Another Deadly Chicago Heat Wave: 1916

Scroll down or click these links for appendixes on CHICAGO MORTALITY TRENDS and WEATHER RECORDS; and SOURCE NOTES.

THIS MONTH—JULY 2020—WAS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF CHICAGO’S MOST NOTORIOUS HEAT WAVE, which killed an estimated 700 people during a scorching week in 1995. While that tragedy is well documented, a similar catastrophe from earlier in the city’s history is largely forgotten: In the summer of 1916, several hundred people died during one of the hottest stretches of weather Chicago had ever seen. Depending on how you calculate the death toll, it may have been more than a thousand.

On July 29, 1916, the telephone rang over and over again at the desk of Charles Forsberg, a clerk in the Cook County coroner’s office.

“It kept ringing constantly for nearly two hours at one stretch, as the doctors turned in report after report of deaths caused by the heat,” Forsberg told the Chicago Daily News. “I felt myself beginning to grow faint as I sat at the instrument and sank to the floor. The next thing I knew other clerks were throwing water over my face and head.”1

Meanwhile, dozens of patients were arriving at Cook County Hospital suffering from heat prostration. Most of them were comatose. “I have touched patients whose skins felt like hot roast,” said Dr. Karl Meyer, the hospital’s medical warden.2

Even before the worst of the heat struck Chicago, July 1916 had already been hot and unusually sunny. From July 1 through July 25, temperatures averaged 3.9 degrees above normal.

Note how the blue lines—showing the range of temperatures each day—go completely above the normal temperature range during a few days in late July 1916. This graphic was generated by xmACIS2, an online weather data tool by the Regional Climate Centers, the National Centers for Environmental Information, and the National Weather Service.

Not a single cloud was seen blocking the sun in the skies over the Loop from July 3 through July 11, as meteorologists recorded nine straight days with 100 percent of possible sunshine, setting a new all-time record for Chicago. And it didn’t rain much that July—only 2.2 inches, or 61 percent of the usual rainfall.3

A wall of hot winds and tropical humidity, which the weather experts called a “Bermuda High,” swept up from the Atlantic Ocean across the continent.4 Although Lake Michigan often helps to cool off Chicago during warm weather, that didn’t happen during this heat wave.

“The city has suffered for want of lake breezes,” Charles L. Mitchell, a forecaster at the federal Weather Bureau’s observatory in the Loop, told the Daily News. “Winds have been mostly from the south and southwest, and our advantageous position by the lake has not operated in our favor.” 5

In mid-July, newspapers began reporting about people dying from the heat. 6 City health officials counted seven such deaths during the week of July 16 to 22.7 In that one week, Chicago surpassed its tally for 1915, when only four people had died from “effects of heat” during the entire year.8

Another stretch of days with 100 percent sunshine began on July 21, 1916.3

“PEOPLE OUGHT NOT STAY INDOORS,” warned the city librarian, Henry E. Legler.9 He had good reason for offering that advice—Chicago’s indoor spaces were stiflingly hot.

Air conditioning would not become common in American homes until decades later,10 and only a few buildings in Chicago had effective cooling systems in 1916: Meatpacking companies near the Union Stock Yard had coolers where beef was stored at a temperature of 38 degrees.11 And hotels in the Loop cooled their restaurants with early versions of air-conditioning technology, using “washed ice air” and carbon dioxide coils,12 and keeping cafés at 65 or 70 degrees.

When the Cook County coroner urged hotels to relax their rule requiring men to wear coats in restaurants during the heat wave, hotel managers said, “Oh, they would be chilly with their coats off.” But the Daily News reported that hotels did give special permission for men to remove their coats inside the less fancy grill rooms and cafés where the presence of women was forbidden.1

How could you cool off during a heat wave in 1916? City health officials offered advice to Chicagoans: “If you feel dizzy, weak and exhausted, seek the shade, lie down and wet your head. Drink buttermilk and lemonade. Drink plenty of water. It will make you sweat and help to keep you cool.”13

Chicagoans might get some relief by using electric fans, which were becoming more common in the early 20th century.14 Marshall Field & Co. was selling an eight-inch oscillating fan for $10.50 (adjusted for inflation, $250 in today’s dollars). “Make possible the instant production, day and night, of a cooling breeze,” an advertisement for the Loop department store promised.15

During the 1916 heat wave, many Chicago stores sold out of electric fans.4

An advertisement in the Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1916.

But electricity itself was still something of a novelty—only a third of Chicago families had electrical power in their homes, according to historian Harold L. Platt’s book The Electric City.16 As the Chicago Daily Tribune noted, “ice and electric fans were little known” in the city’s “congested districts.”4

People without electrical power in their homes might buy fans with motors powered by alcohol or gas17 A Chicago company called Lake Breeze Motor was selling one such device. “Runs on Alcohol,” an advertisement explained. “Why swelter when you can Keep Cool Day or Night for a Nickel.”18

An advertisement in the Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1916.

Buying blocks of ice was another way of cooling off. “Don’t forget that ice is salvation to babies,” the Chicago Department of Health declared—a piece of advice published in the Chicago Defender.19

The city had 2,771 licensed ice dealers in 1916, many of them using horse-drawn wagons. Chicago—with a population of 2.5 million people—used 2 million tons of ice a year. More than half of it was cut from 50 lakes and rivers in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin during the winter and then stored until summer, but an increasing amount came from about 30 local ice-manufacturing plants.20

During the 1916 heat wave, there weren’t enough drivers to deliver ice to everyone who wanted it.21 And the horses pulling ice wagons were collapsing from the heat—as many as 200 reportedly died in just one day.22

Describing the West Side’s densely populated immigrant neighborhoods, the Tribune observed: “In many cases the poorer homes have no place to keep more than twenty-five or fifty pounds of ice at a time and this supply is soon exhausted.”23

In the South Chicago neighborhood, police arrested 12-year-old Johnnie Kurtz when he picked up a piece of ice in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad yards. According to the Tribune, Johnnie’s mother had been longing for some ice to cool off her eight children in the family’s small apartment at 3208 East 93rd Street.24

Lake Michigan’s waters were another source of relief, and Chicagoans flocked to the beaches. After several people drowned, local officials hurried to train more lifeguards.25

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Drowning was a common peril in Chicago during that era: An average of 131 people died each year in accidental drownings from 1900 to 1920, plus an average of 17 drownings ruled as suicides. (These figures don’t include the 812 people who perished when the Eastland excursion ship capsized in the Chicago River in 1915.)26

In comparison, 25 people drowned off Chicago’s lakefront in 2019, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.27

THE TEMPERATURE INCHED UP PAST 80 between 2 and 3 a.m. on Wednesday, July 26, 1916. It was not an extraordinarily hot day, with a high of just 89 degrees. But as night fell, the mercury in thermometers barely budged. It was still 84 degrees at midnight.

That was the beginning of a five-day stretch when the temperature never dropped below that 80-degree mark on the thermometer, depriving Chicagoans of any chance to cool off at nighttime.

Up until this moment in history, Chicago had never experienced a day when the thermometer stayed above 81.7 degrees during an entire 24-hour period. The city broke that record on Thursday, July 27, 1916, when the temperature never got any lower than 82. That was the reading on the government’s thermometer at 6 a.m.3

It was another cloudless day, and the wind was blowing five miles an hour from the northeast. “For a day the name ‘Windy City’ was a lie,” the Tribune remarked. “There wasn’t even enough breeze to put the wave in heat wave, so the torridity just stuck.”28 The temperature reached a high of 100 at 12:48 p.m. before going back down to 99 degrees eight minutes later.

The Day Book, July 27, 1916.

The U.S. government’s official thermometer was in the top floor of the Chicago Federal Building, a 297-foot-high structure in the block bounded by Adams, Clark, and Dearborn Streets and Jackson Boulevard—now the site of the Chicago Federal Center plaza.29

Chicago Federal Building, circa 1910.
Chicago Daily News photos from 1921 and 1922 show U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologists at work on the roof of the Chicago Federal Building. From left: Charles A. Donnel and Professor Henry J. Cox with equipment on the roof; Cox and a Professor Haynes standing on a platform; and Professor Haynes standing near the ledge with a sun recorder. Photos posted with permission from the Chicago History Museum (Collection IDs: DN-0075004, DN-0073438, DN-0073436). See the Chicago Collections website for more images.

But it was hotter on the streets below. When the official reading up in the tower was 100, a thermometer on the street registered 103.4 An office boy tried to gauge the heat in a sunny spot on Halsted Street, but his thermometer only went up to 110—and the temperature seemed to be higher. Some people in outlying neighborhoods said their thermometers showed it was as hot as 125 in the sun.30


Charles Hall, a 63-year-old retired carpenter, dropped dead while he was watching a ballgame on the Northwest Side.31 George Nagler, a 58-year-old railroad section hand who lived at 10810 South Torrence Avenue, was “overcome in the street.”

