The Slaughtering Sun: The Brutal Heat Wave of August 1896

"Sun is Slaughtering the People of the Great Cities," proclaimed a banner headline on the front page of The Evening Times on August 12, 1896. An extraordinary and unrelenting heat wave had spread over the entire eastern half of the United States, stretching from Chicago to Boston, lingering for more than two weeks and killing some 1,500 people. "When Will It Stop?" cried the anguished headline on the front page of The Evening Star on August 11. For more than two weeks, daytime temperatures had remained steadily in the upper 90s but were compounded by high humidity and relieved by little or no wind and only slight cooling at night.

The sweltering began when the temperature reached 94 degrees on July 27 and didn't break significantly until August 14. The physical heat punctuated the emotional heat of an intense presidential campaign between the populist Democratic firebrand, William Jennings Bryan, and the conservative midwestern Republican, William McKinley. The Democrats had chosen Bryan at their convention in early July after he gave his rousing speech against the gold standard, proclaiming "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

While gold-standard supporters and silver proponents duked it out in endless debates, the weather slowly began to take its toll. During the first days of August the heat seemed like just another typical summer hot spell. "IT'S TOO HOT TO BAKE BREAD this weather," advertised Prussian-born Charles Schneider on August 1, cheerfully volunteering that "We'll send you bread, rolls, biscuits, etc. fresh from the oven, every morning in time for breakfast if you wish." But within a few more days, no one was taking the subject lightheartedly.

View of Pennsylvania Avenue from the grounds of the Treasury Department on a hot summer day in 1897 (author's collection).
Wednesday, August 5, had been the hottest day of the year to that point, with the mercury reaching 96 degrees. "All nature was languid almost to prostration," The Washington Post reported. Men, women and children could be seen "gorging themselves with ice and unwholesome, cooling drinks." Pedestrians clung to the shady sides of streets, "wiping their perspiring brows, fanning themselves with hats, newspapers and other articles." Men congregated in barrooms, drinking beer under the artificial breeze of electric fans. The next day's heat grew more intense. By 1 pm on the 6th, "there were few thermometers at the street level which did not register 99 and 100 degrees," according to the Star.

Reporters began making daily treks to the Weather Bureau, located near the Capitol, where they begged the chief forecaster, Major Henry H.C. Dunwoody (1842-1933), for some hope of a respite. Every day Dunwoody, sweating as profusely as everybody else, gave the bad news. "There is no permanent relief from the heat in sight," he announced on August 7, wearing a wilted collar and crumpled cuffs, according to the Star. "There is not a cold wave anywhere in the country and the conditions do not promise anything of the sort."

Beyond staying out of the direct sun, experts advised wearing light clothing, avoiding cold drinks and stimulants, and taking frequent baths. "Too great an indulgence in cold drinks should be avoided as well as stimulants," the Star advised. "Persons who can eschew meat and coffee at breakfast and satisfy themselves with fruit and tea not too strong will find themselves better able to withstand the heat of the day. All stimulants should be declined... As little clothing should be worn as is consistent with appearances.... Above all things, keep the skin clean and the pores open. A bath in the morning, another before dinner and a third at bedtime will make life bearable even in weather as hot as we are having..."

One by one, ordinary Washingtonians began to succumb to heat stroke, and their stories in the newspapers served as ominous warnings to general populace. On the 9th, the Star wrote the sad story of Thomas Kelly, a 55-year-old Civil War veteran who had been suffering for several days. The previous evening, after enduring heat that reached 98 degrees or more, he felt listless and rather than eating supper he instead "made a quantity of ice water and drank it somewhat rapidly." He was soon seized with violent stomach cramps and died later that evening. "He Quaffed Ice Water" warned the newspaper's grim headline. Frightened readers were further reminded that "violent exercise, such as political arguments, scorching, rapid and long walking and filling up on iced things are the causes of the prostrations, sunstroke and deaths which are now being chronicled daily."

This advertisement for talcum powder ran in The Evening Star on August 8, 1896.
As with most of life's hardships, the poor suffered more than anyone else. Even the luxury of donning light summer clothing was largely beyond their reach. "Down in the alleys and up in the tenements women went about their hard domestic duties faint to the point of prostration, and babies and children panted for breath like animals" the Star reported. "To these poor plodders ice was an almost unknown luxury, and thin clothing a dream of wildest avarice, so they sought the nearest pumps and wore as few rags as the law would allow. It was among these miserable creatures that the heat was felt in the most merciless character, and when they crept out into the parks and reservations and sought surcease beneath the shade of the trees even the policemen failed to disturb them."

Pedestrians on Washington's sizzling streets began putting wet sponges under their hats, and "those who could procure them used wet cabbage leaves," according to the Post. Another popular source of relief was riding the open streetcars on the city's cable and electric routes. The Washington & Georgetown Railroad had begun running cable cars on 7th Street, 14th Street, and Pennsylvanian Avenue in 1890, and its largest rival, The Metropolitan Railroad, had started electric streetcar service on its lines in the mid 1890s. These modern cable and electric cars could run as fast as 10 or 11 miles per hour, and during the summer special cars were used that were completely open on the sides with rows of benches running across the width of the cars. These open cars offered at some fleeting relief from the still hot air. The Post reported on August 10 that large numbers of people "devoted hours to riding in the grip and electric cars, which, while in motion, made the passengers tolerably comfortable, but the moment the cars stopped to take on passengers, torrid waves of heat rolled up from the pavement in their faces, causing perspiration to start from every pore in their bodies and rendering them miserable. Nevertheless the cars were crowded until a late hour at night."

