The Great Heat Wave of 1911 / by Jason Turgeon

It’s going to be hot in Boston the next few days, with temperatures bumping up against 100 tomorrow.  That’s the kind of heat that can make life unbearable if you’re outside.  But no matter how bad it gets, it’s going to be nothing like the great heat wave of July 3-7, 1911, that killed hundreds of people from Chicago to the east coast.  The hottest day was on July 4th, at 104 degrees in Boston, still the hottest day ever on record in the city.  At Roxbury’s annual 4th of July parade many people passed out in the heat.

In a time before air conditioning or fans, men in their 30s dropped dead after a days’ work in the factory, infants died in their cribs, horses dropped on the street, and 5000 people were reported to be sleeping on the Boston Common overnight to try to escape the heat.  The heat was so intense that it drove people in every major city to suicide, including Jacob Seegar of Roxbury.

I have to imagine that if 5000 people were crowded onto the relatively low-lying common, many people would have been sleeping in Highland Park where there would have been the best chance of finding a cool breeze.  And I’m sure that the brewery ice houses were working overtime to do their part, although dozens of factories took the rare step of shutting down operations during the heat wave.  But ice and a spot to sleep on the grass don’t hold a candle to modern fans, swimming pools, and air conditioning…to say nothing of modern fashions that let us wear shorts and t-shirts!