W.J. Russell, a 37-year-old mail carrier who lived at 4324 West Monroe Street, collapsed in a street near his home.32 J.W. Hicks, an 82-year-old resident of St. Johns, Michigan, died as he was sitting in a chair and waiting for a train in the Illinois Central Railroad’s station at the south end of Grant Park.33

During July, 158 patients suffering from sunstroke and heat exhaustion were admitted to Cook County Hospital, most of them during the month’s final days. Some of them had felt sick for days, experiencing headaches and dizziness. Others hadn’t noticed any symptoms until an attack hit them instantaneously. A medical journal article described the experiences of several patients who ended up at Cook County Hospital:

“One teamster left his wagon to get a drink of water; he felt perfectly well when he left his seat; as he stooped to drink from the fountain, he felt himself slipping, and remembered nothing further until he awoke in the hospital. He had a temperature of 110° on admittance.

“A laborer who also had a temperature of 110° stated that he was cleaning street cars at a terminal barn, and that he was just leaving one car to enter another when he lost consciousness. He insisted that he knew nothing after leaving the car, and that he felt perfectly well up to that moment, and had no unpleasant sensations then.

“A number of patients who had severe headaches and who were dizzy went walking in effort to find relief, and dropped in the streets; many were lying in bed when they lost consciousness.”

Out of those 158 patients at the county hospital, 129 were in comas when they were admitted. Thirty-eight had body temperatures of 110 degrees or higher—some as high as 114.

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

“All patients with a temperature of 103° or over were immediately placed in a tub of tap water, the level of which was just high enough to cover the body except the head, which was supported in a hammock packed with ice,” physicians Harry Gauss and Karl Meyer wrote in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences.

“Vigorous friction was applied to the entire body by four or more persons; ice was freely added to the water, the friction being constantly maintained; the temperature was taken rectally every minute. When the temperature reached 102° the patient was removed from the bath, wrapped in sheets or blankets, and returned to the ward.”

When patients emerged from their heat-wave comas, some of them were unable to speak, making only “inarticulate, guttural, meaningless sounds.” Others hallucinated: “one patient was afraid that his wife and daughter were trying to kill him, and another asked who was constantly calling his name.”

In spite of all the hospital’s efforts, 70 of those 158 patients died.34

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1916.


The official cause of death was usually diarrhea, but Dr. William Augustus Evans, a former Chicago health commissioner, blamed the heat wave. “The large number of babies dying in the last few days is a result of the heat and humidity,” he wrote. “When a baby’s bowels get out of order in hot weather the mother should stop feeding the child at once and send for a doctor.”36

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Chicago’s health commissioner, Dr. John Dill Robertson, said parents made the problem worse by treating babies with syrups and paregoric (or camphorated tincture of opium).

“Paregoric has killed more babies than the hot summer sun,” Robertson said. “The most common cause of death in infants is diarrhea, and it is frequently the administering of soothing sirups [sic] or home remedies that makes the disease fatal. The ‘dope’ quiets the child but holds the poison that caused the illness in the system.”37

(A Chicago Reader story by Jeff Nichols profiles Robertson, known as a crackpot who believed bathing was an unhealthy habit that encouraged infectious diseases.)38

Paregoric tablets from the early 1900s. National Museum of American History.

“Hot weather is killing scores of infants in Chicago,” the Daily News wrote. “The crowded districts are full of tiny children gasping for breath.”

The newspaper urged parents to bring ailing infants to the Daily News Fresh Air Fund Sanitarium, on the lakeshore near Fullerton Avenue. In addition to free medical care and advice, “Your baby can get a day’s relief from the heat resting in a hammock in the pavilion by the lake,” the newspaper said.39 (The shelter was replaced by a permanent structure in 1920, which is now the Chicago Park District’s Theater on the Lake.)

Robertson said more than 60 percent of the infant deaths occurred in “foreign settlements and congested neighborhoods.”37

Back of the Yards, the immigrant neighborhood near the stockyards, was one of the areas hit hardest by infant mortality, according to the Daily News.40

Meanwhile, the Tribune reported: “In the congested districts of the west side hundreds of babies are at the point of death from the heat. Pure milk and ice are needed to keep them alive.”23

According to the Tribune, health officials said that 90 percent of the deaths were caused by “Insanitary alleys, lack of proper screening from flies, too much ice water, and failure of parents to give the children warm water or lemonade at frequent intervals during the day.”41

Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1916.

IT OFTEN SOUNDED AS IF HEALTH AUTHORITIES AND NEWSPAPERS WERE BLAMING CHICAGO’S POOR IMMIGRANTS for the difficulties that they faced—a foreshadowing of what happened in 1995.

In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, sociologist Eric Klinenberg describes how Mayor Richard M. Daley and other city officials sometimes directed blame at victims during the 1995 heat wave. “We’re talking about people who die because they neglect themselves,” said Daniel Alvarez, who was the city’s human services commissioner.42

During the 1916 heat wave, the Daily News quoted Dr. S.W. Menclewski, a physician who served patients in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

“And underlying every other element that enters into the frightful health conditions of that neighborhood is the ignorance of the mothers,” said Menclewski, a Polish immigrant. “They do not know how to feed their children. They do not know how to keep them clean. They ‘dope’ them with soothing sirups, let the milk and food spoil for lack of care as much as for lack of conveniences, and call the doctor only at the last minute. Seventy per cent of the baby cases in that quarter are hopeless when the doctor arrives.”43

Gauss and Meyer, the doctors at Cook County Hospital, believed that alcoholism played a role in many of the heat wave’s deaths.

When they questioned 25 patients suffering from the heat, 23 said they’d drunk beer during the 24 hours before they got sick, in amounts varying from one glass to one gallon, and some had also drunk hard liquor. All but one of those patients had a habit of drinking daily. And the doctors reported that some of the other patients—the unconscious ones—had a strong odor of alcohol.34

“I should say 99 per cent of our cases were directly or indirectly due to alcohol,” Dr. Meyer told the Tribune. “Beer and booze have two effects: They increase the bodily supply of heat and they lower the powers of resistance. The heat regulating center in the brain becomes deranged and the almost inevitable result is prostration…

“And if it weren’t for alcohol they probably wouldn’t have been here. If alcohol was taken out of the world, I believe the number of cases of all kinds at the county hospital would be reduced by half. After what I’ve seen in this hospital I don’t understand how any doctor can sanction its use.”2

Gauss and Meyer raised a valid point about the dangers of consuming alcohol during very hot weather, but they also seemed to be engaging in another sort of victim-blaming.

Meyer’s commentary reflected a debate that was raging in the United States at the time: Should alcohol be outlawed? The following year, the U.S. Senate proposed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” After it was ratified, the Prohibition Era began in 1920.

ON FRIDAY, JULY 28, 1916, THE LOW WAS 84—breaking that record for the highest low temperature, which Chicago had set just one day earlier. The high was 97. The relative humidity hit its highest point of the week, 66, which may have made it feel even hotter than the day before.

The wind was blowing six miles an hour from the east, as it would for the next three days. Despite blowing across Lake Michigan’s water, it didn’t seem to bring any relief.3

The heat took a toll on Chicago’s workers. Those 158 patients admitted to Cook County Hospital included 85 laborers, 12 teamsters, and eight carpenters, along with firemen, peddlers, laundry workers, housewives, cooks, and clerks.34

The newspapers reported on laborers dying, such as John O’Toole, 29, of 10 West 57th Street, who was driving a wagon at 15th and Canal Streets in the South Loop when he fell off and died.44

John Taylor, a 58-year-old teamster who lived at 3759 South California Avenue, died when he was overcome by heat while working in a coal yard.32

Ignatz Tarcinski, 29, of 2312 Lister Avenue, collapsed in an International Harvester Company factory and died in a hospital a day later.45

Temperatures soared to 150 degrees inside the Illinois Steel Company’s plant in South Chicago.5 Several steel mills closed when thousands of employees walked off the job.28

Around the city, construction sites were abandoned by carpenters and other workers. “I could not blame them,” said Charles W. Secord, a general contractor. “… they quit when the temperature reached 118 degrees.”40

Swooning in rapid succession, 30 women and girls fainted while working at counters inside the Fair, a department store at the northwest corner of State and Adams Streets. Employees complained that the Fair didn’t bother to cool off its own workers with electric fans, even as it sold the devices to customers.46

Many stores and banks in the Loop let employees go home early. “They invariably go straight home and get off their high collars and starched shirts,” said F.J. Bridges, general manager of Siegel, Cooper & Co., a department store at the southeast corner of State and Van Buren Streets.4

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

A THOUSAND HORSES DROPPED DEAD ON STREETS all across the city, officials reported. Health officials urged people not to make their horses move any faster than a walk. But wagon drivers said they still had to make their deliveries for their employers, giving them little chance to rest their horses.

