Today marks the 97th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which left 148 dead and served as a critical pivot in improving working conditions in American factories. For those not familiar with the tragedy, Wikipedia offers a recounting, but a more comprehensive one is offered by Democratic Central.
It was terrible event, 148 women and children killed by fire, suffocation, and failed attempts to flee. Doors were locked, fire escapes faulty, doors that were unlocked opened in and could not swing free for the crush of bodies. Others jumped, finding death on the pavement nine stories below, some impaled on the spikes of the fence surrounding the building.
Only 9/11 outpaces Triangle as a workplace disaster in NYC.
The memorial service at the Metropolitan Opera Theater was telling. Activist Rosa Schneiderman uttered her immortal “j’accuse” with the words:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
The disaster was the tragic inspiration for new workplace legislation in NY and across the country. A little known Tammany politico named Al Smith chaired the legislative committee that investigated and wrote the state legislation. His clear anguish over the incident and his drive to prevent a repeat impressed the NY reform coalition, and made them realize this was more than a cigar chomping, shanty Irishman from the Fulton Fish Market. From the ashes of Triangle came the governorship of Al Smith and the social legislation he pushed that eventually served as the inspiration for FDR’s New Deal.
Why talk about such things? Because when we forget such things we are doomed to allow such things to be repeated.
I have walked the battlefields at Shiloh and The Wilderness and Manassas in the dusk, and you can feel the presence of the dead. A similar thing happens when you walk by 23-29 Washington Place in New York City, look up at what is now called the Brown Building of Science to feel the awful horror of what happened.
On days like this it is a good thing to stop and remember these things…not only to remind us of where we have been, but to make sure we never pass that way again.
Other sources on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, devotes a full chapter to the fire
The Power Broker, pages 122-126. Robert Caro describes the disaster in pungent detail, and the reaction and rise of Al Smith in its aftermath.