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Heat Wave of 1901

In the summer of 1901, a terrible drought spread across the corn belt of the Midwest. Crops withered away across Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri due to the lack of rain. By mid-July, the only hope in saving the crops would have been some much-needed rain, but instead, the temperature began to climb.


Sunday, July 14th

On July 14th the St. Joseph Gazette ran an article stating that the temperature reached 106 the day before. A thermometer placed in the sun was said to have registered 134 degrees before bursting and the asphalt in the streets got so hot that it turned into the consistency of rubber. H. M. Hansen of the Hansen Company Ice House told the Gazette that they had already lost half of their 8,000-ton capacity due to increased demand and melt.[1] Ice Cream sales at Lake Contrary skyrocketed as crowds flocked to the lake in search of little found relief from the unrelenting heat.[2] The same day, Townsend and Wyatt Dry Goods took advantage of the heat by running an ad proclaiming that they were “The Coolest Place in Town.” Two people, grocer W. E. Barton and laundry driver John McNees, both lost consciousness in the streets that day from heat exhaustion.[3] The first casualty came that night. Mrs. Sarah W. Tullar died at 7 pm at her son’s home at 107 S. 19th.[4]



Monday, July 15th



Early morning of the 15th a light shower fell across town. The Gazette reported, “As the rain fell on their faces the few people on the streets said it was the most pleasant sensation that they had ever experienced…” This relief was short-lived, however. The rain stopped, and as the sun rose, so did the steam from the pavement. The temperature climbed over 100 for a second day, and a second death took place. 55-year-old Frank Bolceux was at work on the streets when he was overcome by the effects of the heat. He was taken to his home at 1415 S. 16th around 5 pm, a doctor was summoned around 7, but poor Frank died before the physician arrived at the home.[5]


Tuesday, July 16th

The showers the night before proved to be too light to be of any benefit to the corn crops, and the drought was still unbroken. Water for livestock and fire protection was added to the ever-growing list of concerns. [6]


Wednesday, July 17th

Day four with temperatures over 100 brought yet another death. William Barada, a 35-year-old grocer, collapsed in the back room of his grocery store on Lake Boulevard.[7]


Thursday, July 18th

With the temperature only reaching the upper 90’s, conditions improved temporarily for the citizens of St. Joseph.


Friday, July 19th

Due to the sustained high temperatures, the Salvation Army decided to open a penny ice depot. The ice depot would be located around 6th and Messanie and would provide ice at a heavily discounted price to the poor of St. Joseph.[8]


Saturday and Sunday, July 20th-21st

Despite the terrible heat, St. Joseph began preparing for talks, theater, and a casino at the second Chautaugua to take place at Lake Contrary on Sunday. This weekend proved to be one of the hottest yet, with several papers declaring Sunday the hottest of the year. The sky was devoid of clouds, and the swimming beaches at Lake Contrary were packed as the water seemed to be one of the few places people could find relief.[9]

Jacob Smith, a 32-year-old fresco-er and decorator, was overcome by the heat Sunday while having a drink in a saloon at 824 S 6th Street. Half a dozen men had to hold Mr. Smith while he convulsed, and he was said to have gotten an “insane glare in his eyes, and he tried frantically to bite those who were holding him.”[10] Jacob was taken to the police station where the city physician injected him with morphine and applied cold compresses. Luckily for Mr. Smith, he was able to make a complete recovery.

Mrs. Rose Houk, however, was not so lucky. She had been suffering from a minor illness for several days, but the extreme heat took its toll and she succumbed around 6:30 Sunday evening at only 36 years old.


Monday, July 22nd

With temperatures reaching 108 by 3 pm and intense humidity, Monday proved to be the most devastating day yet. Mrs. Amelia Sergeant of South Park was the first casualty of the day. At 82 years old, she had withstood the heat quite well until Sunday evening when she began to feel faint. Her condition steadily declined, and she ultimately collapsed and failed to recover. Edwin Richards, the Public Impounder, collapsed at City Hall. He was transported to the hospital and packed in ice, but sadly passed following a series of convulsions. P. J. Managan, a visitor from Cheyenne Wyoming was the next victim. Following a weekend of heavy drinking during a steamboat excursion, Mr. Managan died from effects from the heat in his hotel room at the Liggett House. The fourth and final death Monday was Fred Skinner, a bartender at Ziph’s Saloon at 802 S. 6th Street. Skinner began to feel poorly while at work and retired to his room at the Atlantic House where he died that night.

The Chautauqua at Lake Contrary was still going on despite the heat, though it was not without consequences. Professor R. R. Lloyd, who was slated to give a lecture, was overcome by the heat and fell quite ill. Luckily he was able to make a recovery.


