house districts.” Against much of the common wisdom of the day, Knox asserted that necessity, more than any other cause, drove people to crime. “If one suffers from cold and hunger, and can neither buy nor beg food, fuel, and clothing, he must perforce steal it, for necessity is a master of human action.”
Want, hunger, and the threat of violence were all constants for those who lived in a tenement. In such circumstances stealing food or coal became not only understandable but even a laudable means of scraping by. “Petty thievery by boys and girls who are not taught to discriminate between right and wrong, who are, in fact, led to believe it a virtue to steal in order to provide themselves and parents with comforts impossible to obtain otherwise, is a matter of course among the poorest classes.”
Tenements not only bred and fostered crime, they were the very headquarters and clubhouses of New York’s criminal element. For contemporary observers among New York’s “better” classes, the term “den of thieves” might have been designed for the tenement house. The dark, twisting passages and numberless small rooms led many writers to describe tenements as warrens, lairs, or rookeries. These references to the feral, animalistic character of the tenements’ inhabitants reflected the fears and prejudices of the middle and upper classes.
For Americans with Victorian sentiments, tales of families with young girls letting the second bedroom to strange men, or of several members of a single family sharing the same bed, fed the impression that tenements were dens of sin and wickedness. The tenements themselves were often used as brothels as well as safe havens for criminals of all sorts. “The various ‘gangs’ that have infested the city and given the police force no end of trouble for many years,” Knox wrote, “are found in the densely populated districts. The tenement-houses afford them excellent hiding-places, and from them the gangs are recruited when a police raid has temporarily decreased their ranks and sent many of them to penal institutions.”
In fact during Roosevelt’s reign as police commissioner several of these gangs had been arrested while working in or preying on the tenements. During the summer of 1895 a ring of counterfeiters that for eight years had been putting out fake dollar coins was finally caught. Seven men and one woman, all members of the Horse Market Gang, were arrested working out of a tenement that acted as a counterfeiting factory, complete with molds, ladles, chemicals, plating apparatus, copper, tin, antimony, and about two hundred phony dollars. Police and Secret Service agents estimated that the gang was responsible for putting out four hundred counterfeit dollars per week. Another gang had been caught after terrorizing New York with a string of fires set in tenements to bilk insurance companies. In August 1896, several members of the gang were still on trial for murder, after one of the fires they set at a tenement on Suffolk Street killed a four-year-old girl.
With the central airshaft in many tenements allowing even the smallest fire to spread quickly between floors, a fire intended to destroy only a business or personal belongings could very easily consume an entire building and its inhabitants. On that day, August 5, the seventy residents of a tenement on Fifty-Sixth Street were considering moving out of their building because the night before, the second fire in a week had been set by an unknown person, who had soaked the wood with kerosene. Attempts to flee via the fire escape had been hindered by the boxes and barrels stored there. “My youngest child is only six weeks old,” Mrs. John Lyons told a reporter, “but she has already passed through two fires. There are few infants with such a record.” The arsonist was never caught.
Most tenements were little more than two-room flats with a kitchen and a single bedroom. Few people could really have been said to live “in” their tenement. Crowded, noisy, and filled with the stench of garbage, cooking, and stopped-up drains, most residents sought refuge on their fire escapes, front steps, or the roof—the “tar beach.” Tenements also housed various kinds of industry, with people working in their rooms sewing clothes, taking in washing, or rolling cigars, adding to the noise, crowding, smell, and generally unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Wash lines hung between the buildings, with anything white soon turned gray by the ever-present soot, ash, and dust in the air. These lines also carried messages and small bundles between buildings. With the constant noise and putrid smell of the tenements, many residents simply kept their windows closed, some even going so far as to nail them shut, depriving them of any hope of a whiff of “fresh” air.
The East River was an important source of relief and diversion to children on hot summer days. Every street on the Lower East Side ended at a pier all the way up to the East Forties. Yet as one of the busiest waterways in the United States, drowning was common, as was waterborne disease. Pathogenic microorganisms found easy prey among the poorly nourished tenement children. During summer heat waves the resultant vomiting and diarrhea could prove fatal; “summer complaint” was often listed as cause of death among children.