“Certainly during this hot weather horses as well as human beings should be put upon half time,” the Chicago Department of Health remarked in its weekly bulletin. “Horse flesh is valuable. Conserve these useful agents of transportation. You do not have to feel sorry for an automobile; but for the horse stricken down in the street because it has been overworked and overdriven, there is the sympathy element.”47

A fire station in the Loop—Engine Company No. 13, at Dearborn and Lake Streets—set up an “improvised shower bath” for horses. The firemen stood outside the station with their hoses at the ready, offering to spray water at any horses being driven down the streets.48

As hundreds of horses succumbed to the heat, many were left lying in the streets for days, reportedly because teamsters were on strike against the Canal Melting Company, which had a contract with the city to remove and render animal carcasses.

“A stench so sickening that it caused people to walk blocks out of their way hit the West Side today,” the Day Book newspaper reported. “It came from the bodies of dead horses which littered the streets so thickly as to remind one of a field in the wake of a battle. It is estimated that 500 horses dropped dead with the heat within the past few days. The bodies of most of these are still lying where they fell—feasts for flies and vermin.”49

It wasn’t unusual for horses to die in Chicago’s streets during that era. In the end, the total number removed in 1916 was 8,031—an increase of just 162 compared with the previous year.50

Newspapers reported that dogs were dying in the heat as well.33 By the end of 1916, the total number of dead dogs taken from Chicago’s streets reached 15,132—a 15 percent increase over the prior year.50

ON SATURDAY, JULY 29, CHICAGO ONCE AGAIN SET A NEW RECORD for the highest minimum temperature the city had ever experienced. The temperature inched down to 85 degrees at 6 a.m., and then it started climbing again, heading to a high of 96.

On Sunday, July 30, the city recorded yet another remarkably warm low temperature: 84 degrees at 6 a.m. And then the temperature climbed over the next 10 hours.

The wind shifted directions, blowing five miles an hour from the southwest.3 According to the Tribune, it “brought that stifling furnace breath from the plains and the Mississippi valley.”51 At 4 p.m., the temperature peaked at 102 degrees—or to be more precise, 101.7.

A cartoon by John T. McCutcheon from the Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1916.

Sunday was the 10th consecutive day with 100 percent sunshine, breaking Chicago’s all-time record—a record that had been set just a few weeks earlier. July 1916 was the sunniest month Chicago meteorologists had ever recorded, with the sun shining during 95 percent of all daylight hours. Twenty-four days during that July had 100 percent sunshine.3

During this stretch of hot days, the relative humidity ranged from 54 to 66 percent. The heat index—which today’s meteorologists use as a way of measuring “how hot it really feels”—may have gone as high as 129, according to the National Weather Service’s Heat Index Calculator. But the heat index describes what it feels like in the shade. According to the weather service, it might feel as much as 15 degrees hotter in exposure to full sunshine.

WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling calculated that the heat index probably peaked at 115 to 120 degrees during the hottest days of the 1916 heat wave, staying between 90 and 95 at night. “The heat and humidity were stifling, exacerbated by cloudless skies that allowed unrelenting sunshine to bake the city,” Skilling wrote in 2006.52

REMARKABLY, THE CHICAGO WHITE SOX PLAYED EVERY DAY during the heat wave’s worst stretch—playing doubleheaders on back-to-back days that weekend, and winning all four of those games against the Philadelphia Athletics. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey allowed the “brave bleacherites” who were sitting under the sun’s glare to switch seats, moving over to shaded spots under the pavilion.53

The Chicago Fire Department opened hydrants and sprayed water at hot pavement and the sides of brick buildings in various neighborhoods, including Back of the Yards; the West Side’s immigrant “ghetto” along Halsted Street; and the Wicker Park-Bucktown area around North Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue, and Robey Street (now Damen Avenue). Children and grownups joyfully jumped into the sprays of water.

“I sure do feel sorry for the people in the crowded districts,” Fire Chief Thomas O’Connor remarked, “and if we can help them I’m ready to go to the limit.”54

Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

People waited in line for hours to get onto Chicago’s crowded beaches. According to one estimate, 180,000 people went to the beaches during the course of a single day.51 On another day during the heat wave, the Daily News reported that a million people—nearly half the city’s population—had flocked to the lakefront.

“The streets leading to the beach were filled with streams of people, staggering, perspiring, panting,” the newspaper reported. “They looked half dead, refugees from the heat. Automobiles loaded beyond capacity with men and women dressed for the water, flitted over the boulevards.”55

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

A “RACE RIOT” BROKE OUT AT A BEACH IN JACKSON PARK—a foreshadowing of the violence that would erupt three years later on another South Side beach, sparking Chicago’s deadly race riot of 1919 (which I wrote about for Chicago magazine.)

According to the Tribune, 200 white men fought with five Black men and five Black women at the beach on that Saturday. “One of the Negroes, it is said, made an insulting remark to one of the white men who was passing,” the Tribune reported, adding that the police arrested two Black men and one white man.56

Chicago Defender, Aug. 5, 1916.

The Chicago Defender, the city’s leading Black newspaper, told a much different story about events in Jackson Park, reporting that two Black youths, Roy Moss and Robert Anderson, were in the water at 8 p.m. on that Saturday, June 29.

“The boys were innocently playing around in the water when a number of white boys began to throw water upon them,” the Defender wrote. “Our boys threw water back and all came out of the water. The white boys began throwing rocks. This caused some excitement. The police came and merely told the white boys, who were the aggressors, to move on, and the police did nothing to protect Moss or Anderson. …

“All the participants were interviewed and they said it was an uncalled for attack of the white boys to create disturbance. They have doing this ever since the hot weather; their aim being to keep our young people from enjoying the beach at various places and confining them to a certain district.”57

A day after the disturbance in Jackson Park, “the police were compelled to use harsh measures to force the Negroes from the beaches,” the Tribune reported. “In the morning several attacks were made on Negroes, who defied white bathers’ orders to leave. One Negro was badly beaten. White bathers, however, insisted they would take no chances on the possibilities of more insults to women, as alleged to have been made by Negroes the previous day.”58

The Defender commented: “It must be borne in mind that our people pay taxes for the use of the beach and must use it at any time. … Since there seems to be concerted action on part of some of the lower class of whites to intimidate, humiliate and cause disturbances with a view of making bad sentiment against us, it is our duty to resent this and see that every right guaranteed us at the beach is enjoyed. The time is ripe to put a stop to this and see that it does not occur at any of the public beaches.”57

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Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

Meanwhile, on the city’s North Side, the Lincoln Park Commission tried to limit swimming hours at Oak Street Beach, where the wealthy residents of nearby mansions often complained about the crowds of bathers.59 But according to the Tribune, park officials gave in to the clamor from “tenement dwellers” who wanted to swim. They “passed a rule that people in the neighborhood, if properly attired, might have a dip in the lake between 5 and 7 a.m.”

Sometime after 7 a.m., a police officer in a white rowboat ordered hundreds of swimmers to get out of the lake, shouting: “Out of here! Out of here!” Some children in the water yelled back: “Tip him out!” “Tell him to go to hell!” “This is a free country!” The swimmers prevailed.60

Some of Chicago’s park commissions enforced an 11 p.m. curfew, arresting people who tried to sleep in parks.61 But as the heat wave continued, authorities grew more lenient.48

Officials estimated that 50,000 people spent the night in parks,21 including 8,000 to 10,000 in Grant Park, the lawn between downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.62 Apparently, it wasn’t that unusual for people to spent the night in Grant Park—the Daily News called it “Chicago’s traditional open hotel for migrants and wanderers.”

But it was remarkable to see sleeping bodies covering practically the entire park, leaving little space for people to walk in between. Occasionally, someone would get up and try moving closer to the lake, in the hope of catching a breeze.

“Thousands of Grant Park’s guests for the night were ‘down and outers’ from the barrel houses of South State and Clark street, which emptied earlier than usual,” the Daily News reported. “Sprinkled among them were others who left their hotels in disgust and sought rest under the sky.”

Across the city, families slept on fire escapes and roofs, or on the ground between the streets and sidewalks.63 Even amid Drexel Boulevard’s mansions in the Kenwood neighborhood, the well-to-do residents “rushed out on to their lawns in bathrobes and rolled up for the night,” the Tribune reported.62

Chicago Daily News, July 31, 1916.

