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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Which was sad, because some of the scraps were fascinating. Virtually nothing had been known about the young women who worked and died in the Triangle factory, but I was finding whispers of their brief stories in old census records and city maps. The microfilmed record of a Socialist newspaper in New York, the Call, contained a haunting half page of photographs of Triangle fire victims, lent by their grieving families. The same newspaper fleshed out Harris and Blanck's role in resisting efforts to unionize the garment factories.

Such discoveries kept me plodding along, despite flagging hopes. One spring day in 2001, almost exactly 90 years after the fire, I turned my attention at the Library of Congress to the high-priced attorney Harris and Blanck hired to save them from prison. Max D. Steuer was among the most colorful figures in the peacock gallery of New York before World War I. An immigrant and former sweatshop worker, Steuer rose to the pinnacle of the New York bar, starring as courtroom magician in dramas ranging from celebrity sex scandals to securities frauds to the disputed wills of dysfunctional dynasties. He became known as "Million-Dollar Steuer" in the Hearst newspapers until he complained about it to one of his clients: William Randolph Hearst. The Triangle trial—specifically, Steuer's cunning cross-examination of the star prosecution witness—was a key moment in his legendary career.

I found a sketch of Steuer's life in the Dictionary of American Biography, published in the early 1960s. The entry ended with a list of sources printed in tiny type. One note caught my eye: "Collections of the records and briefs of cases in which Steuer appeared are in the N.Y. County Lawyers' Assoc." What records?

I looked up the NYCLA on the Internet and was pleased to find that it still existed. It had been founded early in the 20th century as an alternative to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which—in those days—was not open to women, blacks or Jews like Steuer. A few calls led me to Ralph Monaco, director of the NYCLA library, who seemed genuinely interested in my saga—and genuinely sorry to tell me he had no idea what records the Dictionary was talking about.

That was the low point.

Three days later, Monaco called back. He had posted a listserv message explaining my plight to the Law Librarians Association of Greater New York. One of his predecessors as director of the NYCLA library, Alison Alifano, saw the message and replied that a collection of Steuer’s records was somewhere in the library. She just was not sure where. Then a veteran library employee named Jose Rosario unearthed what appeared to be a transcript from the stacks.

I told Monaco I could be in New York the next day.

How about next week? he countered. Promptly at 9 the next Monday morning, I entered NYCLA's downtown headquarters, an elegant Cass Gilbert landmark in the twin shadows of the World Trade Center towers. On Monaco's desk, I finally laid eyes on my prize: two fat, antique, leather-bound tomes, labeled Vol. 1 and Vol. 3. Vol. 2 appeared to be missing, so Rosario and I went back to the stacks to hunt for it. He led me to a shelf of similar books, all from Steuer's estate. Scanning the spines, I realized that he had commemorated his greatest trial victories by binding his carbon-copy transcripts in gold-lettered leather. Upon his death in 1940, he bequeathed these trophies to NYCLA. And as his fame had faded with the passing decades, they were relegated to storage and forgotten.

We never found the missing volume, but that hardly dampened my excitement as I turned the first of more than 1,300 pages of recovered history. For much of the next two weeks, I read slowly through the sometimes tangled testimony and typed thousands of words of notes and quotations into my laptop. Photocopying the volumes was out of the question—the cheap paper, nearly a century old, was crumbling between my fingers. In fact, I began to worry that Monaco would call a halt to my reading because the books were falling apart. So I sat at a table as far from the reference desk as I could get, and swept small drifts of paper crumbs into my briefcase to hide them.

Each morning, however, Monaco and his colleagues welcomed me back. And gradually I learned not only what it was like to endure the fire but also what it was like to work at the Triangle Waist Co. Notorious today as a classic sweatshop, the Triangle was a model of modern efficiency to its owners and employees. Indeed, as I came to understand the factory, the pace of daily work and the intricate relationships inside the large, family-run business, I could see how the factory's scale and efficiency helped cause the tragedy. Specially designed bins held hundreds of pounds of scrap cotton and tissue paper at a time. In one of these bins, just before the quitting bell rang, a fire kindled. The supply of fuel turned the factory into what a fire captain called "a mass of traveling fire" within 15 minutes.


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