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Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt

3.18  ·  Rating Details ·  219 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
One of the worst natural disasters in American history, the 1896 New York heat wave killed almost 1,500 people in ten oppressively hot days. The heat coincided with a pitched presidential contest between William McKinley and the upstart Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who arrived in New York City at the height of the catastrophe. As historian Edward P. Kohn shows, Bryan’s ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published July 27th 2010 by Basic Books (first published July 16th 2010)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Sep 13, 2010 Alicia rated it really liked it
Unlike the book "Devil in the White City", This book really talked about what the title states. For a while I was getting annoyed because there was lots of talk of this "Bryan" guy, but it ended up being relevant and very interesting.

In 1896 there was about 10 days in NYC when the temperatures didn't come down out of the high 80's. In the middle of the day, the temps would reach the high 90's. While that doesn't seem so bad to those living in AZ, the author goes on to describe what 80% or 90% hu
Nov 30, 2014 Dominic rated it it was ok
Hot Time in the Old Town tells the story of a forgotten natural disaster. Edward P. Kohn makes the case that a heat wave is one of the most deadly natural disasters, particularly in the tenement districts of New York City in the 19th century. The tales of suffering due to the heat wave are not detailed due to the nature of the medical record keeping and Kohn often describes the same scenes of dead horses in the street. The book is repetitive at times. Kohn also does not exactly talk about how th ...more
Sep 23, 2010 Anna rated it it was ok
This book is an unfortunate example of overambition. Hot Time in the Old Town, in addition to being an earworm for anyone who ever went to Girl Scout camp, attempts to tell three interlocking story: the rise of Theodore Roosevelt's political career, the collapse of William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential campaign, and the forgotten tale of a ten-day stretch in August of that year when the heat index in New York City remained well over 100 degrees, due to a disastrous combination of high tempe ...more
Aug 09, 2011 Christian rated it it was ok
I wanted to love this book. I think my expectations were too high. One of the reasons I picked this book was because of Roosevelt, sadly there was less of Roosevelt and more of William Jennings Bryan. While Bryan is an interesting historical figure, the book clearly states in the title "the Making of Theodore Roosevelt" while it should have been "the Unmaking of William Jennings Bryan." Honestly, I don't care that much about the bi-metalism debate. What I do care about is the suffering the occur ...more
Aug 03, 2011 Amy rated it it was ok
This book seemed timely, given the current meteorological and political climate. Unfortunately it was less about the heat wave and it's impact on Roosevelt than it was about the downfall of the political ambitions of William Jennings Bryan. The author should have chosen a different title.

It was an interesting read, but definitely not the one I was looking for when I purchased this book. A book about the 1896 heat wave and how it impacted Theodore Roosevelt... now that's a book I'd like to read.
Hot Time in the Old Town tonight tells the story of the 1896 Heat Wave in NYC and provides a good look at how the urban poor of New York were affected by the heat wave. It also intertwines the presidential election of 1896 and William Jennings Bryan speech in NYC during that week and the rise to prominence of Theodore Roosevelt with the actions he took to distribute ice during the crisis and reverse his unpopularity over the enforcement of various laws banning the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Roos ...more
Jan 19, 2011 Travis rated it really liked it
I read "Hot Time in the Old Town" in four days, and for most of that time it was hard to put down (the ending dragged a bit). The book purports to be about the critical period of Theodore Roosevelt's life when he was a NYC police commissioner (during which time the heat wave of August 1896 killed thousands), but it ended up being less about Roosevelt than about the horrors of tenement life, the William Jennings Bryan / William McKinley race for president--and of course, the events leading up to ...more
Aspen Junge
Dec 07, 2011 Aspen Junge rated it liked it
Imagine the heat wave we went through in July 2011. Now imagine it without air conditioning. Or electric fans. Or refrigeration. Or building codes that said you have to be able to open a window for ventilation, and city services that said garbage will be collected in a timely manner. That's what the heat wave of 1896 was like in New York City (and the Midwest and East Coast). While the "official" temperatures never got much above the mid 90s, the city's heat island effect made the heat at ground ...more
Oct 09, 2010 Jennie rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I originally picked up Hot Time in the Old Town after hearing an interview with the author on Terry Gross's Fresh Air. As someone who is interested in accounts of our past, particularly those that resonate with our present times, I found the book to be uneven (hence the three star rating).

