June 01, 2019 Legal Lore

The Triangle Fire Tragedy, Trial, and Triumph

Robert and Marilyn Aitken (Originally published Spring 2010)

View downloadable PDF of article.

I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound—a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thuds. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

This is what William G. Shepherd, a United Press reporter, saw as he walked across Washington Square in New York City in the late afternoon of March 25, 1911. His story of the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was telegraphed to newspapers across the nation.

Shepherd described how bystanders shouted to the girls not to jump. He watched a young man helping girls to the window sill and holding them out into space before dropping them. The final girl embraced and kissed him. He dropped her and then leaped off the sill to his death.

Fire trucks arrived, but the ladders reached only to the sixth floor. The fire had started on the eighth floor, where the workers soon realized the danger. Those on the tenth floor had an escape route. The ninth floor rapidly became an inferno where the choice was to burn in the fire or leap from a window sill.

“On the sidewalk,” Shepherd reported, “lay heaps of broken bodies.” . . .

[A] fireman . . . told me there were at least fifty bodies . . . on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls. . . .

The floods of water from the firemen’s hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood. I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.

William G. Shepherd, Eye Witness at the Triangle [Milwaukee J. (Mar. 27, 1911)], 

On the Front Page of the New York Times

The New York Times on March 26 ran the story on the front page. It reported the number of dead as 141, later raised to 147, trapped high on three floors of a 10-story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place.

After describing the horror, the article provided details:

The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for someone to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaist [Gibson Girl–styled blouses] by the Triangle Waist Company, the principal owners of which are Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.

There is just one fire escape in the building. That one is an interior fire escape. In Greene Street, where the terrified unfortunates crowded before they began to make their mad leaps to death, the whole big front of the building is guiltless of one. Nor is there a fire escape in the back.

The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned. . . .

Messrs. Harris and Blanck were in the building, but they escaped. They carried with them Mr. Blanck’s children and a governess, and they fled over the roofs. . . .

What burned so quickly and disastrously for the victims were shirtwaists, hanging on lines above the tiers of workers, sewing machines placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them, and shirtwaist trimmings and cuttings which littered the floors above the eighth and ninth stories. . . . What happened inside there were few who could tell. . . . All that escaped seemed to remember that there was a flash of flames, leaping first among the girls in the southeast corner of the eighth floor and then suddenly over the entire room, spreading through the linens and cottons with which the girls were working. The girls on the ninth floor caught sight of the flames through the window up the stairway, and up the elevator shaft.

141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside, N.Y. Times, Mar. 26, 1911, at 1, https://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/newspapersMagazines/nyt_032611.html.

The Efforts of NYU Law Students

What happened on the 10th floor is best described by the page 1 article in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, “Law Students Save Many”:

Across the small court at the back of the building are the rear windows of the New York University Law School. At the first cry from the burning building, two of the law students, Charles T. Kremer and Elias Kanter, led a party of students to the roof of the law school building, a story higher than the building where the fire occurred. Kanter and the other students dragged two short ladders to the roof of the law school, and by making a sort of extension ladder, Kremer got down on to the roof of the burning building and tried to get the girls into orderly line and send them up the ladder to where his school fellows were waiting to grab them to safety.

At the other end of the roof from the students’ ladders, fifty men and women were fighting with one another to climb the five feet to the roof of an adjoining building at the corner of Waverly Place and Greene Street. The law students say that the men bit and kicked the women and girls for a chance to climb to the other roof and safety. Kremer, when the last of the group nearest the law school had been saved, climbed down the ladder to the roof of the burning building and went down to the top floor.

He could see only one girl, who ran shrieking toward him with her hair burning. She had come up from the floor beneath and as she came to Kremer she fainted in his arms. He smothered the sparks in her hair with his hands and then tried to carry her up the narrow ladder to the roof. But because she was unconscious he had to wrap long strands of her hair around his hand and drag her to fresh air. His friend Kanter helped him get the girl up the ladder to the law school and safety.

All but one of the 70 employees on the 10th floor escaped.

The women on the ninth floor were less fortunate. Freight elevators that had made earlier runs to the eighth and tenth floors were soon blocked by flames in the shaft. The flimsy fire escape collapsed. Girls crowded through the Greene Street door, which was used by the owners to check employees for theft as they left work.

