Today marks the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire centennial. On this day 100 years ago, 146 workers died when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire.
Sixty-two workers jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor of the burning factory. The rest died in the fire or fell down an open elevator shaft, pushed by panicked coworkers trying to escape the flames.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Victims
The toll mounts the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. (Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell Univ.)
One-hundred-twenty-nine women and 17 men died.
All of the women worked long hours for small pay at the Triangle garment sweatshop in Greenwich Village.
Most were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls, aged from 14 to 23.
The 14-year-olds were Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese; the oldest Providenza Panno at 43. Nearly all lived on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Was Justice Served?
“Girl strikers” had been protesting pay and working conditions at Triangle and other New York City garment sweatshops as early as 1909. Arrested for assault, even as they were assaulted, the women organizers stood firm.
“Arrest Strikers for Being Assaulted.” The New York Times, 5 Nov 1909, p. 1.
At Triangle, stairwells and exits were locked to prevent theft. This common long-standing practice was ordered by owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. These wealthy owners, immigrants themselves, were tried and acquitted on one count each of manslaughter in 1914.
Author David Von Drehle wrote the seminal book on the fire: . As he pointedly notes, the jury had no factory workers and plenty of business owners. Drehle discovered that Blanck, after his acquittal, started another garment factory–with locked exits.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Archives
Cornell’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives offers an excellent online exhibition. The archives also holds interviews with witnesses and survivors, and information on each person who perished. Genealogists may consult their holdings at these links:
Naming Those Lost
In 2011, researcher Michael Hirsch uncovered the identities of the six remaining unidentified Triangle workers. A co-producer of the HBO documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire, Hirsch used
microfilms of mainstream daily newspapers… and ethnic publications that he asked to have translated, like the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and Il Giornale Italiano. He estimates that he consulted 32 different newspapers.
Hirsch looked for articles about people who, in the weeks after the fire, claimed that their relatives were still missing. He then matched what he discovered with census records, death and burial certificates, marriage licenses, and reports kept by unions and charities about funeral and “relief” payments made to the families of the dead. Lastly, he sought out the descendants of three of the unidentified to confirm that the names he found were still mourned as Triangle victims.