The shirtwaist, a button-down blouse, served as a functional piece of ready-to-wear clothing for fashionable women of the turn-of-the-century era. Available in every color with a variety of embellishments, the shirtwaist became a symbol of female independence in a progressive era at the early stages of the women’s movement. Women, freed to work outside the home, wore them in their quest to better themselves.
The production of shirtwaists became highly competitive. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Manhattan had 450 textiles factories filled with 40,000 workers, many of them female and recent immigrants. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located on the top floors of the ten-story Asch building in Greenwich Village was but one of many operating at the time.
On March 25th, 1911, a warm Saturday, just about quitting time at the factory, a fire broke out in the discarded rags and cloth scraps on the 8th floor of the building. The fire spread quickly across the wooden floor, to the tables and hanging cloth patterns. A few employees threw buckets of water in a vain attempt to douse the blaze. One shipping clerk dragged a hose through the stairwell only to discover that the hose had no water pressure. The terrified teenage employees, most speaking little English, jammed the stairwell and the single elevator attempting to escape.
The climbing fire transformed the 9th floor into a vision of Hell. Forced to choose between the advancing flames and the windows, many girls jumped. 145 employees died. (The 10th floor employees escaped by improvising a gangplank to a nearby building.) Joseph Flecher, a 10th floor worker, described seeing “my girls, my pretty ones, going down through the air. They hit the sidewalk spread out and still.”
The fire department, upon their arrival, brought the blaze under control in eighteen minutes.
The push to assign blame quickly began. Although the factory had a policy of no smoking, fire investigators reportedly picked up many cigarettes near the spot the fire allegedly started. The fire chief announced that the 9th floor workplace doors appeared to have been locked and that firemen had to chop their way through to get at the fire. Cries for justice against an industry which prized profit over safety grew.
Approximately two weeks after the fire, a New York grand jury indicted the Triangle Shirtwaist owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, on charges of manslaughter.
Their trial began on December 4, 1911. Harris and Blanck were defended by Max Steuer. Few today have heard of the attorney Max Steuer. Defense attorneys such as Clarence Darrow have garnered the publicity of the era. The difference between the two men is simple, Darrow often worked for causes. Steuer worked for money.
He certainly faced a hostile environment. On the trial’s second day, Harris and Blanck, upon exiting the elevator, were set upon by women calling them “Murderers, Murderers” and “Give us back our children.” Extra police were deployed during subsequent days.
The prosecutor called over 100 witnesses. Kate Alterman in particular gave a vivid account of the ninth-floor inferno. She found the escape door locked and poignantly described the fate of a coworker, Margaret Schwartz, who collapsed and died near her.
Steuer’s cross-examination of Alterman broke all the traditional rules for trial advocacy. He asked her to tell her story again and again. Steuer had her describe the fire, reminding the jury of the details usually the prosecutor would want to reinforce:
Q. It looked like a wall of flame?
A. Like a red curtain.
Q. Now, there was something in that you left out, I think, Miss Alterman. When Bernstein was jumping around, do you remember what that was like? Like a wildcat, wasn’t it?
A. Like a wildcat.
Q. You left that out the second time.
Steuer’s emphasis on the repetition of phrases suggested to the jury that the witnesses had been over-coached. He challenged her credibility without attacking her directly. Combined with the other elements of the defense strategy, it worked. The jury acquitted the defendants in just under two hours.
Harris and Blanck, surrounded by five policemen, fled the courthouse, using the judge’s private exit. They raced to the nearest subway station, a hostile crowd in pursuit.
On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, plaintiffs settled a score of lawsuits against the owner of the Asch Building. The average recovery was $75 per life lost.
The public outcry over the fire did usher in an era of improved building codes and labor reforms. Many of these originated with New York’s Factory Investigating Commission. One member, Frances Perkins, went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, the first female to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Although the trial itself did not occur in March, I’ve made the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire my Trial of the Month for March. The tragic events occurred this month as well as the subsequent civil settlement. March is also Women’s History Month. The story of women entering the workplace is central to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The clothing of women, the deaths of immigrant girls assembling those blouses and, finally, the ascendance of Frances Perkins all played a critical role in the tragedy and its aftermath.