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Wake-Up Call

Bosses’ avarice kindled Triangle Factory fire


"Give us 18 minutes. We'll give you the end of your lives"

If the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had a podcast back in 1911, that might have been their bumper intro. They could have sold movie rights and paid off the city morgue for providing vivid imagery for its trailers. It would have been in character for them to have done so.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned the factory and the fire that killed 146 teenagers and young adult immigrant garment workers. March 25th will be the 113th anniversary of their contribution to the annals of ignominy. And it took just 18 minutes of flame, asphyxiation and defenestration to brand their names into history's hide.

Blanck and Harris were unscrupulous human-rights scoffers who abhorred unions and deliberately blocked escape exits from their SuperMax sweatshops because they didn't want seamstresses to sneak a breather from their dollar a day, 72-hour workweek.


They felt impelled to take precautions against the insatiable nature of these women who were living a sub-marginal existence in packed-out tenements without heat, water or toilets.

And because this most deadly industrial accident could have been avoided and willfully was allowed to happen, it was not an accident at all. Blanck and Harris lost no sleep over what a witness called the "mangled bloody pulp" of these former-day American dreamers.

The building is still there. It's within cannabis-sniffing distance of Washington Square Park, where I profitably squandered much of my carefree, since-eroded youth. It's a screaming, mute testament to entrepreneurial inhumanity.

But also the birth of hope, because its lessons gave rise to labor reform. It lit up the dark ages. 

Already in the immediate aftermath, the dark landscape for workers became less dim. It launched the careers of progressive trailblazers like Senator Robert Wagner, New York Governor Alfred Smith and future Labor Department Secretary (and first female presidential cabinet member) Frances Perkins.  

It was a catalyst for the New Deal.

The fire may have been sparked by a flicked cigarette stub that wasn't quite extinguished, but what really caused it was the contempt and greed of the factory owners, who also owned the whole building.

There were months of  highly flammable materials strewn all over the property. Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems. There was only one narrow, rickety fire-escape and it buckled. The elevators were always in disrepair. The doors were barricaded with furniture and locked to prevent workers from impeding productivity goals by taking bathroom breaks.

They were also bolted in order to keep out union organizers and to serve as an inspection station to search the workers who were presumed instinctively prone to theft.

Blanck and Harris suspected that workers did not rank high in the natural order of creation. My theory is that it was B and H's guilty pleasure to see them suffer.

When the fire department responded, they brought punctured water hoses and ladders that could extend only to the 7th floor. Most of the fatalities were of garment workers on the 9th floor.

"I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk,” wrote an on-scene reporter. There was hysteria and frenzy as girls with "hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch. … Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

A fire department official called it "a mass of traveling fire.” A photo available on the Kheel Center website captions "unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street. ...All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire.”

Fire Department Chief Edward Crocker described the victims as "bodies burned to bare bones, skeletons bending over sewing machines.”

Blanck and Harris were arch villains to the core. Even if the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had not been deadly, it would not have been an isolated incident. Not only were they in the business of manufacturing women's blouses, they were also in the business of arson against their own holdings in order to collect insurance money.

In the case of the Triangle fire, they made a profit of $60,000 over the cost of damages to the factory. That amounted to a $400 bounty for the head of each of their victims. Years later, as a result of a civil lawsuit, they submitted to paying $75 to the families of their deceased employees.

Not believing in profligate spending, Blanck and Harris were not happy campers about that adjudication. They persisted in being prone to self-inflicted mishaps to enrich themselves. It was a corporate decision from way back. There was a baffling blaze in their factory a few years earlier and their Diamond Waist Company was inexplicably charred twice.

It's speculated that these events tended to coincide with their convenience.

Just two years after the Triangle inferno, their new factory failed inspection because of loads of fire hazards and the next year they were implicated in a fraudulent labeling scandal.

Blanck and Harris deserve an entire wing in a Rogues Gallery museum. In 1909, 15,000 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union successfully went on strike for a 52-hour workweek and overtime pay. Some manufacturers settled and complied with the agreement.

But not Blanck and Harris, who according to History.com, "resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off the politicians to look the other way.” They also greased politicians and police to look the other way.

According to the AFL-CIO, judges punished strikers for "incitement" by sending them to labor camps. One jurist raved, "You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!"

Eventually, the concept of a "closed shop" gained widespread acceptance or at least resignation among manufacturers, but under no circumstances or pressure would Blanck and Harris entertain the thought, much less implement any measures to improve cleanliness and safety standards for their workers.

Should Blanck and Harris have been punished for having short memories or because drawing conclusions from overwhelming truth was not their forte? Just two years after the Triangle inferno, they were penalized for locking their factory doors to herd in their workers. They paid a stiff fine. All of $20.

In their triumphant battle against temporal and cosmic justice, they had an ally: Max "Million Dollar" Steuer, a lawyer who was an evil genius who made good by doing bad. He was a caricature of a down and dirty attorney. Smithsonian Magazine cites him as "among the most colorful figures in the peacock gallery of New York before World War I, who rose to the pinnacle of the New York bar, starring as courtroom magician in drama ranging from celebrity sex scandals to security frauds to the disputed will of dysfunctional dynasties.”

What makes him particularly loathsome is that he was himself an immigrant and former sweatshop worker.

He destroyed a surviving witness' credibility by convincingly casting doubt on her testimony for the simple reason that its wording hadn't changed over several iterations.

If the job title of Per-Diem Executioner existed, (though it wouldn't be listed in The Chief), and I were a contemporary of Blanck, Harris and Steuer, I'd volunteer to dispatch them for free, all while enjoying a pastrami sandwich on rye, as eminently digestible as the fitness of their fate.

The first International Women's Day was commemorated in Europe a few days before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Thereafter, the imperative of economic justice for women seized the consciousness of all decent people or those capable of achieving decency.

The last survivor of the Triangle Factory fire died in 2001 at 107. One of her sisters, through tribulation, uneducated and infinitely wise, illuminated the lesson for our modern globalized world: "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.”


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