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The TriangleShirtwaist fire

A chronicle of the deadliest workplace blaze in U.S. history.
/ Source: TODAY

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it had spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their death. The final toll was 146 people — 123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in New York City history. Here's an excerpt of David Von Drehle’s "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America”:


Burglary was the usual occupation of Lawrence Ferrone, also known as Charles Rose. He had twice done time for that offense in New York state prisons. But Charley Rose was not a finicky man. He worked where there was money to be made. On September 10, 1909, a Friday evening, Rose was employed on a mission that would make many men squeamish. He had been hired to beat up a young woman. Her offense: leading a strike at a blouse-making factory off Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square in Manhattan.

He spotted his mark as she left the picket line. Clara Lemlich was small, no more than five feet tall, but solidly built. She looked like a teenager, with her soft round face and blazing eyes, but in fact Lemlich was in her early twenties. She had curly hair that she wore pulled tight in the back and sharply parted on the right, in the rather masculine style that was popular among the fiery women and girls of the socialist movement. Some of Clara’s comrades-Pauline Newman and Fania Cohn, for example, tireless labor organizers in the blouse and the underwear factories, respectively-wore their hair trimmed so short and plain that they could almost pass for yeshiva boys. These young women often wore neckties with their white blouses, as if to underline the fact that they were operating in a man’s world. Men had the vote; men owned the shops and hired the sometimes leering, pinching foremen; men ran the unions and the political parties. At night school, in the English classes designed for immigrants like Clara Lemlich, male students learned to translate such sentences as “I read the book,” while female students translated, “I wash the dishes.” Clara and her sisters wanted to change that. They wanted to change almost everything.

Lemlich was headed downtown, toward the crowded, teeming immigrant precincts of the Lower East Side, but it is not likely that she was headed home. Her destination was probably the union hall, or a Marxist theory class, or the library. She was a model of a new sort of woman, hungry for opportunity and education and even equality; willing to fight the battles and pay the price to achieve it. As Charley Rose fell into step behind her-this small young woman hurrying along, dressed in masculine style after a day on a picket line-the strong arm perhaps rationalized that her radical behavior, her attempts to bend the existing shape and order of the world, her unwillingness to do what had always been done, was precisely the reason why she should be beaten.

Lemlich worked as a draper at Louis Leiserson’s waist factory-women’s blouses were known as “shirtwaists” in those days, or simply as “waists.” Draping was a highly skilled job, almost like sculpting. Clara could translate the ideas of a blouse designer into actual garments by cutting and molding pieces on a tailor’s dummy. In a sense, her work and her activism were the same: both involved taking ideas and making them tangible. And the work paid well, by factory standards, but pay alone did not satisfy Clara. She found the routine humiliations of factory life almost unbearable. Workers in the waist factories, she once said, were trailed to the bathroom and hustled back to work; they were constantly shortchanged on their pay and mocked when they complained; the owners shaved minutes off each end of the lunch hour and even “fixed” the time clocks to stretch the workday. “The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the foreman, made life unbearable,” Lemlich later recalled. And at the end of each day, the factory workers had to line up at a single unlocked exit to be “searched like thieves,” just to prevent pilferage of a blouse or a bit of lace.

With a handful of other young women, Clara Lemlich joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in 1906. She and some of her fellow workers formed Local 25 to serve the mostly female waist makers and dressmakers; by the end of that year, they had signed up thirty-five or forty members-roughly one in a thousand eligible workers. And yet this small start represented a brazen stride by women into union business. The men who ran the ILGWU, which was young and struggling itself, composed mainly of male cloak makers, did little to support Local 25. Most men saw women as unreliable soldiers in the labor movement, willing to work for lower wages and destined to leave the shops as soon as they found husbands. Some men even “viewed women as competitors, and often plotted to drive them from the industry,” according to historian Carolyn Daniel McCreesh. This left the women of Local 25 to make their own way, with encouragement from a group of well-to-do activists called the Women’s Trade Union League.

The Leiserson’s strike was Lemlich’s third in as many years. Using her gifts with a needle as an entrée, Lemlich “zigzagg[ed] between small shops, stirring up trouble,” as biographer Annelise Orleck put it. She was “an organizer and an agitator, first, last and always.” In 1907, Lemlich led a ten-week wildcat strike at Weisen & Goldstein’s waist shop, protesting the company’s relentless insistence on ever-faster production. She led a walkout at the Gotham waist factory in 1908, complaining that the owners were firing better-paid men and replacing them with lower-paid women. The Louis Leiserson shop was next. Did Leiserson know what he was getting when the little draper presented herself at his factory and asked, in Yiddish, for a job? Leiserson was widely known around lower Manhattan as a socialist himself, so perhaps he was complacent about agitators. More likely, he had no idea what was in store when he hired Clara Lemlich, beyond the appealing talents of a first-rate seamstress. The waist industry was booming in New York: there were more than five hundred blouse factories in the city, employing upward of forty thousand workers. It was all but impossible to keep track of one waist maker in the tidal wave of new immigrants washing into the shops.