THE HEAT WAVE RELENTED ON THAT MONDAY, JULY 31, when the temperature finally dipped below 80 after 10 a.m. The wind changed direction and picked up a bit of speed, blowing 16 miles an hour from the north. And the temperature stayed in the 70s for the rest of the day.3

The worst of the heat was over. And yet, people continued dying from the effects of the heat wave. Over the next four days, city health officials counted 163 deaths from heat prostrations and 111 from diarrhea.35

Chicago wasn’t quite as hot, but temperatures remained above normal. It had been the hottest July meteorologists had ever recorded in Chicago up until that time, with temperatures averaging six degrees above normal. And the following month was the warmest August in Chicago history at that time. Another stretch of days—August 19, 20, and 21—had low temperatures of 80 degrees or higher.3

And the summer’s death toll kept rising.64

HOW MANY PEOPLE DID THE 1916 HEAT WAVE KILL? The answer to that question depends on how you define the time period of the heat wave: Was it several days at the end of July? Or did the heat wave extend across much of July and August?

The Chicago Department of Health tallied 535 deaths from heat during that year—ranging from July 16 through September 16. That was far higher than Chicago’s deaths tolls from heat-related causes in other years during the early 20th century. In other years between 1904 and 1922, the average number of heat-related deaths was 26. The second-highest death toll was in 1913, when heat caused 79 deaths.

If we define the 1916 heat wave with a narrower time frame, the city recorded 363 deaths during a two-week period including the worst of the heat.

But those numbers don’t include deaths indirectly caused by the heat. In July and August 1916, diarrhea and enteritis killed 1,191 children under 2 years old. That was 533 more than the infant death toll for those same illnesses in July and August 1915.

The heat wave hit Chicago’s immigrants especially hard. Immigrants were roughly a third of the city’s population—somewhere between the 35.7 percent reported by the 1910 census and the 29.8 percent reported by the 1920 census. But immigrants were 68 percent of those who died from heat. (Some of that discrepancy might be caused by differences in how local officials and the U.S. Census Bureau identified people.)

The data for infants who died in 1916 from diarrhea and enteritis show a similar pattern: 82 percent were children of immigrants.

The Chicagoans who died from heat were overwhelmingly male—85 percent were men and boys. Perhaps that’s because men were more likely to be doing manual labor during the heat wave. Two-thirds of the victims were men between 30 and 60 years old. And the mortality rate increased across the age spectrum for people over 5 years old.

Age groupDeaths from
heat in 1916
Deaths per
100,000 people
Under 12348.63
Under 52811.12
5 to 931.26
10 to 1920.51
20 to 29366.68
30 to 3912326.63
40 to 4912339.74
50 to 5911657.40
60 to 695253.32
70 to 7936103.93
80 to 8936205.40
90 to 9900
100 and over00

To calculate the death rate, the 1920 census total for each age group was used, adjusting for the 8 percent in population growth that Chicago experienced between 1916 and 1920, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

One question is why the heat wave’s official death toll was so low for Black Chicagoans. Out of those 535 deaths from heat-related causes, only 10 people—or 1.87 percent—were Black.

Chicago’s population was at least 2 percent Black, as documented in the 1910 U.S. census. The percentage was almost certainly higher by 1916. Millions of African Americans were moving north during that decade, in the early years of the Great Migration. By 1920, Chicago’s population would be 4.1 percent Black.65

Were the deaths of Black people in the 1916 heat wave undercounted or misdiagnosed? Or is there another explanation for why that number is so low?

In their American Journal of the Medical Sciences article, Gauss and Meyer seemed surprised that even one Black patient had died of heat-related causes at Cook County Hospital. “One of the American-born patients was a negro, who died several hours after admittance,” they wrote. “This is interesting in view of the often expressed view that negroes possess a special immunity against the effects of heat.”34

Gauss and Meyer were referring to an old myth: the notion that African Americans had a special physical trait protecting them from the effects of hot weather. Before the Civil War, some Southern doctors had used this claim to justify forcing enslaved Black people to work in extreme heat. One physician said that an African American was “protected by the very nature of his constitution from the unhealthiness of hot climates.”66 In 2019, a headline in the New York Times called this theory one of the “Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery — and are still believed by doctors today.”67

Are there any physiological differences in how people of different races react to heat? A study by the U.S. Army looked at heat illness hospitalizations and deaths for soldiers between 1980 through 2002, concluding: “African Americans and Hispanic Americans are less likely than Caucasians to be hospitalized for heat illness.” But the study also noted: “Recruits from northern states are more susceptible to heat illness than recruits from southern states. … Being unacclimatized to hot weather has been identified as an important factor in heat intolerance and heat illness.”68 Many of the Black people living in Chicago in 1916 had come from the South. Is it possible they were simply more accustomed to hot weather?

Research has shown that African Americans and other people of color are especially vulnerable during heat waves. In Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, “African Americans had the highest proportional death rates of any ethnoracial group,” Klinenberg wrote in Heat Wave. “They were significantly more vulnerable to the catastrophe than whites…”69

ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT THE 1916 DATA IS EXCESS MORTALITY. This method was used in 1995, when there was debate over the death toll for that year’s heat wave. The Cook County coroner counted 465 heat-related deaths in the week of July 14–20, 1995, or 521 deaths during the month. But epidemiologist Steven Whitman noticed an increase in other deaths in Chicago during the same time period. He calculated that the number of “excess deaths” was 739.70

What can we learn from looking at the excess mortality in 1916?

The total number of people who died in Chicago that July and August—of all causes—was 6,388. Comparing that number with the death tolls for those months in 1914, 1915, 1917, and 1918 (and adjusting for population growth) shows an excess mortality of 1,119 people.

In other words, the death toll for those two hot months was 1,119 higher than you’d expect based on the pattern across those five years.

YearJuly-August deathsPopulationDeaths per 100,000

207.7 was the average rate of deaths per 100,000 people in July and August of 1914, 1915, 1917, and 1918.

The rate was 48.0 percentage points higher for July and August 1916 than the average for the other four years.

Apply that rate of 48.0 to Chicago’s estimated population in 1916. The result indicates that the excess deaths in July-August 1916 were 1,199.71

What were some of the other causes of death pushing up the city’s death toll for July August? For one thing, the heat wave coincided with the first major outbreak of infantile paralysis, or polio, that Chicago had ever experienced.

The disease struck in Chicago in mid-July, just as the hot weather arrived—and about six weeks after a polio epidemic hit New York City. Over the next four months, 254 polio cases and 34 deaths were reported in Chicago, as local doctors studied the malady and tried to learn what caused it.71 As a later study noted, “the disease tends to flourish in warm weather.”73

In July and August 1916, heart disease claimed the lives of 652 Chicagoans—an increase of 146 (or 29 percent) over the heart disease deaths in July and August 1915.

Meanwhile, 51 people died in homicides during those months in 1916—an increase of 25 over the previous year.

The city did not release drowning statistics for those months, but the annual total was 130 accidental drownings, close to the average for that era. In July and August, 371 people died in accidents, including drownings and various other causes—an increase of 62 (or 20 percent) over July and August 191565 According to newspaper reports, those accidental deaths included at least two people who fell from window ledges while trying to cool off during the hot weather.74

City health officials eventually suggested that the heat wave’s death toll was comparable to the number of “excess deaths” in 1916 from sunstroke, heat exhaustion, diarrhea, and enteritis—in other words, the increase in the death tolls from those causes between 1915 and 1916. That number was 1,381. The Chicago Department of Health mentioned this momentous fact in a weekly department bulletin issued in October 1917.64

Viewed from a regional perspective, the heat wave had an even higher death toll—killing an unknown number of people in the area surrounding Chicago. The Tribune and Daily News mentioned deaths in Joliet, Niles, and Aurora. In northwest Indiana, at least 13 people died in Gary and four in Hammond.75

However you define the parameters of the 1916 heat wave or the deaths it caused, it’s clear that it was a major catastrophe. Nearly eight decades later, when the 1995 heat wave made headlines, one epidemiologist remarked, “Such a big disaster has never happened in the history of Chicago.”76

As a matter of fact, it had.

Continue reading below for an appendix about CHICAGO MORTALITY TRENDS; an appendix on WEATHER RECORDS; and SOURCE NOTES.

Appendix 1: Chicago’s mortality trends

If you lived in Chicago in 1916, you were twice as likely to die at some point during the year than a Chicagoan would be in 2018. That’s how much the city’s mortality rate has fallen: from 14.5 deaths per 1,000 people in 1916 to 7.3 in 2018.

