The Triangle Factory Fire which took place at The Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village on March 25, 1911.

The Triangle Factory Fire Kills 146 Workers

Going to work is never easy. Many surveys claim that over 70% of Americans do not like what they do for a living. But, imagine living 100 years ago where choices were limited. One needed to work if they wanted to eat. There were no other choices. Many arrived from Europe for a better life and off to the factories you went to work. Many in New York City worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

On March 25, 1911, a laborer heard a muffled explosion and the sound of shattering glass.  He looked up to see what he believed were sacks of cloth being thrown from the windows of the Asch Building.  What the laborer did not know was he would be witness to one of the worst industrial accidents in the country and the worst recorded for New York City. The Triangle Factory Fire took the lives of 146.  Most were Italian and Jewish immigrant girls looking for a better way of life in the United States.

Before The Fire- The Protest

In 1909, working condition were horrible, so the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) spilled over into the streets in the Uprising of the 20,000.  The women protested the working conditions: wages, working hours, child labor, workplace safety and unwanted sexual advances.  The mostly 20,000 garment workers consisted of young immigrant women who partook in an 11-week strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry.

As the garment district moved from tenant homes into larger buildings, the shirtwaist, which is a blouse, arrived onto the fashion scene.  The strike formed against the Rosen Brothers, Leiserson Company and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.  After five weeks, the Rosen Brothers settled with their employees but Leiserson and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would not relent because they wanted a union free workplace.


The Day New York Wept

The Triangle Waist Company Factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the ASCH Building, East of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.  The owners Max Blanch and Isaac Harris employed close to 500 workers. 

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, about 15 minutes before 5 pm, the girls of the factory began to prepare to close down shop for the day.  Most had already worked a 56 hours week and longed to get out of the cramped quarters in which they spent most of their day for low wages.

A worker on the eight floor frantically called and warned employees on the tenth floor about the breakout of a fire.  There were no audible or visual alarms in the building and no way to contact the ninth floor. The employees of the tenth floor began to make their way to the roof where college students from NYU began to help them escape by crossing over to the roof the university building. The workers on the ninth floor weren’t so lucky because there was no way to warn them. By the time the workers found out about the fire, it was upon them.

Fire Department Racing to the Fire. They arrived within minutes of being notified of the fire.


Fighting the Fire. The department would intermittently lose water pressure while trying to combat the fire.

Young Girls Trapped in an Inferno

While there were a few exits on the ninth floor, including two freight elevators, a fire escape and a stairwell down to Greene Street, but the flames prevented the girls from escaping in that direction. The doors to the Washington Place stairwell were locked to prevent stealing, work breaks and so managers could rummage through the girl’s purses unchecked.  The foreman who had the key to the Washington Place door had already escaped through a different route.  The workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The Triangle Factory Fire raged. Panic ensued as the young women desperately tried to escape.

Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo refused to abandon their co-workers and kept the freight elevators running until the heat from the fire became so intense, they could not attempt additional trips. They overloaded the elevator with workers with the promise to the other young girls waiting that they would be back.  Therefore, many girls survived this otherwise dismal and horrific situation. Kudos to these men who did not give up hope until the elevator actually began to melt!

Terrified employees raced to the fire escape, and as a result of too much weight, the fire escape collapsed. Some held on tightly—screaming! Young girls fell to their death on the concrete below. It appears as if the fire escape was broken prior to fire, so there was no hope for them. The city allowed the owners to install it instead of the required additional third staircase.  Shame on NYC for allowing this.

Nowhere To Run

With nowhere to go, the girls made their way to the windows and stood out on the ledges of the building.  The crowd interacted with them. The onlookers screamed out in terror. The girls were so young. The fire department reached the scene in minutes, but their ladders only reached the sixth floor.  As the smoke spread across the New York skyline, so did the curiosity of its residents.  Crowds began to make their way over to the building to inspect the smoke.

Eyewitness to Terror

With no options left, the girls began to jump from the windows of the building because the flames engulfed the building.  Some were already on fire as they stepped out of the windows from the eighth floor. 

William G Shepherd, a reporter called in what he saw at the scene to his employer, “I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud-deads shocked me. I looked up-saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow, I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me-something that I didn’t know was there-steeled me.

I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.”

Goodbye! It’s Hard to Die

One young girl waved goodbye to the crowd before jumping; while others in group of two and three held hands before stepping off of the ledge of the building.  One woman yelled in Italian “goodbye.” The firemen begged the girls not to jump to no avail. Many of them were already on fire prior to jumping from the building. The Triangle Factory Fire consumed the young lives.

The bodies began to pile up on the sidewalks and men coming off from work on wall Street stood under the building with open arms trying to catch the falling young women. 

Falling bodies impaled on the fence to the side of the building. 

The fire department battled the fire, although the hose would intermittently lose water pressure.  The floods of water ran red with the blood from the girls who had jumped. 

