Louis Duchez reports on the horrors of one of the defining events in U.S. working class history, the Triangle Shirt Waist fire of 1911 in which dozens of workers, mainly immigrant women, were killed. The fire gave huge impetus to union organizing in the textile industry as well as the larger movement of working class women.
‘The Murder of the Shirt Waist Makers’ by Louis Duchez from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No 11. May, 1911.
TRUTH is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
As I write this story of the bold, brutal and cold-blooded murder of one hundred and twenty-five girls, averaging nineteen years of age, and twenty men, here in New York, I wonder if what I have seen and heard and felt is real.
It was Saturday evening, March 25. Only five minutes more and the slaves at the sewing machines would be hurrying to their “homes,” carrying their starvation wages for the week. More than 500 of them were employed by the Triangle Waist Company, the non-union concern which led the fight on the shirt waist girls more than a year ago. The slave pen was located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a “fire proof” building in the very heart of the congested section of the city.
In some corner unknown on the eighth floor highly inflammable materials caught fire. Before anyone had time to look around big tongues of flame were licking up everything in the room.
A general rush was made for the elevators and stairways. The elevators did their best, but during the few minutes in which the tragedy occurred only fifty girls were lowered.
The stairways were the principal ways of escape—and the doors leading to these stairways were locked. For it was the custom of this firm, as it is the custom in other shirtwaist factories in New York, to lock the doors after work begins in the morning and to keep them locked all day, so that the employes may be searched before going home for pieces of goods, thread or buttons, and so that they may be prevented from going out and “stealing time” during the day.
Everywhere throughout the three floors silk and cotton goods hung from racks or were piled up on tables, and the little blaze which started in the unknown corner was like a spark in a powder magazine. In ten minutes the three floors were all afire. Huge clouds of flame belched from nearly every window.
Finding the doors locked to the stairways, the girls rushed to the windows. With their hair and clothes afire, they leaped from the eighth, ninth and tenth story windows. Some were seen climbing upon the sills and deliberately plunging to the pavement. Others, it is said, were pushed out by the pressure behind. In one instance two girls came down from the ninth story in each other‘s arms. Others were seen embracing and kissing each other before making the fatal leap.
One man, excited and perhaps realizing that they would all be burned to a crisp if they remain in the building a few minutes longer, anyway, picked up six girls one after another, and threw them out the window of the ninth story, after which he plunged to his death, also.
At the height of the fire, when all the girls had either been burned to death in the building or had leaped to the pavement, two young women, about seventeen, stood out on the ledge of rock which marked the tenth story. They were both facing the wall and embracing each other. Apparently one was attempting to prevent the other from jumping, but the latter broke away and threw herself off the ledge with a shriek. A few moments later the lone girl raised her hands above her head, looked upward, then shot feet foremost off the ledge to the street upon the already large pile of burned and mangled human flesh and bones.
One girl, after falling six stories, was rescued from a large hook beside a window at the third story, where she was hanging by her clothes, face downward. Another saved herself by leaping on top of the elevator roof and grabbing the cable as it passed the eighth floor.
Below, the sight was sickening. Thousands of people had gathered and the fire men were doing their best to save as many lives as possible. Nets were spread and even horse blankets used in an effort to catch some of the falling bodies. But the nets and blankets broke under the weight of three and four bodies falling into them at the same time. Those who plunged from above did not have time or they were too excited to wait on each other or to judge correctly regarding the location of the nets. On the other hand, those in charge of the nets could do very little under the rain of bodies.
All that was left of the victims was placed in rows along the pavement, where they were tagged and numbered. Then came the rough, brown police coffins in which the remains were placed and taken to the Municipal Ferry and strung out on the clock. They were afterwards hurried to the morgue. Scores of injured were rushed to the hospitals and many died on the way.
By ten o’clock after the fire 135 bodies were discovered. Fifty were taken from a single heap five feet high where the helpless victims battered in vain at one of the locked doors leading to the stairway. Two girls were taken from an iron picket fence upon which they had fallen. Twelve others were discovered in the basement. They had plunged through the street pavement, making a hole in it six feet in diameter. All those that leaped to the street were killed instantly or died a few minutes afterwards. Those that remained in the building were burned to death. Some of the bodies were so badly burnt and torn to pieces that they had to be gathered up in blankets, tied to the end of a rope and lowered to the street.
Horrors beyond description were seen at the morgue when relatives and friends came to identify their dead. It was impossible to recognize most of them, the majority being burned or mutilated beyond identification. Many bundles of bone and dry flesh, doubtless, were taken away by hysterical relatives who, in their mad desire to get a last look at a dear one, were only too willing to believe that this or that hunk of flesh and bones was their daughter or sister. Many of the victims were identified only because of jewelry which was found on skeleton fingers, necks and ears.