The river was a nuisance for most New Yorkers. It refused to stay within its banks and frequently seeped into the basements of the poorest nearby tenements. Residents told stories of floating furniture and invading armies of rats at high tide. Even those lucky enough to live on higher floors—although their risk from fires was greater—were still forced to live with the constant smell of decaying fish.
With the tenements nearly uninhabitable, especially during a heat wave, when the temperature inside their apartments rose to 120 degrees, the entire population of the tenement districts crowded into the streets outside. With tens of thousands of horses plying the streets, manure and urine filled the gutters. The few garbage cans overflowed. For those not from the tenement district, the foul stench could be overpowering. New York streets during the summers were filled with hundreds of thousands of people, some peddling their wares, some selling fruit, some selling old scraps of clothes (the “rag pickers”), some gossiping, and some just hoping to catch the faintest breeze in the brick and asphalt valleys of the Lower East Side. So many people filled the streets in front of the tenements that it was hard to imagine that all of them could fit back inside at night.
In 1890 Jacob Riis had described life in the tenements during New York summers:
With the first hot night in June police dispatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand. It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint. Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler. In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep. Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords.
Riis took note of the horrible toll the heat took on the youngest residents of the slums. “Life in the tenements in July and August spells death to an army of little ones.” While black streamers marked the deaths of adults, white ribbons marked the deaths of children. “When the white badge of mourning flutters from every second door, sleepless mothers walk the streets in the gray of the early dawn, trying to stir a cooling breeze to fan the brow of the sick baby. There is no sadder sight than this patient devotion striving against fearfully hopeless odds.” LONG BEFORE THEODORE ROOSEVELT was even born, Roosevelt Street in Lower Manhattan served as one of the most important arteries of downtown New York. Dating back to the days of New Amsterdam and named for one of his ancestors, Roosevelt Street anchored the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Off Roosevelt Street could be found some of the worst tenements that existed in 1896. To get to the rear tenements, the most thoroughly lightless, airless apartments inhabited by the very poorest New Yorkers, one had to turn off Roosevelt and walk down the perpetually dark and infamous “Slaughter Alley.” The origin of the name was disputed, deriving either from the murders committed there, or, as Helen Campbell wrote, from “the slaughter of the innocents—the babies, who die here in summer like rats in a hole.”
Accompanying a doctor, Campbell explored one of the rear tenements on Slaughter Alley off Roosevelt Street. She described entering the front room “of tolerable size, but intolerable dirt, where four little children sat on the floor eating bread and molasses.” With the doctor she then entered a dark inner bedroom, which had a “heavy, oppressive smell . . . a fog of human exhalations.”
The doctor had come to see a woman in the last stages of consumption—tuberculosis—by 1896 the most common disease among New York’s poor. They found her propped up in bed to make breathing easier, “a deep red spot on each cheek, and her frame the merest skeleton.” Back in the larger front room Campbell noted an old mattress in the corner serving as the bed for the four children, a few chairs, and “a closet, whose open door showed some broken crockery and one or two cooking utensils.”
“Smells, filth, degradation, and misery,” Campbell recounted, “old and young crowded together; evil, coarse, and suffering faces; tattered, faded, old clothes; dirty shops; drinking saloons right and left—these things are scarcely lacking in any quarter, and are plentiful in many.”
For progressives, reformers, and mission workers like Campbell and Riis, the lack of running water in people’s homes was a constant concern. While Theodore Roosevelt’s boyhood home in Gramercy Park could boast piped-in water as early as the 1850s, even by 1896 most New Yorkers would have still viewed this as almost unimaginable luxury. Alleyway “hydrants” were the source of water for most tenements, requiring tenants to carry fresh water up stairs and dirty water back down—if they didn’t throw it onto the street from an open window. A recent law had mandated interior sinks in hallways for newer tenements, but even these were usually filthy, rarely cleaned, and stopped-up.
Without reliable water sources, keeping clean was a difficult ordeal. The Tenement House Committee of 1894 had found that of the over quarter million tenement occupants whose living conditions were examined by its staff, only 306 had access to bathtubs in their homes. Unlike many other American and European cities, New York maintained no public bathhouses. Its citizens relied instead on free “floating baths,” large wooden frames placed in the rivers to form pools. This was only an option during the summer, and even then was far from convenient for most of the working poor, requiring a walk of as much as a mile to the river in some cases. Still, the floating baths afforded some relief during the heat wave.