But in 1916, the city had already made huge strides in reducing the mortality rate from earlier times. Looking back to the 1850s, the average mortality in that decade was 33.6 deaths per 1,000 people. Or to put it another way, 1 out of every 30 people died in a typical year during the 1850s.77 By contrast, 1 out of every 138 Chicagoans died in 2018.78

As the mortality rate went down, life expectancy went up. In 1875, the average age of death in Chicago was 16. By 1905, it had increased to 31.79

In comparison, the life expectancy for Chicagoans in 2017 was 77 years—although studies have documented a 30-year gap between the life expectancies for people in the city’s poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods.80

The main reason why those historical numbers look staggeringly low by today’s standards? The high number of infant deaths. Nearly every year between 1868 and 1885, more than half of Chicago’s deaths were children under the age of 5.81

Of course, the low life expectancy didn’t mean it was impossible to reach a ripe old age. In 1890, for example, Chicago’s deaths included 52 people in their 90s and seven people who’d lived beyond their 100th birthday (or claimed to be that old, anyway).82 But that same year, when Chicago’s population surpassed 1 million, the city had only 22,471 people who were 65 or older—just 2 percent of the population.83

Chicago’s mortality rate began a dramatic decline around 1893. Modern researchers point to one major reason why Chicago became a less deadly place to live: improvements in the water supply.

In 1893, the city installed an intake crib four miles out into Lake Michigan, pulling in water that was cleaner than the polluted stuff along the shore. And in 1900, the Chicago River was reversed, sending its sewage-laden water flowing away from the lake, down a canal. As Chicago’s drinking water got cleaner, fewer people died from waterborne diseases.84

By 1915, Chicago’s mortality rate in had dropped to 14.3 deaths for every 1,000 residents. Infants under 1 year old accounted for 18 percent of all deaths, down from 30 percent in 1890. Children under 5 years old were 25 percent of all deaths, down from 45 percent in 1890.77

From the Chicago Department of Health report for 1911–1918.

But in spite of the improvements in Chicago’s water, diarrheal diseases remained the leading cause of death for children under 2, claiming roughly 3,000 lives annually.85

Worldwide today, diarrheal disease is second-leading cause of death for young children, killing about 525,000 every year, according to the World Health Organization, which says many of those deaths could be prevented with safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene.86

In 1916, Chicago’s infant mortality rate—the number of infants under 1 year old who died for every 1,000 live births—was 14.5.87 In comparison, the city’s infant mortality rate in 2017 was 6.6.

However, there’s a wide disparity among racial groups: According to the Chicago Health Atlas website, 3.6 non-Hispanic white infants died out of every 1,000, but that number was 5.5 for Hispanic infants and 11.4 for non-Hispanic Black infants. In other words, Chicago’s Black children were three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white children.88

Appendix 2: Weather records

In many ways, the 1916 heat wave still ranks as one of the hottest stretches of weather Chicago has ever experienced.

Like the rest of the planet, Chicago has become warmer in the century since 1916. There’s a new normal.

Back in the early 20th century, 72.4 was considered the normal mean temperature for July in Chicago (based on weather records from 1873 through 1905). The National Weather Service now lists 74.0 as the normal for July in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s normal temperature for August has increased from 71.2 to 72.4.89

Here’s where those hot days in July and August 1916 rank in the annals of Chicago weather history, according to the National Weather Service’s records.

These statistics cover from the time period from June 12, 1872, through July 29, 2020. They were generated by xmACIS2, the online Applied Climate Information System tool (a joint project of the Regional Climate Centers, the National Centers for Environmental Information, and the National Weather Service).

The only time Chicago has had consecutive days with a minimum temperature of 83 or higher: Three days—July 28–30, 1916

The only time has had consecutive days with a minimum temperature of 82 or higher: Four days—July 27–30, 1916

Days with the highest average temperature:

1. 93.0 degreesJuly 30, 1916
2. (tie) 92.5 July 6, 2012
July 13, 1995
4. 92.0 July 5, 1911
5. (tie) 91.5 July 14, 1995
July 24, 1934
Aug. 6, 1918
8. (tie) 91.0 July 5, 2012
June 20, 1953
July 10, 1936
July 27, 1916
12. (tie) 90.5 July 4, 2012
July 29, 1916
July 28, 1916
15. (tie) 90.0July 24, 2005
July 15, 1980
July 4, 1911
July 21, 1901
19. (tie) 89.5Aug. 1, 2006
July 30, 1999
Aug. 2, 1988
July 27, 1955
July 24, 1940
Aug. 21, 1916

July with the hottest average temperature:

1. 81.3 degrees1955
2. 81.2 1921
3. 81.12012
4. 79.02011
5. (tie) 78.5 1977

August with the hottest average temperature:

1.80.2 degrees1947
3. (tie) 78.71959
4. 77.31983
5. 76.81988
6. (tie) 76.72010

Highest average temperature for a four-day period:

1.91.3 degreesJuly 27–30, 1916
2.90.1July 3–6, 2012
3. (tie)89.9July 4–7, 2012
July 2–5, 1911
5. (tie)89.1July 28–31, 1916
July 26–29, 1916

Highest average temperature for a five-day period. Note that the several of the following lists include overlapping time periods.

1.89.9 degreesJuly 26–30, 1916
2.89.5July 27–31, 1916
3.89.2July 3–7, 2012
4. (tie)89.0July 2–6, 2012
July 1–5, 1911

Highest average temperature for a six-day period:

1.88.7 degreesJuly 26–31, 1916
2.88.4July 2–7, 2012
3.88.3July 25–30, 1916
4. (tie)87.4July 1–6, 2012
July 1–6, 1911

Highest average temperature for a seven-day period:

1. 87.9 degreesJuly 24–30, 1916
2. 87.5July 23–31, 1916
3.87.1July 1–7, 2012
4.86.7July 2–8, 2012
5.86.6July 26–Aug. 1, 1916

Highest average temperature for a 14-day period:

1.84.4 degreesJuly 25–Aug. 7, 1916
2. (tie) 84.2July 26–Aug. 8, 1916
July 24–Aug. 6, 1916
4.83.9July 22–Aug. 4, 1916
5.83.8July 18–31, 1916
6.83.8July 23–Aug. 5, 1916
7.83.7July 21–Aug. 3, 1916
8.83.7July 27–Aug. 9, 1916
9. (tie)83.6July 25–Aug. 7, 1955
July 22–Aug. 4, 1955

Days with the highest minimum temperature. Remarkably, those three days at the end of July 1916 still hold the top three spots on this list—and five other days from July and August 1916 also rank among the 32 days in Chicago history with the highest low temperatures.

1.85 degreesJuly 29, 1916
2. (tie)84.0July 30, 1916
July 28, 1916
4.83July 14, 1995
5. (tie)82.0July 6, 2012
July 15, 1980
Aug. 6, 1918
Aug. 21, 1916
Aug. 19, 1916
July 27, 1916
July 5, 1911
12. (tie)81.0July 19, 2019
July 23, 2012
July 13, 1995
June 28, 1913
16. (tie)80.0June 30, 2018
July 18, 2011
Aug. 1, 2006
Aug. 3, 1988
July 6, 1977
July 22, 1972
July 21, 1972
July 29, 1941
July 11, 1936
July 10, 1936
June 30, 1931
June 29, 1931
July 4, 1921
Aug. 20, 1916
July 26, 1916

Days with the highest maximum temperature. At the time, July 30, 1916, ranked as the day with the second-highest temperature ever recorded in Chicago. It is now tied for 10th place.

1.105 degreesJuly 24, 1934
2. (tie)104July 13, 1995
June 20, 1988
June 20, 1953
5. (tie)103July 6, 2012
July 5, 2012
June 25, 1988
July 1, 1956
July 21, 1901
10. (tie)102July 4, 2012
July 24, 2005
July 15, 1988
July 7, 1980
June 19, 1953
July 3, 1949
July 10, 1936
June 1, 1934
Aug. 5, 1918
July 30, 1916
July 5, 1911
July 4, 1911
July 10, 1901

Consecutive days with a minimum temperature of 80 or higher:

1.Five daysJuly 26–30, 1916
2.Three daysAug. 19–21, 1916
3. (tie)Two daysJuly 13–14, 1995
July 21–22, 1972
July 10–11, 1936
June 29–30, 1931
July 16–17, 1878

Consecutive days with an average temperature of 89 or higher:

1.Four daysJuly 27–30, 1916
2. (tie)Three daysJuly 4–6, 2012
July 3–5, 1911
4. (tie)Two daysJuly 13–14, 1995
Aug. 1–2, 1988
Aug. 6–7, 1918

Consecutive days with an average temperature of 90 or higher:

1.Four daysJuly 27–30, 1916
2.Three daysJuly 4–6, 2012
3. (tie)Two daysJuly 13–14, 1995
July 4–5, 1911

Consecutive days with a maximum temperature of 96 or higher:

1.Nine daysAug. 26–Sept. 3, 1953
2.Six daysJuly 2–7, 2012
3. (tie)Five daysJuly 5-9, 1988
July 1–5, 1911
5. (tie)Four daysJuly 12-15, 1995
Aug. 1–4, 1988
June 27–30, 1971
Aug. 17–20, 1947
July 22–25, 1940
July 27–30, 1916

Source notes

1 “Little Stories of the Record Heat Wave,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

2 “Alcohol Blamed for 98 Per Cent of Heat Strokes,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 23, 1916.

