Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Aftermath

Identifying the Victims, Newspaper Coverage, Relief Efforts

Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (Image: National Archives at College Park/Wikimedia Commons).

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 was one of the most infamous industrial tragedies in American history. On a Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in a clothing factory. While many were able to escape, the workers on the ninth floor were not alerted to the fire in time, and because there was only accessible door - locked from the outside to prevent theft or unauthorized breaks - most workers in that area were trapped by the fire.

Firefighting efforts were not enough to save the ninth floor: the hoses could not work fast enough, and escape ladders did not reach high enough. The building's elevator operators managed to make a few trips up to rescue workers before the heat warped the structure too much, but those were the only workers able to escape. 146 people died in the fire (mostly women) and there was an immediate uproar about the conditions that had led to the fire and the massive death toll.

After the Fire: Identifying the Victims

Bodies were taken to the Charities Pier on 26th Street at the East River. There, starting at midnight, survivors, families, and friends streamed past, trying to identify those who had died. Often, the corpses could only be identified by a dental filling, or shoes, or a ring. Members of the public, perhaps drawn from a morbid curiosity, also visited the makeshift morgue.

For four days, thousands streamed through this macabre scene. Six of the bodies were not identified until 2011, almost 100 years after the fire.

After the Fire: Newspaper Coverage

The New York Times, in its March 26 edition, reported that "141 Men and Girls" had been killed. Other articles featured interviews with witnesses and survivors. The coverage fed the public's growing horror at the event.

After the Fire: Relief Efforts

Relief efforts were coordinated by a Joint Relief Comittee, organized by Local 25 of the ILGWU, the Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union. Participating organizations included the Jewish Daily Forward, United Hebrew Trades, Women's Trade Union League, and the Workmen's Circle. The Joint Relief Committee also cooperated with efforts of the American Red Cross.

Relief was provided to help survivors, and also to help families of the dead and injured. In a time when there were few public social services, this relief effort was often the only support for the survivors and families.

After the Fire: Memorial at the Metropolitan Opera House

The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), in addition to its help with the relief effort, pressed for an investigation of the fire and conditions that led to the large number of deaths, and also planned a memorial. Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont were the main organizers, and most in attendance were workers and wealthy supporters of the WTUL.

Held on April 2, 1911, at the Metropolitan Office House, the Memorial Meeting was marked by a speech by ILGWU and WTUL organizer, Rose Schneiderman. Among her angry remarks, she said, "We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting...." She noted that "There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death." She called for workers to join in union efforts so that workers themselves could stand for their rights.

After the Fire: Public Funeral March

The ILGWU called for a citywide day of mourning for the day of the funeral of the victims. More than 120,000 marched in the funeral procession, and some 230,000 more watched the march.

After the Fire: Investigations

One result of the public outcry after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was that the New York governor appointed a commission to investigate factory conditions - more generally. This State Factory Investigation Committee met for five years, and proposed and worked for many legal changes and reform measures.

After the Fire: Triangle Factory Fire Trial

New York City District Attorney Charles Whitman decided to indict the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on charges of manslaughter, on the grounds that they had known that the second door was locked.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted for manslaughter in April 1911, as the D.A. moved swiftly. The trial was held over three weeks, beginning on December 4, 1911. Ultimately, jurors determined that there was reasonable doubt whether the owners knew that the doors were locked. Blanck and Harris were acquitted.

There were protests at the decision, and Blanck and Harris were re-indicted. But a judge ordered them acquitted on the grounds of double jeopardy.

Civil suits for wrongful death were filed against Blanck and Harris on behalf of those who had died in the fire and their families - 23 suits total. On March 11, 1913, nearly two years after the fire, these suits were settled for a total of $75 per victim. In comparison, the company received about $400 per victim from their insurance company, which totaled more than $60,000 more than the reported losses.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Aftermath." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 28). Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Aftermath. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Aftermath." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2021).