On May 10, 1896 most of the Eastern US was over 90 degrees. New Bedford, Massachusetts was 96 degrees, which was 43 degrees warmer than the previous day’s forecast high, but the worst was yet to come. A heat wave during July and August, 1896 was at that time the worst weather-related tragedy in American history. By the time it ended in mid-August, 1500 deaths from the Midwest to New York to New England had been recorded.
During a period of ten excessively hot days in early August 1896, New York City was transformed into a massive oven where over a thousand people died. Historian Edward Kohn credits the heat wave with launching Teddy Roosevelt’s political career as a progressive New York governor and president of the United States.
“It was a little-known police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt who championed the efforts to help New Yorkers survive the heat. Roosevelt champions the idea of the city giving away free ice to the poorest people living on the Lower East Side, and he personally supervises the distribution of ice. And after the ice was distributed, Roosevelt took it upon himself to tour the back alleys of some of the worst tenement districts in the United States to see how people were using the ice…. I can’t think how many American presidents have had such intimate contact with the urban poor.”
The residents of New England didn’t escape the heat. In June 1896, Revere Beach had opened as the first public beach in the nation. Only a few weeks later, tens of thousands fled to the beach to escape the heat. Also in June of that year the first streetcar arrived in Ipswich, mercifully offering effortless shaded transportation that may have saved dozens of lives.
On Tuesday, August 11, 1896 the Boston Globe reported ten fatalities in the city from the heat, twenty the following day, and fifteen more on the 13th when the heat wave finally subsided.
Fifteen years later, the record for heat-related fatalities was broken. In June and July, 1911 an eleven-day heat wave recorded temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in which two thousand people died, some from drowning trying to cool off. On July 11, crowds gathered in the shade at Hartford City Hall watched the Thermograph fluctuate between 110 and 112 degrees.
In Boston, 346 lives were lost to the heat. Crowded housing and limited recreational facilities created competition between ethnic groups. At the L Street Bath and Beach located in South Boston, Irish bathers were incensed at seeing Jews, Italians, and other “foreigners” in their bathhouse.
Nearby Salem had the highest rate of death based on percentage of population in Massachusetts, with 37 heat-related deaths recorded. Estimated as high as 2000 deaths throughout New England, the number of casualties in the 1911 heat wave exceeded those of any hurricane or blizzard in New England history.
During the “Dust Bowl” summer of 1936 the middle section of North America was hit by record temperatures which briefly reached the Eastern Seaboard. In New York City, which experienced a record high of 106 degrees, 75 seamstresses collapsed in one factory. By the end of the summer, an estimated 1000 to 5000 residents of the U.S. and Canada had died from heat-related causes or drowned in rivers and lakes.
July 1936 remains the warmest U.S. month ever measured, and February 1936 is the coldest February on record for the contiguous U.S. Record-breaking temperatures in Boston, Providence, and Hartford set in 1936 stood until the summer of 2017.
Sources and further reading:
- New England Historical Society: The Heat Wave of 1896 Kills 1,500
- New England Historical Society: The 1911 Heat Wave Was So Deadly It Drove People Insane
- NPR: The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt
- Edward P. Kohn, “Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt”
- NBC 10: History of New England heat waves can be deadlier than hurricanes or blizzards
- Hartford Courant: In 1911, Deadly Heat Settles Over Northeast
- Old Farmer’s Almanac: 1936 Heat Wave