Kate Alterman and her friend Margaret Schwartz joined other desperate girls racing to the Washington Place door. Several employees tried unsuccessfully to open it. Frantically, the women searched for another way out. Kate Alterman chose to fight through the flames from the Greene Street stairway to the roof. She last saw Margaret Schwartz screaming, “My God, I am lost.” Her long hair was on fire.

Documents are available at the Kheel Center, Cornell University, website, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/.

The Trial

The tragedy brought forth cries for justice. The factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted for manslaughter on April 11, 1911. The trial began on December 4th before Judge Thomas C.T. Crain of the General Sessions Bench. Tough, shrewd, brilliant Max Steuer was defense counsel. He was a master of cross-examination. The lead prosecutor was Assistant District Attorney Charles S. Bostwick. Jurors were selected.

New York City’s courthouse atmosphere was electric. Enraged relatives and friends of the victims roamed the halls, yelling “Murderers, murderers!” But, because Steuer had managed to delay the trial for nine months after the fire, public outrage had peaked. The prosecutors decided to base their case on only one victim, Margaret Schwartz, and the locked door.

The trial lasted more than three weeks during which 103 prosecution witnesses and 52 defense witnesses testified. The prosecutors brought in witnesses who demonstrated how they tried in vain to open the Washington Place door. They testified about the fire’s cause, its rapid spread, their desperate attempts to survive, and the inadequacy of the escape routes.

Steuer, who grew up in the slum tenements of the lower East Side, was fluent in Yiddish and familiar with the immigrant culture. He questioned the truthfulness of the witnesses, their prejudices against their employer, their irrational and panicky behavior in the stressful situation, and their inability to recall details. Were they going to file civil cases for damages? Were they unfairly prejudiced against the defendants because of the death of their relatives? Were they fluent enough in English to understand the testimony?

Technicians and firemen were major prosecution witnesses, but when the fire chief testified that he saw a small spurt of flame along the west wall of the ninth floor indicating that the fire was reaching the stairways, Steuer jumped on it to show that the door was not a possible escape route. Witnesses insisted that the stairway was smoky but not blocked by fire.

Bostwick brought his star witness to the stand. Kate Alterman traced her movements on the ninth floor during the panic, described how the door wouldn’t open, and told how she last saw Margaret Schwartz, hair on fire, near the locked Washington Place door. She described her own escape in vivid words.

Steuer suspected Alterman’s testimony had been rehearsed. He gently asked her to tell her story again, “just as you told it before.” Alterman tried to comply, using the same colorful phrases. Steuer had her repeat her testimony several times. He used her continuing use of phrases such as “curtain of fire” and “like a bobcat” to convince the jury she had been coached. Her story had been diluted. Steuer succeeded in his strategy.

Although the fire had occurred on March 25th, the firemen did not find the Washington Place door’s lock and key until April 10th. Steuer moved to exclude evidence of the lock, claiming there was no certainty it was the ninth floor lock. He failed, but he laid the groundwork for an assault on its authenticity. Bostwick countered that he was able to trace the lock from the manufacturer to the workman who installed it. But Steuer brought in his own expert, who showed how easily anyone with a screwdriver could tamper with it. D. Von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Grove/Atlantic 2003).

The judge’s instructions to the jury decided the case. Judge Crain read Article 6, section 80 of New York’s labor law: “All doors leading in or out of any such factory shall be so constructed as to open outwardly when practicable and shall not be locked, bolted or fastened during working hours.” Then he said that in order to find a guilty verdict, the jury must first find that the door was locked during the fire—and that the defendants knew or should have known it was locked “under circumstances bringing knowledge of that fact to these defendants.”

Some jurors felt that unless it was established in the evidence that Harris and Blanck knew at 4:45 p.m. that the door was locked, they must acquit. Steuer won the case. D. Linder, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial,” Famous Trials website, University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law; Von Drehle, supra.

In a civil suit in 1913, the plaintiffs were awarded compensation of $75 per dead victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris almost $60,000 more than reported losses, equaling about $400 for each victim.

Blanck and Harris were charged with violations several times after the fire. On August 20, 1913, Blanck was arraigned. An inspector of the new Bureau of Fire Prevention testified that at the relocated Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Sixteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, he had found a door locked with a chain during working hours. One hundred fifty girls were inside the shop. L. Stein, The Triangle Fire (Lippincott 1962).

