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Here Comes the Judge

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 620-624 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0109

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March 25, 2011, was the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—hardly an occasion for a centenary celebration. The New York Times marked the occasion obliquely in two articles on March 23—one on the continuing popularity of the shirtwaist and the other on Clara Lemlich, who, at twenty-three, was already the labor voice of the sewing-machine girls. She helped bring on the general strike of 1909, which led to union contracts with many of the shirtwaist factories that dotted the lower East Side, agreements that spelled out strong safety standards. One factory that held out was Triangle Shirtwaist, which had displayed its anti-union bias during the strike by employing strikebreaking thugs to manhandle the women on the picket lines.

Triangle occupied the top three floors—eight through ten—of the Asch building on the corner of Green Street and Washington Place. The owner, who gave his name to the building, insisted that it was fireproof, a claim which turned out to be true on the fatal Saturday a hundred years ago when fire broke out on the eighth floor. The walls of the building held firm against the fire, but the wooden interior burned easily and quickly, and so did the cloth waiting to become shirtwaists, and so finally did the workers who were unable to get down the crowded stairways. To escape the fire many jumped out the windows, choosing their own way to die. We know that alternative too well from the images of falling and fallen bodies during the 9/11 catastrophe at the World Trade Center in 2001, but that disaster was the work of outside forces. That was not the case with the Triangle fire.

Within a few minutes 146 people died. As disasters go, this was not the most lethal, but it has retained a prominent place in the annals of New York and in the minds of people like me who were not even alive at the time. There are at least two reasons for its longevity. The first is that most of the victims were young women who worked the sewing machines, often the main breadwinners for their immigrant families. The second was that many of them were trapped in their workrooms. Although the building code called for exit doors that swung out, these opened inward, so that the girls, who were trying desperately to get out, bunched against the doors, making it impossible to get them open. In some instances the exits had been locked shut, presumably to keep the workers from breaking their sixteen-hour day by stepping out for a breath of air or a cigarette. The property had been inspected and found wanting by several city boards, but the defects were never rectified.

A memorial meeting was held on the Wednesday following the fire. The audience was restless and vocal. Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, trying to quiet the crowd, spoke deprecatingly of the angry worker who came into his office and insisted that "only the placing of a few bombs in the camp of the capitalists would bring redress to the working classes." A hundred years after the event, we can understand that Cahan, who after all was a friend of labor, was not demeaning the outraged worker. He was presumably trying to say that this was a time for mourning, not for placing blame, but his listeners, the relatives and friends of the victims, were not in the mood for nuance. They heard the words he spoke, not his intention, and, as Leon Stein pointed out in his book The Triangle Fire (1962), they began to shout: "Throw a bomb under City Hall!" and "Blow the place up!" The young labor lawyer, Jacob Panken, who was acting as chairman of the meeting, tried to bring order in the hall by calling for a moment of silent prayer. This led to another outburst, this one cries of loss and pain, stirring chaos and confusion that was even more disruptive than the earlier reaction to Cahan's words. Eventually the crowd settled down and the hall became quiet enough for the memorial to continue.

Even though Panken's response...

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