Far and away, the best parts of this book are those that take the reader into the dark and dank tenements and illustrate in rich detail the cramp and stifling conditions. Kohn draws upon contemporary reports fr
Aug 18, 2011 Camrose rated it it was ok
The editor was AWOL; the book is layered with repetition. The title is annoyingly misleading: it is really about (a) the heat wave and (b) the undoing of the Democratic nominee William Bryan. Kohn tries to argue that the latter resulted from the former but from the facts he presents it is clear that the heat wave was at most a contributing factor. Likewise, he tries to suggest that the heat wave contributed to the political rise of Roosevelt, who was chief police commissioner in New York City at ...more
Eric Rasmussen
Oct 17, 2010 Eric Rasmussen rated it liked it
I love a good piece of disaster non-fiction. Unfortunately, this was only one third disaster non-fiction. The majority of this book is about Teddy Roosevelt and the presidential campaign between William Jennings Bryan and McKinley. For history buffs, no doubt, a pretty exciting campaign. For me, it all seemed pretty run of the mill. It also didn't help that I don't fully understand the major issue of the day, switching from the gold standard.

But all of this is quite beside the point, because wha
Apr 15, 2011 Alix rated it it was ok
I REALLY wanted to like this book and was so very disappointed...
I was looking forward to learning all about Teddy Roosevelt and what "made" him become the politician that he was, but I didn't really get much out of the book in this regard. Mr. Kohn spent a lot of time talking about the other politicians and some of the extenuating circumstances surrounding the era. I expected some of the background material to be mentioned (tenement houses, life of the poor at the turn of the century, etc.), bu
Patrick Sprunger
Edward P. Kohn has a strange little book here.

Though the talk on the book tour is tantalizing, the author's interviews are basically summaries of Hot Time. If you heard Mr. Kohn on Fresh Air, like I did, you've essentially already experienced everything the reader will find within Hot Time's 250 or so pages. Reading the book is little more than formal consummation of an (admittedly) good interview.

But that doesn't speak to what is strange about Hot Time in the Old Town. The subtitle reads: "The
Jan 06, 2013 Peggie rated it it was ok
This was the most disorganized book I have ever read. I'm not sure why I continued to read it but I did finish.

First, the title is misleading. It is about the heat wave in New York in 1896 during the presidential convention, but there is very little about Teddy Roosevelt. Certainly not enough to have that as a subtitle.

Second, this books skips all over the place. He follows Bryan from Nebraska to NY on the train and metnions how hot it is and how tired he is when he gets there. This is intersp
Christina Dudley
Mar 17, 2012 Christina Dudley rated it really liked it
As a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, death, and disaster (in books, at least), HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN hit a sweet spot for me. I also knew almost zip about William Jennings Bryan and found the account of his political momentum hitting a (baking) brick wall in New York's Madison Square Garden very interesting. My only previous book encounters with turn-of-the-century tenements came via 97 ORCHARD and ALL-OF-A-KIND-FAMILY, in which all families involved had it better than the poorest of the poor, who su ...more
Kater Cheek
Dec 21, 2010 Kater Cheek rated it it was ok
This was the worst sort of book--not good enough that I really enjoyed reading it, but not bad enough to take it to the library. I am not the right audience for this book; I'm not nerdy enough. It deals with the heat wave of 1986, and with the political campaign heating up (ha ha) that year in New York.

One of the issues with this book is that it is not really a book about Theodore Roosevelt as much as it is about William Jennings Bryan. If I already knew a lot about both politicians, and wanted
Jan 08, 2011 Caroline rated it it was ok
Felt like I was reading a college thesis. A well-researched college thesis, but a college thesis nonetheless. The central premise of this book -- a heat wave affecting the eventual result of multiple presidential elections -- is compelling, but doesn't quite work. There's a lot of speculation ("This might have been..."), repetition, and grasping for straws. Kohn awkwardly tries to prove points on multiple occasions in the manner of a five-paragraph essay, with enough "First..." and "Finally..." ...more
Oct 22, 2014 Elizabeth rated it liked it
It's hard to believe there's a book about New York City and Theodore Roosevelt which only garners three stars from me. It's not badly's simply that it would have been fascinating at half the length.

It's 1896 in New York. There's a heat wave. People are dying. Theodore Roosevelt in working with the police commission. William Jennings Bryan is going to speak at Madison Square Garden.

It's a heat wave.

Simply more than I needed to know.
Martin Ortiz
Jan 22, 2014 Martin Ortiz rated it liked it
A very interesting story, tepidly told. Not really about Theodore Roosevelt, the name was probably tossed into the title to generate interest there. The narration jumps around a bit, repeats itself. A worthwhile read if you are interested in the times. (1896 in New York does hold my interest, so I gave it three stars. Two and a half otherwise). I did learn something about heat waves - they kill a lot more than tornadoes, hurricanes or floods. I did learn about Bryan's flailing about in his 1896 ...more
Daniel Kukwa
Jan 21, 2011 Daniel Kukwa rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
"Hot Time" is a book that dips into one of my favourite periods of history with all the concise, straightforward attitude I have come to appreciate. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, it gets to its point with scarcely a wasted word, and it offers just enough juicy background detail to keep the reader turning the pages.

