"We're Having a Heat Wave"

08/05/2010 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The heat shimmers off the asphalt as day after day the thermometer tops the 90-degree mark. Humidity sits at a steamy 90 percent. People avoid walking on the sunny side of the street, desperate for a cool drink. At night, the poor crowd the rooftops and front stoops hoping to catch the faintest whisper of a breeze. Horse carcasses can be found on every block, with their bodies festering and bloating in the scorching heat.

Except for that last bit I might have been talking about this summer's extraordinarily hot weather. The recent spate of heat waves across the country is nothing to belittle, and in fact should remind us of the dangers of extreme heat. But the nation's worst heat wave, and one of the worst natural disasters in American history, actually took place in New York in August 1896. During a ten-day heat wave 1300 New Yorkers died. Especially hard hit were the city's working poor, with the average heat victim being an immigrant laborer living in a tenement. In a time of ten-hour workdays and six-day work weeks, New York's working poor literally worked themselves to death.

For a number of years, I have been researching Theodore Roosevelt's early political career in New York, attempting to poke holes in the western cowboy icon he has become. After all, here is a man born and raised in Manhattan, who had his early political career in New York. This includes his time as Police Commissioner from 1895-97. A few years ago I came across a letter he wrote to his sister Anna just after the heat wave ended. Roosevelt wrote his sister about the past week's "two excitements" in New York: the "heated term" and the Madison Square Garden speech of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. At first I thought that this was simply a wonderful convergence of events. Here was a key moment in American political history, being observed by Roosevelt only five years away from the White House, with a heat wave as a dramatic backdrop. But as I looked into the heat wave I realized that this was a horrific catastrophe, and one that has been completely forgotten.

The main archival source for Hot Time in the Old Town are thousands of death certificates filed in Manhattan and Brooklyn that tragic August. They paint a vivid picture of life and death among New York's poorest and vulnerable citizens. Perhaps the most heartbreaking are the records for the very youngest of the heat wave's victims. The first victim of the heat wave may have been fifteen-month old Hyman Goldman who had arrived with his parents from Russia nine months before. Having made it to New York the family moved into a decrepit tenement on Broome Street. Hyamn died from "exhaustion" on the heat wave's first day. Annie Botchkiss was born to Russian immigrants on August 6 in a rear tenement, and died after only five days, on August 11 at the height of the heat wave. A doctor was called when seven-month old Fannie Hertzberg fell ill on August 13, the last day of the heat wave. She held on for the next eight days and finally succumbed on August 21, on a day when the thermometer topped at a pleasant 71 degrees. Under the "Occupation" section of the death certificate, the doctor wrote "Infant."

I first sat down in the New York Municipal Archives to look at the death certificates in the summer of 2007, a year after my own daughter Alara was born. I remember coming across the batch of certificates filed by the doctor for the New York Foundling Hospital for abandoned babies. Page after page the microform reader revealed the deaths of achingly young infants: Sara, age one month, eight days; Janet, age one month; Francis, age one month, 22 days; and tiny baby Edward, age only 22 days. So far away from my own little baby, I almost cried.

The 1896 heat wave has been almost completely forgotten because we do not take heat waves very seriously. President Obama referred to the February 2010 snowstorm as "Snowmageddon," although only two people died. Pictures from the recent heat waves show children eating ice cream and frolicking in fountains. Yet heat is this country's number one disaster killer, on average killing more Americans than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined. With the summers only becoming hotter in the future, media, the government, and average citizens must work together to avoid another disaster on the scale of 1896 when the smallest and most helpless died.