3 The weather data in this story come from these sources: C.L. Mitchell, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, “Monthly Meteorological Summary with Comparative Data, Chicago, Ill., July, 1916”; Henry J. Cox, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, “Monthly Meteorological Summary with Comparative Data, Chicago, Ill., August, 1916”; “The Weather,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28–31, 1916; and the Applied Climate Information System, accessed July 24, 2020.

4 “Heat Kills 18; No Relief,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1916.

5 “Mercury Reaches 100; Relief in Lake Breeze,” Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1916.

6 “Six Bathers Lose Lives; Heat Kills 2,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 17, 1916.

7 Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 10, no. 31 (July 29, 1916), 162.

8 John Dill Robertson, Report and Handbook of the Department of Health of the City of Chicago for the Years 1911 to 1918 Inclusive (Chicago: House of Severinghaus, 1919), 1312.

9“Read Nature in Hot Weather,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1916.

10 Amanda Green, “The Cool History of the Air Conditioner,” Popular Mechanics, Jan. 1, 2015.

11 Dominic A. Pacyga, Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 14.

12 Charles N. Wheeler, “End of Hot Wave Near,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1916; Bernard Nagengast, “Early Twentieth Century Air-Conditioning Engineering,” ASHRAE Journal, March 1999, 58.

13 Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 10, no. 32 (Aug. 5, 1916), 166.

14 Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, “History of the Electric Fan,” Family Tree Magazine,  accessed July 20, 2020.

15 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1916.

16 Harold L. Platt, The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 161-162.

17 Ralph and Terry Kovel, “Non-Electric Fans Used Alcohol or Gas,” Cowles Syndicate Inc., Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994.

18 Advertisement, Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1916.

19 “Hot Weather Don’ts in Caring for Baby,” Chicago Defender, Aug. 5, 1916.

20 Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 981-983.

21 “Heat Death Roll Vast; Sweeping Ice Orders,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

22 “Small Ice Dealers Plan to Get Action Against Consumers Co.,” Day Book, Aug. 11, 1916.

23 “44 Babies Die in 24 Hours; Record Broken,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

24 “Rain Breaks Fatal Heat; Day’s Toll Five,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1916.

25 “Six Bathers Lose Lives; Heat Kills 2,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 17, 1916; “Rain Breaks Fatal Heat; Day’s Toll Five,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1916; “Mercury Reaches 100; Relief in Lake Breeze,” Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1916.

16 My calculation based on Chicago Department of Health annual reports. Accidental drowning totals are not available for 1910 and 1911; suicidal drowning totals are not available for 1907 through 1911.

27 Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, “Statistics,” accessed July 21, 2020.

28 Brr! But It Is Cold!—No, Not in Chicago—In Nevada! Our Town Still Melts,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1916.

29 “How’d You Like to Be the Ice Man?—A Pleasant Idea,” Day Book, July 27, 1916; David Garrard Lowe, “Public Buildings in the Loop,” Encyclopedia of Chicago; Larry J. Homolka and William J. Rudd, “Photographs, Written Historical and Descriptive Data—United States Post Office, Customs House and Sub-Treasury, Chicago, Illinois,” Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, July 1964.

30 “How’d You Like to Be the Ice Man?—A Pleasant Idea,” Day Book, July 27, 1916.

31 “Deaths by Heat Yesterday,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1916.

32 “Deaths Laid to Heat,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1916.

33 “It Is Getting No Cooler,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 26, 1916.

34 H. Gauss and K.A. Meyer, “Heat Stroke: Report of One Hundred and Fifty-Eight Cases from Cook County Hospital, Chicago,” American Journal of the Medical Sciences 154 (1917): 554-564, doi:10.1097/00000441-191710000-00010.

35 Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 10, no. 32 (Aug. 5, 1916), 163.

36 W.A. Evans, “Infant Mortality,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1916.

37 “Watch the Baby in This Weather, Doctors Warn,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1916

38 Jeff Nichols, “The Maverick at the Center of Chicago’s 1918 Flu Response,” Chicago Reader, May 12, 2020.

39 “Don’t Let Your Baby Die,” Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1916.

40 “Over 50 More Dead in Great Heat Wave; No Relief in Sight,” Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1916.

41 “50 Baby Deaths in Single Day Laid to Heat,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

42 Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 2015), 32, 172, 175.

43 “Wage War on Baby Sirup,” Chicago Daily News, Aug. 4, 1916.

44 “The Heat Death List in Chicago,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

45 “The Heat Death List in Chicago,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

46 “Claim Heat Overcame Thirty Girls at the Fair,” Day Book, Aug. 1, 1916.

47 Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 10, no. 32 (Aug. 5, 1916), 164-165.

48 Charles N. Wheeler, “End of Hot Wave Near,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1916.

49 “Why Dead Horses Are Left Lying in Streets,” Day Book, Aug. 3, 1916; “Some Negligence in the Removal of Dead Horses,” Day Book, July 31, 1916.

50 Chicago, Forty-First Annual Report of the Department of Public Works for the Year Ending December 31, 1916 (Chicago: Cameron, Amberg & Co., 1917), 240; Chicago, Fortieth Annual Report of the Department of Public Works for the Year Ending December 31, 1915 (Chicago: Cameron, Amberg & Co., 1917), 268.

51 “Cool Wave Here Tonight,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

52 Tom Skilling, “July 30, 1916: 90th Anniversary of Chicago’s Hottest Day,” Chicago Tribune, July 30, 2006.

53 Baseball Reference; George S. Robbins, “Rowlanders Fight Hard for 3d Game,” Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1916; “Notes,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1916.

54 “Cool Wave Now on Way,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

55 “Million Swarms to Beaches of City,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916.

56 “Jackson Park Beach Scene of Race Riot,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

57 “White Boys Start Trouble on Beach,” Chicago Defender, Aug. 5, 1916.

58 “Mounted Police Called to Quell Riots at Beach,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

59 “Oak Street Beach,” Chicago Park District, accessed July 21, 2020.

60 Charles N. Wheeler, “Gasping Masses Reel to Lake; Mocked by Law,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

61 “Toasted Items Produced by the Hot Spell,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1916.

62 “Fall Kills Aged Woman Seeking Cool at Window,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

63 “Pass Nights in Parks to Escape the Heat,” Chicago Daily News, July 28, 1916.

64 Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 11, no. 41 (Oct. 6, 1917), 158.

65 Annual death figures: Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1318-1337; “Revised Mortality Figures, 1916-1915,” Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 11, no. 41 (Oct. 6, 1917), 158, 160. July and August figures: Bulletin, Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction 10, no. 33 (Aug. 12, 1916), 169; and no. 37 (Sept. 9, 1916), 185. Historical trend: Annual Chicago Department of Health reports. U.S. Census Bureau data on immigrants, Blacks, and age groups in Chicago: 1910 Census Vol. 2, Population, Reports by States, with Statistics for Counties, Cities, and Other Civil Divisions, 504; 1920 Census Vol. 2, Population, General Report and Analytical Tables, Age Distribution Tables, 291; 1920 Census Vol. 3, Population, Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States, 248.

66 Alan Derickson, “‘A Widespread Superstition’: The Purported Invulnerability of Workers of Color to Occupational Heat Stress,” American Journal of Public Health 109 (2019): 1329-1335,

67 Linda Villarosa, “Myths About Physical Racial Differences Were Used to Justify Slavery — and Are Still Believed by Doctors Today,” New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019.

68 Robert Carter III, et al, “Epidemiology of Hospitalizations and Deaths from Heat Illness in Soldiers,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 37, no. 8 (August 2005): 1338-1344,

69 Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 18-19.

70 Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 28-29.

71 Estimated annual population: Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1425; monthly death totals: 1426.

72 Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 151-224.

73 Charles Armstrong, “Poliomyelitis: A Possible Relationship of Weather to the Gastrointestinal Route of Infection,” American Journal of Public Health and the Nation’s Health 51, no. 8 (August 1961): 1174-1181,

74 “Mercury Reaches 100; Relief in Lake Breeze,” Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1916; “Fall Kills Aged Woman Seeking Cool at Window,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.

