In a crowded New York City courtroom 107 years ago this month, two wealthy immigrant entrepreneurs, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, stood trial on a single count of manslaughter. Earlier that year, March 25, 1911, a fire at their factory, the Triangle Waist Co. , left 146 workers dead. Because the penalty for one count was the same as the penalty for all of them, the Manhattan district attorney filed only his strongest case.
After a three-week trial, including testimony from more than 100 witnesses, Harris and Blanck were acquitted. Courthouse veterans chalked up the surprise verdict to a strongly pro-defense jury instruction from Judge Thomas Crain. No doubt it helped that the jurors were businessmen, too; there were no peers of the dead garment workers on the panel.
Sneaking from the courthouse by a side door to avoid an angry crowd, the factory owners were accosted in the street by David Weiner, whose sister Rose had suffocated and burned behind a locked factory door. “Murderers!” Weiner cried as he raced toward them. “Not guilty? Where is the justice?” Before collapsing on the cobblestone street, the young man vowed: “We will get you yet.”
In a sense, he was right. Historians of the Triangle fire — a catalyst for major changes in workplace safety laws — have not been kind to Harris and Blanck. That includes me. In the course of writing “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” I got to know the pair pretty well. I judge them to have been tough men, unsympathetic to their workers, careless about fire and indifferent to safety. So count me in Weiner’s camp.
But two recent essays make the case that the Triangle owners have gotten a raw deal. A profile in the New York Review of Books of Michael Hirsch, the skilled researcher whose dogged work finally, in 2011, attached a name to every victim of the fire, quoted Hirsch’s view that they are “two of the most wrongfully vilified people in American history.” The article did not detail his reasoning. More recently, in Smithsonian magazine, curator Peter Liebhold offered an essay titled, “Was History Fair to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Owners?” Although Liebhold does not offer any new details or discoveries, he contends that the story of the fire has been “trafficked in service to one agenda or another” at the expense of the owners’ reputations.
I can’t speak for every historian, but my only agenda in writing about the fire was to examine why — in an era when workplace deaths were appallingly common and quickly forgotten — the Triangle disaster led to dramatic and lasting reforms. That turned out to be a multi-stranded tale involving converging forces of technology, feminism, consumerism, immigration, politics, and a dose of pure chance: Among the thousands who witnessed workers leaping to their deaths was the young Frances Perkins, the dynamo who became the first female Cabinet secretary.
And one of those converging forces was the tunnel-visioned partnership of Harris and Blanck. Small, dark Harris, detail-driven and conservative; large, moon-faced Blanck, flamboyant risk-taker — both emigrated from Russia in the late 1800s, part of a huge wave of arrivals from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As penniless young men, they endured the brutal working conditions of New York’s tenement sweatshops at their worst during the depression of the early 1890s. Gradually, they clawed their way up the economic ladder.
Around the turn of the century, they married into the same family, and soon went into business together manufacturing “shirtwaists” — the light cotton blouses made fashionable by artist Charles Dana Gibson’s famous “Gibson Girl.” Specializing in mid-price knockoffs of the latest styles, Harris and Blanck were known by 1909 as “the Shirtwaist Kings,” owners of multiple factories, living in luxury on the Upper West Side and riding to work in chauffeured limousines.
With the advent of “skyscraper” towers of 10 stories and more, the booming New York garment trade moved out of the tenements and into high-rise lofts, where hundreds of sewing machines in long rows could run off a single electric motor. And here we meet one of the offenses charged against history in telling the Triangle story.
These loft factories, with their large windows and ample light, were worlds away from the dank and airless tenement sweatshops, which employed mere handfuls of workers and worked them nearly to death. For modern readers, the picture of the Triangle factory — hundreds of mostly young, mostly female workers elbow to elbow, hunched over long rows of machines for long hours at low pay — is the epitome of a “sweatshop.” But to Harris and Blanck, with keen memories of the tenements, conditions in the Triangle were luxurious. What seems progress in one era can look oppressive in retrospect.