If there’s one weakness to Edward Kohn’s book, it’s the lack of further exploration of the conflict between the rural, mid-west view of life in the United States, compared to the ri
Nov 01, 2010 Rachel rated it it was ok
Well, I started reading this book but got board with it becouse for page after page it wasn't about the heat wave. The author went on and on about the upcoming 1896 presidental elections, which as far as I could tell had almost nothing to do with the heat wave. I also got Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangsterfrom the library about the same time and was quickly hooked by it. I never got back to Hot Time before it was due back at the library. I hope to check it o ...more
Frances Graff
Dec 17, 2015 Frances Graff rated it liked it
Historical read about New York during a heatwave and how teddy Roosevelt dealt with the tenement dwellers who were brutally affected. Perhaps Ne w Yorks current mayor could pick up some tips on how to treat the homeless. Interesting statistics but somewhat repetitively delivered chapter after chapter. Still worth a look.
Len Roberto
Aug 28, 2016 Len Roberto rated it really liked it
interesting and unknown to me episode in new York history...brutal killing heat that took over 1000 lives in august 1896.
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Although ostensibly focused on Roosevelt, this is is a parallel story of William Jennings Bryan and TR, using 1896 New York's stifling and deadly summer as the turning point--while Bryan killed his campaign with a conservative speech in Madison Square Garden reflecting his horror at the crowded and ugly city, TR was working his job as Commissioner of Police to harness the corrupt city government into distributing ice and finding creative ways to get the dead horses out of the street. Of course, ...more
Aug 08, 2012 Kivrin rated it liked it
I bought this because it was supposedly about a period of time in Teddy Roosevelt's life. Unfortunately, he wasn't the center of the story. In fact, neither was the NYC heat wave of 1896, although that was covered in more detail. It was more about the presidential race of the day, and William Jennings Bryan's downfall. Don't get me wrong. It was a good read--fascinating to see how different the political process was back then. I just wish the heat wave aspect could have been more than just facts ...more
Douglas Perry
Mar 03, 2011 Douglas Perry rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
If you thought, after Edmund Morris, David McCullough, Candice Millard and Douglas Brinkley, that there was no crevice in Theodore Roosevelt's life left to explore, well ... looks like you were right. Edward Kohn tries to plump up the importance of a disastrous New York heat wave in Roosevelt's development into presidential timber, but it's just not believable. Worse yet, the book reads like a Ph.D dissertation from a low-rent state school -- that is, it's dry and repetitive. The insights are fe ...more
Aug 28, 2010 David rated it really liked it
Very interesting history of a pivotal week in American history. Kohn finds in Chief Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt's active, responsible response to the natural disaster of a phenomenal heat wave the beginning of a paradigm shift in government's role. Kohn also identifies the turning point in William Jennings Bryan's campaign for the presidency. Best of all Kohn exposes the dreadful conditions in which poor tenement dwellers struggled to live at the turn of the century. During normal tim ...more
Aug 10, 2011 Sandra rated it really liked it
Given the heat here and the heatwave in the U.S., this was an appropriate summer read. It was very interesting indeed as far as painting a picture of the time, although I'd argue that at least an equal part of the book is devoted to following the McKinley-Bryan campaign events as is to Roosevelt and the heat.

It's one of those books that you read and then reference obnoxiously to others incessantly because you found it so enjoyable and interesting.
Kathy Halsan
Jan 15, 2011 Kathy Halsan rated it liked it
Shelves: have-read
Although the book title includes Theodore Roosevelt, the book is only partially about him. The star of the book is a heat wave in the midwest and east coast that left a swath of death and distruction during the an important event in the presidential campaingn of William Jennings Bryan. Political junkies will enjoy this book and possibly come to the same realization tht I did. The mud slinging and money are nothing new.
Marilyn Getts
Dec 12, 2010 Marilyn Getts rated it really liked it
As a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, I was ready to like this book and it did not disappoint. Anyone who thinks that a "safety net" is not necessary and that charitable organizations can handle emergencies should read this account. Another key issue of allowing flexibility and judgement based on the conditions on the ground are analyzed here and are the same problems as now. Readable History.
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A political and diplomatic historian.

Assistant professor of American history and chair of the American Culture and Literature Department at Bilkent University in Turkey. He earned his PhD from McGill University.
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