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Lost in the Fire

On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it’s important to remember this important case not as a black-and-white morality tale but as a nuanced and complex story

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Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in “Triangle Shirt Waist Manufacturers Listening To Testimony Against Them,” an illustration from 1911. (Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University)

A few years ago, I discovered that my husband was related to Max Steuer, the criminal-defense lawyer who represented the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In 1911, a fire at the factory killed 146 garment workers. The owners, accused of manslaughter, got off scot-free. And I felt a little queasy. As the story goes, those owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were wealthy, privileged titans of industry. Most of the victims were poverty-stricken young Jewish and Italian girls. At first blush, it was a simple story of good and evil.

My younger daughter’s name is also Max Steuer. (It’s short for Maxine, but we usually call her Max or Maxie.) The older Max Steuer looked unnervingly like my husband—same hooded almond-shaped eyes, heavy brows, strong nose, prominent chin. This was not a familial connection I wanted.

But now I think different. I think Steuer, Harris, and Blanck have been mistreated by history.

How, you may ask, can a feminist obsessed with workers’ rights and immigration history, someone who participates in Triangle memorial events every year and bores her coworkers with endless rambling about the fire, say such a thing? Because while black-and-white depictions of heroes and mustache-twirling villains may make for better storytelling, they hinder our understanding of what really happened on March 25, 1911. And more important, they prevent us from seeing essential parallels to the world we live in now.

Susan Harris, 62, knows this well. She is the granddaughter of Max Blanck. “When I found out about the fire I was probably 15,” she told me. “I found Leon Stein’s book in my parents’ library and saw my grandfather’s name, and thought this couldn’t be my grandfather. But it was.”

The book’s portrayal of her grandfather shook Harris. Though he’d died before she was born, she knew how much money he’d given to charity. She knew from her parents and cousins how loving he’d been. Blanck, in short, didn’t seem like the monster popular history suggested he’d been; researcher Michael Hirsch, Harris soon learned, supported her theory that her grandfather and his fellow owner were scapegoats.

“They were scapegoats of a system that didn’t want to pay attention to the mechanisms of the time,” said Hirsch, a co-producer of the HBO documentary Triangle. “Blaming Harris and Blanck took people’s attention away from corruption in City Hall, Tammany Hall, and the buildings department.” Vilifying Harris and Blanck, Hirsch added, was a way to avoid “killing the golden goose” and changing a system that worked for the powerful.

The Blancks, Hirsch pointed out, lost more family members in the fire than anyone else. “Their relatives worked in every corner of the factory,” he said. “They had greenhorn relatives, wealthy relatives, old patriarchs of the clan working at machines. Max Blanck’s wife, Bertha, lost her own brother. Blanck and Harris brought many relatives to America, saving them from the Kishinev pogrom, giving them jobs.” But no one wanted to humanize the owners. Which means we missed a teachable moment.

“The real story is more fascinating and more timely, especially right now when we’re talking about rolling back all our social safety nets,” Hirsch said. “I don’t think Harris and Blanck are blameless, but it was never proven in the court case that the doors were locked, and we will never know for sure.”

Turning the fire narrative into a simplistic fable means forfeiting the chance to look at the changes the fire wrought and what it didn’t. “What happened 100 years ago this week should be an opportunity to talk about what’s going on today in Wisconsin,” Harris said. Hirsch agreed. “The takeaway should be that we need government to play a role in our lives,” he said. “The reason those people died was because government refused to play a role in regulating anything, in creating any kind of safety net for people. The very day of the fire, newspapers had reported that the high court had struck down New York State’s workman’s comp law, the most sweeping such law in the country. How much has really changed?”

For a long time, Harris struggled with her feelings. She was afraid to reach out to other descendants of Triangle families, worried about being shunned. So, she quietly addressed her family’s legacy in her own way. An artist in Los Angeles, she began working on a project about the fire three years ago. She collected dozens of Edwardian shirtwaists—the same type of garment the factory had once manufactured—and other fabric fragments and began embroidering the names of the victims upon them. Today, the piece is 152 feet long.

Harris collected the fabric on eBay and in antique stores. “In addition to shirtwaists I use handkerchiefs—symbols of sorrow,” she said. “Some are wedding handkerchiefs, because many of the girls were engaged to be married. I use babies’ clothes, because women left their children to go to work and never returned home.”

