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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Illustration by Arthur E. Giron

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.

 

However, in 1936 much of the country, including Detroit, appeared to be on the rebound. That year’s Fourth of July weekend featured pleasant and clear weather, with an unprecedented number of people crossing the Ambassador Bridge into Canada. In those pre-Weather Channel days, most were blissfully unaware that a mass of blast-furnace heat, steadily building in the Southwest and aided by an enormous high-pressure system off the West Coast, was headed their way. On July 6, the temperature reached 121 degrees in North Dakota, a harbinger of what was to soon hit Detroit.

It was already in the low 80s when most Detroit-ers started work on the morning of Wednesday, July 8. By mid-afternoon, the thermometer had officially hit 104.4 Fahrenheit, just shy of the all-time, single-day mark of 104.6 degrees, set on July 24, 1934. The soaring temperature caught many by surprise, with men and women collapsing at work, at home, and on the street. One man was overcome by the heat while driving on Davison, and crashed his car into the back of a truck.

Theodore Raulink was working on a farm at Ann Arbor Trail and Telegraph when he pitched over and died. George Boyle dropped dead inside of the laundry where he worked on McGraw Avenue. Peter Kasmonos, a house painter, was rushed by taxi to Receiving Hospital, but by the time he was admitted, it was too late. The three men, all in their 40s, were the earliest known fatalities. By midnight, there would be at least five others.

The following day, the thermometer topped out at 102, forcing many offices and factories to close by afternoon. A dozen more deaths were attributed to the heat. Harried weather-bureau clerks answered every phone call by shouting “102 degrees” into the mouthpiece and then hanging up. The federal forecaster said no relief was in sight. In fact, only the presence of some clouds, which deflected the sun’s rays, kept Detroit from experiencing its highest-ever reading on Thursday. The entire midsection of the country, from Oklahoma to the upper Midwest, was baking in record heat. Many communities set marks that, three-quarters of a century later, have yet to be broken, including the highest temperature ever recorded in Michigan: 112 degrees in Mio.

Hordes of people crowded playgrounds and city parks looking for some relief; others splashed in the warm waters of local lakes. The official temperature of Lake St. Clair, at Mount Clemens, was a bath-like 80 degrees. Some with plenty of time on their hands packed lunches and bought an all-day pass on one of the Detroit-Windsor ferries, sailing back and forth for hours. Health officials issued tips to the populace.

Don’t overeat, and avoid fatty foods. Don’t overexert yourself or wear heavy or dark clothing. Drink plenty of fluids, but be careful to drink ice-cold water slowly. Put a pinch of salt in each glass of water. Above all, they warned, don’t worry how hot it is — an upset nervous system makes one even more susceptible to sunstroke.

Friday, July 10, was the third-straight day of triple-digit temperatures. Nineteen Detroiters died that day. Wrestling promoter Nick Londes canceled that evening’s match between Vincent Lopez and Chief Little Wolf at Brodhead Naval Armory. “It’s asking too much of fans to go inside in this hot weather,” he said. With people staying home, switchboard operators were kept unusually busy, handling about 1.25 million telephone calls, roughly 30,000 more than normal. “People are phoning to break engagements because of the heat, to postpone dinner parties, to order goods instead of shopping for them,” a phone company official explained.

Those who dared to drive were far more likely to have an accident than when temperatures were milder, the city’s traffic director warned. “Don’t drive if you are sleepy, don’t drink too much beer, and keep your eyes on the street and not on the girls.” The last was a sound bit of advice. The asphalt was softening and the pavement in some places buckled, including a 4-foot mound at McNichols and Livernois that frustrated motorists in all directions. The public works commissioner did his best to sound reassuring about any possible road hazards, saying the department wasn’t looking for “any serious trouble until thermometers hit 220.”

Detroit was practically halfway there. The weekend was consistently, monotonously, and unmercifully hot: The thermometer would officially register 101 degrees on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There was not much the average person could do but take the punishment. One editorial referenced the recent Joe Louis-Max Schmeling bout. On June 19, Detroit’s own “Brown Bomber” had been unpityingly pummeled by the German heavyweight while absorbing the first loss of his professional career. Citizens, “like Joe Louis from the fourth round on, must stay in there and take it,” The Detroit News said. (Curiously, Louis’ stepfather, Pat Brooks, the man who had brought him up, died of a stroke on the second day of the heat wave. However, his death was not attributed to the weather.)

