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Today — March 25, 2021 — marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace disaster in New York state until the terrorist attacks of September 11. The fire ended the lives of 146 workers and injured another 78, most of them immigrant women and girls.
Two of those workers were Annie Doherty from Co Donegal, Ireland, and Celia Walker from Premsyl, Poland. Annie had emigrated in April 1905 as a 20-year-old with her younger sister and settled among the Irish in the westside neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Celia had come over in November 1898 as a seven-year-old with her mother and siblings to join her father in the predominantly eastern European Lower East Side.
It was on the shop floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Annie would find work as a sewing machine operator and Celia as a “finisher” (inspector), that their stories would converge.
Founded by Russian immigrants Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the pre-eminent garment concerns on America’s east coast, with factories in Boston, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Yonkers and Manhattan. The Manhattan factory was the jewel in its crown, the constant influx of emigrants ensuring a steady supply of “sweated” labour.
By 1902, the “Shirtwaist Kings” had moved their Manhattan plant into the modern 10-story Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place, adjacent to Washington Square Park, to accommodate their more than 400 employees. The move marked the company’s enormous success as a major manufacturer of the shirtwaist, a garment that embodied the sweeping societal changes under way in turn-of-the-century America.
Equivalent to today’s jeans in mass-market appeal, this high-collared, buttoned-up ladies’ blouse was the go-to apparel for the “New Woman”, from factory girls like Annie Doherty and Celia Walker to middle-class misses comprising the growing female labour force in offices, schools, stores and telephone exchanges.
It wasn’t all progress. Seamstresses such as Annie Doherty were paid per piece and earned a meager $6 or $7 a week. There was no overtime pay. Six-day work weeks were standard; the concept of a weekend non-existent. Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was everyone’s one precious day off.
At the Triangle, worker safety took a back seat to productivity. Practicing fire drills was prohibited. Fire escapes were blocked with bolts of fabric and extra sewing machines. One of the three passenger lifts was perennially out of service. To thwart theft and unauthorised breaks, workroom doors were locked from the outside.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911 at 4:40pm, five minutes before the quitting bell was to ring, fire broke out on the Triangle’s eighth floor, possibly started by a discarded cigarette. The stockpiles of textiles swiftly turned the shop floor into a tinderbox, the flames funnelling through the elevator shaft to the other two floors.
Ensconced in their 10th-floor offices, Blanck and Harris were alerted of the fire by their switchboard operator. They and their 70 office workers escaped by taking the stairwell to the rooftop and climbing over to the adjacent New York University law school.
Meanwhile, the 260 workers on the ninth floor, including Annie Doherty and Celia Walker, finished out their shift, a broken telephone leaving them ignorant of their circumstances until smoke filled the room and flames blocked the exits.
Four alarms were rung in 15 minutes, and the first engines arrived on the scene in admirable time. But as much as the fire was the predictable outcome of employer negligence, the scale of the carnage also owed to the inadequacy of 19th-century firefighting equipment to serve a rapidly rising industrial city. The fire truck ladders reached no further than the sixth floor, and the life nets were unable to withstand the velocity of bodies falling from more than 100 feet.
Most of the trapped chose to jump. Clasping hands for courage, girls leapt in twos, tearing through the nets stretched out to receive them. From across the street, William Shepherd, a reporter with the United Press, witnessed one man drop four young women one by one out of a ninth-floor window, sharing a final kiss with the last and then himself jumping. Later, combing through the wreckage, rescuers would recover 14 engagement rings.
News of the fire quickly spread through the city, onlookers swelling Washington Square Park and pushing past the police barricades. By 5pm, the vigil had grown to 10,000, some mesmerized by the macabre spectacle, others waiting for word of loved ones trapped within.
Celia Walker stood at the ninth-floor elevator shaft, the fire closing in. She had made it out of the workroom by leapfrogging over the sewing machine tables but out in the hallway mass panic had set in, frantic workers crowding onto the two working lifts, neither of which would be returning.
“Behind me the girls were screaming. I could feel them pushing more and more. I knew that in a few seconds I would be pushed into the shaft. I had to make a quick decision. I jumped for the centre cable. I began to slide down. I remember passing the floor numbers up to five. Then something hit me.”
Annie Doherty also managed to escape. Long red hair loose and clothing burned off, she ran through busy Broadway Avenue near Wannamaker’s department store, darting between streetcars and horse-drawn drays, shouting, “Don’t let them hurt me!” Policeman McGinn led her to the safety of the sidewalk, where she calmed sufficiently to recall her ordeal.
Within 30 minutes the fire was brought under control, the sidewalk strewn with corpses. Among the injured taken to St Vincent’s Hospital was Celia Walker, found unconscious at the bottom of the elevator shaft by firemen removing the dead. She awoke to a priest and nun standing over her, her head injured, her arm and one finger broken and “a large searing scar” running down the centre of her body from the friction of the elevator cable.
Though few could have predicted the terribleness of the tragedy, that a fire had happened at the factory was itself no surprise. For years, city fire chief Edward F Croker had been a vocal advocate for better enforcement of the fire code, as well as safety measures such as sprinkler systems and fire drills, but the Shirtwaist Kings had powerful allies in City Hall and his repeated cautions fell on stoppered ears.
On April 11, 1911, the Shirtwaist Kings were indicted on seven counts of manslaughter in the first and second degree. Still weak from her wounds, Celia Walker was one of 155 eyewitnesses called to testify. Despite the evidence against them, Blanck and Harris were cleared of any wrongdoing and were free to carry on. In practice, they already had.
Three days after the fire, they reopened at 9-11 University Place, so close to the fire site that passersby smelled ash in the air.
Working women were at the forefront of the fight for reform. Progressives led by Florence Kelley of the ILGWU and Frances Perkins, then executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety, joined with Tammany Hall and leaders in the state legislature to form a commission to review conditions in factories across the Empire State. Mandatory fire drills, sprinkler systems, regulated working conditions and limits on work hours are some of the reforms won in the fire’s wake.
Recovered, Celia Walker took a position with another garment manufacturer, the Mayer & Friedman Company, founded that same year of 1911. There she would meet her future husband, one of the founding partners, and leave the garment industry for good in 1915.
Annie Doherty continued as a seamstress until 1920, after which she disappears from the public record. Whether she married, returned to Ireland or succumbed to any of the diseases endemic to tenement living we cannot know, but her disappearance underscores the precariousness of immigrant life.
Gilded-age America exalted laissez-faire capitalism and the pursuit of profit to a near religion. It was a society that saw workers of any stripe, but especially emigrants, as disposables. And yet we need not look terribly far to discern parallels to the present in the plight of immigrants and service workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, who are all too often treated as expendable.
Hope Carey Tarr is co-author with Kilkenny podcaster, Fin Dwyer of the three-part podcast, The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911: An Emigrant’s Experience.
This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on Sunday March 21, 2021.