The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Twenty-Eight

August 1-8, 1917

New York City Hit with a Heat Wave!  “Very hot, over three hundred people and hundreds of horses died this week.” That was Kate Roosevelt’s diary entry for August 1, 1917. On this day she was recollecting past scorchers the city had sweltered under. One in particular was the heat wave of 1896 when her cousin, then New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to cool things off.

Street Scene during New York City Heat Wave

At the time, as many as 100,000 people were stuffed into the tenements stacked side-by-side in the Lower East Side. The over-crowded, poorly ventilated apartments quickly turned into ovens as the temperatures soared during a ten-day heat wave that killed nearly 1,500 people.

Heat Wave in New York City, 1917

Ed Kohn, a professor of American History at Bilkent University in Turkey writes in his book, Hot Time in the Old Town, “Many thousands of people were crammed into tenements on the Lower East Side, with no air conditioning, little circulating air and no running water. Families were packed together, with five to six people sharing a single room. Extra space on the floor was rented to single men, many of whom worked six days a week doing manual labor in the hot sun. It was so densely packed that most people couldn’t live inside the tenement itself. The streets, rooftops and fire escapes were filled.”

At the time there was a ban on sleeping in city parks, so people took refuge wherever they could hope for a cooling breeze including the East River. The mayor and city government turned a “cold shoulder” to the crisis. There was one exception. His name was Theodore Roosevelt, the new kid on the block, serving as police commissioner.

New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, ca: 1896

Even before he ran for President of the United States on the Progressive Ticket, Roosevelt had a soft spot for the less fortunate. His role model was his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Known as “Great Heart” he founded the Children’s Aid Society and fostered many of the homeless street urchins, known as the “Newsies.”

Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt came up with the idea of giving free ice to the poorest people living on the Lower East Side and personally supervised its distribution. According to Professor Kohn, “Roosevelt took it upon himself to tour the back alleys of some of the worst tenement districts to see how people were using the ice and witnessed, firsthand, how immigrant fathers would chip-off ice and give it to their children to suck on. He had an intimate contact with the urban poor.”

Hilborne Roosevelt

Before leaving for a vacation out west, on August 15, 1896, Theodore Roosevelt wrote his sister, Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt, as his cousin Hilborne Roosevelt, Kate’s late-husband often did. “Bamie” was the glue that kept the family together and her brothers, sister and cousins often confided their most intimate thoughts in letters to her.

Theodore’s letter began, “We’ve had two excitements in New York the past week; the heated term and William Jennings Bryan’s big meeting at Madison Square Garden. The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence and we had to distribute hundreds of tons of ice from the station houses to the people of the poorer precincts.”

Dead Horses, New York City, Heatwave, 1917

The “heated term” Roosevelt was referring to lasted more than ten days with temperatures in the high nineties, accompanied by high humidity.  It seemed he was the only government official who cared.  The only response the city made was to change the hours of its workers to the coolest part of the day and arrange for the streets to be hosed down to cool them off, wash away the filth and try and keep the flies off the dead and dying horses pushed to the curb.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Heat Wave Sleeping Outdoors
Library of Congress

Photo Two:
Street Scene during New York City Heat Wave
Library of Congress

Photo Three:
Heat Wave in New York City, 1917
Library of Congress

Photo Four:
New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, ca: 1896
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
Hilborne Roosevelt
Noel Geer Seifert Photo

Photo Six:
Dead Horses, New York City, Heatwave, 1917
Library of Congress