It was a cold Saturday morning on March 25 as workers hurried to their various jobs in the great metropolis of New York City. The skies were clear, and the promise of Spring was on the whisper breaths of the people on the streets.
Many of the workers were immigrants as young as fourteen. They had left their countries of origin to find a better life in the great melting pot of the world.
However, in many ways the workers were the modern slaves of industrialization. Their wages were low for the many hours of labor which they spent toiling for their masters of capitalism.
In addition their places of work were usually unsanitary and unsafe. Workplace accidents were the way of life for these individuals trapped in an endless cycle of misery in a foreign land, where their exploitation was as common as their desperate lives.
During the workday, exits were locked to prevent thievery by the workers of the precious merchandize created from their sweat. The laborers were expendable because there were so many of them.
One such factory was on the northern end of Washington Square East in Greenwich Village. It was owned by Russian immigrants Isaac Harris and Max Blanck (The Shirtwaist Kings) who touted that their business was the best of the best.
Their Triangle Waist Company was producing over one thousand shirtwaists daily as the workers, mostly women, labored for their small wages in order to enrich the lives of the owners. Annual income was over one million dollars.
Harris and Blanck had achieved the American Dream. Their homes on the Upper West Side with multiple servants testified to what could be accomplished by immigrants in the American enterprise of capitalism.
Unfortunately, for the 500-plus (mostly women) workers in Triangle and many other thousands in the city’s textile factories, their lives were a daily struggle for existence in the monolithic buildings and tenements of 1911 New York. In these conditions and political machinations tragedy was a constant companion.
Near closing time on that eventful Saturday afternoon, a fire started. In the eternal moments that followed, 146 workers died from the fire or by jumping to their deaths to the streets below.
The fire department was ill equipped. Their ladders could not reach the top floors, and the water pressure could not as well.
In the aftermath Harris and Blanck were charged, but with their brilliant attorney Max David Steuer and the two weary prosecutors Charles F. Bostwick and J. Robert Rubin, in less than two hours the jury found them not guilty. Not guilty!
Civil suits came. They settled those for $75 per family.
The insurance coverage gave Harris and Blanc a $400 return for each life lost that Saturday afternoon. How much is a human life worth—and to whom, especially an immigrant one?
The tragic loss of life and the impact it had on families and survivors is impossible to calculate—such suffering and misery. The fire resulted in a public outcry for improvements.
However, improvements in working conditions and wages are difficult in a system based on profit and not on human dignity. The human element is and always should be front and center.
Listed below are links about the fire and the names of those who came to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their families. This is why immigrants came and still come to the shores of the New Land—seeking a better way of life.
I will close with this statement made at the Women’s Trade Union League at the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday, April 2, 1911:
“I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies, if I were to come 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 fire. This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death… Public officials have only words of warning for us—warning that we must be intensely orderly and must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back when we rise—back into the conditions that make life unbearable. I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. And the only way is through a strong working-class movement.”
G. D. Williams © 2017
US Department of Labor