Meat sales plummeted while sales of lemons — for lemonade, iced tea, and mixed drinks — skyrocketed. Seven freight cars’ worth of lemons, about 700,000 overall, were quickly sold one day at the produce terminal. The price of lemons doubled to a dime each; watermelons, the second most favorite summer fruit, sold for 50 cents apiece.

Cheating the heat required ingenuity. Some families who evidently didn’t care about their electric bill turned their entire kitchen into an improvised icebox. First, they sealed all the windows and doors with paper, then propped open the door of their refrigerator and placed a fan inside. Finally, they spread out a mattress and pillows on the kitchen floor, producing a “guaranteed” night of rest, said one practitioner. Other enterprising types placed a 50-pound cake of ice in a bucket next to their bed and had a fan, strategically tilted, blow over it.

 

Of course, for any of this to work, one first had to have a fan. At Ray Jewelry on Griswold, customers could buy a $7.95 model on credit: 45 cents down, 50 cents a week. Shelves there and elsewhere were quickly emptied, while storeowners desperately called wholesalers around the country. A man who was caught stealing a fan from Kinsel’s drugstore insisted he be allowed to bring it to his jail cell — a request the judge denied. The thief was right to worry about possible liquefaction. One day, with the mercury stuck above 100 degrees, the central heating plant accidentally turned on the radiators inside the top-floor lock-up at police headquarters for several hours.

The Detroit News reported the Albert Kahn-designed building actually had a cooling system installed when it was built, “but it never has worked. The only result ever attained by putting on the cooling system has been to blow soot out of the apertures and onto the faces of everyone in the building.” Elsewhere, inmates at the Wayne County jail did time in relative comfort. “Guards and turnkeys at the correctly termed ‘cooler’ say the 261 prisoners are more comfortable than they are,” the Detroit Times reported. “It seems the thick walls keep the heat out as well as the prisoners in.”

“I lived in an apartment house on Cass then, so I know heat,” says Helen (Malone) Dodd of Highland. She was 7 years old in 1936. All the heat waves of her childhood blend into one composite memory of four walls acting as a kind of multi-story brick oven, baking the renters within. “All the windows were thrown open, but that didn’t do much good,” she recalls. “We lived at the front of the building, overlooking Cass. I’d stay up into the wee hours of the morning, it was so hot, and I’d look out the bedroom window, just watching people. I saw lots of things that way, probably some things that a little girl shouldn’t have.”

Sometimes, on an unbearably hot night, the Malones would bundle blankets and pillows and head for Cass Park, a block away, where a frazzled family could put down a blanket and pick up a breeze. She assumes they did so in 1936. “We’d sleep out in the open; in a way it was kind of fun,” she says. If friends and neighbors were sharing the same grassy venue, socializing among the adults and horseplay among the kids sometimes derailed the quest for serious shut-eye. Conversely, snoozing in the dark among a park full of strangers produced no nightmares, she says. “In those days, there weren’t any problems of people bothering you. Detroit was a different place back then.”

Belle Isle was the nocturnal refuge of choice for a small army of sleepless Detroiters carrying cots, hammocks, and blankets, but any grassy space would do, including one’s own lawn. Sleeping outdoors, an innocuous activity, did lead to one unusual weather casualty. Earl Brown, 50, decided to bed down one night in the vacant lot next to his house on Nevada; a short while later, he was run over by a car when his son pulled into the darkened space to park.

With so many people trying to find respite in the water, the number of drownings climbed. Two people drowned on Belle Isle while the water was crowded with waders. The body of a little boy who had disappeared while swimming with friends was recovered near the Grosse Pointe Farms municipal pier, not far from where his shoes were found by the water’s edge, while that of another missing Detroit youngster was recovered from Quarry Lake near Trenton. There were scores of drownings around the state. One victim was an off-duty Hamtramck fireman who, overcome by the heat, toppled off a boat while fishing at Marysville. Another man, swimming with his sister and a female friend in the Paw Paw River, was forced into a gut-wrenching decision. Unable to save both floundering women, he rescued his sister.

