History: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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This was a tragic event in our history and I think it’s often overlooked or just gets a passing mention, so I thought we’d look at it more in-depth here.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

  • happened in New York City.
  • happened on March 25th, 1911.
  • is the fourth deadliest industrial accident in the US.
  • caused the death of 146 people by smoke inhalation, fire, or just falling/jumping to their deaths – most of whom were women between 16 and 23 (final count was 129 women/17 men – almost all of whom were the main supporter in their family).
  • is still officially without a cause, but they suspect there was a match or cigarette tossed in a scrap bin still burning (this is the most popular and likely theory).

This video explains about it and how a very similar situation happened in Thailand in the last five years:

Conditions and how people died

  • People jumped to their deaths because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked, essentially trapping these women inside.
  • The few unlocked doors opened inward and with so many people trying to get out were held shut.
  • No fire alarms to warn these women until it was already too late. Someone on the 8th floor called up to the 10th floor to say something on a phone, but the 9th floor was completely in the dark.
  • The fire department lacked ladders tall enough to get to those floors.
  • The fire hoses on each floor that the women tried to use lacked water.
  • Because of the bodies on the ground from people jumping, the fire department had a hard time getting close enough.
  • All the attempts to catch the jumpers failed because too many people jumped too quickly.
  • Some brave men who were working there formed a bridge from the 8th floor to a nearby window and a few more escaped that way, but those men eventually fell to their deaths as well.
  • The water from the hoses of the fire department only reached to the 7th floor.
  • People were so desperate they jumped down the shaft on top of the descending elevator – they died as well.

This is a video of a former New York State Senator discussing his grandmother and two aunts who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

Because of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

  • laws were passed that improved labor conditions.
  • the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union grew.
  • the owners of the company were indicted of first and second degree manslaughter but they were never convicted. However, in a later civil suit, the court required them to pay the compensation of 75 dollars per victim.
  • the New York City Fire Department created a division of Fire Prevention.
  • New York City created the The Factory Commission of 1911.


Statements about the fire (warning, a few are graphic)

One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library… It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines. – Louis Waldman

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. … We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement. – Rose Schneiderman

Thud — dead; thud — dead; thud — dead; thud — dead. Sixty-two thud — deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. – William Shephard

It was all nice young Jewish girls who were engaged to be married. You should see the diamonds and everything. Those were the ones who threw themselves from the window. What the hell did they close the door for? What did the think we were going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist? – Pauline Cuoio Pepe

Girls were burning to death before our eyes. Down came bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, lighted bodies, with the disheveled hair of the girls trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.

There were 33 in that shower. The flesh of some of them was cooked. The clothes of most of them were burned away. The whole, sound, unharmed girls who jumped on the other side of the street had done their best to fall feet down, but these fire-tortured, suffering ones fell inertly, as if they didn’t care how they fell, just so that death came to them on the sidewalk instead of in the fiery furnace behind them. – Bill Shepard

There are a handful of catalytic, galvanizing moments where history really gets a big push to give us the world that we live in today, and the Triangle fire is one of those. Triangle led to changes that influenced the way every American lives. – David von Drehle

Even a hundred years later, workplace safety concerns are still a problem. You hear about the locked doors at the Triangle factory and it’s shocking. But to this day, we hear about grocery store workers in Brooklyn who are locked in the stores at night and it’s a very common practice in retail and the garment industry to lock the doors — they say it’s to prevent theft, which is what the Triangle factory owners claimed.

In many ways, we haven’t made much progress. The Triangle fire was a mostly immigrant population in a very competitive business. We have that now with janitorial, home health care, security workers, the garment industry — any labor-intensive industry, you have the same pressures. – Catherine Ruckelshaus

It happens all over the place — unsafe construction sites, sweatshops tucked away in all corners of NYC, just blocks from the Triangle factory site. The other part of it is, which is just as shameful, is that 95 percent of garment manufacturing is now offshore. Clothes are being made in Bangladesh, where they have very similar conditions to the Triangle factory, where workers are locked in. – Leigh Benin

Get Involved

Books (Note I haven’t read these, I just found them)*

I write this in memory of these, the victims:

• Adler, Lizzie, 24
• Altman, Anna, 16
• Ardito, Annina, 25
• Bassino, Rose, 31
• Benanti, Vincenza, 22
• Berger, Yetta, 18
• Bernstein, Essie, 19
• Bernstein, Jacob, 38
• Bernstein, Morris, 19
• Bierman, Gussie, 22
• Billota, Vincenza, 16
• Binowitz, Abraham, 30
• Brenman, Rosie, 23
• Brenman, Sarah, 17
• Brodsky, Ida, 15
• Brodsky, Sarah, 21
• Brooks, Ada, 18
• Brunetti, Laura, 17
• Cammarata, Josephine, 17
• Caputo, Francesca, 17
• Carlisi, Josephine, 31
• Caruso, Albina, 20
• Ciminello, Annie, 36
• Cirrito, Rosina, 18
• Cohen, Anna, 25
• Colletti, Annie, 30
• Cooper, Sarah, 16
• Cordiano , Michelina, 25
• Dashefsky, Bessie, 25
• Del Castillo, Josie, 21
• Dockman, Clara, 19
• Donick, Kalman, 24
• Eisenberg, Celia, 17
• Evans, Dora, 18
• Feibisch, Rebecca, 20
• Fichtenholtz, Yetta, 18
• Fitze, Daisy Lopez, 26
• Floresta, Mary, 26
• Florin, Max, 23
• Franco, Jenne, 16
• Friedman, Rose, 18
• Gerjuoy, Diana, 18
• Gerstein, Molly, 17
• Giannattasio, Catherine, 22
• Gitlin, Celia, 17
• Goldstein, Esther, 20
• Goldstein, Lena, 22
• Goldstein, Mary, 18
• Goldstein, Yetta, 20
• Grasso, Rosie, 16
• Greb, Bertha, 25
• Grossman, Rachel, 18
• Herman, Mary, 40
• Hochfeld, Esther, 21
• Hollander, Fannie, 18
• Horowitz, Pauline, 19
• Jukofsky, Ida, 19
• Kanowitz, Ida, 18
• Kaplan, Tessie, 18
• Kessler, Beckie, 19
• Klein, Jacob, 23
• Koppelman, Beckie, 16
• Kula, Bertha, 19
• Kupferschmidt, Tillie, 16
• Kurtz, Benjamin, 19
• L’Abbate, Annie, 16
• Lansner, Fannie, 21
• Lauletti, Maria Giuseppa, 33
• Lederman, Jennie, 21
• Lehrer, Max, 18
• Lehrer, Sam, 19
• Leone, Kate, 14
• Leventhal, Mary, 22
• Levin, Jennie, 19
• Levine, Pauline, 19
• Liebowitz, Nettie, 23
• Liermark, Rose, 19
• Maiale, Bettina, 18
• Maiale, Frances, 21
• Maltese, Catherine, 39
• Maltese, Lucia, 20
• Maltese, Rosaria, 14
• Manaria, Maria, 27
• Mankofsky, Rose, 22
• Mehl, Rose, 15
• Meyers, Yetta, 19
• Midolo, Gaetana, 16
• Miller, Annie, 16
• Neubauer, Beckie, 19
• Nicholas, Annie, 18
• Nicolosi, Michelina, 21
• Nussbaum, Sadie, 18
• Oberstein, Julia, 19
• Oringer, Rose, 19
• Ostrovsky , Beckie, 20
• Pack, Annie, 18
• Panno, Provindenza, 43
• Pasqualicchio, Antonietta, 16
• Pearl, Ida, 20
• Pildescu, Jennie, 18
• Pinelli, Vincenza, 30
• Prato, Emilia, 21
• Prestifilippo, Concetta, 22
• Reines, Beckie, 18
• Rosen (Loeb), Louis, 33
• Rosen, Fannie, 21
• Rosen, Israel, 17
• Rosen, Julia, 35
• Rosenbaum, Yetta, 22
• Rosenberg, Jennie, 21
• Rosenfeld, Gussie, 22
• Rosenthal, Nettie, 21
• Rothstein, Emma, 22
• Rotner, Theodore, 22
• Sabasowitz, Sarah, 17
• Salemi, Santina, 24
• Saracino, Sarafina, 25
• Saracino, Teresina, 20
• Schiffman, Gussie, 18
• Schmidt, Theresa, 32
• Schneider, Ethel, 20
• Schochet, Violet, 21
• Schpunt, Golda, 19
• Schwartz, Margaret, 24
• Seltzer, Jacob, 33
• Shapiro, Rosie, 17
• Sklover, Ben, 25
• Sorkin, Rose, 18
• Starr, Annie, 30
• Stein, Jennie, 18
• Stellino, Jennie, 16
• Stiglitz, Jennie, 22
• Taback, Sam, 20
• Terranova, Clotilde, 22
• Tortorelli, Isabella, 17
• Utal, Meyer, 23
• Uzzo, Catherine, 22
• Velakofsky, Frieda, 20
• Viviano, Bessie, 15
• Weiner, Rosie, 20
• Weintraub, Sarah, 17
• Weisner, Tessie, 21
• Welfowitz, Dora, 21
• Wendorff, Bertha, 18
• Wilson, Joseph, 22
• Wisotsky, Sonia, 17

Sources

*Note: I am now an Amazon Associate which means that if you click on a link to one of the books I promote and then buy it, I get a portion of those proceeds. Thanks for supporting me 🙂

If you’re interested you might want to check out my women in history series or my this day in history post on the Great North American Blizzard of 1999.

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