Eventually, Harris reached out to the families of victims and found that most were welcoming. She began asking them if they wanted to embroider their own relatives’ names on her work. Many took her up on it. “I’d mail them the fabric with a needle and embroidery thread and they’d send it back,” she recalled. All the shirtwaists and handkerchiefs have been strung up on a line so that they resemble Tibetan prayer flags. Starting on March 26, they will hang above the vintage engines in the 1904 firehouse that houses the New York City Fire Museum. The installation runs through April 23.

The fire feels like part of her DNA. “There’s a certain sorrow that’s in your blood, your genes,” she said. “I live with this happy-sad feeling all the time. There’s this wonderful feeling of gratefulness to be alive, but there’s sadness for my grandparents and all the victims’ families. Making the prayer flags has been a healing for me. I want everyone to be healed.”

Just as Susan Harris’ grandfather shouldn’t be remembered as a cartoon bad guy, neither should Max Steuer, said Hirsch. True, he was a virtuoso of the courtroom. I knew that his cross-examination of Kate Alterman, one of the survivors, is still studied in law schools today. Steuer gently had Alterman give her testimony four times, and the jury gradually realized that she was repeating herself almost verbatim. Phrases kept recurring: “The trail of her dress and the ends of her hair began to burn,” “a big smoke came” “a red curtain of fire,” a young man jumping “like a wildcat” at the window. Steuer cast suspicion on the prosecution for coaching the witness. But Hirsch added that Steuer actually may have known the testimony was wrong. “I’ve found a detailed floor plan, and I really don’t know how Kate Alterman could have seen what she claimed she saw,” Hirsch said. “It’s hard to imagine racing from the Greene Street door to the Washington Place door and back again, given how fast the fire spread, how narrow the space between tables was and how the tables were bolted to the floor.”

Furthermore, Hirsch added, Steuer was no enemy of workers. He worked against child labor throughout his life. Famed labor leader Sidney Hillman was a pallbearer at his funeral. And according to a 1932 book, Max Steuer: Magician of the Law by Richard O. Boyer, he didn’t always serve the powerful. “To the 450,000 depositors who lost their savings in the financial debauch that was the Bank of United States failures, he was a white knight fighting for the rights of the poor against the monied interests,” Boyer wrote. This portrait of Steuer is hard to square with the Machiavellian man cross-examining a hapless fire victim.

Lynn Steuer, 73, is Max Steuer’s granddaughter (and a distant cousin of my husband.) He died when she was 3. “I remember we used to go to my grandparents’ townhouse every Sunday for lunch,” she said. “He would pinch my cheek and it would hurt, and my mother would say, ‘You have to put up with it! He’s your grandfather!’ ” And like Susan Harris, Lynn Steuer learned about the fire on her own. “It’s like a word you see in a book and know what it means even if you don’t know how you know,” she said. Again like Harris, she thought she’d be persona non grata at Triangle events. But she decided to attend one and felt welcome. “The only good thing about the fire,” she said, “was the change in labor laws that came out of it.”

Unfortunately, that change doesn’t always feel lasting or meaningful. Think about the horrid conditions—and child workers—in certain kosher slaughtering houses. Think about the myriad safety violations that predated the Sago Mine disaster. Think about the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Michael Hirsch watched it unfold while he was working on the HBO film. “I watched an interview with a foreman on the oil rig who said that before he was allowed to eat or bathe, he was pressured to sign a statement that there was nothing wrong on the rig. He also said that after the explosion he was trying to decide whether to die by burning or by jumping. When I heard that, I was frozen. It was the same choice people had to make 100 years ago. It was Triangle. It was Triangle all over again.”

That’s ultimately why we need to stop reducing a nuanced story to simplistic tropes and two-dimensional villains. Because it means we’re not focused on how to keep Triangle from repeating itself.

***

The victims of the fire at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Harlem, Brooklyn, and Hoboken, New Jersey. Click on each dot to view the name, age, and residential address of every victim.
John Schimmel/Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition

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Harold says:

“it was never proven in the court case that the doors were locked”.

That is correct, it was never “proven” in court. But you’ve left out too much here. Von Drehle’s definitive book about the fire (“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America”) makes clear that witness after witness testified that the door through which the victims could have escaped was always locked. But Steuer did indeed do a good job of cleverly discrediting their testimony by pointing out how the witnesses were all saying the same thing!

Bennett Muraskin says:

Steuer was a hired gun.

The owners, however, Blanck and Harris, ran an anti-union sweatshop. They used thugs to keep their workers from organizing. They profited handsomely from the insurance settlement after the fire and offered the victims next to nothing in compensation. In sum, they richly deserve to be depicted as villians.

Of course, this does not reflect on their descendants.