75 “Rain Breaks Fatal Heat; Day’s Toll Five,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1916; “Deaths by Heat Yesterday,” “Four Dead Near Aurora,” and “28 Babies Dead in Gary,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1916; “The Heat Death List in Chicago,” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1916; “Gary Deaths Thirteen” and “Four Dead in Hammond,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1916.

76 Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 203-204.

77 Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1425, 1428, 1430.

78 Illinois Department of Public Health, “Statewide Leading Causes of Death by Resident County, Illinois Residents, 2018″; U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: Chicago city, Illinois.”

79 Charles J. Whalen, Biennial Report of the Department of Heath of the City of Chicago for the Years 1904–1905 (Chicago: Cameron, Amberg & Co., 1906), unnumbered page before title page.

80 Chicago Health Atlas, “Life Expectancy,” accessed July 25, 2020; NYU Langone Health NewsHub, “Large Life Expectancy Gaps in U.S. Cities Linked to Racial & Ethnic Segregation by Neighborhood,” June 5, 2019; Lisa Schencker, “Chicago’s Lifespan Gap,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2019.

81 Annual Chicago Department of Health reports.

82 Chicago, Report of the Department of Health of the City of Chicago for the Year 1890 (Chicago: P.F. Pettibone & Co., 1891), 54.

83 U.S. Census Bureau, Eleventh Census Volume 1. (Part I & Part II) Report on Population of the United States, “Ages—Tables 3 (continued),” 117.

84 William T. Sedgwick and Allen Hazen, “Water-Related Epidemics,” Encyclopedia of Chicago; Joseph P. Ferrie and Werner Troesken, “Death and the City: Chicago’s Mortality Transition, 1850-1925,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 11427 (June 2005), 13, 39.

85 Whalen, Annual … 1906, 297; Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1402.

86 “Diarrhoeal disease,” World Health Organization, May 2, 2017.

87 Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1322, 1402.

88 Chicago Health Atlas, “Infant Mortality,” accessed July 25, 2020.

89 National Weather Service, “July Temperature Rankings for Chicago,” accessed July 22, 2020; National Weather Service, “August Temperature Rankings for Chicago,” accessed July 22, 2020; Robertson, Report … for the Years 1911 to 1918 …, 1457.

Dining History

Chicago’s Top Chefs (Circa 1900)

Chicago Magazine, June 27, 2018 — From epic game dinners (including ibex ham and juniper-soaked bear) to lobster palaces to revered railroad cuisine that took advantage of food available along the journey, Chicago chefs were pioneers long before the city was a food destination. Read the story.


In a divided Chicago, one thing we all agree on: A damn fine flag

Crain’s Chicago Business, April 4, 2017 — Can a flag improve your life? If your city just happens to have a municipal flag with a cool, eye-catching design that everyone seems to like, will that somehow make your city a better place to live? … Read the rest of my op-ed at Crain’s Chicago Business.


The Story of Chicago’s Four-Star City Flag, April 4, 2017 — Wallace Rice covered the floor of his living room with colorful rectangles. He’d spent six weeks combining shapes and symbols, trying to find just the right image to represent the city where he lived. He’d come up with hundreds of possibilities for a city flag design, and now he displayed his favorites on that floor. Anytime anyone visited Rice’s home in the Lincoln Park neighborhood — people including the author’s acquaintances as well as delivery boys and milkmen — he quizzed them: Which of these should be the city flag?

Read the article at

And visit the Chicago Tribune for a shorter version of the story, published on April 23, 2017, on the newspaper’s Chicago Flashback page.


Chicago police were condemned in 1904 for drinking, slouching, ignoring crime

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 2017 — Too many of Chicago’s cops weren’t doing their jobs. Slouching in unkempt uniforms, they drank whiskey in saloons when they should have been walking their beats. And they ignored crimes happening right in front of their eyes. These were the findings of an investigation in 1904 called the Piper Report. “Chicago’s police department was given the most unmerciful raking in its history,” the Tribune reported at the time. Read the rest of this article at the Chicago Tribune. 




Election Night 2016

Letter from Chicago: Misery engulfed Clinton supporters as outcome became clear

London Evening Standard, November 9, 2016 — In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, many of the people who’d gathered in downtown bars to watch election results grew sullen and angry as the night went on. “How is it close?” asked Rachael Smith, a DePaul University student wearing a T-shirt labeled “The Future is Female,” as she watched the TVs in the historic Miller’s Pub in the Loop. Read the rest of the article at the London Evening Standard.


Displaced: When the Eisenhower Expressway Moved in, Who Was Forced Out?

WBEZ’s Curious City, August 26, 2016 — My story answers the question: “What happened to the people displaced by the Eisenhower Expressway?” Read and explore the interactive story (with web design by Logan Jaffe) and listen to the podcast and radio version.


Long before iPhones, cops battled phone use in fight against gambling

Chicago Tribune, March 6, 2016 — In 1904, Chicago got an early taste of how the competing interests of security and privacy would start to play out for law enforcement and the telecom industry — in an episode with echoes of today’s dispute between Apple and the FBI, over information that might be gleaned about the attack in San Bernardino, Calif. Read my story for the Chicago Tribune’s Flashback page.


If you toured Chicago in 1910, what would you do?

WBEZ’s Curious City, January 26, 2016 — Explore my interactive story on tourism in 1910 Chicago (with web design by Logan Jaffe). And listen to the podcast and radio story here on Soundcloud.


Classical music in Chicago

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Listen magazine’s September-October 2009 issue.

When poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,” he easily could have added “Music Maker” to that list. The City of the Big Shoulders forged so many of the sounds that became popular American genres. This urban melting pot was one of the places where blues, jazz, gospel and even country music began to take shape. Today, its nightclubs and concert halls are alive with all those sounds — plus rock, folk, R&B, hip-hop, electronic and ethnic music. And despite its reputation as a “stormy, husky, brawling” town (to borrow another phrase from Sandburg), Chicago is also a sort of a paradise for classical-music aficionados.

The earliest evidence of music being performed in Chicago comes from the 1830s, when the place was just a frontier outpost. The owner of the Sauganash Hotel, Mark Beaubien, played a fiddle to entertain his guests. “He played it in such a way as to set every heel and toe in the room in active motion,” an early settler recalled. “He would lift the sluggard from his seat and set him whirling over the floor like mad!” Beaubien himself joked that his musicianship was not exactly divine. “I plays de fiddle like de debble, and I keeps hotel like hell,” the Frenchman reportedly remarked.

Chicagoans got a taste of more highbrow music in 1850, with the formation of the city’s first classical group, the Chicago Philharmonic Society, and the first local performance of an opera. Opera did not get off to a promising start in Chicago, however — the theater burned down in the middle of the second performance.

It wasn’t until 1891 that Chicago got serious about becoming a world-class musical city. That was the year a local group hired America’s most famous conductor, Theodore Thomas, to start the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Thomas was frustrated with his post at the New York Philharmonic because of its short schedule. Asked if he would come to Chicago, Thomas quipped, “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.”

Thomas insisted that his new orchestra should play only what he considered the best symphonic music, even if it was music that few people understood. “Mr. Thomas is here to establish a great art work,” explained his wife, Rose Fay Thomas, “and to make Chicago one of the musical centers of the world — not to provide a series of cheap musical entertainments for the riff-raff of the public.” The “riff-raff” may not have appreciated everything that the CSO played, but the orchestra persisted, and by the middle of the twentieth century, it had earned a reputation as one of the world’s best.

Several legendary maestros have led the orchestra, including Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim. When Barenboim stepped down as music director in 2006, critics commented on how he’d reshaped the CSO’s sound during his fifteen-year tenure. “Although it will forever be associated with Sir Georg Solti, whose memory is still cherished by Chicagoans, the orchestra that Barenboim has molded is a different beast altogether,” Michael Henderson wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph. “Whereas the brass section remains stupendous, capable of blowing down the walls of Jericho, there is a breadth, balance and color (bloom, if you like) that one did not always associate with Solti.”

Few people questioned Barenboim’s brilliance, but he sometimes seemed arrogant. As he departed Chicago, he complained about Americans treating classical music as background noise. “I can’t stand being in Chicago anymore and hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto in the elevator,” he said, “because that shows me that when they come to the concert hall they listen to it in the same way.”

After a four-year search for a replacement, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made a stunning announcement in 2008: Acclaimed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti would be taking over as the CSO’s music director in 2010. Muti had turned down at least one job offer from the New York Philharmonic, but Chicago won him over where New York had failed.

Tempests have followed the uncompromising Muti throughout his career. In 2005, Muti ended his nineteen-year run as the music director of Milan’s La Scala after feuding with other officials at the opera house. Accused by critics of behaving like a dictator and megalomaniac, Muti quit after a no-confidence vote from La Scala employees. At the time, Muti’s wife said she doubted he would ever make music in public again. Asked later about the dispute, Muti told the Chicago Tribune, “Sometimes when the music director is very strong in demanding quality, mediocre people do not want to accept quality.”

