Michigan's Killer Heat Wave

In July of 1936, a scorching heat wave turned Detroit into a virtual furnace for a week, claiming at least 364 lives. Without air conditioning, oven-like homes and offices became unbearable in the triple-digit temperatures, prompting people to cool off in lakes and pools, sleep in city parks, and guzzle buckets of lemonade and beer.


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The heat was on, and so was Suzie. For the ninth time on a broiling hot Sunday in 1936, the headline actress of the Jo Mendi Theatre at the Detroit Zoo gave a crowd of admirers a gracefully vigorous show, roller-skating, pedaling a bicycle, pushing a scooter, walking a tight wire, and performing other tricks with her fellow chimpanzees.

She was adorable, she was beloved, and by the following morning she was dead. The 6-year-old chimpanzee had succumbed to heat exhaustion after an entire day of nearly nonstop performing. “With her checkered skirt and blouse awry, she was carried from the caged arena,” The Detroit News reported, “a limp and hairy heroine of public demand.”

Mary Lou, another chimpanzee, also collapsed, but she recovered. Zoo director John Millen admitted afterward that it “really was too hot for Suzie and the others to go on, especially for nine performances.” But all of the chimps “were good troupers, and they were willing when they saw the great crowd that had gathered Sunday to see them perform.” Millen insisted the zoo was “going to hunt up another educated chimp to fill her place for the rest of the season. In other words, the show will go on as usual, the way Suzie would want it to. She was a trouper.”

For man and for beast, it was the week from hell, those seven scorching days in Depression-era Detroit when the populace was subjected to a roasting of unprecedented intensity. On July 12, 1936, the same day Suzie was stricken, the heat killed 60 people across the city, pushing the toll to 122 during five straight days of 100-degree temperatures. The majority of victims died inside their homes or shortly after being admitted to the hospital with an overtaxed heart or aching head. Most were elderly people, though infants and adults in the prime of life also were struck down. On this Sunday, the victims included Betty Lou Crawford, a 14-month-old girl who died from heat prostration at Children’s Hospital, and 34-year-old Walter Balko, who was found slumped in his car outside his home on Greeley Avenue. “He was badly sunburned and died of internal hemorrhage,” the Free Press reported. Patricia Mezzole, 23, died in St. Mary’s Hospital from a heat-induced heart attack.

That was only the beginning of the dying. Over the next two torrid days, until the run of triple-digit readings finally snapped, the body count would explode, with residents at one point passing away at the rate of one man, woman, or child every 10 minutes. The morgue was filled to overflowing, hospital corridors were crammed with victims and shrieking relatives, and even the mad were driven insane, as some psychiatric patients — convinced they were in the grip of a cold spell — fought with attendants to remain bundled in blankets. Medical examiners conducting the continuous stream of autopsies ran out of white sheets to cover the bodies. “A great city is dying of the heat,” the Detroit Times declared.

Detroit has endured other notable heat waves. In 1953, for example, residents sweltered and pavement buckled as temperatures hit 90 degrees for 11 consecutive days. That sticky stretch was surpassed by a dozen straight days of 90-plus heat in 1964. The entire summer of 1998 remains the warmest on record, with daytime highs and nighttime lows averaging out to an uncomfortable 74.5 degrees.

However, the great heat wave of 1936 came at a time when air conditioning in cars, homes, businesses, and municipal buildings was virtually unknown. Cooling centers and better-informed public-health measures were decades in the future. Before 1936, the city had never experienced two consecutive days of triple-digit heat, at least not in the 63 years that the U.S. Weather Bureau had been keeping records. In fact, since 1873 there had been only seven 100-degree days ever recorded in Detroit — a total that in 1936 would be equaled in one murderous week.

Of all the calamities Detroit endured during the Great Depression — bank failures, factory closures, labor strife, political upheaval, and Prohibition — the killer heat wave of July 8-14, 1936, is the one that is the least talked about. Its particulars are imprecisely remembered, if at all. To the citizens who lived through it, it was just one more extreme weather event that came, wreaked its havoc, and then left, to be lumped in with all the other periods of unbearably hot and stuffy weather one encounters in a lifetime of summers. “We really didn’t care about records,” a retired roofing contractor said in 1986, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. “Those are good days to forget, and I mean that.”

During the 1930s, the Southwest United States suffered plague-like drought conditions immortalized today by the searing images of Dust Bowl farm families in Life magazine and by the travails of the fictional Joad clan in John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath (made into a film of the same title). The human, economic, and environmental devastation seemed a piece of the other miseries that afflicted the country during the Depression.

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