The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



March 25, 1911


     A century has passed since a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 145 employees shortly before the end of the working day. It was at 4:40 p.m., when the workers had been slaving at their sewing machines since 7 a.m., that a fire broke out on the 9th floor of the Asch building in lower Manhattan.

     Nearly all of the children and women working there were Jewish immigrants who knew little English and who were forced to work for starvation wages because they had no other opportunities. The owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were also Jewish, so that the tragedy of that fire has become a part of American Jewish history.

     Just as the workers were about to leave and enjoy one day of rest, they were trapped in the building because the owners had locked the doors from the outside. Some rushed to the nearby fire escapes, but these would not hold so many people and therefore crashed to the sidewalks below, killing all who were standing on them. There were 600 workers in the building as the fire roared on. A few gained access to the elevator, which held only 12 people. The elevator traveled back and forth three times but then became immersed in flames. Thereupon the young girls, many only 16 years old, plunged to their deaths into the elevator shaft. Those who ran down the stairs found that they too were now in a death trap, as the doors were locked. Many died there and were burned alive at the doors.

     A few workers and the owners escaped to the roof and from there to nearby buildings. However, the majority did not make it to the stairwells or the roof but jumped out the windows to escape being burned to death. They all died on the sidewalks below.

     Meanwhile the fire department deployed some fire ladders without success, because the ladders only reached to the seventh floor of the Asch building when, in fact, the fire gutted the eighth and ninth floor. A life-net was employed, leading several girls to jump at the same time, ripping the net.

     Within 18 minutes, forty-nine workers had been burned to death or suffocated by smoke. Thirty-six died in the elevator shaft, and fifty-eight died by jumping out the windows. Two more died from unknown causes.

     On April 5, 1911, the workers' union marched on 5th Avenue to protest the hideous conditions in the New York sweatshops that led to this tragedy. Over eighty thousand people marched in protest against the owners of the factory.

     On April 11, 1911, the owners of the factory,  Harris and Blanck, were indicted on seven counts of manslaughter in the first and second degree. They then hired the most experience lawyer in New York, Max Stuer, and paid him $25,000. Despite the evidence that the locking of the doors violated the New York Labor Code and despite the testimony of over 100 witnesses, the jury, on the instructions of the judge, found both men not guilty. Subsequently, New York passed the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law.

     Greed led Harris and Blanck to lock the doors lest the underpaid and overworked children and women slaving for them might steal from them. They also placed the tables in their factory in such a manner that a minimum of conversation would be possible among the near slaves they employed. These and other measures allowed Harris and Blanck to live on the upper west side of Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. Harris employed four servants and Blanck employed five. They rode in chauffeured cars.

     After the disastrous fire, Blanck and Harris collected $60,000 in insurance money, from which they paid a week’s wages to the survivors for each worker killed. They then returned to the “shirtwaist” business and were once more caught locking the doors and maintaining flammable wicker scrap baskets in their new factory.

     On March 25, 2011, on the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster,  the New York Times published a picture of the bodies lying on the sidewalk next to the Asch building, together with a recollection of that horrible event.

      The conditions which led to the Triangle fire were by no means confined to that company. The entire garment manufacturing industry exploited immigrant women, mostly eastern European Jews, in a brutal manner. Generally, women working in that industry earned $0.75 per week, although some of the most skilled men were paid $3.00 a week.

      A number of women worked for the garment manufacturers at home. These home workers were also brutally exploited, so that the manufacturers would deduct money from the miserable wages they paid if any alterations had to be made in the garments delivered them by home laborers. The employers also “sold” sewing machines to the home workers by deducting a weekly amount from their income.

     Garment workers slaved at least 60 hours a week and often had to work overtime without additional compensation. Because there were so many immigrants and all needed the work just to survive, the owners exploited the misery of the poor to their great advantage. These poor were often the children of immigrants who started work in factories at age eight or assisted their mothers and fathers working at home.

     The needle trades led to numerous health problems for the women working there. Headaches, fainting, back pain and spinal distortions were common among those bending over sewing machines ten hours a day.

     All of this is part of American Jewish history as is the failure of the American Jewish community to “lift a finger” to help the German Jews persecuted in Nazi land in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Today, once more, we see how many American Jews, such  “J Street,” abandon the Jewish community in Israel and support those who seek its destruction.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

Home ] Up ]