Dead, smashed, battered bodies littered the street.  People looked on in horror; other cried; others scream out in an empathetic agony.

Despite the fire department having sent 35 vehicles to the scene, the girls had nowhere else to go but jump.
The nets which were offered by the fire department were unable to handle the bodies falling into them. The workers fell through the nets to their death.

The Guilt of The Masses

In the end, 146 people, mostly young girls, some as young as 14, perished in the Triangle Factory Fire.  Seven of the bodies recovered so badly burned that no one was able to make claim to them. 

Families coming to claim their loved ones.

A mass funeral was held for the unclaimed bodies of The Triangle Factory Fire. Sorrow and despair overtook the people of New York City. 120,000 people marched in the funeral as over 400,000 people watched silently as the rain in New York fell mixing with their tears.

New York City comes out in full force to mourn their dead.
The procession marches through the streets of NYC. Horses draped in black lead the funeral procession.

The Aftermath

Possibly, The Triangle Factory Fire started in one of the many scrap cloth bins from a cigarette.  Others speculated differently.  A New York Times article suggested that the fire many have been started by the engines running the sewing machine.  A series of articles in Collier’s noted a pattern of arson among certain sectors of the garment industry when their particular fashion fell out of style.  Although Blanck and Harris were known for having had four previous suspicious fires at their companies, arson was not suspected in the Triangle Factory Fire case. 

They were brought up on manslaughter charges but acquitted. many in the city felt rage. One year later Blanck was caught having an exit door to his factory blocked by sewing machines.  He was fined. 

The sorrow of the New York people, who witnessed the Triangle Factory Fire turned to anger and they demanded new rules to prevent a tragedy such as this again.  The New York Legislature eventually passed over 30 new laws.  They set a better wage and acceptable working hours.  They also strengthened child labor laws. 

Businesses protested but New York changed.  The change for safety and better working conditions eventually spread across the country. But, many conditions did not change. And, the Great Depression loomed in the background.

Just one more note in Dark History.

Sources

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography-clara-lemlich/

http://www.laborarts.org/exhibits/thetrianglefire/3-the-uprising.cfm

Diner, Hasia R. “Lecture:The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Shared Italian-Jewish History of NewYork”[Italian-American Magazine (March 16, 2011)

Von Drehle, David. “List of Victims”. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Retrieved November 28, 2012.

http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/story/fire.html

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/was-history-fair-triangle-waist-factory-owners-180971019/

WitchFinder General, Matthew Hopkins depicted in a scene with women accused of witchery.

Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General

While much is unknown about Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder General, one thing is certain—he brought fear and loathing to Manningtree, England. Matthew became the most feared man in the area, and left a legacy of death and destruction.

“I am your confessor,” whispered the young man.  “Tell me when you made a pact with the devil,” he demanded.

“Not I.  I am innocent.  I know no devil,” cried the old woman.

“Tell me, witch!” he yelled.

“I am no witch,” she cried.

Searchers & Signs of the Devil

Four days earlier, hired women called Searchers, burst into an 80-year old, one-legged widow’s home, named Elizabeth Clarke.  Under orders from John Stearns and Matthew Hopkins, the hired female henchwomen strip searched the old woman, shaved her body and found a skin blemish on her genitals.   Elizabeth Clark sat accused of witchery and making a pact with the devil.

Any blemish on the skin was proof that a pact with the devil existed, consummated through sexual relations. Then, the witch obtained supernatural powers from the devil to harm and maim others. It is difficult to imagine a disabled 80-year-old woman being tortured to force a confession over sexual relations with the devil. 

This dark history began in the East Angelica part of England, when the town tailor John Rivet swore before two magistrates that his wife’s illness stemmed from witchery.  He named the witch as Elizabeth Clarke.  A local landowner John Stearns took John Rivet’s case further by claiming he had eye-witness testimony as to Elizbeth’s refusal to deny being a witch.

The locals knew Elizabeth Clarke well.  Being a disabled widow, she relied on the help of others.  In return, Elizabeth offered a bad-temper and cursing to the locals. This did not make her very popular with the town folk.  They started to see her as a burden on their resources. 

Legal Warrant Starts the Hunt

The magistrates issued the warrant permitting John Stearns, who had no legal background at all, to investigate Elizabeth Clarke and others who may be suspect of witchcraft.  Prior to Stearns beginning his investigation, a man about 10 years younger than himself offered help. His name was Matthew Hopkins.

WitchFinder General, Matthew Hopkins depicted in a scene with women accused of witchery.
  • Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder General. He created the title as there were no freelance witch hunters in England at this time.

Matthew Hopkins was the son of a zealot preacher. Like his father, he was devout in a fanatical way and held the acceptance that believing in God was not enough.  One must act in deed to show his unwavering belief.

