When it gets sultry enough to kill, it's not the heat, and it's not the humidity. It's the housing.
Despite rumors you may have heard to the contrary, the world is not measurably hotter today than it was 100 years ago. Whether people die in heat waves is mostly a function of how poor and ignored they are, as Edward Kohn demonstrates in his recounting of the forgotten horror of August 1896 in New York, where in 10 days about 1,200 people died of heat-related troubles in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Kohn, a historian who teaches at Bilkent University in Turkey, is a specialist in Teddy Roosevelt, and "Hot Time in the Old Town" is as much about how Roosevelt's actions during the heat wave revived his political career as it is about the heat wave. This heat spell changed world history, since Kohn contends that Roosevelt was about to finish a term as president of the New York Police Commission "as a laughingstock," because of his enforcement of Sunday liquor laws.
Along came a spell of warm weather. It was not unusual for August, then or now. In fact, just before it began, the high temperature as reported by the Weather Bureau had been a mere 71 degrees. A few days later, the government thermometers were registering in the high 90s.
They never got to 100. Many 100-plus days have been reported since, so it might appear that, indeed, the globe, or at least the parts around New York Harbor, have warmed considerably. However, as newspapers noted at the time, the government thermometers were mounted high and bathed in cool breezes.
Down where the poor people lived, in airless tenements, whose bricks stored heat in the day and baked inmates at night, measured temperatures were at least 10 degrees hotter. In bedrooms, temperatures of 120 were usual. Physicians who took rectal temperatures of corpses routinely made readings of 110 degrees.
"HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN: THE GREAT HEAT WAVE OF 1896 AND THE MAKING OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT"
by Edward P. Kohn
(Basic, 288 pages, $27.95)
The '96 heat wave has been forgotten in popular memory, and Kohn says that even in historical treatments the death toll has been given as about 400. By comparing the 1895 and 1896 bills of mortality, he raises the toll to about 1,200, figuring that the excess was almost all due to heat in one way or another.
Babies and old people were most vulnerable, but laborers who should have been in the prime of life died in numbers, too.
The reason was, they weren't in their prime. The Panic of '93 was still on, and unemployment was high. Workmen could not take a day off, and they were paid so little that they could not afford decent housing (with windows) or ice, or fresh water.
Among the things Roosevelt did was to distribute hundreds of tons of ice from police stations on the Lower East Side. Kohn concludes that simple and cheap response - when other politicians considered that it was "not the business of government to take care of people," as President Grover Cleveland put it - saved hundreds of lives.
It may have cost hundreds and thousands of Filipino lives in the longer run, because his compassionate response to New York's dying poor helped propel the imperialist Roosevelt into the presidency, with global consequences. But that is another story.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.