So far, the relationship between Muti and the CSO’s musicians looks like a love affair. The raven-haired Italian adored the music that the orchestra made under his baton when he was a guest conductor in 2007. He called the CSO “a perfect machine.” That experience that persuaded Muti to sign a five-year contract as music director.

“This is one of the great musicians of our day, at the pinnacle of his artistic vision, coming together with one of the great orchestras of all time at the peak of their playing,” says Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s vice president of artistic planning and audience development. “It was incredible to experience. It truly was love at first sight.”

Explaining his decision to conduct in Chicago, Muti told The New York Times: “I have found a situation, how can I say, that has made more sweet my dry heart.”

Carl Grapentine, a longtime host on Chicago’s classical music radio station, WFMT 98.7 FM, says he can’t wait to hear what Muti will do at the helm of the CSO: “I think he’s a great combination of a stickler for precision, having a great stick technique, but also a very romantic musician.”

Muti will take over as music director a year from now, but he comes to Chicago this October to conduct eight concerts, including Brahms’ A German Requiem and symphonies by Mozart and Bruckner. Muti will be just one of three main maestros presiding at the CSO during this transitional year. Amsterdam native Bernard Haitink is finishing up his four years as principal conductor, while French composer Pierre Boulez, the CSO’s conductor emeritus, celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday in January with a month of concerts.

The CSO performs at Orchestra Hall, an auditorium designed in 1904 by Daniel H. Burnham, which received an acoustic makeover in 1997, becoming part of a larger complex known as Symphony Center. The venue also hosts jazz concerts, including Dianne Reeves, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis this season, and an eclectic series called “Symphony Center Presents,” which ranges from Emanuel Ax to Pat Metheny and Los Lobos.

The CSO is the city’s symphonic titan, but it’s just one of numerous groups playing classical music in hundreds of concerts all year round. Another giant on the scene is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which performs at the Civic Opera House. Viewed from its west side along the Chicago River, the building looks like a huge chair — hence, its nickname, “Insull’s Throne.” Electricity baron Samuel Insull built the venue for his Chicago Civic Opera, opening the hall just a few days after the stock market crash of 1929. Like other local opera companies of the early twentieth century, Insull’s group did not last. The Lyric took over the space in 1954, when Maria Callas made her American debut in Bellini’s Norma. “She sang … like a goddess of the moon briefly descended,” Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy raved. And Chicago Sun-Times critic Felix Borowsky declared: “The city has raised an operatic voice which deserves to be heard around the world.”

Borowsky’s words proved prophetic — although keeping an opera up and running was no easy task. The Lyric’s legendary publicist, the late Danny Newman, once recalled how hard it was to persuade wealthy capitalists to donate money to the opera in its early days. “Some testy tycoons said we should either become more efficient (sell more tickets) or quietly go out of business,” Newman said. “Often they seemed morally offended when told that our product cost more to produce than we could sell it for.”

These days, the Lyric Opera boasts that its budget has been in the black for 21 of the past 22 years, including the most recent season. “First and foremost, we don’t spend more than we have,” explains William Mason, the Lyric’s general director. “And we put on a good product.”

That’s putting it mildly. Like the CSO, the Lyric Opera has been acclaimed around the world for the high caliber of its work. Does the Lyric present too much modern opera or not enough? “They have been more conservative than I would have liked,” says Wynne Delacoma, a longtime critic for the Sun-Times. “I tend to like things more adventuresome. But you realize now, they’re not facing millions of dollars in debt. So you have to say, well, it wasn’t a bad thing.” Mason says the Lyric tries to keep a good balance between popular “barn-burners” such as Tosca and modern operas — the “spikier stuff,” as he puts it. “In these challenging economic times, you’ve got to consider what you can sell.”

Another landmark of the Chicago classical world is the Ravinia Festival, in north suburban Highland Park, the summer home for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936. With James Conlon serving as music director and frequently conducting the CSO, Ravinia also features touring classical acts such as the Kronos Quartet and a long roster of jazz, dance, world-music and mainstream pop musicians, ranging from Tony Bennett to Elvis Costello.

Ravinia’s focal point is a pavilion with three thousand two hundred reserved seats, and the grounds also include two smaller, enclosed venues where chamber groups and cabaret singers perform. But many concertgoers prefer to sit on the lawn with blankets, picnic baskets and bottles of wines. They can’t see the stage, but they do hear symphonic sounds or pop tunes coming over the speakers.

When it opened as an amusement park in 1904, Ravinia was billed as “a place of entertainment for people of culture and refinement.” In 1929, a critic for The Chicagoan magazine wrote: “The casual visitor at the huge park … cannot fail to come under the sway of the specific magic of the place. When there is a moon it seems to do its best for Ravinia. Even the passing trains of the Northwestern hoot pianissimo.” Those same words are true today. “It’s just a little bit of heaven,” says Dorothy Andries, a critic for suburban Pioneer Press (and sister of Sun-Times critic Delacoma).

Chicago’s other great outdoor musical tradition began at the height of the Great Depression, when American Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo was seeking work for unemployed musicians. He persuaded the Chicago Park District to present free concerts in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. The Grant Park Music Festival was born, beginning with an ambitious series of sixty-five symphonic concerts in 1935. People of all classes and backgrounds flocked to the shows.

The Grant Park Music Festival has had many memorable moments over its seventy-five years, including a 1958 concert by Van Cliburn that marked his first American appearance after making headlines for winning the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. But Delacoma says the Petrillo Bandshell, where the Grant Park Orchestra played after 1972, left a lot to be desired. “It sounded tinny,” she says. “It sounded like it was background music from a bad radio.”

The orchestra finally got the home it deserved when Millennium Park opened at the Grant Park’s north end in 2004, unveiling the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by architect Frank Gehry. Shiny metal surfaces twist and curl above the stage, and a trellis extends out over the lawn, with overhead speakers above the audience. The new book Sounds of Chicago’s Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival quotes Gehry discussing his design for the pavilion. “I pushed very hard to include the trellis to hang the speakers from so that it could create a sense of enclosure for the people on the lawn,” Gehry says. “Thanks to the trellis, people on the lawn really have a sense of a coherent space.”

The sound is wonderful, and concertgoers also get a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. The Grant Park Orchestra, led by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, is flourishing in the new space, playing music that tends to be a little more daring than the summer fare at Ravinia. “The orchestra was ready to have its profile raised,” Delacoma says. “It’s been absolutely stunning.” The concerts are still free, although Grant Park Orchestra subscribers get first priority on the seats nearest the stage. The Pritzker Pavilion also hosts world music, indie-rock and a chamber music series called “Dusk Variations.”

Arguably as important as the Pritzker, another venue opened just to the north in 2003 — the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. With fifteen hundred twenty-five seats, this nonprofit theater is the right size to host concerts by groups that don’t have as big of a following as the CSO or the Lyric Opera. It’s now the regular home for Chicago Opera Theater, Music of the Baroque, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and local avant-garde ensemble eighth blackbird. The 2009-10 season also includes Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lang Lang and a Q&A with Stephen Sondheim. And the Harris hosts the CSO’s MusicNOW contemporary series — more of that “spiky stuff” that probably wouldn’t fill enough seats over at Orchestra Hall.

Chicago’s classical music scene has burgeoned in recent decades, with a growing number of small and medium-size organizations. Other notable examples are the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Newberry Consort and Bella Voce. Orchestras are also based in several suburbs, including Elgin, Lake Forest, Evanston, Northbrook, Elmhurst, Oak Park-River Forest, Skokie and Highland Park, just to name a few. And Chicago is home of the Joffrey Ballet, which performs at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. “There are just so many groups in town,” WFMT’s Grapentine says. “Not enough time to hear them all.”

And Chicago has many venues. Northwestern University in Evanston, the University of Chicago, Dominican University and other colleges present top-notch concerts featuring both local and touring musicians. The Music Institute of Chicago has a superb venue in Evanston. The Museum of Contemporary Art hosts concerts on the avant-garde end of the spectrum, including upcoming appearances by Philip Glass and International Contemporary Ensemble. The Chicago Cultural Center also presents concerts, including showcases for young musicians.

On top of all that, classical and avant-garde influences are seeping into many of the rock and jazz shows at clubs like the Empty Bottle, Schubas and the Hideout, where it’s common to see cellos, violins and trumpets mixing with electric guitars.

Critic Dorothy Andries says Chicago has classical music for all tastes. “You can look around and you can find what you want,” she says. “I really believe in Chicago.”