Uncovering the History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The author behind the authoritative retelling of the 1911 fire describes how he researched the tragedy that killed 146 people

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished when a fire broke out in a garment factory in New York City. For 90 years it stood as New York's deadliest workplace disaster. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
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On March 25, 1911, a pleasant springtime afternoon, a fire broke out in a garment factory near Washington Square in New York City's Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story tower was full of flames. Onlookers, drawn by the column of smoke and the clamor of converging fire wagons, watched helplessly and in horror as dozens of workers screamed from the ninth-floor windows. They were trapped by flames, a collapsed fire escape and a locked door. Firefighters frantically cranked a rescue ladder, which rose slowly skyward—then stopped at the sixth floor, fully extended. Pressed by the advancing blaze, workers began leaping and tumbling to their deaths on the sidewalk. Other workers perished in the flames, still others plunged into an open elevator shaft, while behind the factory two dozen fell from the flimsy fire escape. In all, 146 workers, most of them immigrant young women and girls, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. For 90 years it stood as New York's deadliest workplace disaster.

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This story—and the fire's impact on the politics of New York and the nation—took hold of me in the early 1990s. I had moved to the Village as a reporter for the Miami Herald, and one day, while exploring the neighborhood, I was surprised to find the factory tower still standing at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. In the years that followed, I often passed that corner and always paused to look up at those ninth-floor windows.

My curiosity led me to a spare and forceful book, The Triangle Fire. Written by a labor organizer named Leon Stein and published in 1962, the book was both harrowing and somewhat frustrating. Stein had interviewed dozens of survivors, tracked down a number of original records and rendered the story in taut prose. But many of the questions that most interested me were taken for granted by Stein, who spent his career in the New York garment industry, a world stamped by the Triangle tragedy. I was hungry for more about the context and characters surrounding this event, which influenced such momentous figures as the progressive New York governor Alfred E. Smith, the New Deal architect Senator Robert F. Wagner and the pioneering Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. But no full-length study of the fire and its impact on politics had been written in the decades after Stein's book.

So I proposed to write my own.

How rash! But my folly dawned on me slowly—and only after I had blown a substantial stack of my publisher’s advance on diapers, formula and preschool tuition. I discovered that virtually all the key documents concerning the Triangle fire had been lost or destroyed. Records of the fire marshal’s investigation: long gone. Files of the coroner's special jury: vanished.

Worst of all, I couldn't find the official transcript of the trial of Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the Triangle factory owners, who had been charged with manslaughter on the theory that their negligence caused the workers' deaths. Their three-week trial in December 1911 collected sworn testimony from more than 150 witnesses who were questioned while details of the disaster were still relatively fresh in their minds. Dozens of survivors, including Harris and Blanck themselves, recounted their narrow escapes, while firefighters, police officers and building engineers added details of the factory layout and the fire's awful progress. No other document could take me closer to that factory in the moments before and after the fire erupted.

I knew that a transcript had been prepared, because Stein had used it in his research: his notes were part of the labor history archive at the Kheel Center at Cornell University. Yet when I contacted the New York City archives, I was told that, well, the transcript—all 2,000-plus pages—seemed to have been lost. It apparently vanished, wouldn't you know, during a project to preserve historic documents. Sometime around 1970, an archives official explained, New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice received a grant to transfer important court records to microfilm. Somewhere between the courthouse and the college, the Triangle record was lost forever.

Still, I figured there must be other copies, prepared for the prosecutor or the defense attorney. I inquired at other New York colleges and universities, at the New York Public Library, at various city museums and state archives. Coming up empty, I turned to the multitude of daily newspapers from 1911. Surely the sensational trial of Harris and Blanck must have been covered extensively, in front-page stories full of colorful details and verbatim testimony.

Nope. My heart sank as I fed rolls of microfilm into reading machines at the Library of Congress (having moved to Washington as a reporter for the Washington Post). There was next to nothing in the New York World, the American, the Herald, the Times, the Tribune, the Post. Only the most dramatic testimony and the verdict—not guilty—registered more than a few paragraphs stashed in the back pages.

My frustration turned to panic. Samuel Johnson famously declared that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," and I have never been wealthy enough to test his theory. The money I had taken was now gone, even as the bills continued to arrive. I began to lose hope that I could actually make a book from the scraps and remnants I had been compiling.


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