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Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt Hardcover – July 27, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For 10 hellishly hot days in August 1896, the poorly ventilated tenement blocks of immigrant New York were transformed into massive ovens: horses dropped dead in the streets and nearly 1,300 people perished. That same week, William Jennings Bryan, a promising prairie populist from Nebraska and the Democratic Party's choice for president, launched his opposition to William McKinley and set out on a cross-country campaign tour, and a police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt hosed down the streets, desperately trying to bring down the temperatures. Kohn (The Kindred People), professor of American studies and literature at Bilkent University in Turkey, splices these stories together, but the union feels forced, and any correlation of Bryan's downfall (a clumsy, momentum-killing speech at Madison Square Garden) with the heat wave is tenuous. "It is in the nature of heat waves to kill slowly," writes Kohn, "with no physical manifestation, no property damage, and no single catastrophic event that markets them as a disaster." He succeeds in bringing this little-known tragedy to light, but it is weakened rather than strengthened by the addition of an election narrative.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Writing about a torrid August 1896 in New York City, historian Kohn recounts the political backdrop to a disaster that eventually took about 1,300 lives. Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan arrives to deliver a speech he hopes will unify a party split on the issue of minting silver, while Theodore Roosevelt, then a city police commissioner, ingratiates himself with Republican Party power brokers. The populace of the metropolis, meanwhile, goes about its business. As temperatures rise into triple digits for an eventual 10-day heat wave, Kohn narrates its effects on pavement and buildings, especially Manhattan’s squalid tenements, with supplementary information about the strain excessive heat places on the human body. Depicting the spike in mortality and a toll of horses and dogs dead in the streets, Kohn switches from Bryan’s rally on a suffocating night to Roosevelt’s multitude of activities in the election campaign and the unfolding civic crisis. Arguing that the patrician Roosevelt’s interactions with the other half reinforced his reformist bent, Kohn provides an able historical illustration of contingency’s unexpected influence on political events. --Gilbert Taylor

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (July 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465013368
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465013364
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #449,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This was an impulse purchase a week or so ago, and I'm VERY glad indeed that I didn't start reading it until the hot weather broke (briefly) in New York this past weekend, as it's the chilling (sorry, bad pun) story of the 1896 New York heatwave that killed thousands, mostly poor working men and infants.

Kohn begins his story of a week in August by describing a horrific death toll of another kind -- the result of a railway crash. To New Yorkers, by the time the 19th century was drawing to a close, it seemed as if natural disasters had been replaced by those associated with man-made phenomena of various kinds -- until the heat wave struck, and they were reminded forcibly that some things, like the weather, can't always be conquered.

But the best thing about this book isn't the chronicle of misery during the heatwave, but the way Kotman weaves that horrifying story of death (including the deaths of horses in the streets, left to rot for days...) into the political climate of the day. At first, I was tempted to ask what the connection was, other than that of timing -- the presidential nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties had recently been selected -- but Kohn quickly makes clear where he's going. He's telling the story of the way in which the heatwave indirectly contributed to the end of the political ambitions of populist demagogue William Jennings Bryan, whose campaign hit the skids in New York on the same day that the heat wave peaked, for reasons that Kotman argues have as much to do with the heatwave as with Bryan's own unwelcome opinions. (There's a lot here about the battle to add silver as a reserve currency, and bimetallism, which is interesting, if you care to forge through it.
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By iHappy on September 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title indicates that the book will show how the New York heat wave of August 1896 influenced the political career of Theodore Roosevelt. If that really is the author's intent, then the book is a frustrating failure. TR is a tangential figure in the narrative, no matter how many anecdotes the author tells about Roosevelt's tenure as president of the police commission. In fact, the book only shows one effect of the heat wave: that people suffered, including those who attended William Jennings Bryan's speech at Madison Square Garden, and Bryan himself. The author suggests that the poor speech derailed Bryan's chances of winning the election, but there is no evidence for that assertion.

On the other hand, perhaps the title was some sort of editorial compromise, because the majority of the text covers a slice of 1896 presidential campaign politics. The heat wave figures in to the campaign, we are told, because of its effect on Bryan and those around him, but the political effects of the heat are not as prominent in the book as the personal tragedies of random New Yorkers that get tossed into the book every few pages or so. The repetition is numbing and boring, but it is the sense of padding that really distracts the reader. The book seems little more than story after story about the campaign, punctuated with tales of heat wave victims, none of it tied into a cohesive whole. Even at the end, the author makes assertions about TR and Bryan that are unsupported by the text.

In fact, nothing is supported in the text. There is a bibliography, but it is more like a list of suggested works for further reading. The book has no footnotes, and there is no way to verify the author's work.
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Format: Hardcover
Most people don't know it happened. However, in 1896, a scorching 10-day temperature wave killed almost 1,500 New Yorkers. It also likely created the reputation of a young police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt.

Kohn, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, writes about this little known natural disaster, "The average victim of the heat wave was a workingman, probably Irish, living in the most impoverished and squalid of conditions," Professor Kohn writes. "As he and his brethren died, the philanthropists of the Progressive Era called for reform on all levels: of working conditions and work hours, of housing conditions, of sanitary conditions, of government conditions that allowed corruption and of economic conditions that had made New Yorkers of August 1896 so susceptible to death and disease in the first place."

At the time, there was a citywide prohibition on sleeping in New York City's parks. Kohn says one of the easiest things the city could have done was remove the law, allowing people a place to sleep away from their overheated homes. Until the very last days of the crisis, the city government did very little to help its poorest residents survive the heat wave.

This book describes the desperate measures that New Yorkers took to stay cool, including the dangerous acts of sleeping on rooftops, window ledges and piers. It's sad at times and heroic at others. Overall, it's a very human book that tells the forgotten tales of surviving during a difficult time.
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