The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Horror in Manhattan – Extra History


March twenty-fifth, 1911. The ninth floor of the Asch Building. The workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company are preparing to leave. They have worked a long week (fifty-two hours) making the blouses that have come to symbolize practical, independent womanhood. As they collect their hats and their coats, they chat about Sunday plans. They are almost all women; Mostly Jews who fled Tsarist atrocities, and environmental refugees from Italy. Here in America, they found opportunities they’d never known. In 30 minutes, 146 of them would be dead. It begins with a spark. On the eighth floor, someone tosses a cigarette in a bin filled with cloth scraps and tissue paper patterns. By the time men get the fire buckets, Flames are licking the rows of shirtwaists hanging overhead. Twists of ash fall into scrap bins and land on the oil soaked floor. Frantic, people pile into the rickety fire escape. Others run to the Washington Street staircase, but it’s locked. Management likes to force employees to leave via the Green Street stairs, so they can search workers for stolen cloth. A floor manager shoves the women aside and opens the door, saving them, but the fire’s close behind. Flames are spreading, sucking up the building’s stairwells. A telephone operator warns the executives on the tenth floor. The factory owners evacuate the roof, barely escaping. But no one warns the ninth floor. There, workers discover the danger when flames begin to lick the windows. Everything happens too fast. Flames block the Green Street stairs. Workers pile onto the fire escape, but it collapses, spilling twenty people down an airshaft. Trapped girls tear at the locked Washington Street door. Their clothes and hair begin to catch. Flames begin to press them towards the walls and windows. Heroic elevator operators make as many trips as they can, but the heat warps their rails, and the cars stall. Desperate women jump down the shaft, trying to slide down the cables. On the street, hundreds of onlookers gather to watch the fire. Above, they can see workers gathering at the windows and on the ledges. The fire department arrives, but their tallest ladder only reaches the sixth floor. The girls begin to jump. Landing hard on the street or impaling themselves on a pointed fence. One young man at the window helps girls up onto the sill one after another, as if lifting them onto a streetcar. When the final girl comes, they share one last kiss before they jump. On the other side of the building the huddle of bodies pushing away from the flames finally bursts the windows. 33 people, some already burning, fall to the pavement. It was over. When police count the bodies they find 146 people dead on the street or charred on the factory floor. Most of them are women in their teens or early twenties. The youngest is 14. Among the crowd watching is Francis Perkins, of the consumers’ league. Perkins is part of a new generation of progressive activists. College-trained social scientists, who seek change through studying problems, marshalling data, and writing reports. For the last four months, she’s been a factory fire in Newark that killed 25 workers. Her conclusion, that American factories need evacuation plans, adequate fire escapes, and sprinkler systems, have just played out before her eyes. At that moment, she swore this would never happen again. And she wasn’t the only one. Public outcry followed the fire because these were no ordinary workers. The previous year, they had staged a major strike seeking shorter hours, better pay, and the ability to form unions. The factory bosses, led by Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had hired gangsters and prostitutes to assault them on the picket line. At one point, gangsters had ambushed the strike’s leader, Clara Lemlick, and broke six of her ribs. The garment workers had become heroes with newspapers dubbing their movement the uprising of the twenty thousand. They won shorter hours and higher wages, but now those same girls were laying dead on the street waiting for relatives to identify their scorched remains. The public howled for justice. When the garment union staged a funeral march through New York City 120, 000 people showed up to the march, and another 300, 000 people watched. But Blanck and Harris were acquited of manslaughter. They paid out a pittance in a civil suit and got a windfall in insurance money. The unions decided to take matters into their own hands. They demanded an independent committee focused on safety reforms and prepared to take on an insurmountable opponent– Tammany Hall. Tammany. New York’s political machine. But Tammany wasn’t much interested in policies and reforms. Instead, Tammany existed to make money through corruption. Its head, Boss Murphy, controlled city and state politics. Tammany politicians were pro-business and sworn enemies of unions and reformers like Perkins. During the garment strike, they had sided with the owners. It was Tammany cops that harrassed workers on the picket line, and Tammany gangsters that broke Clara