Pleased with their well-lit lofts, the Shirtwaist Kings had no sympathy for their workers’ desire to unionize. They came down hard when Triangle employees staged a wildcat strike in 1909 — an action that galvanized an industry-wide walkout. Harris and Blanck hired goons from Max Schlansky’s notorious “private detective” agency to attack picketing workers. On Oct. 11 of that year, a downtown gang leader called Johnny Spanish — by all signs employed by Harris and Blanck via Schlansky — ambushed strike leader Joe Zeinfield on a Lower East Side street. When the beating was over, Zeinfield required more than 30 stitches to repair his face.
The shirtwaist strike, which came to be known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, electrified New York society. No one had ever seen a labor action in which women played such a large role. But Harris and Blanck were adamant, organizing their fellow owners to resist. So determined were they to break the union that the Daily Forward, a Yiddish language pro-labor newspaper, singled them out for vilification more than a year before the fateful fire. “The ‘Triangle’ company . . . With blood this name will be written in the history of the American workers’ movement,” the Forward declared on Jan. 10, 1910.
So Triangle was not just any factory; nor were Harris and Blanck just any owners.
But the question is whether history has treated them fairly. And I remember wondering exactly that when I listened to a recorded interview with fire survivor Pauline Pepe. She was talking with the first true historian of the Triangle fire, journalist Leon Stein. Pepe recalled how much “fun” she had as a worker in the Triangle shop. “My mother didn’t want me to go to work,” said the budding feminist. “But my friend says, ‘Come on, we have a good time.’ ” That certainly didn’t sound like a hellish workplace.
Ultimately, I concluded that Harris and Blanck were poor stewards of their workers’ lives, oblivious to warnings and careless about danger. Despite the New York City fire commissioner’s well-publicized prediction that a deadly blaze in a high-rise loft factory was inevitable — and despite multiple small fires during working hours at the Triangle — the owners ignored a consultant’s advice to perform regular fire drills to train workers for an emergency. And they declined to enforce their posted rule against smoking near the highly flammable cotton scraps their workers snipped by the ton.
To be fair, Harris and Blanck weren’t the only New Yorkers underestimating the perils of the new high-rises. City building codes were woefully out of date; the narrow stairways and inward-opening doors of the Triangle factory were entirely legal. Worse, the insurance industry in New York had rigged regulations in such a way that brokers actually profited from higher risk, so that arson was one of the city’s growth businesses. The Triangle factory had a reputation for after-hours fires in which unsold inventory translated into hefty insurance checks.
Worst of all, the Triangle owners made a regular practice of locking one of the two exits from their factory floor around closing time. Workers could only leave through a single door, where they and their handbags were searched for stolen goods.
If Harris and Blanck suffered at the bar of history, they had themselves to blame. They were hostile to worker grievances and negligent about worker safety. These traits converged on the fateful Saturday when, around closing time, a worker apparently dropped a match or cigarette butt into a heaping bin of scraps. Flames raced quickly through the three floors of the factory, feeding on heaps of unsold late-season inventory. On the ninth floor of the 10-story building, panicked workers piled up behind the locked door and, within scant minutes, trapped young women and young men were plunging to their deaths on a Manhattan sidewalk.
It’s too much to say that the owners were cold to this tragedy, as some labor activists occasionally maintain. Though they eventually realized a small profit from the fire through insurance settlements, their partnership was never the same afterward. Nor were they personally immune from the tragedy. Blanck’s young children were with him in the factory at the time of the fire and narrowly escaped. Harris was injured as he led workers to safety on the roof of an adjacent building. Both men lost relatives in the blaze.
But they had done absolutely nothing to prevent or prepare for fire. At trial, Harris and his foreman lovingly detailed the long hours of careful thought that went into positioning the sewing machines and designing the cutting tables. But no thought went into the problem of evacuating 500 workers in the face of an explosive cotton fire.
Nor, it seems, did they learn from the disaster. As I assessed their culpability before writing my book, some 90 years after the fire, I found a last key piece of evidence, and it settled the question entirely in my mind.
Slogging through ancient copies of the New York Times at the Library of Congress in 2001, I noticed a brief item in the Aug. 21, 1912, edition. Just 17 months after the fire, and a mere eight months after the owners slipped free in Judge Crain’s courtroom, Max Blanck was making shirtwaists again at a new factory. An inspector paid a visit, and what did he find?
A locked exit.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.