Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: 1911

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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: 1911

Defendants: Triangle Shirtwaist Company partners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: Max D. Steuer
Chief Prosecutors: Charles S. Bostwick and J. Robert Rubin
Judge: Thomas C.T. Crain
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: December 4-27, 1911
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite Max Blanck's and Isaac Harris' acquittal, the death of 146 young workers in a sweatshop fire focused public attention on the problem of poor workplace safety conditions and led to the passage of legislation providing for stricter regulations and tougher enforcement.

As American industry grew through the 1800s and into the early 20th century, the number of persons employed as factory workers or in other industrial occupations soared into the millions. Always eager for the cheapest possible labor, big business had no qualms about hiring women and children to perform tasks that required minimal strength, because companies could pay them lower wages than male workers commanded. Lower wages meant bigger profits, and so did spending as little as possible on safety precautions. For example, most factories had few, if any, safeguards to prevent accidental fires, such as sprinkler systems, proper ventilation, or adequate emergency exits. There were no federal safety laws, and while there were some state laws, enforcement was spotty at best.

In 1911, an incident occurred that dramatically illustrated the need for industrial safety reform. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which manufactured articles of women's clothing, operated several factories or "sweatshops" in New York City. Two partners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owned Triangle. As was common in the garment industry, Triangle employed mostly young women, who were usually barely in their teens, to perform the fabric cutting, stitching, and sewing that went into making the finished product. The women worked side-by-side at their cutting tables and sewing machines in cramped, dirty rooms. Further, Triangle supervisors routinely locked the door to the workplace from the outside to ensure that the employees never left their stations. Triangle factories were occasionally inspected by the lax city authorities, who took no actions to improve safety.

146 Triangle Employees Die

One of the Triangle factories was located in the ninth story of a building overlooking New York City's Washington Place. A stairway led down to Washington Place. On another side of the ninth floor, the factory overlooked Greene Street. A stairway led down to the street, and also up to the roof. On March 25, 1911, a fire began on the eighth floor and came up through the Greene Street stairwell into Triangle's ninth floor, where the employees were busy at work. As smoke and fire filled the shop from the Greene Street side, the frightened women ran to the Washington Place exit, only to discover that the door was locked. They were trapped inside a burning building.

Although firemen rushed to the scene, they were too late to prevent scores of the women from being burnt alive. Driven by panic, many women jumped out the windows, only to fall to their death nine stories below. The impact of their bodies from such a height tore through the firemen's safety nets, and smashed holes in the pavement below. A total of 146 Triangle employees died.

The tragedy drew national attention, and the public demanded action against the parties responsible. On April 11 Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with manslaughter. Blanck and Harris were represented by Max D. Steuer, one of the most celebrated and skillful lawyers of the period. The prosecutors were Assistant District Attorneys Charles S. Bostwick and J. Robert Rubin. The judge was Thomas C.T. Crain, and the trial began on December 4, 1911.

The trial took over three weeks, and 155 witnesses testified. one of the most gripping descriptions of what had happened came from Kate Alterman, a Triangle employee who survived the fire. First, she described how, amidst the chaos, she saw one Margaret Schwartz die in the flames because no one could open the Washington Place stairway door:

I saw Bernstein, the manager's brother, trying to open the door but he couldn't. He left; and Margaret was there, too, and she tried to open the door and she could not. I pushed her on a side. I tried to open the door, and I couldn't. And then she [Margaret] screamed at the top of her voice, "Open the door! Fire! I am lost, there is fire!"

Horrified, Alterman watched the fire consume Schwartz. Alterman then described how she survived a mad dash through the fire raging through the Greene Street stairway:

And then I turned my coat on the wrong side and put it on my head with the fur to my face, the lining on the outside, and I got hold of a bunch of dresses and covered the top of my head. I just got ready to go and somebody came and began to chase me back, pulling my dress back, and I kicked her with my foot and she disappeared.

I tried to make my escape. I had a pocketbook with me, and that pocketbook began to burn. I pressed it to my heart to extinguish the fire, and I made my escape right through the flames: the whole door was a flame right to the roof.

Once she was on the roof, firemen eventually rescued Alterman. Despite Alterman's dramatic testimony and that of other witnesses, however, the trial turned upon the question of whether Blanck and Harris knew that the Washington Place door was locked. Judge Crain read his instructions to the jury on this point:

You must be satisfied from the evidence, among other things, before you can find these defendants guilty of the crime of manslaughter in its first degree not merely that the door was locked, if it was locked, but that it was locked during the period mentioned under circumstances bringing knowledge of that fact to these defendants.

But it is not sufficient that the evidence should establish that the door was locked, if it was locked, during such a period; nor yet that the defendants knew that it was locked during such a period, if it was locked Was the door locked? If so, was it locked under circumstances importing knowledge on the part of these defendants that it was locked? If so, and Margaret Schwartz died because she was unable to pass through, would she have lived if the door had not been locked and she had obtained access to the Washington Place stairs and had either remained in the stairwell or gone down to the street or another floor?

Blanck and Harris go Free

On December 27, 1911, the jury announced its verdict. It pronounced Blanck and Harris not guilty. Although the prosecution's evidence was compelling,, it was not enough to overcome the judge's instructions. As one juror stated:

I believed that the door was locked at the time of the fire. But we couldn't find them guilty unless we believed they knew the door was locked.

With the support of District Attorney Charles S. Whitman, the prosecutors moved for another trial. Judge Samuel Seabury presided over the retrial. Despite public outrage against the first trial's acquittal, on March 12, 1912, Judge Seabury ordered the retrial dismissed on the grounds that the defendants were being tried for the same offense. Based upon the principle of double jeopardy, Judge Seabury proclaimed:

The court has neither the right nor the power to proceed with the present trial. These men are to be tried for the same offense again and under our constitution and laws, this cannot be done. I charge you, gentlemen of the jury, to find a verdict for the defendants.

Blanck and Harris left the courtroom free men. The impact of the Triangle fire, however, was not lost. New York City soon had a Bureau of Fire Prevention, which implemented stricter safety regulations and saw to their enforcement. Other cities and states followed suit in the years and decades to come. The federal government finally acted to ensure workplace safety during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and FDR's measures were the predecessor to such protective agencies as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Today, there are extensive federal and state safety regulations to protect workers from the sort of dangers that resulted in the Triangle fire.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Crute, Sheree. "The Insurance Scandal Behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." MS. (April 1983): 81-82.

Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1962.

"A Sweatshop Worker Remembers." MS (April 1983): 83.

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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: 1911

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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: 1911