DESCRIPTIONToday is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  That fire was a horrifying tragedy, but it led to one hugely important positive outcome:  the growth and acceptance of the American labor movement.  In this age of wholesale attack on the labor movement, today is a crucial time to stop and remember the incredibly important function that labor unions have provided American workers—and American society as a whole.  There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at labor unions; but in the fervor to attack them, their opponents seem to forget all the legitimate value they bring and the vital gains they have achieved.  (And, it might be good to remember that the opponents also may be legitimately criticized for the abuses on the other side, despite what benefits they have achieved.)


DESCRIPTIONI was speaking today to a young woman who did not know the story of this tragic part of our city—and country’s—history.  So I believe it is a good time to take a moment to recount it.  At the moment, there are two wonderful resources available online:  Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire: 1911—100 Years Later—2011,” at, put together by Cornell’s ILR School (formerly the NY School of Industrial and Labor Relations), which, in addition to a wonderful overall history of the event and its aftermath (included below), has primary source documents, photographs, and a list six previously unidentified victims (q.v., a very interesting and personal bit at the very end of this Alert);  and, a collection of articles from on the New York Times website, at


DESCRIPTIONI begin with some photographs which appeared in the Times at the time, from a piece by David Dunlap, “Triangle Fire: A Frontier in Photojournalism,” who points out that among the reasons “the Triangle fire embed itself so firmly in the popular conscience…[were] the existence in 1911 of a growing photojournalism corps, ever-improving printing technology and a public hungry for images.  …Within 24 hours of the fire, candidly brutal pictures of the tragedy were in circulation… Within 48 hours, readers…could visit the gutted interior of the crucible itself to see pictures of a locked stairway gate.  In its sheer scope, coverage of the Triangle fire was one of the earliest such graphic, public, inescapable and almost instantaneous media assaults on genteel sensibility.”   I have included the following images from Dunlap’s article: 1) “American Press Association.Firemen carrying the body of a woman who jumped from the ninth floor,’ was the caption of this heavily retouched photograph that was published in The Times on Sunday, March 26, the day after the fire.” [at top, at right]; 2) “Credit obliterated, presumably American Press Association. The headline over this photo in The Times said, ‘Police numbering the bodies in the street.’” [above, at left]; 3) “American Press Association. ‘The gate that was locked to prevent theft of merchandise, and which caused many deaths,’ The Times caption said on Monday.” [at right]


There were 146 people who died that day, either burning to death or jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames. Most of the victims were recent immigrants, mostly Jewish (102) and Italian, all but 23 were women, mostly aged sixteen to twenty-three.  Many of the deaths occurred because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits.


The sad truth is that immigrants are still being shamelessly and dangerously exploited in the garment industry today.  As the ILS School document points out:


Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.  []


And, as Nadia Sussman points out in the New York Times,

A century after 146 garment workers died in a fire at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, new immigrants still try to sew their way to the American dream.  But these days, especially in New York, garment work is hard to come by.  Safe working conditions and living wages in unionized factories are a legacy of the Triangle fire, but in other factories, day laborers from Latin America say they are treated poorly, paid less than minimum wage, or not paid at all.  That is, if they can find work. []

And it is not only in the garment industry that such abuses continue to take place.  


The disparity of wealth in out country continues to widen; and, while there are more people living at levels of affluence heretofore unheard of in the world, real wages for the vast majority of people in the United States have been declining for decades.  (After steadily rising for decades, beginning in 1974, real wages have steadily declined [except for a temporary reversal in the late 1990s].)


Here follow the two important histories, the first told by Joseph Burger in the New York Times, the second, a far more complete overview—including the legal aftermath of the event and a very informative look at how the event illustrates the exploitation of garment workers then and even now—was done by the ILR School at Cornell.


The New York Times

Triangle Fire: A Half-Hour of Horror


Saturday, March 25, 1911. The work week was ending at the Triangle Waist Company factory in Lower Manhattan, and the men and women who operated the sewing machines and cut the cloth were pushing away from their tables, with some anticipating a night on the town and all looking toward their one day of rest.

On the eighth floor, flames suddenly leaped from a wastebasket under a table in the cutters’ area.

While workers frantically struggled with pails of water to douse it, the fire hopscotched to other waste bins and snared the paper patterns hanging from strings overhead.

The fire spread quickly — so quickly that in half an hour it was over, having consumed all it could in the large, airy lofts on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building, half a block east of Washington Square Park.

In its wake, the smoldering floors and wet streets were strewn with 146 bodies, all but 23 of them young women.

In the 100 years since the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, as it is commonly recorded in history books, the story has been told many times about the poor, largely immigrant girls who toiled long hours inside an overcrowded factory only to find themselves one early spring afternoon trapped in a firestorm on floors where exit doors may have been locked. At least 50 workers concluded that the better option was to jump.

The ironies are many: The building was fireproof, and it still stands today. Like the Titanic a year later, it was considered state of the art, with conditions far safer than what existed before. The owners of the factory were themselves immigrants, but they became wealthy by employing newcomers at low wages at their shirtwaist factory, one of the largest in the city. And while two years earlier those owners had managed to withstand a 13-week industrywide strike aimed at achieving better conditions and union representation, the fire accomplished those goals and more.

On that Saturday 100 years ago, about 4:40 p.m., workers who had been perched at their machines since 8 a.m. were ending their week. As the whir of the sewing machines subsided and some workers headed for the cloakrooms for their hats and coats, flames were spotted in the wastebasket.

Workers unraveled a hose from a stairwell fixture, but no water came out. The building also had no sprinklers, nor had the factory held fire drills. The fire began to race across the 100-foot-long loft.

Workers rushed to an exit door leading to Washington Place, but it opened inward and some workers testified at a later trial that they first had to retrieve a key to unlock it. Still, most of the 180 workers were able to escape down the staircases.

As they fled, one Triangle supervisor on that fiery eighth floor placed a warning phone call to the executive offices on the 10th floor, where the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were at work. Visiting were two of Mr. Blanck’s young daughters and their governess, waiting for a promised shopping trip.

The 60 or so executives, pressers and packers and two children escaped through choking smoke and flames onto freight elevators or up stairs to the roof. There, a New York University law professor and his students in the taller, adjacent building lowered ladders — fortuitously left by painters — to pull them to safety.

But, in her alarm, the worker who had taken the call on the 10th floor never hung up the phone. That prevented anyone from calling to alert the 250 workers on the ninth floor. Only when they saw flames rising up the air shaft, incinerating tables where shirtwaists were examined for workmanship, did the seamstresses, cutters and support workers who were crowded among eight rows of sewing machine tables realize they were in danger.

Many of the 250 workers crammed the usual exit, a door on the Greene Street side of the building, where a supervisor nightly checked departing workers for any hidden shirtwaists or stolen scraps of lace.

Others, seeing the press of bodies, hopped from table to table to reach the Washington Place staircase diagonally across the loft.

There, a young man twisted the lock of the Washington Place door and screamed, “The door is locked! The door is locked!” according to workers’ testimony. Others tried to open it and also failed.

Dozens managed to make their way into the two freight elevators, where their operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, returned again and again to the burning floors, risking their own lives to save 150 people, according to “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” a 2003 history by David Von Drehle.

Some who could not crowd into the elevators attempted to slide down the cable or jumped or fell down the shaft, and soon the elevators stopped, one so weighed down by the crush of 19 bodies that it could no longer rise.

As hundreds watched from nine floors below on Washington Place and Greene Street, workers hung out of windows and climbed onto ledges, hoping to be rescued by fire trucks that had responded within minutes of the first alarm.

But when the ladders stretched only to the sixth floor, 30 feet below, and flames began to singe their hair and consume their skirts, many jumped, often in twos and threes — 54 of them altogether, by the count of William Gunn Shepherd, a United Press reporter who was first to the scene.

Witnesses reported seeing a man at a Washington Place window who, in a gallant effort to spare his co-workers from the licking flames, held out three women at arm’s length and dropped them, one by one, to their deaths. Then he kissed a fourth, released her to her death — and plunged to the sidewalk himself.

“They were all as unresisting as if he were helping them into a street car instead of into eternity,” Shepherd reported. “He saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames and his was only a terrible chivalry.”

Workers who pressed onto the fire escape in a rear air shaft found their way blocked by swinging metal shutters. Had they made it all the way down, they would have found that it ended treacherously a full floor above a basement skylight.

With so many people crammed onto the fire escape with nowhere to go, it collapsed. Two dozen bodies were later recovered among the broken glass below the air shaft on the basement floor.

As the sun set, policemen and firemen recovered the charred corpses, lowering some by block and tackle to the sidewalk to join the broken bodies of the co-workers who had jumped. A parade of vehicles transported the bodies to the Charities Pier on 26th Street, and there they were lined up in simple wooden coffins for relatives to identify.

Tens of thousands showed up, the voyeurs and pickpockets mingled with grief-stricken relatives who were seeking any telltale features — hair braids, shoes, jewelry, gold teeth — so they could pick out their mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers from among the scorched faces.

All but six were identified. On the day the city buried them in a shared grave at the Cemetery of the Evergreens on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, the grief and anger of the city spilled out onto the downtown streets in a somber, rain-soaked funeral march for those “unknowns.”

Hundreds of thousands made their way on routes from the north and south, meeting in Washington Square Park, where on a sunny Saturday a few weeks earlier, the clang of fire bells had shattered the genteel calm. Police officials, worried the crowd would erupt in a frenzy, diverted the marchers away from the Asch Building, to continue their procession uptown.

For nearly 100 years the names of those six remained unknown — until a persistent researcher, Michael Hirsch, ended the mystery, just in time for the centennial of their deaths.


Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Factory. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were dead as a result of the fire


Asch Building on fire from the corner of Washington and GreeneThe Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart of Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops.


Even though many workers toiled under one roof in the Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners subcontracted much work to individuals who hired the hands and pocketed a portion of the profits. Subcontractors could pay the workers whatever rates they wanted, often extremely low. The owners supposedly never knew the rates paid to the workers, nor did they know exactly how many workers were employed at their factory at any given point. Such a system led to exploitation.


Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.


The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women's clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by the alien surroundings. Others were more daring, though. All were ripe for action against the poor working conditions. In 1909, an incident at the Triangle Factory sparked a spontaneous walkout of its 400 employees. The Women's Trade Union League, a progressive association of middle class white women, helped the young women workers picket and fence off thugs and police provocation. At a historic meeting at Cooper Union, thousands of garment workers from all over the city followed young Clara Lemlich's call for a general strike.


With the cloakmakers' strike of 1910, a historic agreement was reached, that established a grievance system in the garment industry. Unfortunately for the workers, though, many shops were still in the hands of unscrupulous owners, who disregarded basic workers' rights and imposed unsafe working conditions on their employees.


Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.


Survivors recounted the horrors they had to endure, and passers-by and reporters also told stories of pain and terror they had witnessed. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind's eye.


Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out could end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them; many more struggled alone. The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop, although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.


New York City, with its tenements and loft factories, had witnessed a growing concern for issues of health and safety in the early years of the 20th century. Groups such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Womens' Trade Union League (WTUL) fought for better working conditions and protective legislation. The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked-- owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters' ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.


In the weeks that followed, the grieving city identified the dead, sorted out their belongings, and reeled in numbed grief at the atrocity that could have been averted with a few precautions. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union proposed an official day of mourning. The grief-stricken city gathered in churches, synagogues, and finally, in the streets.


Protesting voices arose, bewildered and angry at the lack of concern and the greed that had made this possible. The people demanded restitution, justice, and action that would safeguard the vulnerable and the oppressed. Outraged cries calling for action to improve the unsafe conditions in workshops could be heard from every quarter, from the mainstream conservative to the progressive and union press.


Workers flocked to union quarters to offer testimonies, support mobilization, and demand that Triangle owners Harris and Blanck be brought to trial. The role that strong unions could have in helping prevent such tragedies became clear. Workers organized in powerful unions would be more conscious of their rights and better able to obtain safe working conditions.


Shortly after the fire, the Executive Board of the Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union, Local No. 25 of the ILGWU, (the local to which some of the Triangle factory workers belonged), met to plan relief work for the survivors and the families of the victims. Soon several progressive organizations came forward to help with the relief effort. Representatives from the Women's Trade Union League, the Workmen's Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee, which, over the course of the next months, allotted lump sums, often to be remitted abroad, to Russia or Italy.


In addition, its Executive Committee distributed weekly pensions, supervised and cared for the young workers and children placed in institutions of various kinds, and secured work and proper living arrangements for the workers after they recuperated from their injuries.


The Joint Relief Committee worked together with the American Red Cross, which also collected funds from the general public. Estimates indicate that the Joint Relief Committee alone administered about $30,000.


Immediately after the fire, Triangle owners Blanck and Harris declared in interviews that their building was fireproof, and that it had just been approved by the Department of Buildings. Yet the call for bringing those responsible to justice and reports that the doors of the factory were locked at the time of the fire prompted the District Attorney's office to seek an indictment against the owners. On April 11, a grand jury indicted Harris and Blanck on seven counts, charging them with manslaughter in the second degree under section 80 of the Labor Code, which mandated that doors should not be locked during working hours.




On December 27, twenty-three days after the trial had started, a jury acquitted Blanck and Harris of any wrong doing. The task of the jurors had been to determine whether the owners knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire.


Customarily, the only way out for workers at quitting time was through an opening on the Green Street side, where all pocketbooks were inspected to prevent stealing. Worker after worker testified to their inability to open the doors to their only viable escape route, the stairs to the Washington Place exit, because the Greene Street side stairs were completely engulfed by fire. More testimony supported this fact. Yet the brilliant defense attorney Max Steuer planted enough doubt in the jurors' minds to win a not-guilty verdict. Grieving families and much of the public felt that justice had not been done. "Justice!" they cried. "Where is justice?"


Twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch building. On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, Harris and Blanck settled. They paid 75 dollars per life lost.


Harris and Blanck were to continue their defiant attitude toward the authorities. Just a few days after the fire, the new premises of their factory had been found not to be fireproof, without fire escapes, and without adequate exits.


In August of 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.


In December of 1913, the interior of his factory was found to be littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. This time, instead of a court appearance and a fine, he was served a stern warning. The Triangle Waist Company was to cease operations in 1918, but the owners maintained throughout that their factory was a "model of cleanliness and sanitary conditions," and that it was "second to none in the country."



And, as for that recent discovery of the identity of the six unidentified victims, here is the IRL School piece about it ( :



Of the 146 fatalities in the Triangle fire, several victims could not be identified by the time of their burial. These garment workers were buried in a quiet ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery in which Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religious services were observed since the faith of the deceased could not be determined. The husband of victim Catherine Maltese identified one of her effects shortly after her burial and she was reinterred next to her two daughters that had also perished in the fire. In the weeks that followed, other families came to the painful realization that their relatives were among the remaining unidentified. But those discoveries did not receive the media attention that the initially identified victims did and their names were lost to all but their families.

Lacking this information, later historians had assumed these were young, recent immigrants without families or anyone that could identify them. That explanation never satisfied independent researcher Michael Hirsch, who has spent several years poring over manuscripts, newspapers, and official records to sift through the information and misinformation that had grown up around this tragic event. The Kheel Center is one of a number of repositories and agencies that has been honored to work with Hirsch and exchange information and contacts with him. As a result of his tireless research, Hirsch has recently rediscovered the names of the six unidentified victims.

The Kheel Center is honored and humbled to add the following six names to the Triangle Fire website victims list. For more information on these individuals, please watch Triangle: Remembering the Fire premiering March 21st on HBO. The Kheel Center and Cornell University thank Michael Hirsch and HBO for allowing us to add these names so they can be commemorated with the 140 other victims on the centennial of this senseless tragedy.

Portrait of Josephine CammarataJosephine Cammarata


Age 17

Engaged to be married on Easter Sunday, she lived at 18 Cornelia Street along with victim Concetta Prestifilippo, listed below. The two may have been cousins.

Portrait of Dora EvansDora Evans


Age 18

An engaged Russian immigrant, she lived at 239 Watkins Street.

Portrait of Max FlorinMax Florin


Age 23

A Russian immigrant, he was recognized as missing in the aftermath of the fire but his family and friends held out hope that he was still alive. A news story carried a plea from the family as to whether he was staying with friends. He was said to have been engaged to the Jannie Blanck, the cousin of Triangle owner Max Blanck. He lived at 171 Broome Street.

Maria Giuseppa Lauletti

Age 33

The Kheel Center became aware of her when we were contacted by a descendant. Hirsch's own research also found and confirmed the name independently. She was survived by five children but her younger sister Isabella Tortorelli died in the fire.

Concetta Prestifilippo

Age 22

Listed in various places as Mary or Rosa Prestifilippo, she lived at 18 Cornelia Street along with victim Josephine Cammarata, listed above. The two may have been cousins.

Portrait of Fannie Rosen

Fannie Rosen


Age 21

An immigrant from Kiev who had been in the country for six months and had worked at the Triangle factory for two days. She lived at 716 E. 5th Street and had changed her name from Faiga Resnik.


And, as for the personal piece, it turns out that the last of these, Fannie Rosen, was the great aunt of Judy Zimmerman, wife of my dear old friend and Rabbinical School compatriot, Shelly Zimmerman!  Here is an email I received from Shelly two days ago:


It is amazing how just an article in the New York Times can change a family's profound sadness and its narrative.  !00 years ago my wife Judy's great aunt perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. For years I had heard the story of how she came to NYC, how she managed to get a job at the Triangle factory just two days before the fire and that she perished in that fire.  Judy's grandfather was part of the family that was brought over to see his sister's gravesite. They then stayed in North America.

But for some unknown reason her name was not on the lists published in the latest book.  140 names are on that list - but 146 people perished.  A short time ago in the New York Times an article was written about Michael Hirsch's attempt to find out the names of those buried under a common stone in a New York cemetery.  He wanted to identify those buried there and was able to discover all the names and information and identify much abut them from archival materials in the Forward and other newspapers.

In reading the article in the NYTImes, I saw that one of the photos bore the name Fannie Rosen, the name of Judy's great aunt.  It also indicated that her name had been Faigele Resnick (the earlier family name that had been changed).  I jumped up, informed Judy, We called the newspaper and were given a way to reach Michael Hirsch.  Judy was able to put him in touch with her mother Ida, now nearly 90 years old and another aunt and the rest of the family who live mainly in Toronto and a few in Detroit. They filled out so much of the story for him.

For many years in the family, the narrative was part of history but no one knew where she had been buried.  Judy's grandfather was very young and had no idea.  So for years the family could just remember the story.  but it lived.  And now finally thanks to Michael Hirsch and Joe Berger who wrote the article the family can visit her final resting place, recite kaddish and remember this young woman and two of her now elderly nieces and great nephews and nieces could close the circle.  Faigele Resnick , Fanny Rosen, aleha hashalom, your tragic death brought Judy's family to the USA and Canada where they now live.  The circle is finally complete. We remember you in love.