Riv-Ellen Prell says:

In the 1909 strike, which is known as the “Uprising of the 20,000″ Blanck and Harris worked to organize all owners against unionization. They were the most prominent holdouts. They continued to violate fire codes after even after they rebuilt their factory and collected insurance. Tammny Hall was indeed corrupt, but this had no impact on the Triangle Shirtwaist owner’s behavior, and exploitation of workers. They were not scape goats. They profited from the fire handsomely, whether or not they lost relatives. This is a disappointing and inaccurate article. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, by David Von Drehle is the most authoritative study of the fire, the politics surrounding it, and the reform that resulted from it. His brilliant work of historical recovery is anything but two dimensional. I hope readers will read that book to understand how misleading this article is, and I hope that the descendants of those involved will as well.
Riv-Ellen Prell

Marjorie Ingall is right: we need a nuanced view of the Triangle Fire, and we ought not just view it as a story of cinematic villanity. But as the other commenters argue, Ingall doesn’t draw the right lesson either. Her story reflects that capitalism corrupts even good people and turns them into bad bosses. To focus on a handful of bad bosses misses the point, because the problem is systemic. If there’s a single lesson of the fire for today (and I don’t think there is–that would defeat the purpose of the nuance for which Ingall argues), it’s that we need strong unions in order to defend workers in that corrupting system. Unions demand better and safer working conditions not only from managers and on the shop floor–although of course that is very important–but also from politicians in the voting booths and in capitols.

David Starr says:

I agree with my colleague Riv-Ellen Prell. It relies on a straw man theory of history which would have us think that to be terrible in one corner of our lives suggests that we’re consistently terrible. Of course the owners were enmeshed in a context of deregulation. It’s useful to remember that. What is really teachable here–what I take to be Ms. Ingalls educational point–is that money makes people do things that they don’t want to do, and that the world is full of people who neatly compartmentalize their private and public selves.

i think the comments above are right on.

it is indeed important to look at the institutional context for the fire, and the culpability and need for reform at the policy level. but the existence of other guilty parties and institutions doesn’t mean that the factory owners weren’t villains too. they may have created narratives to justify their actions to themselves–in this case to the point that they mistreated family members–but so don’t most oppressors.

were these factory owners inherently evil, completely worthless human beings? of course not, and you don’t really hear that kind of narrative outside the straw man arguments that get set up in articles like this. donating to charity and being nice to your grandkids means you shouldn’t be held accountable for profiting as a sweatshop owner? seriously?

the moral standing of the factory owners’ lawyer seems like a red herring. conflating that question with a discussion of the sweatshop owners’ guilt just confuses two different sets of issues.

“nuance” here seems to mean “let’s absolve everyone of responsibility so that sweatshop owners’ descendants can get over their misplaced guilt.”

Marty Harris says:

I very much appreciate Marjorie’s holistic perspective. It interesting that we are so conditioned to point fingers and blame. This human quality is timeless and is a great cultural manipulation lever. I do not and will never know whether the Triangle owners were guilty of abusing their employees, whether in fact they locked the doors, whether their place of business was more dangerous than any other manufacturing or industrial enterprise of the time. I do know that it is somewhat misleading and intellectually dangerous to view and judge the social and business culture of 100 years ago based on our “enlightened” perceptions of society, the individual, business, etc from the lofty viewpoint of 2011. Of course we are all now enlightened capitalists, socially aware humanitarians, and we all of course “practice what we preach”!.
I believe that all were victims in their own way. The “American Dream” meant that anyone could rise above the muck of the tenements, but it also meant that you were encouraged to climb on the backs of those less willing to be American in the Capitalist sense. Max Blanc in his way was playing within the rules of the time. These rules are abhorrent to us in our time. The workers were also playing by the rules, again not something that could happen in our enlightened century!
We should remember during the rush to find someone to blame, that we are all to blame. We as consumers support the people who create products. Are you completly sure that the clothes you are wearing (maybe bought at WalMart or target)were not made by people making sub-minimal wages in another country or in downtown Los Angeles? We have bought into the system and will NOT willingly give it up. The same was true of 1911. Yes Max Blanc was one of the owners, and yes as the saying goes the”buck stops here”, but New York did nothing to help the workers, the governemnt ignored their plight, the police beat them when the protested. We all share the blame.
By the way, Susan is my wife.

Dolores says:

The important question is what have we learned? I read today that a female state legislator is pushing a bill to allow child labor under the age of 14. We have the madness in Wisconsin, taking away a right of working people described thus of Franklin Roosevelt, after the passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1937: ““The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.” This right was later extended to public employees in every American state.
So, what have we learned?