The flesh on many bodies lay in blackened shreds. In several cases heads were burned off completely. Arms and legs, too, were missing. The clothes and hair had been eaten by the flames from most of them. In a large number of cases faces were flattened and skulls sunk in, as a result of striking the pavement.
The mental and physical agony resulting from this terrible murder of industrial slaves will stretch out into the years. Many a young girl perished who was the only support of her widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters. One girl was killed who, with her brother, had been sent to this country to make enough money to support a family of twelve in Russia. One woman, the only bread winner in a family, perished, leaving a husband out of work and five children. One of the children lost a leg recently and another is now sick. Scores of such incidents could be related.
The Women’s Trade Union League planned for a parade and the burial of the unidentified victims on Monday, the second day after the fire. But the city officials refused to turn over the bodies and forbade the parade. Feeling among the workers in the city had been stirred to a high pitch, and the masters thought it would not be a healthy thing for them to permit the parade so soon after the fire. So the union leaders gave in for a few days, finally deciding to parade, regardless of what the city heads decided to do, and to hold the demonstration on Wednesday, April 5th, eleven days after the fire. Seeing that the workers were in earnest, the city authorities gave in and handed over seven coffins, each containing a whole body, or what was left of it, and one coffin in which was placed a pile of bones and flesh, representing three or more victims.
Regardless of a steady rain all day the largest working class crowd that has ever turned out in New York City followed the eight coffins to the cemetery and carried banners in memory of the 145 martyrs of “peaceful industry.”
It was estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 workers were in line, that about 300,000 mourners lined the sidewalks. and that a million wage slaves did not work during the day because of the funeral. The following account of the procession, which appeared in the Sun, an ultra-conservative supporter of Wall Street, will give a fair idea of the gigantic turnout:
“Sweatshops and garment factories were empty this afternoon. The garment workers in countless numbers were marching through the wet streets to pay, after their fashion, a tribute to the 145 who met their death in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire horror.”
The Sun also said the crowd was “literally uncountable because of its size and the way in which it spread through the various streets. The throng was estimated by the marshals as totaling about 150,000. Uptown in the other division of the procession was a gathering of similar if not equal magnitude. It looked as if in spite of such a slight matter as weather, the original estimate of 200,000 paraders had been exceeded.”
The most striking feature of the demonstration was the enormous number of unorganized workers in line. And to the disgrace of the building trades unions in New York, with their “sacred contracts,” they did not show up.
One 80-year old woman, poorly clad and without an umbrella, tottered along for a way with the endless column. She was mother of one of the girl victims. But she was too weak to walk far. After a few blocks she faltered and would have fallen but for friends, who carried her to the sidewalk and took her home.
Violations of the law? Yes, enough to hang half a dozen rich exploiters and politicians. But these men won’t hang.
The owner of the building claimed he lived up to the letter of the law. So did the owners of the shirtwaist concern, Blanck and Harris. They blame the city officials. The State Commission of Labor also blames the city officials. On the other hand, the city officials are hunting for someone to point to. One of these gentlemen divides the guilt between God and the “public conscience.”
The more important facts, however, are as follows: While the holocaust was taking place the superintendent of public buildings, Rudolph P. Miller, was on a pleasure trip to Panama. Under questioning conducted by Fire Marshal Beers he admitted that the Asch building, in which the fire took place, had not been inspected since it was built, ten years ago. He said he was not even sure that he passed on the building before it was occupied. Miller is not an architect; he is simply a civil engineer-with a “pull.” In his testimony he also admitted that he knew of “graft” from building owners being accepted by inspectors. Miller blamed the police department.
According to the state law, “fire-proof” buildings need not put up more than one fire escape. And that’s all the Asch building had. And this one was useless. When the flames heated the flimsy iron work. it bent like wire. Besides, the scaling ladders were not fit to use and the extension ladders reached only to the 6th floor. The hose, too, was rotten, and the fire apparatus was only so in name. Then iron shutters blocked the fire escape, such as it was.
The locked doors have been mentioned. There was no fire escape to the roof. The machines were so closely packed together, in order to save space. that a panic resulted when the fire first started. Large piles of combustible goods obstructed every aisle and opening, also, if the building and conditions had been deliberately planned for the cremation of human beings, it could not have been more perfect.
To look at the Asch building since the fire one could not tell from the outside that anything had happened to it, were it not for the broken windows. As a matter of fact, the damage only reached $5,000. Everything was insured-but the slaves. It is also stated that both Blanck and Harris were in the building an hour before the fire. Bernstein, the superintendent of the factory and a stockholder, incidentally, was not among those that perished. The junior member of the firm testified that they cleared $1,000,000 in 1908.