For those who could not make the trip to a floating bath, or had no fire escape on which to sit during the heat wave, the tenement roof offered the only respite from the suffocating heat. “One may see on any summer night many a roof crowded with restless and uneasy tenants seeking relief from the sickening heat of their airless quarters,” Campbell noted. “If one climbs the stairs of any of these wretched tenement-houses on a warm summer night, the whole population seems to have sought the roof, and lies upon it in every uncomfortable attitude—men, women, and children huddled together, and all alike moaning in troubled sleep.”
This was not just a matter of seeking comfort. With the extreme heat and poor air circulation inside their apartments, and with thousands already suffering from lung problems like bronchitis and tuberculosis, finding even a small space on a roof on which to spend the night could mean the difference between life and death. Airshafts were often piled high with garbage, and opening a window admitted only air rank with the smells of cooking.
Down at street level, many tenement dwellers tried to sleep on their doorsteps, on a garbage bin, in an empty cart, or even in an out-of-the-way spot on the street or in an alley. Yet the searing asphalt that continued to radiate heat throughout the night and baked the steaming garbage and horse excrement made these poor choices as well. Throughout most of the heat wave the city maintained its ban on sleeping in parks, although few parks even existed below Canal Street. The rooftops, as Campbell observed firsthand, offered “the only refuge from the heat, and the tenant who begins sleep on the doorstep is tolerably certain to end the night on the roof.”
TENEMENTS WERE A BY-PRODUCT of New York’s rapid growth, first appearing in 1833. As the population of New York doubled between 1845 and 1860, the mostly Irish immigrants sought cheap and immediate housing. Despite the cholera epidemics of the 1830s and 1840s that ravaged the occupants of the tenement districts, an 1857 report by the New York State Legislature called the early tenement a “blessing” as it afforded a cheap solution to New York’s chronic need for housing for new immigrants.
But things soon changed. Owners of large houses downtown quickly understood the profit to be made partitioning their large rooms into apartments for multiple families, “without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street.” These new tenements, the legislature’s report continued, “soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident of habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.”
With so many people living in buildings originally built for a single family, owners did not expect their property to last very long. To compensate, they fixed the rents high enough to cover the damage. What ensued was a cycle of disrepair and tenant slovenliness, with each condition reinforcing the other. Owners pocketed healthy profits without directing money back into their property, while dissatisfied tenants, already living amid dilapidation, did little to preserve or improve the condition of their homes. Later, as tenement horrors came to light, owners blamed the tenants themselves for the poor state of repair. “Neatness, order, cleanliness, were never dreamed of in connection with the tenant-house system,” the legislature’s report claimed, “while reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their invariable results.”
The city faced a vast and growing web of tenements “containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath mouldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.” Tenements were a profitable business. And as immigrants continued to arrive, back gardens continued to be dug up, and owners pioneered the concept of the rear tenement, whose apartments would be completely cut off from the street, from air, and from light. Faced with a vast increase of these breeding grounds of both crime and disease, official New York was forced into action.
The various laws enacted between 1867 and 1895 reflected growing concerns in cities about health, sanitation, disease, morals, fire, and crime. Yet they also illustrated the slapdash manner in which tenement reform was enacted. Airshafts were mandated, but not their size. Tenement laws reflected the concerns of the day, such as the 1895 prohibition against boiling fat in tenement cellars, a source of many fires. Loopholes were common. Fire escapes were required only if there were not some other means of egress provided. Thus a rickety wooden ladder might fulfill the letter of the law. A window to the outside normally required for hallways might be overlooked if there were some other means of affording light and ventilation. City officials were often given wide latitude in deciding such cases, yet even here the very oversight of the tenements frequently changed hands. At first the new Board of Health was made responsible for tenements in 1867. Simultaneously, however, responsibility for building laws rested with the Department of Buildings. Conflict between the jurisdiction of the two were inevitable. Was airshaft construction a “building” or “health” concern? The 1879 act sought to solve this problem by transferring most oversight to the Building Department, leaving only questions of drainage, light, and ventilation of old buildings to the Board of Health. Still, enforcing laws concerning fire escapes rested with both the fire and police departments, which were directed by statute to enforce provisions such as keeping fire escapes clear and free of encumbrance.
While much might still be made today of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign travels, his interest in nature, his historical writings, and particularly his time spent in the West, his brand of progressivism was clearly shaped by his intimate contact with New York’s working poor. One of the great ironies of Roosevelt’s life was that while he was the Harvard-educated, brownstone-born scion of one of New York’s great old Dutch families, he knew the tenement districts and their inhabitants more intimately than any other prominent Republican politician of the day—certainly more than any other president of the Progressive Era.
Roosevelt had a long history of investigating the tenements. Beginning with his investigating the cigar-rolling trade conducted in the tenements while he was an assemblyman, followed by his midnight ramblings with guide Jacob Riis while police commissioner, Roosevelt balanced his evening-dress dinners at Delmonico’s with forays into the most notorious, impoverished, and dangerous parts of Manhattan. There were perhaps few federal avenues open to Roosevelt while he was president to foster change at the local level in a city like New York. But as governor between 1899 and 1901, he became partly responsible for further tenement reform efforts, supporting the efforts of housing reformers, an assembly investigating committee, and subsequent legislation.
Roosevelt consistently supported tenement reform as governor. Right after his election in early 1899 he hailed the work of the Mazet Committee in revealing shoddy building practices and dangerous conditions. He backed Lawrence Veiller’s Tenement House Exhibition in early 1900 by speaking at its opening. He sent an urgent plea to the state assembly to pass the Tenement House bill, which appointed a new commission to revise the laws. With past commissions dominated by real estate and building interests, Roosevelt ensured real progress in tenement reform by appointing reformers as well as health and safety experts.
All of this would occur in the few years following the heat wave and his time as police commissioner. That week in August 1896 would have tremendous impact on his knowledge of tenement conditions and the plight of the city’s poor. His experiences during that time would have concrete results in the new Tenement House Law of 1901, and in general would help shape the opinions and actions of one of the leading figures of the Progressive Era.
ROOSEVELT’S INTEREST IN REFORM shaped his early political career, from the governor’s mansion to police headquarters on Mulberry Street. By August, however, criticism of his saloon-closing crusade and the Parker-inspired deadlock on the commission had brought any efforts at reform to a standstill. On Wednesday, August 5, a meeting of the New York Police Board illustrated that the deadlock remained.
A precinct captain reported on the various ways liquor sellers continued to break the Sunday Excise Law forbidding the sale of liquor on Sundays, over a year after Roosevelt began this particular “crusade.” In 1896 the new Raines law attempted to limit Sunday liquor selling to hotels. Now, however, phony hotels known as “Raines law hotels” were springing up all the time, and the number of fake private clubs was “increasing daily.” Saloon owners often simply transferred their stock to these establishments in order to continue selling liquor on Sundays and late into the night. Even when arrests had been made, the magistrates or grand jury dismissed the cases.
Roosevelt could not have been happy to hear this. Here was the one aggressive stance he had taken to see that the law was applied evenly and fairly. He had been blamed for Republican losses as a result of the law’s unpopularity, almost had his position on the Police Board legislated out of existence, and even been sent a letter bomb. The Sunday saloon closing fight had probably ruined any future Roosevelt might have had in New York City politics. Now he was being told by a precinct captain that it had all been in vain, with little effect on the saloon keepers and, indirectly, their ability to pour money into the coffers of Tammany Hall. He was beginning to despise Parker. And the heat in the room was oppressive.
The official high temperature on Wednesday, August 5, was 89 degrees, a number probably kept low by a light westerly breeze. Still, from about 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM the temperature never dropped below 80. Struggling all day through such heat took its toll on one group of New Yorkers in particular: men of working age, all between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five. Edmund Doyle of the Street Cleaning Department died of sunstroke only a half hour after collapsing. Seventeen-year-old John Cunningham, a drug miller, succumbed after his body temperature reached 109 degrees, according to doctors. Frederick Neidlinger, age twenty-six, died at work in Ulmer’s Brewery. A policeman, Patrolman Lawrence Goundie, was overcome by heat while on duty, and Edward Gaynor, twenty-two, was prostrated while selling papers along the Shore Road.
Though workingmen were the primary victims on Wednesday, other New Yorkers suffered as well. Della McCullough, age sixty-five, was riding into the city on the New Haven train due into Grand Central Station at 6:00 PM. Coming into the city through the long, hot tunnel was more than she could stand, and she died in one of the parlor cars before a doctor could even be called.
New Yorkers did not suffer alone. The heat wave settled over much of the Midwest and East Coast as well. The thermometer hit 98 in St. Louis, 96 in Chicago, and 100 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Out in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the Bryans about to depart for New York via Chicago, the intemperate weather made for grim news. Having already made an eight-hundred-mile railroad trip from the Chicago convention back home to Lincoln, Bryan must have had some notion of the adversity he faced. The candidate would be expected to stop in every small, dusty town to give a speech, and the curious crowds were expected to be large. On the eve of perhaps the most important speech of his career, Bryan would arrive in New York thoroughly exhausted from his long, hot journey east. This was poor preparation indeed.
Indeed, the heat was already altering Bryan’s trip even before he left Lincoln. On Wednesday, August 5, the top Democratic silver advocate Richard P. Bland, old “Silver Dick,” had cabled Bryan that it was simply too hot for him and his wife to travel to Lincoln to accompany the Bryans for the entirety of their trip. It was a bad start for such an important trip.
AT ABOUT TEN O’CLOCK Wednesday morning, police officer Patrick Giblin chased Jerry the Tramp out of the Mechanics’ National Bank on Broadway, put a gun to his head, and killed him.
Well-known along Broadway, Jerry had staked out a territory that stretched from Warren Street, just across from city hall, up to Houston. It was said he was known in every saloon and restaurant, occasionally coming in for a mug of ale. Before the Raines law took effect earlier that year, Jerry had lived in relative luxury, picking up scraps of food from the free lunches that saloons served as a way of enticing midday drinkers. But after the upstate temperance advocates abolished this practice, Jerry had suffered hard times. He had grown thin and emaciated. Now, driven mad by the heat, with wild eyes and his tongue hanging out of his mouth, Jerry—a small, black dog—ran up Broadway snapping and snarling, causing a panic among the pedestrians.
Inevitably the shout of “mad dog” went up. The truth is that poor Jerry was probably not mad at all, just suffering the effects of heat and looking for a cool place to lie down out of the sun. He was not a big, ferocious dog; in fact, he was tiny, “no larger than a big squirrel,” one paper noted, “a little bit of a black dog, as devoid of pedigree as he was of friends.”
Finding a bank door open, Jerry approached the attendant at the entrance, who aimed a kick at the dog. In a foul mood, Jerry snapped at the foot, which raised the cry from someone inside, “Look out, Mac! He may be mad!” This set off a panic inside the crowded bank, attracting the attention of Officer Giblin, who was “big and a great pistol shot.”
“Kill the beast!” the crowd cried to Giblin. Not wanting to take too rash an action, the officer first studied the dog to see if it was really mad. The examination consisted of prodding the dog with his nightstick. Of course, poor little Jerry snapped at the club as he had the attendant’s foot. “That was enough for Giblin,” the Herald reported dryly. “The dog was mad, of course. It had resented his effort to ascertain the condition of its nerves, and necessarily the animal was a menace to the community.” Giblin removed his pistol and readied to fire, at which point a clerk shouted, “Don’t shoot him in here!” Giblin shooed the dog outside, put the revolver to the dog’s head, and fired. “The little black dog rolled over and died,” Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World reported. “The crowd cheered. Policeman Giblin walked nonchalantly off.”
This was not the end of Jerry the Tramp’s undignified tale, however. Apparently the dog had run across the line between the beat of Giblin and that of fellow officer George Lewis from another station house. Having heard the shot, Officer Lewis rushed toward the scene and found the dead dog lying in the gutter. Without hesitation Lewis took out his own gun and also fired into the dog’s head. “The dog was just as dead after Policeman Lewis shot it as it was before,” one observer noted. But now Lewis, too, could return to his station house and report that he had dispatched a mad dog. “On the blotters at their stations and on the slips at Police Headquarters both Policeman Giblin and Policeman Lewis are given credit for having ‘shot a mad dog at No. 261 Broadway.’ Both are ready to swear that they did it.”
Such an episode may have reminded New Yorkers of a new board game that had appeared in the city that very year. In Rival Policemen: A New Comic Game, players representing rival police precincts competed to capture the greatest number of crooks, moving lead police playing pieces over a grid representing city streets. In the game, though, no points were given for shooting mad dogs.
In fact Thursday, August 6, was a bad day for dogs in the city, as the cry “Mad dog!” was heard all over town. Policemen on this day shot another five dogs at 16th Street, 138th Street, 35th Street, Lexington Avenue, and 42nd Street. All the dogs were officially designated “mad,” although they were probably just suffering through the early stages of heat exhaustion. For dogs the early symptoms include heavy panting, confusion, and heavy salivating, which might appear to be foaming at the mouth. During the heat wave countless dogs suffered these symptoms, with the unfortunate ones labeled “mad” and killed in the street by police officers.
Horses also suffered greatly during the heat wave. New Yorkers were utterly dependent on the tens of thousands of horses that plied the streets of Manhattan, drawing carriages, transporting goods, and pulling the passenger cars of the several aboveground railways. While the final human death toll from the heat would number around 1,300, the heat wave also took the lives of thousands of horses. One paper described the treatment of sunstroke in horses: “A pail of water dashed over the head, a couple of kicks to see how much life was really left in them—this was about the best the sunstruck horse got. And then a bullet put him out of his misery.”
On a normal day perhaps two hundred horses might die. Their carcasses were routinely left on the street until removed by the city. During the heat wave, almost every street had a horse carcass rotting in the heat, and the city was unable to cart away the massive number of dead horses.
“THE THERMOMETER TODAY is said to be well up in the nineties,” Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid wrote to a friend in Arizona on Thursday, August 6. “In New York the heat is oppressive enough to disturb even an Arizonian.”
During the night of the sixth New Yorkers had received no relief from the heat, suffering through a sleepless night of continued high humidity and a temperature that never dropped below 74 degrees. In the morning a brisk northeast breeze had carried the promise of rain and a break to the humidity. But the rain did not fall, and both the temperature and humidity continued to rise.
The official temperature was deceptive. While the official high temperature for Manhattan on Thursday, August 6, was 91, only 2 degrees higher than the previous day, all New Yorkers agreed that it felt at least 5 degrees hotter, as the humidity rose to 87 percent. The Tribune noted that as the temperature reached its official high at 1:35 in the afternoon, “There were plenty of street thermometers that registered 101 degrees, and plenty more pedestrians who were willing to swear that it must be at least 120 degrees.” Those pedestrians were not far off, as the temperature and humidity combined for a heat index of 123 degrees.
The New York World called Thursday “the worst day of the year.” While the more staid New York Times dryly listed names of heat victims, the sensationalist yellow press seemed to relish the disaster, offering dramatic accounts of life, death, and insanity during the heat wave.
The World recounted the sad fate of George Kupfer, a truck driver in a lumberyard. With his wife ill and unable to provide her husband with breakfast or lunch, Kupfer went the entire day working in the oppressive heat without eating. He left work complaining that he felt “queer in his head.” Returning home at 7:00 PM Kupfer told his wife he felt ill and began to cry bitterly before dropping to the floor unconscious. When he came to, he called for his wife, apparently unable to recognize her when she tried to calm him. Neighbors soon arrived at the Kupfer home, “where they found him lying there breathing like a horse that has finished a hot race.” A little girl ran outside crying that a man was dying, and an ambulance was called.
Kupfer resisted help and became abruptly violent. When the police tried to subdue Kupfer so he could be loaded into the ambulance, he bit one policeman on the hand and hit another in the face. Finally the police and ambulance attendants were able to place Kupfer in a straitjacket and take him to Bellevue Hospital. The doctor diagnosed the heat as the main culprit affecting Kupfer’s mind.
Amid the chaos caused by the heat, newspapers also reported continuing tragedy. Mrs. John Roberts suffered a double tragedy, losing her husband to the heat and all her belongings to a fire. John Roberts worked on the Hamburg steamship pier in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was overcome on his way back from work, and friends assisted him to his home, where he died in spite of a doctor’s best efforts. Leaving her husband’s body in their home, Mrs. Roberts went to the undertaker to arrange the funeral. Arriving back home after dark, she lit a small oil lamp to place near her husband. “The little woman’s hands trembled so violently that the lamp fell,” one paper reported. “In an instant the room was in flames.” Firemen came and extinguished the fire, but Mrs. Roberts lost everything. Finally able to reenter her home, she collapsed on her husband’s charred coffin, sobbing, “What next, oh Lord? What next?” The double shock now caused Mrs. Roberts to collapse, leaving her in critical condition.
Doctors at Bellevue Hospital—the large municipal hospital on Manhattan’s east side—were already feeling overwhelmed. “I’ll need the doctors’ attention next,” hospital superintendent Murphy told a reporter as a sunstroke victim was brought in by ambulance and four orderlies rushed out to meet it. The reporter then offered a detailed account of the unconscious patient’s treatment. Doctors stripped the man and placed him in a large tub filled with as much as half a ton of cracked ice. A thermometer placed in the man’s mouth registered the maximum: 110 degrees. Attendants grabbed large chunks of ice and rubbed the patient’s skin. After ten minutes the man’s temperature dropped three degrees. A few more minutes of rubbing, and his temperature was back down to a normal 98.6. Other methods of treating sunstroke in New York’s hospitals included squirting patients with a hose, bleeding, and administering drugs, including sedatives, aconite to steady the pulse, and nitroglycerine to stimulate the heart.
The Bellevue patient was Charles Littman, a relatively young man at thirty-five, who fell unconscious at his carpenter shop. Littman was lucky that the ice bath worked. It was considered the best way to relieve sunstroke. Yet even at Bellevue doctors ran the risk of lowering Littman’s temperature too quickly and causing hypothermia. The other treatments of the day indicated concern with regulating high blood pressure. Bleeding was intended to reduce the volume of blood in a patient’s body and thus the blood pressure. Aconite, also known as wolfsbane (Germans once used the highly toxic herb to poison wolves), was used to slow the heart. All of these treatments, including the administering of sedatives or stimulants of any kind, are today considered ill-advised as cures for sunstroke.
Unfortunately, the ice available to doctors for treating sunstroke was not available to average New Yorkers. As home refrigerators did not achieve widespread use until the First World War, Americans relied on large wooden iceboxes, usually lined with tin or zinc, to keep food cool and fresh. Ice was bought from commercial producers or ice harvesters, who cut ice from the rivers during winter and stored it in large blocks insulated with sawdust to reduce melting.
By 1896 Charles Morse, an ice magnate from Maine, controlled most commercial ice production in the city. His business practices kept prices high and ice out of reach of the city’s poor. Having no means of preserving food in the killer heat simply exacerbated the plight of the poor, already living in nightmarish conditions in the steaming tenements. Morse’s hometown newspaper called him “the man who made millions while poor people suffered for ice” and claimed the high price of New York ice increased the city’s death rate by 5 percent.
During the heat wave, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers did not have access to a refrigerator or freezer. They could not drink a cool glass of water to relieve their suffering or rub an ice cube across their hot, dry skin. Brick tenements baked their inhabitants and quickly putrefied meat and curdled milk.
Ice became a precious, life-saving commodity. With this in mind the New York Herald initiated a Free Ice Fund, soliciting contributions for ice to be distributed in the Lower East Side tenement districts. As of Thursday, August 6, the Fund had raised nearly $12,000, with many of the contributions trickling in $1 or $2 at a time. The free ice stations run by the Herald had been besieged by the women of the tenements. “They went away,” the Herald reporter observed, “lugging pans of ice, and followed by children who touched the cold tin as they walked along. To such as these, who had no means of preserving their food from the action of the burning heat, ice was a blessing.” Simple and short-lived as it was, the gift of ice was crucial to the tenement dwellers’ survival in the heat.