Dolores says:

Correction to my recent posting: “…described thus BY Franklin Roosevelt…”

Bennett Muraskin says:

The Wagner Act aka the National Labor Relations Act dates from 1935 not 1937.

Anyone who tries to take Blanck and Harris off the hook has obviously taken too many philosophy courses.

Had they recognized the Union, as did most of the manufacturers did after the strike in 1909-1910, the union would have seen to it that the doors were not locked and that safety was a higher priority in the company. These were the new rules of the game and Blanck and Harris refued to play.

They were to blame. Not “all of us.”

Katie says:

I appreciate learning more about the owners of the factory and their lawyer. And I agree with the concept that the more we paint these individuals as horrific ogres, the more we overlook the fact that *all* workplaces need to be regulated for safety, and all workers have the right to basic safety and health in the workplace. Or, as Mr. Hirsch said in the article, “The takeaway should be that we need government to play a role in our lives.” Thank you for this thought-provoking piece.

Julie says:

The point of laws is so that we don’t have to rely on the good qualities of factory owners to keep workers safe. I don’t know whether these particular factory owners were demons or not, but it doesn’t matter. Ingall is right: the moral of the story is that we need government.

E.C. says:

Whatever happened at the Triangle fire, we have to work to keep it from happening again.

Julie P says:

I agree. The fire is just one tragedy. The other is that things like this still happen, in our so-called age of enlightenment. And that the oppression also continues in another arena, that of financial titans taking huge bonuses while so many get poorer. Regulation needs to happen everywhere.

Jo-Ann Mort says:

THis is a compelling article but-the facts speak for themselves regarding Blanck and Harris. Their lawyer made a decision to defend them. That doesn’t mean that he also didn’t do great things on behalf of workers, but defending Blanck and Harris was a choice that was made. Blanck and Harris had a history of anti-union organizing, and in fact used their relatives to set up an internal ‘company union’ to block the ILGWU organizing efforts. Also, they had a history of fires in their factories-and of locked doors, since they didn’t trust their workers and perhaps were also concerned to keep out union organizers. The Triangle factory was a new factory-it could have had clear fire escape provisions had the owners chosen to do so-but it didn’t and they didn’t. The black and white here is pretty clear regarding what happened. Of course, family members should not be made to pay for the sins of their ancestors. But it is incumbent on those of us who are alive to tell the stories of the brave workers who burned or jumped to their deaths because they were not allowed to unionize. These were young Jewish women, mostly, who had escaped the pogroms of Kishniev to come to America –and this was their fate. Today, immigrant workers who are not Jewish, face similar dangerous conditions -in the U.S., all over the developed world-and in Israel too.

Vikki S. says:

This discussion has been so much more cordial than many I’ve perused here at Tablet. Perhaps that is because it is about something historical rather than current. To judge mistakes of men and women one hundred years ago seems foolish while it seems impossible not to judge those around the world with whom we disagree. Clearly in the present we all want adequate regulation of the workplace. Let the Triangle factory stand for that.

Paula says:

I don’t see the author arguing to let the owners off the hook, as some readers have suggested. I see her pointing out that ascribing the tragedy to a couple of bad guys ignores the broader social problems that led to all those deaths, and also ignores the contemporary parallels.

A. Schmidt says:

A few years later the owners had opened up a new factory and were subsequently fined (the notion of safety inspections having made some progress since the Triangle Fire) for having chained the doors locked. They got a slap on the wrist–a $20 fine, the lowest possible fine they could have received. If repentance is having the chance to make the same mistake again, and choosing not to make it…their actions wouldn’t indicate a high degree of it.

Sharon Jones says:

Sorry Marjorie, but we do lay blame whenever someone is in fact, guilty. You can put lipstick on a pig, but in fact, Blanck and Harris used hired thugs to physically assault the workers and paid off the police to arrest and brutalize those who proposed a union. It’s always the same–greed and profit. Max Steuer used his law degree to prostitute himeself by defending them. They were NOT scapegoats. They were GUILTY and have the blood of 146 souls on their hands. They also were only to happy to collect $60,000 in insurance money. It is a ridiculous assumption that it could not be “proven” that they did not know doors were locked, it is an insult to propose otherwise. You are correct about one thing, though. And that is to make sure that Triangle is never repeated.

Dolores,
“I read today that a female state legislator is pushing a bill to allow child labor under the age of 14.”