Lemlich’s ribs. Most activists thought that this was a fight that couldn’t be won. Tammany, they said, only listened to money. But Perkins wasn’t so sure. Years before, she had championed a bill limiting women and minors to a 54-hour work week. And she had received support from Al Smith, a rising Tammany star. He had killed the bill when boss Murphy told him to, of course but she suspected that Smith could be convinced. And he was now the head of the state assembly. But when Perkins pushed for a factory investigation committee, Smith shot it down. The legislature wouldn’t listen to an outside commission. However, he added, a hybrid body made up of legislators and with the political support of Tammany, that could get results. The reformers agreed, reluctantly, expecting Smith to de-fang the body. But things were changing at Tammany. Boss Murphy had quietly been pushing for reform. He had watched New York progressives make gains, catapulting Theodore Roosevelt to the White House. He saw the explosion of enthusiasm during the garment workers’ strike and Tammany was getting killed in state elections. Their old base of Irish immigrants were moving out of Tammany districts, replaced by Jewish and Italian voters who they had a hard time connecting with. Murphy slowly replaced the old guard with men like Smith. Men who wanted to do more than just give out coal in the winter or a bit of money in hard times. Men who wanted legislation that would actually improve their constituents’ lives. As it happened, many of the Triangle victims lived in Tammany districts and they were exactly the group that Murphy had struggled to reach. He ordered Smith to take a stand on Triangle. From now on, Tammany would be the party of workers. The Factory Commission proved anything but toothless. They built an investigation and legal team from a who’s who of progressive activists. The socialist firebrand, Clara Lemlich, the head of the Shirtwaist Strike, came aboard as an investigator. The head of the Women’s Trade Union League joined as one of the expert commissioners. Francis Perkins helped recruit, train, and supervise investigators. The results came fast. In the first six months, the Commission collected 3,500 pages of testimony from 222 witnesses. Its ten investigators fanned out, inspecting 2,000 factories in nine cities. What the legislators saw shocked them. Triangle was not an anomalie. In one factory, the passage to the fire escape was no bigger than a hatch. Perkins forced the head of the state senate to crawl through it. They raided a cannery where children were forced to work until they passed out from exhaustion. In one shop, a factory owner tried to hide his child laborers by packing them into an elevator and then stopping it between floors. By the end of 1911, Commission legislators drafted fifteen new bills covering fire safety, factory conditions, and employment rules for women and children. Eight of those bills became law. Automatic sprinklers, fire drills, and fireproof stairwells were now mandatory in highrises. All exit doors had to stay unlocked. It addressed every hazard at Triangle. Yet the appetite for reform kept growing. When Perkins made a new push for her fifty hour workweek bill Boss Murphy tried to kill it with an unexpected late-night vote but Tammany legislators revolted stalling until a key legislator could sprint all the way back to the capitol and cast the winning ballot. The winds were shifting. Reluctantly, Boss Murphy adopted the progressive agenda of the Factory Commission. The result was a landslide in the 1913 elections. One after another, Commission bills passed. The Commission dissolved in 1915, with 36 of its bills enshrined in law. In addition to fire safety, they protected child workers, created a Department of Labor, mandated that employers provide restrooms, and founded a workman’s compensation system for those injured on the job. Within four years of the fire, New York had the strongest labor laws in the nation. This political earthquake remade American politics and propelled Smith to the governor’s mansion More importantly, it laid the groundwork for a new form of liberal politics that another New York Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, would carry into the White House. And that’s not all he carried with him. Key Factory Commission members became F.D.R.’s allies in the Senate, and Francis Perkins joined the administration as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. Former Commission members helped craft the New Deal much of which was just a federal version of the laws they passed in the wake of the Triangle fire. The lives lost, indeed, had not been in vain. Even though the Triangle fire happened over a century ago, the laws it created are still with us, and they have saved thousands of lives. In fact, apart from the September 11th attacks, to this day America has never had a workplace disaster as deadly as Triangle. So when you’re faced with a horrible social problem, one that people say can’t be solved because of apathy or powerful interests, remember the Triangle and get to work.

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