A socialist daily newspaper, the New York Call, was a mouthpiece for the garment workers and their fledgling unions. According to the Call, late in the summer of 1909 Louis Leiserson, self-styled friend of the workers, reneged on a promise to hire only union members at his modern factory on West Seventeenth Street. Like many garment makers, Leiserson shared the Eastern European roots of much of his workforce and, like them, he started out as an overworked, underpaid greenhorn fresh off the boat. But apparently he had concluded that his promise was too expensive to keep. Leiserson secretly opened a second shop staffed with nonunion workers, and when the unionists at the first shop-mostly men-found out about this, they called a clandestine strike meeting. Clara Lemlich attended, and demanded the floor. A men’s-only strike was doomed to fail, she insisted. A walkout must include the female workers. “Ah-then I had fire in my mouth!” Lemlich remembered years later. She moved people by sheer passion. “What did I know about trade unionism? Audacity-that was all I had. Audacity!”

She was born with it, in 1886 (some accounts say 1888), in the Ukrainian trading town of Gorodok. Clara’s father was a deeply religious man, one of about three thousand Jews in the town of ten thousand. He spent long days in prayer and studying the Torah, reading and pondering and disputing the mysteries of sacred scripture. He expected his sons to do the same with their lives. It was the job of his wife and daughters to do the worldly work that made such devotion possible. Clara’s mother ran a tiny grocery store, and Clara and her sisters were expected to help.

A memoirist once described life in a similar Russian shtetl. It “was in essence a small Jewish universe, revolving around the Jewish calendar,” he wrote, a place where a wedding celebration might go on for a week and where the Sabbath was inviolate. Twice a week, however, Clara went with her mother to the yarid, or marketplace, and there her life intersected, at least briefly, with the Russian Orthodox Christians who alone were allowed to own and farm the land.

Lemlich’s childhood corresponded with a period of enormous upheaval for Eastern European Jews, a time, as Gerald Sorin has written, “of great turmoil, but, also, [of] effervescence.” The traditions of shtetl life eroded under a wave of youthful radicalism, which erupted in response to the traumatic decline of the Russian monarchy. It was a very hard time for Russian Jews, a time of forced poverty and violent oppression, but it was also an environment where a girl could assert herself. Clara Lemlich was not content simply to work while her brothers studied and prayed. She hungered for an education. Realizing that she would have to pay for it herself, Lemlich learned to sew buttonholes and to write letters for illiterate neighbors whose children had immigrated to America. With the money she earned, she bought novels by Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gorky, among others. But Clara’s father hated Russians and their anti-Semitic czars so deeply that he forbade the Russian language in his home. One day, he discovered a few of the girl’s books hidden under a pan in the kitchen, and he flung them into the fire.

Clara secretly bought more books.

In 1903, Lemlich and her family joined the flood of roughly two million Eastern European Jewish immigrants that entered the United States between 1881 and the end of World War I. This was one of the largest, and most influential, migrations in history-roughly a third of the Jewish population in the East left their homes for a new life, and most of them found it in America. What was distinctive about the emigration was that an entire culture pulled up stakes and moved. It was not just the poor, or the young and footloose, or the politically vanquished that left. Faced with ever more crushing oppression and escalating anti-Jewish violence, the professional classes, stripped of their positions, had reason to leave. So did parents eager to save their sons from mandatory service in the czar’s army; so did the idealists frustrated by backsliding conditions, as did the luftmenschen, the unskilled poor who had no clear way of supporting themselves in a harsh land. Although most of the arrivals in America were met by severe poverty, they kept coming. If their numbers were averaged, they arrived at the rate of almost two hundred per day, every day, for thirty years. They made a life and built a world with their own newspapers, theaters, restaurants-and radical politics.

She would not be able to run very fast in her long skirt, and was no match for a gangster. But to be on the safe side Charley Rose had recruited some help. William Lustig fell in alongside the burglar as they started down the street after Clara Lemlich. Lustig was best known as a prizefighter in the bare-knuckle bouts held in Bowery back rooms. Several other men tagged along, lesser figures from the New York underworld. In their derby hats and dark suits, they moved quickly along the sidewalk, past horse-drawn trucks creaking down the crowded avenue. With each step they narrowed the distance.

The policemen patrolling the picket line watched the gangsters set off, but did nothing to stop them. The cops weren’t surprised to see notorious hoodlums moonlighting as strikebreakers. Busting up strikes was a lucrative sideline for downtown gangsters. So-called detective agencies were constantly looking for strikebreaking contracts from worried bosses in shops where there was unrest. One typical firm, the Greater New York Detective Agency, sent letters to the leading shirtwaist factory owners in the summer of 1909, promising to “furnish trained detectives to guard life and property, and, if necessary, furnish help of all kinds, both male and female, for all trades.” In other words, this single company would-for a price-provide sewing machine operators and the brawny bodyguards needed to escort them into the factory. “Help of all kinds” might also describe the professional gangsters occasionally dispatched to beat some docility into strike leaders.

The gang’s footfalls sounded quickly on the pavement behind Clara Lemlich. When she stopped and turned, she recognized the men instantly from the picket line. The beating was quick and savage. Lemlich was left bleeding on the sidewalk, gasping for breath, her ribs broken.

Charley Rose had done his job, and no doubt he collected his pay. But Lemlich returned to the strike a martyr and a catalyst. Within days after the beating, she could be found on street corners around the garment district, brandishing her bruises and stirring up her comrades. Everywhere she went, she preached strike, strike, strike-not just for Leiserson’s but for the whole shirtwaist industry.

Excerpted from “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle. Copyright © 2003 by David Von Drehle. Published by Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.