Despite such distressing news items, swimmers were not to be denied. “The fact that the Belle Isle beach closed at 9 o’clock meant nothing to heat-weary citizens,” one reporter observed. “They merely scaled a 12-foot spiked fence and the river was theirs.”

Maintaining the decorum of the times was a struggle in the heat. Bathing suits and sunsuits were fine for young children, and skinny-dipping (at least among boys) was tolerated in isolated lakes and streams, but adults continued to dress modestly when moving around in public. Ladies’ thongs and bikinis were unheard of, while it was considered scandalous for a man to appear shirtless away from the beach. Inside the clammy municipal buildings, attorneys, judges, bailiffs, and court employees were required to keep robes, coats, and ties on. Only defendants were allowed to appear in shirtsleeves.

Store employees also remained professionally dressed. For women this meant girdles, slips, and stockings, though Hudson’s and Crowley’s at least offered workers and customers air-conditioning to ease the suffering. Few other stores did. The owner of the Elbel Music Co., declaring that it was “time to be sensible about men’s clothing for summer,” made front-page news by allowing employees at his Ann Arbor shop to wear short pants. This was quite a jolt in an era when men were expected to always wear shirts and slacks, no matter what the weather, and when few adult males wore shorts on any occasion. “I was fearful of the reaction of the public,” Robert Elbel Jr., told reporters, “but it has been received as a grand idea. If the hot weather continues, I predict other stores in Ann Arbor and other places will fall in line.”

Knobby-kneed store clerks aside, such a revolution was not forthcoming. Customs of dress remained firmly — and discomfortingly — in place. Detroit police not only continued to wear leather puttees and dark uniforms, an inspection scheduled months in advance went on as planned. Patrolmen stood at attention in 10-pound woolen overcoats and other winter gear while superiors determined whether an officer’s clothing was good enough to last another year on the beat. A scheduled police courtesy course was jeopardized when “a lot of patrolmen said they didn’t give a **** whether it was courteous or not, they wouldn’t turn out for school in the current weather,” the Detroit Times reported. A stern warning from the department’s commissioner ended the revolt.

Main thoroughfares leading to Belle Isle and riverside parks were jammed with thousands of cars, causing waterfront communities to divert police officers to traffic duty, but most other streets were eerily empty. People chose to ride out the heat in basements, parks, saloons — anywhere away from pavement, though some Detroiters playfully fried eggs on curbs and sidewalks. Vapor lock became a big problem for motorists, the heat causing engines to stall.

 

Sandlot baseball games, always a big draw, were sparsely attended, even with the Tigers out of town. (See related story.) However, air-conditioned theaters, all sporting “It’s cool inside” signage, were packed. Some movie houses stayed open all night, allowing folks to grab a few winks in the dark. The Eastown on Harper opened its lobby to perspiring housewives looking for someplace other than their kitchen to finish their ironing. Manager Joe LaRose said the lobby could accommodate as many as 30 ironing boards, maybe more. “And why not?” he said. “It’s nice and cool for them to iron in the theater and it doesn’t hurt me a bit. All they have to do is buy a ticket to get in.” The women didn’t even have to lug an ironing board with them; they were provided for free by a furniture company on Van Dyke. “I don’t blame them,” said the store’s manager. “I’d like to stay there the rest of the day myself.”

With people drinking more water, taking more baths, and sprinkling lawns (and themselves), the water department reported record usage. At its peak, the city was pumping 417 million gallons daily, enough to fill a ditch 10 feet deep, 100 feet wide, and 10 miles long. Judging by local beer consumption during this same period, many would have loved to see such an imaginary canal filled with ice-cold Goebel’s or Stroh’s. It was estimated that thirsty Detroiters were drinking 2 million 8-ounce glasses of beer each day. A bartender drawing drinks inside an air-conditioned saloon on Kercheval collapsed, more likely from overwork than the heat.