Tuesday, July 23rd

While the heat was slightly better than the day before, it still reached 106 and was the most devastating yet with six deaths and 10 prostrations. Charles Beems, a bartender at Hartnetts’s saloon on Edmond, was prostrated by the heat a week prior and ultimately succumbed to convulsions and “brain fever.”

Fred Pettis, 24, died in Avenue City around 4 pm. Pettis was at the bottom a well cleaning it, but “succumbed to the foul air and the intense heat, sinking into unconsciousness.”[11] Before medical help could arrive, he was dead.

A dishwasher at Marchain’s restaurant on Edmond street named Joseph Hart was found dead in the hall above the restaurant around 10:30 that night. Hart had been suffering from the effects of the heat for several days, and quit work early that day. He went to his room upstairs but ultimately moved to the hallway to lay down and escape the heat of his room. He was found to have died after Miss Marchain went upstairs to give him a glass of lemonade.

Mrs. Jane Nash, Mrs. Eliza Commer, and infant May Fischer all also died from the effects of the heat.

With the number of deaths and prostrations increasing dramatically County Physician Graham ran an article in the paper advising people on what to avoid consuming in the heat. Suggestions included avoiding alcohol, ice water, and fresh meat.



Wednesday, July 24th

Local physicians expanded on the proper diet for the heat, developing a horrifying meal plan including milk soup, clam juice, and beef tea. They also suggested taking warm baths before going to sleep and frequently consuming warm drinks.

The Salvation Army continued planning their Penny Ice Depot.

Chester Williams was only 12 when he died from the heat. He had been employed at a shoeshine stand and lived with his grandmother.

Wesley Ridinger, 42, was the fifteenth victim of the heat. After working for a few hours as a painter and decorator Tuesday, Wesley began feeling unwell. He retired to his room at Second and Felix and went into convulsions the next day. City Physician Tygart was called, but it was too late for Wesley.[12]


Thursday, July 25th

Citizens rejoiced as it was “so much cooler.” Unfortunately, the “so much cooler” was that it only reached 106 as opposed to the 112 of the day prior. The weather was not cool enough to avoid adding to the ever-growing death toll as three more deaths were reported.

Nathan Mills, 85, died at the St. Joseph’s Hospital due to the heat and old age. Mr. Mills had been a resident of the area for over 50 years, making him one of the very early settlers.

At the Savoy Hotel at 6th and Angelique, Patrick Haney, 70, was found dead in his room around 8 am. Haney had been one of the best landscape gardeners in the midwest and was locally known as “Jack of Clubs” (though it is unclear why.)

The final death of the day was Frank Reilly, a registry clerk at the post office. Reilly had been prostrated by the heat and sent to Ensworth Hospital that Monday, but failed to recover.[13]

The same day in Savannah, tragedy struck. Arthur Bryant, a former St. Joseph printer, was found dead of a gunshot wound in the woodshed behind the home of his parents. Bryant had been living in Atchison Ks. but came to Savannah to visit with his family. The previous evening he had been prostrated by the heat, but it was thought to have been minor and that he would quickly recover. Instead, however, he arose early that morning, and shortly after a gunshot was heard. The St. Joseph Gazette reported that it was “thought he had become temporarily crazed as a result of the sun-stroke suffered.”[14]


Friday, July 26th



After six weeks with no meaningful rain, and 12 days of temperatures over 100, the drought was finally broken. Around 10 in the morning, clouds began to gather, darkening the sky. By mid-afternoon, the heavens opened much to the relief of the sunbaked citizens. With the rain came cooler temperatures dropping from a high of 106 the day before to 88. The Gazette reported that as the rain came citizens rejoiced- some had a “spirit of genuine worship”, others waved their hats in the air cheering wildly, and others simply basked in the cool rain. As the dust settled, life could finally return to normal.[15]


[1] “Local Ice Supply is Dwindling Fast,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 14, 1901 [2] “Hundreds of Persons at Lake Contrary,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 15, 1901 [3] “How Is This For Caloric?” St. Joseph Gazette, July 14, 1901 [4] “One Death Due to Excessive Heat,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 15, 1901 [5] “Heat Caused His Death,” St. Joseph News Press, July 16, 1901 [6] “Rain too Light to Benefit the Crop of Corn,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 17, 1901 [7] “Another Death from the Heat,” St. Joseph News-Press, July 17, 1901 [8] “Penny Ice Depot to be Opened,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 19, 1901 [9] “No Rain Clouds Were Seen Sunday,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 22, 1901 [10] “Convulsed by the Heat,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 22, 1901 [11] “Unabated Fury of Sun’s Fierce Rays,” St. Joseph News-Press, July 24, 1901 [12] “Two More Deaths Due to the Awful Heat,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 25, 1901 [13] “Three More Heat Deaths,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 26, 1901 [14] “Crazed by Heat He Kills Himself,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 26, 1901 [15] “Long Drouth is at an End,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 27, 1901

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