Joe Bruno on the Mob- Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

If it weren’t for the greed of sweatshop bosses, this tragedy may never have occurred. But on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took the lives of 141 people, most of them women.

At the turn of the 20th century, working conditions in the New York City sweatshops were abysmal. Men, woman and children toiled in dirty factories, warehouses and tenements, doing menial tasks that made the garment industry one of the most profitable businesses in the nation. Labor laws were inadequate and hardly ever enforced. Factory inspections were rare, and if they were done at all, the factory owners knew where to grease the proper palms to get high marks, when condemnation of the factory was the more proper course of action. In 1899, a law banning night work for women was declared unconstitutional. The absurd reason given by the courts, whose members were often in the sweatshop bosses’ pockets, was that the law “deprived woman of the liberty to work in factories at night, or for as long as they wished to.” In 1907, his ruling was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals. Even though the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union was formed in 1900, the sweetshop bosses hired thugs as strikebreakers, to keep the ladies’ union in line.

Of all the greedy sweatshop owners, the worst offenders were Max Blanck and Issac Harris, who owned the Triangle Waist Company, located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch Building building, at 22 Washington Place, on the corner of Greene Street. The factory produced women’s blouses, known at the time as “shirtwaists.” The firm employed around 500-600 people, most of them young female Jewish and Italian immigrants, who worked under horrible conditions for 9 hours a day on weekdays, and 7 hours on Saturdays. The bosses were such tyrants, they charged their employees for needles and other supples. They also charged them a fee for using their chairs, and if one of the employees damaged a piece of goods, they had to pay three times the value of the item to replace it.

In 1908, Blanck and Harris formed a sham company union that served their purposes much better that it served their hundreds of employees. Several employees, who tried to join a legitimate union, like the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, or the United Hebrew Trades, were quickly fired. The reason management gave for the firing was that because of poor economic conditions, it had to cut staff. Yet strangely enough, new workers were hired almost immediately after the dismissal of the others.

Because Triangle Waist Company had locked out their dismissed workers, Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union called a strike against them. Blanck and Harris hired union strike breakers, or “schlammers,” to beat up the male pickets, and they also hired prostitutes to mingle with the female workers in the picket lines. The police and the judges, obviously working at the behest of the owner, sided with Blanck and Harris, one judge even saying at the sentencing of one picketer, “You are on strike against God.”

On March 25, 1911, it was a cold and windy day, as the 5pm closing time approached. It was estimated that 600 employees, packed in like sardines, were working at the sewing machines. Most were woman between the ages of 13 and 23. The 5pm bell rang and the woman scrambled to get their coats and hats, and rush for the elevators. Suddenly, a fire broke out on the southeast corner of the 8th floor. It was later determined that the fire was inadvertently caused by a cigarette butt that had been thrown into a litter basket near a sewing machine. An updraft of air sent the flames and smoke shooting upwards towards the roof.

The building had no sprinkler system and the fire quickly enveloped the entire 8th, 9th and 10th floors. Girls on the 8th floor ran to a stairwell on the Washington Place side of the building, but the door was locked. The fire was so intense, all the windows on the top three floors of the building blew out from the heat. Some workers were able to jam themselves into the elevators while the elevators were still working. Others, including Blanck and Harris were saved, because they were able to make it to the safety of the roof. A passerby named Joe Zito and an elevator operator named Gaspar Mortillalo, used the only working elevator to make five trips up to the 9th floor, taking down 25-30 terrified people at a time. But soon that elevator became inoperable too.

Within five minutes, the fire trucks arrived, but there was not much they could do. Their extension ladders only reached the 6th floor, and the stream of their hoses only reach the 7th floor. Rather than burning to death, people began jumping out of the windows, sometimes in groups of two, three, and four. A man and a woman appeared in a 9th floor window, their clothes ablaze. They kissed, then hugged and jumped together, their bodies smashing on the cold pavement.

The firemen brought out safety nets to catch the jumpers, but it was hopeless. One fire chief later said, “Life nets? What good were life nets? The little ones went right through the life nets and the pavement too. Nobody could hold a life net when those girls from the ninth floor came down.” The fire only lasted 10 minutes, but when it was over, 141 workers had died. 125 were women.

Nine months after the fire, Blanck and Harris were put on trial on manslaughter charges. But the trial, like the earlier building inspections, was a farce. The judge was Thomas Crain, a Tammany Hall appointee, with little interest in justice for the dead workers. He manipulated a trial where only an acquittal was possible. It took the jury just 100 minutes to render a verdict of not-guilty.

This did not go down too well with the families of the victims. The day after the not-guilty verdict, hundreds of despondent relatives of the victims stood outside the Tombs. Blanck and Harris, surrounded by five police officers, tried to slither out the building through the Leonard Street exit. When they were spotted, they were quick enveloped by an angry crowd. David Weiner, whose sister had died in the fire, charged at the sweatshop bosses, swing his fist in the air. “Not Guilty? Not Guilty?” he screamed. “It was murder! Murder!” Weiner was quickly subdued by the police, but he was so distraught, he fainted and had to be taken to the hospital.”

In 1913, the families of the victims won a lawsuit against Blanck and Harris. The families were awarded a measly $75 per victim, whereas Blanck and Harris were paid by the insurance company $60,000 more than the reported loses of life and property. Ironically, in late 1913, Blanck was arrested again for locking the doors to his sweatshop.

The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire did not go for naught. The New York State State Legislature, whose members included future Presidential candidate Al Smith and Robert Wagner, the father of the future Mayor of New York City by the same name, forced the state to completely re-write the labor laws. The State Legislature created the New York State Factory Investigating Committee to “investigate factory conditions in this and other cities, and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard, or loss of life, among employees through fire, insanitary conditions, and occupational diseases.”
As a direct result of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, The American Society of Safety Engineers was founded on October 14, 1911.


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