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March 25: The Triangle Fire

Lawrence Bush
March 11, 2010
trianglecov1The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took the lives of at least 146 workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls (as well as thirty men), on this date in 1911. Many of the trapped workers were forced to leap from the upper floors of the burning building, which fire truck ladders could not reach; other escape routes had been blocked by the fire or were simply locked by factory management to keep workers from taking breaks during their shifts. (A list of the victims can be read at the memorial website established by the Kheel Center.) The Triangle Fire followed a year-long strike, the “Uprising of the 20,000,” which established the clout of the new International Ladies Garment Workers Union but failed to bring a contract to the Triangle factory, one of the largest sweatshops in New York. The company owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were acquitted of criminal charges but were made to pay civil damages of about $75 per victim, while receiving insurance payments equivalent to about $400 per victim. A New York State Factory Investigating Commission held statewide hearings over the course of the next five years, which prompted the passage of significant worker safety legislation. “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.” —Rose Schneiderman, ILGWU organizer Read Elissa Sampson’s blog post on the centennial of Triangle Fire, “Chalking Back Through Time: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.” Read a new translation by Mickey Flacks of Morris Rosenfeld’s Yiddish poem about the Triangle Fire, “The Crimson Terror.” Visit for a calendar of commemorative events surrounding the anniversary.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.