Triangle: The Fire Last Time
The Sidewalks of New York, Give My Regards to Broadway, New York State of Mind, New York, New York—the city that never sleeps has inspired more popular songs than any other this side of Paris. They all have one thing in common; they booster the Big Apple, and would never run afoul of the Chamber of Commerce. But folk singers, as we know, march to a different drum, and I come for to sing a different song, a song with social significance. Written by Jewish-Canadian folklorist Ruth Rubin in 1968, it tells a story that the Chamber of Commerce would prefer to forget—Ballad of the Triangle Fire.
The event it describes took place in New York’s Greenwich Village, famous as a home for bohemians of every stripe, a block away from Washington Square Park. The park has a storied past; in the early 1960s one would hear folk singers of every description holding forth on a Sunday afternoon—including a disheveled Woody Guthrie in the throes of Huntington’s Chorea, who had penned the classic labor anthem Union Maid back in 1940: Oh you can’t scare me/I’m sticking to the union/…till the day I die.
A magnet for poets and musicians throughout the 20th Century, including Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in the 1950s and Greenwich Village poet e.e. cummings in the 1920s, had one happened to be strolling through the park one Saturday afternoon on a balmy spring day in 1911, one would have been startled to see a very different sight—on Greene Street and Washington Place, a ten story building was in flames, fire engines with sirens blaring were hurtling towards their doomed rescue mission and teenage girls and young woman who worked there at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were jumping out of its windows to their deaths. Eye-witnesses who had a closer view reported that they assumed for some reason window dummies wrapped in blankets were being tossed out onto the street below—until they heard the dull thud of bodies hitting the ground.
This March 25, 2011, marks the Centennial of the worst workplace disaster in the 20th Century, a century awash with workers’ blood from coal mining cave-ins and explosions, train pileups, mill mangled limbs, sweat shop accidents and assembly line disasters throughout the rust belt, steel towns and northeast garment trades. No one knows exactly how the fire started, but it happened near closing time at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan, when someone may have tossed a cigarette in a scrap bin on the floor that resulted in the deaths of 146 mostly young immigrant girls in less than 20 minutes. Of these, 64 jumped nine floors to their deaths on the sidewalks of New York.
It wasn’t so much the number of deaths in so short a time that etched it indelibly into New York City’s conscience and unconscious and led to the passage of landmark occupational health and safety laws that have become the core protections of modern labor; rather it was the sheer hideousness of their demise—from jumping out of a ten story building to be crushed on the pavement below, and melted and melded to the tops of elevators as they sought to escape the rushing flames in which they were trapped by blocked exit doors and flimsy fire escapes, which soon collapsed beneath their weight.
As their survivors discovered to their horror, there was no escape—they were locked into their factory coffin by the venality of its owners—who provided no doors that would open outward allowing them to exit, to prevent them from leaving during their shifts and removing any of the garments they were sewing.
Because the local fire department had declared the Asch (how providentially named it turned out to be) Building fireproof, they ignored the correlative that it was a death trap, given that the Triangle Factory began on the 8th floor, the fire truck ladders only reached to the 7th, and the rickety elevators could withstand the weight of only a few at a time.
Virtually every one of the workers was a recent immigrant, primarily young Jewish, Italian and German girls who could find no other work, but with enough young men to have set the stage for the most moving image of the unfolding catastrophe—as a man was seen from below to gently help a young girl out through the window sill as if onto a streetcar platform, from which she plummeted to her death; then a second, still clutching her purse, with a newly drawn weekly paycheck for $6.00 inside; he soon followed.
A makeshift morgue emerged at the local fire station, Engine Company 72, limited by the fact that they ran out of coffins. While the city coffin manufacturers were tapped out, they quickly began to rally to the occasion, and a second temporary morgue began down at Manhattan’s Charities Pier, which the workers referred to as Misery Lane, since it had been used for that purpose in previous disasters. Family members who came in a desperate search for their missing loved ones soon wished they hadn’t—their worst fears surpassed by the burnt out corpses they encountered.
Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility does not do justice to the white heat of outrage that led to an immediate response from the best- known sweatshop poet of the age, Morris Rosenfeld.
Just four days after the worst workplace disaster in New York City history prior to September 11, 2001, Rosenfeld’s poem Requiem appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, taking up the full length of its front page; here is a brief excerpt:
By Morris Rosenfeld
Neither battle nor fiendish pogrom
Fills this great city with sorrow…
Only hell’s fire engulfs these slave stalls
And Mammon devours our sons and daughters
Wrapt in scarlet flames, they drop to death from his maw
And death receives them all…
Let this haunt your consciences:
Let the burning building, our daughters in flame
Be the nightmare that destroys your sleep…
And in the midst of your celebrations for your children
May you be struck blind with fear over the
Memory of the red avalanche
Until time erases you.
(Source: Reprinted and translated in Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1962), 145-146, the first book-length account of the fire.)
Rosenfeld’s poem was but the first of an outpouring of grief and outrage in poetry and song to underscore the tragedy endured by its victims. Many of the poems are now collected into a book by editor/poet Julia Stein, entitled Walking Through a River of Fire (CC. Marimbo, Berkeley, CA., 2011, with an introduction by poet Jack Hirschman.)
Equally moving is Yiddish folklorist and singer Ruth Rubin’s Ballad of the Triangle Fire, written in 1968 to commemorate the 146 immigrant garment workers who perished:
In the heart of New York City, near Washington Square
In nineteen eleven, March winds were cold and bare
A fire broke out in a building, then stories high
And a hundred and forty six young girls in those flames did die…
The sweatshop was a stuffy room with but a single door;
The windows they were gray with dust from off that dirty floor
There were no comforts, no fresh air, no light to sew thereby
And the girls they toiled from early morn till darkness filled the sky
Then on that fateful day—dear God, most terrible of days
When that fire broke out, it grew into a mighty blaze.
In that firetrap way up there with but a single door
So many innocent working girls burned, to live no more!
(Source: Carry It On: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America; edited by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, pub by Simon & Schuster, NY, NY, 1985.)
But perhaps the most powerful statement of outrage took place at a rally at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911 just eight days after the fire—an address by fellow garment worker Rose Schneiderman, her assessment of the good citizens and government of New York who allowed such conditions to flourish in the unregulated garment trade of the early 20th century: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire…I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
The week following Rose Schneiderman’s grim catalog of horrors, which she summed up in the title, We Have Found You Wanting, a grand jury indicted the two owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris on the charge of manslaughter—but the subsequent criminal trial on December 4, 1911 led to a verdict of Not Guilty. Then three years later, in 1914, a civil suit was filed by 23 surviving families, the results of which placed a dollar amount on the value of human life to both the capitalist bosses of the industrial age and the criminal justice system that looked the other way rather than confront their systematic abuse of the wage slaves that propped up the so-called roaring twenties.
As Bob Dylan wrote in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, the depredation of their crimes against humanity were surpassed by the failure of the courts, both judges and juries, to adequately measure the magnitude of what had been allowed to happen, leaving a sense of outrage at the injustice of it to the poets and songwriters down through the years: Take the rag away from your face, wrote Dylan, as he recounted the murder of black domestic worker Hattie Carroll at the hands of Baltimore plantation owner William Zanzinger, Now ain’t the time for your tears.
Only when Dylan reached the climactic last verse, in which the judge hands down “strongly for penalty and repentance, William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence,” does he tell the listener,
You who philosophize disgrace, and criticize all fears
Bury the rag most deep in your face
Now is the time for your tears.
The equivalent of a six-month sentence for cold-blooded murder was the $75 compensation that surviving families of the fire victims received for each worker killed in the holocaust.
If nothing else, that gives you a good idea of the value of the “lost wages” these workers’ families were deemed to be entitled to—based on their salaries of $6 a week, which averaged out to a dollar a day, since they were trapped in the flames on what should have been their day off, Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, because they all needed to work overtime just to survive.
Nor was that a dollar a day for an 8-hour day—which did not become the norm until FDR’s New Deal in1935—rather a 10 to 12 hour day—which worked out to less than 10 cents an hour. This was the “Golden Land” they came through Ellis Island to call home, this was the Land of Opportunity, this is what awaited Emma Lazarus’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Is this what “tea party” libertarians would like to go back to—before New Deal regulations succeeded in curtailing the worst abuses of industrial capitalism, before unions gave workers a seat at the bargaining table, to improve job conditions, wages and safety and create the great American middle class, and before the law of the jungle was replaced by the laws of a civilized society?
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of this sad yet valiant chapter in women’s history during Women’s History Month, let us now praise the poets and singers whose eloquent outrage inspired social reformers like Frances Perkins—later to become an architect of the New Deal—and Albany lawmakers like Alfred E. Smith and Robert Wagner to step in and create a land worthy of Woody Guthrie’s great anthem, one that indeed was made for you and me.
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, by journalist David Von Drehle, published by Grove Press in 2003, is now the definitive account of both the fire and its aftermath, and the first complete source for all of the victim’s names; Cornell University maintains the best website devoted to it, with half a dozen essential categories of information, including every one of the victims’ names, national origins, and how many years each had been in America before they fell into its death grip.
Let us not leave this page, however, without mentioning the names of the two bosses whose venality made this atrocity possible—indeed all too predictable—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, “the shirtwaist kings,” owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Despite the failure of the judicial system to hold them accountable, history has made their names synonymous with the most egregious crime of capitalism’s unregulated heyday.
What is not generally known, however, is that they too were at the factory that day—on what turned out to be the safest 10th floor, and were among the first to flee to safety, leaving their workers to perish in the inferno.
The reason the 10th floor, rather than the 9th or 8th, was the only comparatively safe place to be is that the next building over was the campus of NYU, and when Professor Frank A. Sommer and his students realized what was happening, they were able to lower two rescue ladders ten feet down from above so that 130 workers could climb to safety onto the roof of the adjoining structure. Only one worker on the 10th floor died. NYU now owns the original Asch Building and it has become a National Historical Landmark.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris: both were memorialized by poet Dana Burnet in his heartbreaking A Ballad of Dead Girls, perhaps the most gripping work of art to emerge in the historical record. He takes poetic license with their names, but their subsequent desperate plea to be protected from the consequences of their own monstrosity rings as hollow today as the day it was written—one hundred years ago in 1911, and gives chutzpah a new threshold to rise—or sink—to:
Scarce had they brought the bodies down
Across the withered floor
Than Max Rogosky thundered at
The District Leader’s door
Scarce had the white-haired mothers come
To search the fearful noon
Than little Max stood shivering
In Tom McTodd’s saloon!
Ten years I’ve paid the System’s tax
The words fell, quivering, raw;
And now I want the thing I’ve bought–
Protection from the law!
The Leader smiled a twisted smile:
Your doors were locked, he said.
You’ve overstepped the limit, Max–
A hundred women…dead!
(Source: On Freedom’s Side: An Anthology of Protest, edited by Aaron Kramer, the MacMillan Company, NY, NY, 1972.) In Burnet’s masterpiece, even the mob is outraged, and offers no comfort to these masters of Mammon.
In closing, folk singer Ruth Rubin was not exaggerating when she underscored the essential role of the artist in recording and keeping history alive at the end of her Ballad:
A hundred thousand mourners, they followed those sad biers
The streets were filled with people weeping bitter tears
Poets, writers everywhere described that awful pyre
When those young girls were trapped to die in the Triangle Fire.
Morris Rosenfeld had previously written in his classic Yiddish labor song, Mayn Rue Platz (My Resting Place):
Don’t look for me where birds are singing
Don’t look for me in fields of green
Don’t look for me where streams are flowing
For I am chained to this machine
I am chained to this machine.
(Translated by Ross Altman, on Live at the Barn: Songs of Labor and Liberation, at UC Riverside, Grey Goose Music, 1992.)
Sing Me a Song With Social Significance, wrote Harold Rome in Pins and Needles, the musical created by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1937. Like Woody’s surefire crowd pleaser Union Maid, it’s a cheerful, upbeat show, filled with songs celebrating strikes and workers’ solidarity; but Morris Rosenfeld’s and Ruth Rubin’s songs of social significance were written “way over yonder in a minor key,” with little to celebrate except the fact that most of those 146 workers were also members of the ILGWU—who paid the terrible price it took to build that union, in 1909, when they went out on strike at the Triangle Waist Company—to improve their lethal working conditions.
What did the bosses do? They hired gun thugs and mobsters to beat up brave union maids like Clara Lemlich, a tireless seamstress and fearless ILGWU organizer.
They broke the strike. Two years later, they reaped what they sewed—the fire next time. So the next time you take a coffee break, remember the Triangle Fire. They paid for it.
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org He will be on a Q&A panel with Phil Ochs brother Michael Ochs, director Kenneth Bowser, and Ash Grove founder Ed Pearl for FolkWorks screening of Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune at the Laemmle Theatre in Santa Monica on Sunday, March 6, at 11:00 AM. See home page for details.
100 Years Is Too Soon to Forget: the Story of the Triangle Fire premieres on PBS in The American Experience Series on Monday, February 28, 2011; watch KOCE in L.A. See www.rememberthetrianglefire.org , for all of the commemorative events in New York City and around the country, with a link to Los Angeles events.