This sentence stood out to me because where I live we have a state representative who the Amish believe a considerate man. He is a Republican, of course; this is Pennsylvania. What he did for them was allow their minor children to work(those beneath the age that would break the law. We have one horrendous agricultural machinery accident killing a child at work on the farm of his family,every year.

I never have voted for him, because he is after all a Republican. I have, however sent him on-line communications over and over again for fifteen years on various matters. Finally, by the long replies on official stationery with the tas-payer provision of postage, I lost interest. After the recent vote less than six months ago, he has come out with such a vile statement re: women who should die rather than have medical assistance when they cannot deliver their child in childbirth, I quit. He’s a horrible person and he doesn’t know it.

Circumspection is always a good thing, but sometimes one has to call a spade a spade. Is it not true that after Blanck was acquitted, he had a new factory and was arrested for having locked the doors and was fined $20 for it? You have to wonder, after that great tragedy with the old factory and the lessons learnt therein, Blanck would be a little more careful the next time round. How remorseful was he really? How innocent was he the first time round? As for charity, I suppose once he had made enough money off the backs of those who toiled in his sweatshops, he could certainly afford to toss a few shillings to shore up his public image and maybe even assuage a little of that guilt. As for his family speaking well of him, what family wouldn’t? Especially if he had left them a comfortable inheritance.

But hey, just because OJ Simpson was acquitted, we should believe he is innocent of murder. So yeah, Blanck and Harris are blameless.

“I don’t see the author arguing to let the owners off the hook, as some readers have suggested. I see her pointing out that ascribing the tragedy to a couple of bad guys ignores the broader social problems that led to all those deaths, and also ignores the contemporary parallels.”

@Paula: ascribing the tragedy to a couple of bad guys does not have to mean ignoring the broader picture. They are *not* mutually exclusive complaints. Blanck and Harris were culpable AND there was widespread lack of concern for labor safety in the industry. There you go … both are legitimate criticisms that don’t exclude one another in the same sentence.

Looky … Blanck and Harris are #2 on this list: http://www.cracked.com/article/89_the-6-most-horrific-bosses-all-time_p2

Stacy Horn says:

This article is very interesting, thank you. As others have pointed out, two years later Max Blanck was convicted and fined for locking his employees in *again,* so honestly, he does seem to be a bit of a bad guy. I can understand Susan Harris (who seems wonderful and decent) defending him, and I appreciate that he was not a cartoon and was also capable of giving to charity and being loved by his family.

But the defense of Max Steuer was more convincing, strangely. The fact that that labor leader was a pallbearer at this funeral says something. I can accept that he was doing his job and lawyers sometimes have repellent clients. I’m not sure what to think, I guess I’d have to learn more.

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Klara says:

I read this article with interest. I understand why the author would want to give a more human picture of Blanck and Harris. However, she is mistaken in some areas. The doors WERE proven to have been locked. What wasn’t proven in court was that the owner KNEW that they were locked. She also fails to mention that in 1913, two years after the fire, Blanck and Harris were fined for again locking doors to their new factory, and then given warnings. See https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/supplemental/timeline.html?e=locking_doors Many crimes are committed by people who treat their families and friends with kindness and tenderness, and then go out to commit heinous acts, so while Blanck and Harris may have been wonderful in their circle of family and friends, there is no arguing that they did not see the majority of their workers as valuable people. The fact that they continued the same practices after the fire is more telling than anything before—people make mistakes–but when one makes a mistake that costs the lives of hundreds of people and then continues the same practices, it’s difficult to think that there was much remorse. I will grant the author that her relative’s clients were scapegoats for a corrupt government, but guilty nevertheless.

I can’t for the life of me see the point of this article. Claiming that responsibility for worker safety should have been spread to governmental regulating bodies in some way mitigates the full responsibility of the owners is ludicrous. We don’t need specific guidelines to do the right thing; we need a conscience. Clearly lacking in this case.
And frankly, embroidering names on garments as a so-called work of art doesn’t exactly do much more than serve the ego of the writer.
On Labor Day for heaven’s sake.

As the grandson of one of the survivors, this story has always been of interest. I have to agree that just being nice to your family at home does not equate to how one can be at work. Laws are needed when a few continue to forget how to treat others. It’s how we want to be treated that should affect our conscience and, thus, how we should properly act. When profit becomes more important, that’s when we have a problem. The recent Market Basket story in Massachusetts is an excellent example of how well people act when treated decently.

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Lost in the Fire

On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it’s important to remember this important case not as a black-and-white morality tale but as a nuanced and complex story

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