146 Die in Sweatshop Fire

Exits Locked

University next door helps victims escape
Fire Escape Crumples

A fire on the top three floors of the Asch Building killed 123 women and 23 men on Saturday, March 25 in the Triangle shirtwaist factory, injuring 71 others. The youngest fatality was eleven-year-old Mary Goldstein. The sweatshop employed a number of girls under seventeen. About 120 of those killed were on the ninth floor, where victims died from burns, smoke inhalation, and impact injuries after jumping from windows. According to survivors, the exits were locked to prevent theft, and employees were trapped on the upper floors without means of escape except through the windows. Twenty-seven water buckets were the only fire safety feature available. Ironically, the factory passed a fire inspection only five months before the disaster.

Two elevators in the building hauled dozens to safety, but broke down after only a few trips. During the last trip, the operator heard bodies hitting the roof of his elevator car and saw blood dripping from the ceiling. Firefighters later found 25 bodies on top of the cab.

The Triangle Waist Company is owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, and occupies the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan. The company employs about 600 people in the manufacture of cotton and linen shirtwaists.

Fire engine 72 arrived first on the scene, but found the street already littered with the bodies of jumpers, and the horses had to be steered around the corpses. Firefighters soon discovered their ladders would only reach the sixth floor, while the hoses only had enough water pressure to reach the seventh floor.

According to inquest testimony from Fire Marshall William Beers, the fire started when a cutter lit a cigarette and carelessly tossed the match into a nearby bin of cuttings. "They were about to leave to go home, and in those factories they are very anxious to get a smoke just as quick as they get through work." According to him, a man lit a match, "and carelessly threw it under there; then the attention of the occupants was called to it, and they tried to extinguish it before they rang in a fire alarm."

The fire broke out on the eighth floor at 4:40 p.m. only five minutes before quitting time. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor warned employees on the tenth floor by telephone, but no one answered the phone on the ninth floor. Tenth floor employees escaped by way of a stairway that went up to the roof. University students in the next building saw fire in the windows of the Asch building, and assisted those fleeing across the roof by laying a ladder between the buildings.

On the ninth floor the only warning the employees had was from the arrival of the fire itself in the stairwell. The other stairway was locked. Later, firefighters found 19 bodies piled against this locked door and another 25 bodies in the cloak room with hands covering their faces against the flames. The room had been designed by owner Isaac Harris, and consisted of long sewing tables spanning the width of the room, with an aisle of only eighteen inches between the end of those tables and the wall. The opposite side of the room had no aisle at all.

Two dozen employees made their way to a rickety fire escape, but the apparatus collapsed under their weight and tossed them to the pavement below. Firemen tried to catch the girls in their nets, but wept with frustration as the canvas ripped. The nets were not designed to catch people falling from such a height, and the weight of even small girls tore the canvas netting. Women fell directly through the nets, or bounced out of them with such force that they died on impact with the pavement. "I learned a new sound ─ a more horrible sound than description can picture," said a United Press reporter at the scene, "The thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk." In all, about 62 people jumped or were pushed to their deaths as those trapped in the flames behind them shoved them against the windows, their only means of escape.

Perhaps most tragic of all, witnesses described "a love affair in the midst of all the horror." A young man was seen assisting three girls to the window sill, helping each one jump over the side as calmly "as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry." The third girl put her arms around him and kissed him, then he helped her too to jump off the ledge before following her to their doom. In the room they'd leapt from there were women and girls burning alive at that moment, so the four jumpers chose the easier death.


Exits Locked

Ethel Monick, 16, testified that she'd been employed at the Triangle factory about three months before the fire. "I was on the ninth floor when I heard the cry of fire," she said. "I saw smoke pouring from the Greene Street stairs but tried to get out that way just the same. I gave it up when I saw the crowd there, and ran to the Washington Place door, but found it locked. I tried and tried to open it, but could not. I thought it was because I was not strong enough and called to the other girls. It wouldn't open at all."

Under cross examination, the witness testified that she'd tried to open the door on a previous occasion, but found it locked then, too. "If you noticed that the door was locked why was it that you didn't tell Mr. Blanck or Mr. Harris about it?" Defense attorney Max Steuer asked. The witness replied that she was only a poor working girl who needed the job. "I had heard of cases where girls had been discharged for making complaints to the bosses," she said.

Fire Chief Edward F. Croker ordered his men to chop their way through the doors in order to gain entrance.


