March 25, 1911—In the worst workplace disaster in New York City history before 9/11, a half-hour-long fire broke out near closing time at the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village, leaving 146 dead. The outrage provoked by the incident led to action on long-unheeded calls for better fire-protection measures while launching a wave of social-welfare legislation and leaders who paved the way for the New Deal.
One of my memories of 9/11 is the photograph of the “Falling Man” hurtling toward death below to avoid being consumed by the fire raging inside the Twin Towers. Just such a sight—much less novel then—greeted many New Yorkers 97 years ago as they beheld one young woman after another jumping to her death out of the Asch Building near Washington Square.
All through elementary and secondary school, I heard nothing about this crucial event in American history. In fact, the first time I came across it was in the superlative chapter on Alfred E. Smith in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
I would hope that modern texts remedy this problem, but I doubt it—kids nowadays are lucky they can figure out in which century the Civil War occurred. In certain ways, however, I believe that March 25, 1911 should be committed to memory as surely as July 4, 1776.
Both dates, in their ways, marked a movement away from heavy-handed control by an elite and toward greater freedom—in one case, for white American males of property; in the later one, for the economically oppressed laborer, frequently female and foreign-born.
So, if I were to design a syllabus to teach this event, what would I choose?
Well, I’d start with So Others Might Live, a fine account of New York’s Bravest by journalist-historian Terry Golway. The section on the Triangle fire is short—only a half-dozen pages—but they give an excellent précis for the conditions that led to the blaze and the Fire Department’s helpless anger in combating it.
It also discusses an Irish-American Cassandra, department head Edward Croker, a chief as blunt as he was fearless, who, for his repeated warnings about high-rise office and factory buildings, had to endure constant smearing by business interests for being the nephew of past Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker—until events proved him right.
After Golway’s history, I’d assign David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, for a deeper understanding of the background, events and people involved in that day. Though the extent of the tragedy was unusual, the labor conditions that made it inevitable were anything but. Harassment for petty rule violations had sparked a massive waist-union strike only the year before, and at the time of the fire, a hundred accidents occurred in American workplaces every day.
But the Triangle sweatshop, Gotham’s largest blouse-making operation, requires a Dickens to evoke. Its 500 or more workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, crouched over their machines. Only the walls and floors met the owners’ claim that the building was fireproof; the fabric and other materials on the factory floor represented potential kindling.
Worse, the operations on the upper floors lay just beyond the reach of fire department ladders and doors were locked because of fears of employee theft. When the rickety fire escape collapsed, then, it meant certain death for the fire’s victims, 123 of whom were women.
The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for its “Portraits in Grief” after 9/11. On a somewhat smaller scale, facing heavier odds because of the distance of the years, Von Drehle was about to compile his own version of this for the Triangle victims, by combing through countless news articles and a long-lost transcript of the trial involving the factory owners (whose acquittal on manslaughter charges brought howls of execration on their heads).
Von Drehle’s account makes clear why the disaster was a landmark event in American immigrant and labor history, but it was also a watershed in American political and urban history. In particular, in the fallout from the tragedy, Tammany Hall—the same political machine that, only a decade before, successfully ran a mayoral candidate with the proud slogan, “To Hell With Reform”—at least partly redeemed its corrupt, largely inglorious history.
For this third phase of the event, Von Drehle should be read in combination with Caro. The indispensable man at the center of this phase was one of the great sphinxes of New York history, Tammany’s chieftain, Charles Murphy. Film buffs know Murphy in fictionalized form, as “Jim Gettys” in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but in real life Murphy kept his own counsel as he shrewdly navigated the political shoals.
Now Murphy acted, giving the go-ahead to his Tammany lieutenants in the Albany state legislature, Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, to investigate the blaze and what led up to it. Their work led to 25 workplace safety bills in 1912.
More important, that work helped stave off a socialist insurgency in the city (perhaps partly answering Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous question about why there was no socialism in the United States) and launched the careers of several illustrious figures: Smith, the governor whose tenure became a kind of laboratory for later New Deal legislation; Wagner, later a U.S. senator and proud patriarch of a line of politicians who figured in city history for nearly three-quarters of a century; and Frances Perkins, who later, as FDR’s Secretary of Labor, became the first female to serve in the Cabinet.