A typical "open" streetcar of the type used during the summer.  See also the photo of Pennsylvania Avenue above. (Source: Robert A. Truax collection, courtesy of Jerry A. McCoy.)
One of the heat wave's first victims had been a bricklayer named Charles J. Morrison who was riding an open car on the Eckington & Soldiers Home line around 6 pm on August 5, presumably on his way home from work. The hot day toiling in the sun must have been too much for him, because he "was overcome by heat, and fell from his seat. Morrison's head struck the cobble stones and he fell with his arm on the rail, so that the moving car passed over his wrist, crushing it," according to the Post. The injured man was taken away to the hospital, hopefully to survive the calamity.

Animals and crops suffered as much as humans. Maryland farmers found their cornstalks, which earlier in the season had shown promise of a bumper crop, to be withering in the fields. Cows, unable to find adequate pasturage, produced little milk, threatening a "milk famine." By August 8, four horses of the Eckington & Soldiers Home line (one of the few D.C. streetcar companies that still used horsepower) were overcome with heat exhaustion, and the company had to reduce the frequency of service to protect the horses. When the Emergency Hospital's faithful ambulance horse, Frank, fell ill from heat exhaustion that day, the outpouring of concern may have been greater than for any of the human victims he helped transport. Fortunately Frank recovered ("There was rejoicing when he improved," the Post reported), and he soon returned to service.

The prolonged physical stress from heat exposure could cause illness suddenly. While the elderly and inform were clearly vulnerable, so were younger and healthier individuals who didn't notice the heat's cumulative effect. Every day the newspapers ran stories of people collapsing and dying in the midst of their daily routines. Milkman Jeremiah Collins succumbed one day while he was making his rounds, as did Navy Yard mechanic John W. Stahl, who fell ill on the job and later died at his nearby home. On Monday the 10th, thirty-year-old Kate Fortune, who owned a restaurant on N Street, went out to do shopping in anticipation of a trip to the country later in the week. She fell ill on returning home and, despite the frantic ministrations of servants and doctors, died within a few hours. One of the saddest cases was that of John Maroney, a mechanic whose wife had given birth just two days earlier. On August 10 he got up early to go to work and cooked himself breakfast in the family's kitchen, sitting down to eat. His wife and newborn child were lying ill in an adjoining room. Several hours later Maroney's mother-in-law found him slumped over dead in the kitchen chair. Apparently he had been quite exhausted, and the extra heat of cooking breakfast resulted in fatal heat stroke.

Not everyone died, of course. Little ten-year-old Robert Croff was playing in Garfield Park when he collapsed, but he was taken by ambulance to nearby Providence Hospital and survived. John Leonhardt collapsed at the bar where he worked at Seventh and G Streets NW one afternoon and was taken to Emergency Hospital, where his temperature was found to be 109. "He was rubbed with ice and digitalis and strychnine administered," according to The Washington Post. "Under vigorous treatment the temperature gradually fell, until, by 3 o'clock, it had been reduced to 103, and last evening the patient was pronounced out of danger" (out of danger from the heat, anyway).

From The Evening Star, August 9, 1896.
Some people chose intoxication as a means of relief. Women, who, unlike men, couldn't go to saloons to drink beer, were nevertheless free to stop by the soda fountains at their local drugstores. A Washington Post reporter on August 9 observed women enter an unnamed drugstore on Pennsylvania Avenue and order "wine of cocoa" and calisaya, two tonics containing 15 to 20 percent alcohol. According to the soda fountain attendant, either drink if "properly taken" offered "artificial strength to combat the heat," but which were often consumed in excess, in which case they were "just as intoxicating as whisky and much more injurious." A wealth of information, this attendant went on to confide that some women also resorted to drinking cologne, which offered a 50 percent alcohol ratio. Men too would drop by the drugstore soda fountain, particularly on Sundays when the saloons were closed. Their favorite beverage was Jamaica ginger, another intoxicant as strong as whiskey. Whiskey drinkers would "come to us and buy 25 cents worth of Jamaica ginger, take it home and dilute it with ice water and sweeten it with sugar. By the time the bottle is empty they feel as if all the saloons in the city had been open and visited."

The newspapers continued to report the sad stories of the heat's victims through the 13th, when the mercury reached 95 degrees. But late that afternoon a torrential thunderstorm swept through the area, lowering the temperature to 76 degrees by 6pm. The heat wave had finally broken. The next day the Star ran a small article near the bottom of its front page entitled "Hot Wave Subsiding." Much more prominent in the news that day were rumors that McKinley might start campaigning around the country to match Bryan's efforts. The heat of the presidential campaign was still rising.

* * * * *

You can read more about the fascinating history of streetcars in Washington in my new book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, D.C., which will be released by The History Press on September 14, 2015.

I am indebted to my good friends at the New England Historical Society who wrote about the effect of the 1896 heat wave on New England and inspired me to research its impact on D.C. Additional sources included Kevin Ambrose, et al., Washington Weather: The Weather Sourcebook for the D.C. Area (2002); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capitol, 1800-1950 (1962); and numerous newspaper articles.

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