Owners Claim Doors Were Never Locked

Defense attorney Steuer called several witnesses who testified that the Washington Place doors on the eighth and ninth floors were always unlocked, and that the keys were always left in the locks of both doors. But there is some suspicion that those witnesses were bribed or pressured to testify. Robert Wolfson, who'd worked for Harris & Blanck eight or nine years, lost his job after testifying that after the fire, owner Isaac Harris said to him: "The dead ones are dead and will be buried. The live ones are alive and they will have to live. Sure, the doors were locked; I wouldn't let them rob my fortune."


Elevator Breaks Down

An elevator operator said he made three trips in the elevator, taking about fifteen people each trip. He also testified that the hallways of the upper floors were crowded with frenzied employees who fought to get into the elevator and clawed his face and neck. After the third trip the machinery buckled and he was unable to make a return trip.


Students Describe the Horror

"We were in the library of the building in the top floor when we noticed a gust of smoke coming from the building across the courtyard," a NYU student testified. "Sparks drifted in at the open library window, and as we jumped from our seats we saw the girl workers crowding at the windows. We saw a man leap out and then the girls began to follow him."

Another student saw girls rushing to the windows with their hair on fire and then jumping out. "I saw four men who tried to catch the girls. They seized a horse blanket from a truck horse in Waverley Place and held it out. It gave way like paper as the girls struck it."


Unwilling Jumpers

A witness testified that few of the girls on the ninth floor seemed to want to jump. They were simply pushed forward by the panic-stricken crowd behind them.


Owners Escape by Roof

When the brother-in-law of Max Blanck was called to the stand, he said he was employed as Superintendent of the factory and that he was on the eighth floor when the fire started. "I remembered my brother and ran up the Greene Street stairs, but I couldn't see him, and I ran to the tenth floor and into the shipping room, which was all afire." He escaped with Isaac Harris and Max Blanck through the roof.


Human Bridge Fails

Pauline Grossman, 18, an employee on the eighth floor, testified that three men tried to save the girls by forming a human chain with their bodies across a narrow alley to the next building. A number of women reached safety this way, but the men themselves fell to their deaths. "As the people crossing upon the human bridge crowded more and more over the men's bodies, the weight upon the body of the center man became too great and his back was broken." He fell to the ground, and the other two men lost their grip on the window sills.


Owners Acquited

On December 27 the jury acquitted Isaac Harris and Max Blanck on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges after deliberating for an hour and forty-five minutes. According to legal experts, the case hinged on whether the owners were aware that the doors were locked at the time of the fire. While the law currently requires that doors remain unlocked during working hours, the defense seems to have planted reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors as to whether the owners themselves had locked the doors or were even aware that the doors were locked. Others have suggested that jury tampering is responsible for the verdict.

The judge thanked the jury for their attention to the case and then suggested that due to expected public response to the verdict, the jurors should be sneaked out of the courtroom. They were led through the judge's chambers and then out through a back door. Harris and Blanck were also smuggled out of the building through the judge's chambers, then through a maze of courtrooms, escorted by police guard to the Worth Street subway station.

But as they emerged they were spotted by the brother of one of the victims, who shouted, "Murderers! Murderers! You are acquitted now, but we will get you yet!" The young man soon fell into convulsions and was taken by ambulance to the Hudson Street hospital.

A reporter noted that the trial ended near the anniversary of Chicago's Iroquois Theater fire, another case involving mass death due to locked doors and insufficient fire safety equipment. More than six hundred people died in that fire, most of them women and children. The owners in that case were likewise acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence of guilt.


Thursday, 28 December, 1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire can claim another victim tonight. Adeline suffered one of her episodes today, and that after she'd been doing well for so long.

I suppose I've been a fool to let her follow the story in the papers, but how could it be helped? It's been front page news in both the morning and evening editions. The only other ongoing story of prominence is the bombing of the LA Times building last year, so I suppose we're to be tormented one way or another.

It was bad enough that the bombers in that case used dynamite and killed a number of people in the explosion, but it turned out they'd bought the dynamite from two anarchists, and there seems to be even more anarchist entanglement as the story unfolds. The famous attorney Clarence Darrow had defended the bombers till he himself was accused of bribing a juror, and until his own trial takes place the story will never rest.

It's brought all the old trauma and guilt back to me, along with that feeling of homesickness. Family is everything, even when there is no family.

After McClusky's burned down we mourned together, and there's little that brings people closer together quite like shared loss. There were losses and then more losses. First we had to bury the dead, then care for the wounded, then grieve again as some survivors found they couldn't perform anymore. Poor Lorenzo and Giuseppe were so badly injured when the fire escape collapsed that they can't perform acrobatic stunts anymore. They come from a long line of circus performers, and it scarred them terribly to find they could no longer carry on the family tradition.