As the days wore on, the oppressive heat building up inside homes, apartments, and institutions reached intolerable levels. One double tragedy saw a 74-year-old woman die inside her home on Magnolia Street; the following day her 42-year-old daughter passed away in the same house. Twenty-three died on Saturday, July 11. On Sunday, the full scope of the catastrophe became evident. Eloise Hospital, which on a typical day recorded two deaths, reported that 86 elderly patients had died since Wednesday. The superintendent explained that nearly all were already suffering physical disorders. “Usually there is a letup, a breathing spell, when we have such hot weather, but now we have had no breathing spell for five days.”

At Receiving Hospital, a steady stream of perspiring policemen and ambulance drivers brought the stricken in on stretchers. The Detroit News described the scene: “The admitting room and corridors of the hospital were filled with patients and weeping relatives, all screaming for attention. Doctors and nurses worked at a feverish pace, administering relief to prostration victims who were placed in ward rooms, on temporary cots in the corridors, and even on benches.” Victims, their chests heaving, mouths twitching, and faces radish-red, were cooled down with washcloths and given saline injections. The lucky ones gradually had their sanity restored and were sent home after a day or two; the unlucky ones wound up at the Wayne County morgue.

There, the mounting bodies threatened to overwhelm employees and overflow the building. For the first time in memory, the morgue was filled to its 280-crib capacity. Scores of other bodies lay on wheeled stretchers in the dark hallways, awaiting a final official verdict on cause of death. Medical examiners hurried to release bodies to undertakers, performing 50 autopsies on Sunday alone — five times the daily average. Meanwhile, phones rang incessantly and attendants dealt with a mob of relatives anxious to identify and claim the bodies of loved ones. Never before, said Dr. W. D. Ryan, chief medical examiner since 1918, “has there been anything like this for such a protracted period.” To speed the processing of victims, city treasurer Albert E. Cobo lent the morgue several clerks from his office.

Monday’s high was 100 degrees. The forecast called for “continued warm, no immediate relief in sight.” In each of the daily newspapers, long lists of the dead started on page one and jumped to inside pages. This being a different era in terms of animal welfare, there was no interest in estimating how many overstressed horses and neglected pets were also dying in the heat, but to judge by anecdotal news items, the toll was considerable. At the Detroit Zoo, where Suzie the chimp was worked to death, keepers marveled that animals from Arctic or moderate climates appeared less stressed by the heat than those from tropical regions.

Tuesday, July 14, brought more of the same draining, death-dealing heat. By midnight, another 144 Detroiters would be gone, the second-highest 24-hour toll in the city’s history. Only the influenza epidemic of 1919 claimed more victims on a single day. At 2:15 in the afternoon the temperature hit an official 104.3 degrees. Once again, the city was on the cusp of setting a new all-time single-day high.

And then, seemingly with a snap of Mother Nature’s fingers, the heat wave broke. Starting at around 3 o’clock, the mercury began a steady slide. The temperature fell into the 90s … the 80s … and then the 70s, as a storm front moved in. Cool, blessed rain fell, buckets of it, symbolically dowsing Detroit’s week in hell. By early the following morning, the weather bureau would report an official temperature of 62, an overnight freefall of 42 degrees from Tuesday afternoon’s high. Butchers “sold a record amount of steaks and chops,” the Detroit Times reported. “Suddenly as the temperature dropped, the city discovered it was hungry. Thousands of housewives hastened home from parks to feed the family its first real meal in seven sweltering days.”

The human cost was almost unprecedented in the city’s long history; only cholera and influenza epidemics had ever been so lethal to the general public. Over the course of a week, during which the daily highs had averaged a sizzling 101.9 degrees, at least 364 Detroiters had died. (Across the river, 22 people died in thinly populated Windsor and surrounding Essex County.) Elsewhere around the state, an additional 206 people — many of them farmhands toiling in the fields — had perished. Several million dollars worth of crops had been ruined. Nationally, about 5,000 deaths would be blamed on the heat, with Michigan’s toll of 570 victims surpassed only by Ohio’s.

Belle Isle was practically deserted the evening the killer heat wave passed. The few people who planned to spend the night brought along extra blankets. The forecast called for cool temperatures, and they wanted to stay warm.

Dearborn-based Bak is a frequent Hour Detroit contributor. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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