A Miss Deutchman, who took part in the shirtwaist strike in 1909 and who worked five months for the Triangle concern, concealing the fact that she was a member of the union, tells the following story of this scab concern:
“This is one of the worst shops that I have ever worked in. When applying for work you have to undergo a half hour or more of examination about union affiliations. When a person was hired, after working at a machine, she would again be asked by Mr. Bernstein, a man in charge of the floor, when she or he was a member of the union. One of my friends who was hired about two weeks ago, was asked whether he was a member of the union, and Bernstein asked him to bring the union book to the shop or he could not work there. My friend left the shop and never returned to give up his union book.
“In the shop there is always a bunch of people spotting the girls at work. Colored women are employed to look out for the girls. When a girl stays in the toilet longer than the woman thinks she ought to stay there, she is told to get out.”
Another girl tells the following story:
“About two and a half years ago I went to work for the Triangle Waist Company. At that time there was no talk of organizing the shop. The spy system the firm employed was simply horrible. They could trace every movement of a girl. For walking in the shop the girls would immediately be fired. Although the shop was big and supposed to have enough light, there was no light whatsoever in there.
“The machines were kept together in long rows. A girl could not pass between the machines. The girls sat back to back, and if one moved her chair, others could not pass.
“At the conclusion of the day’s work girls were searched, like thieves. When a fire engine passed the block and the girls got nervous and excited, they were not allowed to move from their places and go over to the window to see if the fire was in the building. Finding the conditions so bad, I left my job on the fourth day, although I badly needed the money.”
Perhaps “public sentiment” in Greater New York has never been so stirred as by this fire. But it will soon blow over. Investigations since the horror have shown that there are more than 10,000 buildings in the city equally as dangerous as was the Asch building. A fire such as took place had been predicted several times since the Newark, N. J., massacre a few weeks ago. It didn’t come as a great surprise. Nor will others that are sure to follow come as a surprise. Just prior to the terrible holocaust there was an organization, known as the “Property Owner’s Protective League,” formed for the purpose of smothering city ordinances detrimental to property owner’s interests and for the purpose of “seeing” inspectors, etc.
There is one big lesson which the fire should teach the workers, and if this lesson is not learned, all the propaganda and investigations and demonstrations will be of little value. That lesson is UNIONISM-strong, aggressive, MILITANT UNIONISM.
The blame for the Triangle slaughter weighs more heavily upon the back of organized labor in New York City than upon all the politicians and inspectors combined. If organized labor in this great metropolis had struck as one man when the girls struggled so desperately in 1909 against the Triangle and other firms, the workers would have controlled this shop and the organized and unorganized would have prevented the recent horror. Where the boss is supreme and where a committee of the workers is not on the look-out, there isn’t the least thought given the lives of the slaves.
There should have been a general strike in the city the Monday following the fire, regardless of what the city heads thought or threatened. Then the masters would have been taught a lesson which they would have long remembered, and this was the sentiment of the rank and file, too.
The Newark girls, after the fire there, went around to the bosses and said they would not work until the factories were made safer, and there was a change. That is what the workers in New York City should do. The secretary-treasurer of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, John A. Dyche, had the right idea when he said a day or so after the fire: “Workers should lay down their tools and refuse to work until the fire escapes are installed.” Let us hope that he will put forth strenuous efforts to realize the following statement, which he made about the same time: “I will move that the workers employed in these 180 shops, no matter whether they are under association bosses or under agreements with the union, should lay down their tools and strike for the wiping out of death-trapping shops.”
The workers are being driven by every such disaster to look to themselves, to their own organized power to change things. Miss Rose Schneiderman, vice-president of the Women’s Trade Union League, in speaking before the “citizens’ meeting,” engineered by millionaires, preachers and politicians in the Metropolitan Opera House, April 2, in behalf of the fire victims, said that the workers cannot expect to be secure from fires or anything else, for that matter, until the working class has a strong movement which will compel the employers to recognize them. She opened her speech with the following striking paragraph:
“Citizens, you have been tried time and again and found wanting. Every time the working people try to protest for their rights, the law says, “Be orderly.” The strong hand of the law beats us back, and back we go to conditions that make our lives unbearable. It would be treachery and treason to those burned bodies if I came here to talk fellowship. Too much blood has been spilled.”
The most deplorable thing about it all is that the great masses are ready to act, but the cliques, with their organized machines, are afraid that the movement might get too big for them to control.
But the day is rapidly approaching when the conservative leaders will and must be swept aside. To smother the spontaneity of class feeling is like attempting to smother a volcano.
May that day soon come. However much it may stir up things, it cannot be any worse than the daily slaughter of industrial slaves. The terror which the middle class mind holds toward the Social Revolution is a daily hope to the machine trained mind. The worker welcomes its approach, for he knows instinctively that it brings with it power, intelligence and solidarity. We cannot begin to rehearse the Social Revolution too soon.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v11n11-may-1911-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf