July of 1911 was a scorcher in the Northeastern US. It was a humid heat. A kind that suffocated the body and drove a man insane. Temperatures rarely reached above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air was heavy and cities were poorly equipped to cope. This was before the time of widely distributed fans, and well before the time of air conditioning.

The death bell tolls

In New York City alone, the heatwave claimed the lives of 211 people. The New York Times reported that the humidity was largely to blame, “catching its victims in an exhausted state and killing all of them within the hours between 7 and 10 a.m.”

On July 7, temperatures returned to normal, but the humidity persisted. The total death count throughout the Northeast rose to 2,000 within a few weeks. Babies cried through the night. Some never woke up.

People did what they could to cope

When the heat was at its worst, people abandoned their apartments. Buildings were poorly designed for air flow. In Boston, 5,000 people slept in Boston Common because the stifling heat in their homes was unbearable. In New York, people slept outside in public spaces.

During the day, they sought shelter under the trees of Central and Battery Park. Can you imagine trying to work in such heat? All across New England, mail service was suspended and railway tracks buckled.

The insanity continues

The streets dove into anarchy. In Lower Manhattan, a young man went mad after spending hours trying to nap in a shady corner. He jumped off the pier and into the bay yelling “I can’t stand this any longer!” Another man with heat exhaustion tried to attack a policeman with a meat cleaver.

In Harlem, a laborer tried to throw himself in front of a train. He had to be wrestled to the ground by police and put into a straight jacket. The heat had literally driven the city insane.