The 20th Century Limited left New York at 6:00 p.m. and rolled into Chicago around 2:00 p.m. the next day. While awaiting our connection, Addie took me to the cemetery where her family was buried.

Now there's a funny thing to note. Four years ago I'd have written whilst awaiting our connexion. I suppose it's to be expected that I've adopted certain Americanisms, especially in speech and writing. I wonder whether Mum and Dad find that bothersome when they read my letters? In any case, Addie took me to the cemetery where her family was buried. I must say it brought me to tears seeing those headstones, especially that of her youngest brother, which had a teddy bear carved into the stone. He was the same age as my sister Alice.

The cemetery itself was beautiful; a gorgeous entrance and nicely landscaped. Glancing around, I could see many stones with the same date of death in large lettering. Nearby was a lovely cenotaph of an angel protecting a child under her wings. Presumably the parents were wealthy, but the remains of that child could never be found or identified. Such a tragedy all around.

I wonder whether Addie's parents would've liked me. Maybe they'd think I'm not good enough for their little girl. But I'll do my level best to be a good husband, and to raise their grandchildren to be kind and thoughtful and selfless, and all those things I know I myself should be.

We couldn't stay long for we had another train to catch, the Los Angeles Limited ─ another express train. During the three day journey there was little to do but sit beside Adeline watching the scenery pass. We talked about everything and nothing ─ like what we'd do if we had all the money in the world. I told her what it was like on the farm; she told me what she remembered about her family.

The train pulled into L.A. around 6:00 p.m. Bert hired a cab to take us directly to the Hollywood Hotel on Prospect Avenue, a dapper building with comfortable rooms.

If New York is a swaggering gold digger, then California is a coy maiden in a bonnet holding a basket of oranges. I find her character much more in line with my own. While Brooklyn was a forest of glass and steel and industry, California is mostly rural ─ fruit trees and flowers, open fields, mountains and frontier. There are things here, however, that remind me of Brooklyn. For instance, nearby Venice Beach is California's version of Coney Island. And there are massive buildings here, just not all stacked together as in New York. Here the buildings have plenty of green grass around them. Construction's going on at a mad pace, but this is still largely the wild west. I imagine most of the people here are the descendants of forty-niners from the gold rush days.

We scouted for movie locations, and Bert found living quarters for us in a brand new apartment house. California's not as developed as I'd expected, and the land agents here are desperate to build up the area. They need more residents and more capital, and feel they could make a fortune with the fine weather and beautiful scenery if they could only lure people away from the east coast. If our experience is any indication, I suspect Thomas Edison will send them all the exiles they can handle.

We're living in a rather quaint apartment building in Los Angeles now. There's nothing around us but dirt roads for miles, but it's a much grander place than McClusky's, and we each get a bedroom, parlour, and bath. The parlour in my room came with a bookcase, so I've been filling it with used books as quickly as I can afford them. We're not wealthy yet by any standard, but the work is steady, and I make enough to send $5 home to England each month.

Bert's motion pictures are generating interest, and we can't make them fast enough for his list of theaters around the country that want something new each week. One of the first movies we filmed here was an abbreviated version of East Lynne. Bert distributed copies and told the theater owners he could send them something of the same calibre as fast as the mails can ship them if they'd agree to his price. Since he undercuts Edison they leaped at the deal, so it's a chore now to live up to the promise of producing something new all the time. He's also got a grand scheme to travel to Europe and secure distribution rights there.

That worked out well for me, as I was able to finagle a trip out of it. Cyril and I will finally get to go home. "You're going to Europe?" I said. "That's great, Uncle! The entire company could come along and make films there." He wasn't keen on the idea but agreed all the same, especially after Cyril insisted we'd do no work here while he was away.

Right now we're filming a comedy short called Rage Over a Lost Penny based on the Beethoven rondo. My character, Bobby, wants to buy Adeline's character an ice cream cone but he loses his penny, so he has to chase it, and then a lot of other people get involved when the penny causes mishaps. Cyril is a newspaper boy who thinks Bobby wants to buy a paper, but Bobby just wants his penny back. It's turning out quite hilarious, at least to me.

Bert makes sure to avoid any plot or setting that might upset Addie, and she hasn't suffered a flashback or nightmare since we arrived in California. At least not until the Triangle fire story broke. Moving across the country seemed to improve her mood tremendously, as it's so rural compared to New York and Chicago. There's little here to remind one of either city. Unfortunately, today's headline announced that the Triangle owners went free. She'd suffered an attack the day the Iroquois owners went free, too. Bert insisted she needs to see a psychiatrist about these attacks, and he made an appointment for her with one of those alienist chaps.