Reform

Frances Perkins and state legislator, later governor of New York, Al Smith formed an unlikely duo who, with the help of other concerned activists, pushed through labor reform. Perkins came from a patrician New England family. Born in 1880, she graduated from Mount Holyoke and Columbia University and had experience in social work. The Triangle fire forged her political determination to regulate the work environment.

In contrast, Al Smith was a Tammany Hall–backed state legislator who had been raised in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and claimed to be educated as a graduate of the Fulton Fish Market. But Smith worked overtime reading all the bills that reached his desk and soon gained power and respect for his knowledge of state politics.

In a lecture on September 30, 1964, at Cornell University, Frances Perkins explained how the teamwork with Al Smith began. Here are excerpts from the speech:

I remember that the accident happened on a Saturday. I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. . . . Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.

I remember that Al Smith, who was not a governor at that time but a member of the legislature, a majority leader in the assembly, found that many of these young people were residents of the same district he was a resident of and he did the most natural and humane thing. As he said: [“]Why, I did it just as I would if they had died of anything else, you know, you go to see the father and mother to try to help them.[”] He went to the places they lived; he went to the tenement they had occupied to see their father and mother and tell them how sorry he was or their husband or their wife, to tell them of his sympathy and grief. It was the human, decent, natural thing to do and it was a sight he never forgot. It burned into his mind. He also got to the morgue, I remember, at just the time when the survivors were being allowed to sort out the dead and see who was theirs and who could be recognized. He went along with a number of others to the morgue to support and help the old father or sorrowing sister do her terrible picking out.

This was the kind of shock we all had and the next Sunday a meeting was called in the Metropolitan Opera House. . . . I’ll never forget this was the first time I ever heard Rose Schneiderman speak. She was an unknown little redheaded girl, very small. . . . She had a voice that carried. Wonderful what a speech she made, and I remember how moved we all were by this girl who was a member of the Ladies’ Dress and Waist Union. . . .

[W]e appointed a committee . . . to carry on. We decided to ask the legislature to create a commission and this is where Al Smith came in. . . . He gave me the most useful piece of advice. It was this: “You’re going to form a commission, that’s all right, that’s a good idea, but let me tell you. Don’t ask the governor or anybody else to appoint a commission of citizens. Citizens is all right” he said, “but they have got to be where they belong. If you want to get anything done, you got to have this, a legislative commission. If the legislature does it, the legislature will be proud of it, the legislature will listen to the report and the legislature will do something about it.” . . . [A]nd the New York state legislature did exactly that.

So we proceeded and . . . [t]his factory investigating commission . . . sat for four years. We went all over the state. I was a young person then and certainly not fit for service on any super commission, but I was the chief—I was the investigator and in charge of the investigations and this was an extraordinary opportunity to get into factories to make a report and be sure it was going to be heard. . . .

We . . . kept expanding the function of the commission until it came to be the report . . . on all kinds of unsafe conditions and . . . conditions unfavorable to employees including long hours, including low wages, . . . including the overwork of women. . . . We were authorized . . . to recommend action. . . .

[I]n 1915, Al Smith was the speaker of the House and well on the way to be governor. We had a very favorable audience and much of the legislation was enacted into law . . . within a couple of years. . . . [I]t seems in some way to have paid the debt society owed to those children, those young people who lost their lives in the Triangle Fire.

Frances Perkins, Lecture at Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations (Sept. 30, 1964), https://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/lectures/ .

Perkins continued with her life’s work. She was instrumental in creating the Fire Prevention Division of the Fire Department, whose inspector later cited Blanck. While he was governor, Smith appointed Perkins the first female member of the state Industrial Board.

The next governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as chief of the New York State Department of Labor, where she promoted unemployment insurance. After Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1932, he appointed Perkins as secretary of labor. She was the first woman appointed to a president’s cabinet, the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession, and a chief architect of the New Deal. Her work as leader of the Committee on Economic Security resulted in the Social Security Act, which became law in 1935.

In 1961, Perkins met with the last survivors of the Triangle fire at a reunion in New York. Perkins died at the age of 83 in 1965. The Asch Building remains. It is now known as the Brown Building of Science, owned by New York University. It has been designated a New York and a national historic landmark.

Robert and Marilyn Aitken

At the time this article was written, Robert Aitken was an associate editor of Litigation and a lawyer in Palos Verdes Estates, California. Marilyn Aitken was a freelance writer. They co-wrote Law Makers, Law Breakers and Uncommon Trials (ABA).


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