A similar charity designed to relieve the summertime suffering of the city’s youth was the New York Tribune’s Fresh Air Fund. In 1877 New York clergyman Willard Parsons established the fund, placing sixty children with families in Sherman, Pennsylvania, for the summer. Parsons turned over the running of the charity to the Tribune the same year, and the newspaper ran the fund for the next eighty-five years. (An independent charity now, the Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to more than 1.7 million children from New York’s poorest neighborhoods.)
In 1896 the Fresh Air Fund was especially active, sending thousands of mothers and children out of the city, if only for a day. During the week of the heat wave alone the fund sent almost 5,000 people to the country. About 3,800 mothers and children took part in day excursions up the Hudson River, while nearly 1,000 children were placed with families, mainly in upstate New York but also in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
Charities like the Free Ice and Fresh Air funds worked in a vacuum, as officials did nothing. During the three years of this most recent economic crisis the city and state rejected all calls for poor relief. Any moves in the direction of helping the people, in defiance of the laissez-faire market economy smacked of socialism and anarchism. Business cycles corrected themselves, while families, churches, and ethnic fraternal organizations were expected to take care of their own.
On August 13, when the mayor finally called a meeting of his department heads to discuss the crisis, one suggestion was to distribute free ice to the poor—an idea proposed by the president of the Board of Police Commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt.
ROOSEVELT’S POLICE WERE kept busy during the early days of the heat wave. They were continually picking up unconscious men and women off the hot asphalt of the street and responding to cries of “Mad dog!” To the storeowners who complained about the rotting horse carcasses in front of their shops scaring away customers, all the police could say was “Wait.”
At Mulberry Street the Police Board continued to be deadlocked by the feud between Roosevelt and Parker, a constant source of irritation to the board’s president and to Mayor Strong. Meanwhile, in his crusade against the serving of alcohol on Sundays, Roosevelt faced a new challenge in the Raines law hotels. Dozens of saloons now called themselves “hotels” and rented rooms above the main bar.
The development was widely seen as seedy and unwelcome. Renting out the rooms above taverns struck many as a throwback to the days when prostitutes plied their trade only a stairway’s climb from the saloon floor, while others saw the rooms as encouraging gambling and other liquor-related vices. In an August 6 editorial, the New York Times complained that in one precinct where there had been only two hotels before passage of the Raines law, now there existed fifty-one “hotels” that sold liquor Sundays “and all hours of the night with impunity and with a noticeable increase of drunkenness and disorder.” Roosevelt may very well have had a personal motive in his campaign against Sunday liquor sellers. While no temperance advocate himself, he was something of a teetotaler, usually avoiding consumption of alcohol. This may have resulted from his younger brother Elliott’s death brought on by alcohol abuse only two years before. Drink had turned the once athletic and vivacious Elliott into a wasted man, and the death of his playmate from youth had dealt a crushing emotional blow to Roosevelt.
OBSERVERS ON THURSDAY, August 6, noted the bluish-gray pall that hung over the city, obscuring the hot sun and limiting visibility from the tops of New York’s tall buildings. It was the first time that year that such a “heat haze” had settled over the city. Its cause was the extreme humidity that resulted in so much suffering.
New Yorkers struggled day after day throughout the heat wave. How one coped often depended on one’s resources, as access to a cool place and to cool drinks was often too costly for the ordinary person. Many simply stripped down to the least amount of clothes socially acceptable, even if it meant wearing clothing not quite appropriate for Manhattan during a workday.
A reporter for the Herald described the sight of people trying to keep cool. “It was a blistering, sizzling day,” he wrote. “Humanity crawled into places where there were fans and iced drinks and stayed there. They put on their lightest clothes and took no heed of the remarks of the youngsters who decried duck trousers and yachting shoes. The negligee shirt was everywhere, and men with scrawny necks overcame their pride and wore turned down collars. The weather was a shade cooler than it was the day before, yet the humidity made existence almost unsupportable.” The same reporter noted the “sickly blinding glare on the pavements and the walls of brick and stone” down on the Lower East Side, where the heat was “deflected by the skyscrapers on either hand, and reinforced by the furnaces and boilers under the sidewalks.” The urban heat island effect was in existence already, and it would continue to bake New Yorkers for days to come.