From Reality to Fiction: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

A Fall of MarigoldsIn Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds, we meet two women separated by a century but both profoundly affected by tragedy: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Clara Wood and Taryn Michaels’ alternating stories are also connected by a unique scarf, one with a cascade of marigolds and the name “Lily” stitched into its edge.

I bought this book because of my interest in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people.* The vast majority of the victims were women, some of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the burning building.

Clara’s portion of the novel begins five months after the fire in Manhattan’s Asch Building, where she worked in a doctor’s office a few stories below the Triangle Waist Company (“Triangle”). On the 8th and 9th floors of the building, in both the novel and in real-life, rows of young women, often the primary breadwinners for their immigrant families, made shirtwaists, the fashionable blouses of Gibson Girl fame.

The Fire:

What we know from the historical record is that the fire broke out on March 25, 1911 on the 8th floor, possibly due to a discarded cigarette. The flames spread to the 9th floor, where workers were trapped in a building that the New York City Fire Commissioner had already cited as a fire trap (for many reasons). In violation of the Labor Code, the stairway doors opened inward instead of outward, and the company kept the door to the stairway locked to prevent theft.

The Trial:

That locked door became the focus of the criminal manslaughter trial of Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, which took place in December 1911.

Meissner’s novel mentions the trial briefly in Chapter 17:

“Miss Wood?”

I heard my name as though it had been spoken from behind a brick wall.

“A trial?” I murmured, but my voice sounded far away.

“Yes. The owners are being charged with manslaughter.”

I raised my hands to my ears instinctively.

“Are you all right?”

I sensed an edge of alarm in [Ethan’s] voice.

This trial is well known in legal circles because of the courtroom cross-examination prowess of Max D. Steuer, the defense attorney who eviscerated one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Kate Alterman, a Triangle employee.

According to Professor Stephan Landsman:

One direct examination [Alterman] described in heart-rending detail the fire and its deadly consequences… Max Steuer then proceeded to destroy Miss Alterman’s credibility. … Steuer had Miss Alterman repeat her story three times. After each retelling he emphasized the striking similarities in the narratives.

Among the phrases Ms. Alterman used repeatedly were: “a red curtain of fire,” “I pressed [my pocketbook] to my chest to extinguish the fire,” and “like a wild cat.”**

Mr. Steuer asked, “You never studied those words, did you?,” insinuating that Ms. Alterman’s testimony was the result of prosecutorial coaching.

Lawyers prepare their clients for trial, but we cannot make up their stories for them. That said, I’m not so sure that a witness’s repeated use of certain phrases suggests that the testimony is fiction. Also, while I don’t know what New York’s evidentiary rules were at that time, my feeling is that Steuer’s famous cross-examination may have been objectionable as both repetitious and harassing (in violation of today’s Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 611(a)).

I also wonder whether the insinuation that the witness was coached (and therefore untrustworthy) would’ve been quite as convincing to the all-male jury had Ms. Alterman been Mr. Alterman, and a native English speaker instead of an immigrant with a heavy accent.***

Overall, it was a challenging case for the prosecution because they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the locked door that caused the death, rather than panic, which Steuer asserted could have prevented the workers from opening the door or escaping another way.

Essentially, Steuer blamed the victims. He said:

You ask these girls, pursued by these flames at that time to use reason. It is impossible. The panic drove them. The panic kept them at the door; and the panic prevented it being opened.

In the end, Triangle’s owners were acquitted. However, their role in creating an unsafe workplace wasn’t forgotten. It changed public sentiment on workers’ rights.

Social Change:

As Professor Arthur F. McEvoy wrote:

[The Triangle Fire] made clear in a new and powerful way that industrial accidents had causes whose roots lay in employers’ near-total power over the workplace environment; causes which government had the capacity and the responsibility to address.

Shortly after the fire, the New York legislature set up a factory safety commission, in which Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt, was involved. Perkins was responsible for 1930s New Deal reforms like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act that still impact the American workplace today.

However, unfair workplaces persist.

In the United States, for example, most employees can be fired for virtually any reason other than certain forms of discrimination, but those cases are typically very hard to prove (and they’re becoming even harder to prove thanks to the Supreme Court).

Sweatshops making products for American consumers still exist too, as John Oliver highlighted recently in a spot on Last Week Tonight.

A lot has changed in the past century — thanks to increased regulation, workplace deaths have fallen by 90% — but workplaces similar to Triangle aren’t only found these days in history texts or fiction.

__________________________________________________________

*Some sources say that 147 people died as a result of the fire.

**The transcript of the trial is available through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, but it appears that the section that contained Ms. Alterman’s testimony is incomplete. Instead, portions of her testimony appear in the “Library notes.” For a compilation of primary and secondary sources related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, see here.

***Women were not permitted to serve on juries in New York until 1937.

11 thoughts on “From Reality to Fiction: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by the Triangle story. It’s so tragic and awful. Of course it stinks that it took something like that for a few worker’s rights to come along, at least they did come along. Slowly but surely. Here in Wisconsin those rights are being chipped away at. It’s as if people don’t have the ability to see what happens when those regulations are taken away. Sigh. Don’t get me started! 😉

    1. Agreed! I had planned to write a more strident post that went into more detail about the current state of workers rights, but my husband gently suggested I tone it down. He was right. It would’ve been quite a rant! I work on these types of issues in real life on behalf of workers (paid sick and family leave legislation, employment discrimination cases/legislation, etc). It’s a very disheartening process sometimes.

  2. Sounds like a difficult read, though no doubt instructive for social historians and lawyers. There was a hard-hitting scene in Leon Uris’ ‘Trinity’ which described a similar fire in a Northern Ireland death-trap factory which was probably based on fact. And naturally the owners were exonerated, much like the Stardust nightclub tragedy in Dublin.

    1. Yes, it does sound like something that should’ve been covered in architecture school! The Asch Building is around. I believe it’s part of NYU.

  3. Jaclyn

    Now I want to read this! We spent a great deal of time on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in my labor history classes in college – such a tragedy. The book sounds fascinating.

    1. I had a feeling you would be an expert on this subject! Cornell has all the documents. Your labor history classes must have been fascinating. The novel takes place before the trial and only mentions it briefly, but it was interesting to read a novel about someone healing after that tragedy.

  4. When I worked in manufacturing in quality control, I not only did regular sweeps of the plant to make sure we were OSHA-compliant, I also wrote many documents detailing correct procedures to follow to remain so.

    Over and over again, I found the same disregard for policy. Doors were blocked, and daisy-chaining of electrical cords was common. I don’t hear much about OSHA these days; are they even still active? It wouldn’t surprise me to hear their funding was cut.

    1. That’s interesting. The fact that companies try to disregard regulations is what makes enforcement so important.
      I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

    1. “It’s a shame that something tragic usually has to happen to initiate change!”
      I completely agree. It’s amazing to think about how the workplace has changed in the last 100 years, even though we still have more improvements to make.

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