I'm not sure what I think of this new psychiatry craze that's taking hold, although I'm trying to keep an open mind for Addie's sake. It would be wonderful if someone could cure her, but I'd sure love to know what an alienist can do when we're leaving the country in just a few days.

I must start packing my trunk now, as it'll probably take me a fortnight. And then I think I shall attempt a few more presses with Stanley's equipment. Of late it's troubled me that we don't get the exercise we used to back on the farm. Stan has graciously allowed Cyril and myself to use his dumbbells to strengthen ourselves, and I must say I'm rather pleased with the results. Cyril's looking a fine weightlifter as well, which pleases him no end, as his only ambition these days is to impress the ladies. It likely won't be long before he announces he's engaged to someone, if he can just limit himself to one girl. I expect Gladys with the little dogs is the frontrunner, if she can put up with such an outrageous flirt.

─   From the diary of Trevor Goodwin


In the psychiatrist's waiting room the next day, Addie read the headlines in the paper.

"Asch Building to be renovated for new occupant, says landlord. The building itself was fireproof, and shows little damage to the walls and floors." What an appropriate name for a building. Asch Building. It turned everyone to ashes. After refolding the paper she put it back on the table. Those men had no regard for the women in their employ. Almost all the victims were women and girls, just like at the Iroquois.

The door to the doctor's office opened and a frumpy old woman emerged. Adeline wondered what the woman suffered from and how long she'd been in treatment. Will I still need to see a doctor when I'm her age? The doctor gestured for Adeline to come in.

"Good morning, Miss Finley. How are you today?"

"Uh, fine." Adeline entered his office and glanced around before taking a seat on the couch. Dr. Eysenck kept a prissy office, and nothing cluttered his desk except a notepad and fountain pen, with which he took copious notes. "Thank you, Doctor. This is the first time I've ever been... um... in an office like this."

The doctor rubbed his nose, and his mustache reminded Addie of Montague Thornton. "There's nothing to worry about, Miss Finley. Many people today suffer needlessly from mental anguish when they can be cured with good mental hygiene and pharmacopeia. Just relax and tell me what brought you here today."

"Um, all right." Addie removed her picture hat and tried to relax against the sofa cushions, but couldn't get comfortable. "Well, when I was fourteen, my father took us to a matinee a few days after Christmas. It was a children's matinee, so the audience was mostly families with children. During the show the theater caught fire and six hundred people were killed, including my own family. For years afterward I had these... well, Trevor calls them flashbacks. Without wanting to, I relive the events of that day with the same realism. This is the strange part, Doctor ─ it seems so very real to me. Trevor tells me to remind myself that whatever I see isn't actually there, but it feels so real that I can't convince myself otherwise. It got better when we moved to California, but the Triangle fire has brought it all back to mind."

The doctor stilled his pen. "And who is Trevor?"

"My fiancé. He wishes to marry me when we get to England."

"And do you wish to marry him?"

Addie played with the brim of her hat while she answered. "Of course, Doctor. More than anything in the world. It's just that..."

The doctor watched her a moment, then scribbled some more in his pad. "Please continue, Miss Finley. It's just that...?"

"Um, I'm not sure that Trevor respects me as an equal. I've never asked him how he voted on Proposition 4, and since women won the right to vote anyway I guess it's not important. And yet it is. He seems to want me to become a housewife after we marry, and cook and clean and raise the children while he works. I make more money than he does, so why should I quit my job? We can use the money, and I love acting. I'm not sure I want children at all. Maybe someday, but certainly not right away. But he wants to be like his parents. We're leaving for England in a few days to plan the wedding there. What am I going to do, Doctor? I've never met his parents before, and it would mortify me to have one of my spells in front of them. They wouldn't want their son to marry a mental case."

The doctor set down his pen and flexed his cramped hand. "Hm. It would seem that various pressures in your life may be triggering your episodes. If you obsess about having a flashback, you'll likely talk yourself into it."

"Then what can I do?"

The doctor penned a prescription. "I recommend weekly consultation, beginning as soon as you return from your trip. In the meantime this prescription might help. I suggest half a teaspoon every day, taken first thing in the morning. A single dose should give you about eight hours of relief. When you relax and focus on other things, the trauma of your youth will be swept to the side, and should lessen over time. Eventually you'll become insensitive to it. You can buy this in any drug store. Feel free to add sugar if you find the taste too bitter."

"Why? What is it?"

The doctor tore the sheet from his notepad and handed it to her. "Tincture of opium."

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