England was no stranger to witch hunting as their former King James I penned his book Daemonologie.  However, England, under his son Charles I, witnessed witch hunting dissipate until the English Civil War began. Witches were blamed for starting the war, for death, for crop failures, miscarriages, dead livestock and Plague. 

Torture to Obtain Confession

While Elizabeth Clarke was a tough old woman, after three days and night with no sleep, the deprivation of water and the denial of food, she eventually confessed to being a witch.  The poor older woman was unable to stand up against the searchers, who worked on her in shifts and with the appearance of Hopkins and Stearns to the scene, she confessed.

Eventually, as they continued the torture, the badgering and the degradation, she claimed to belong to a coven.  She named other women in the neighborhood, opening the door for Hopkins to hunt more witches. 

Elizabeth was arrested in March and by June, Hopkins and Stearns had 30 waiting for trial for the charge of witchcraft.  The accused were placed in prison at Colchester Castle and many died prior to the court date.  They were held together in a small cell with no sanitation and dark, dank conditions.  They were beaten by the guards, denied food and some died of typhus

By this time, Matthew Hopkins emerged as the most feared man in Manningtree. He obtained confessions using his sleep deprivation technique.  His wallet grew fatter as people begged him to visit to rid their towns of witches.   He was feeling pretty good about himself and decided to call himself the Witchfinder General.

While there was a buzz of discourse in the village over the cost to the town and the treatment of the women, the trial moved forward.

Betrayal by an Accused

Copy of a page from the Diary of 17th century Purist writer, Nehemiah Wallington.  It documents the confession of accused witch, Rebecca West.
Page from 17th Century Puritan writer, Nehmeiah Wallington documenting the confession of accused witch Rebecca West. She turned evidence against the other accused witches and was set free.

In court, Elizabeth professed her innocence, but Hopkins brought forth her confession obtained under torture.  He also secured additional testimony from another accused women named Rebecca West.  He offered her freedom in exchange for her witness against the other witches.  It appeared to be a simple choice for a young woman under 20 whose only other choice would be death.

Rebecca’s testimony in court was fantastical.  She confessed to sexual liaisons with the devil and implicated all of the others accused.  The accused held no legal representations and the trial became a chaotic scene.  15 of the women were found guilty as Rebecca walked from the court room free. 

Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford, four hanged in Manningtree and nine of the accused were reprieved. It remains the largest number of witch convictions in English history. 

Social Cleansing

After this infamous case, Hopkins gave himself the title of Witch Finder General.  Amazingly enough, Hopkins didn’t need to hunt out the witches himself.  He frequented a local pub and listened to the gossip of the neighborhoods.  Widows, like Elizabeth Clarke has no protection and due to her disability was a financial burden on the town. Social cleansing appears to have motivated the townsfolk to part sake in this horrific period of killing their neighbors.

Under the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, 112 people between the years 1645 and 1647 were found guilt of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Their confessions obtained through the torture of sleep deprivation. 

As Matthew Hopkins fees increased, the folks began to question his motives.  Others remained appalled over the treatment of the accused witches.    Eventually, his services were no longer needed.  He died a few years later of consumption and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Sources

Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders-A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy. ISBN 0-7195-6121-6

https://books.google.com/books/about/Witchfinders.html?id=B5Yl4DiTo9MC

Hopkin, Matthew, The Discovery of Witches: In Answer to Severall Queries, Lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk.

http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Hopkins%2C%20Matthew%2C%20-1647

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8092876/Journal-of-the-witchfinder-general-opened-up.html

The Black Plague – Killer at the Shores

The Pima Indians of the American Southwest hold the belief in an old legend called oimmeddam, the wandering sickness, which elicits the deepest fears of man.

“Where do you come from?” an Indian asks a tall, black-hatted stranger.

“I come from far away,” the stranger replies, “from……across the Eastern Ocean.”

“What do you bring?” the Indian asks.

“I bring death,” the stranger answers.  “My breath causes children to wither and die like young plants in the spring snow.  I bring destruction.  No matter how beautiful a woman, once she has looked at me, she becomes as ugly as death.  And to men, I bring not death alone, but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives… No people who looks upon me is ever the same.”

The Black Death of the mid-14th Century may be the most famous example of what oimmeddam can do to man.  Also called, the Black Plague, it stands as the most devastating pandemic in human history.

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WHAT CAUSED THE BLACK PLAGUE?

Plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis that often infects small rodents (like rats, mice, and squirrels) and transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea.

In the past, black rats carried the most commonly Bubonic-infected animals and ravenous rat fleas would jump from their recently-killed rat hosts to humans, looking for a blood subsistence. Pneumonic plague, a particular form of plague infection, is instead transmitted through infected droplets in a sick person’s cough.

Today the debate rages debate over the origins of the plague, and recent science from DNA testing of the deceased’s bones hypothesizies that the Black Plague may have been a hybrid of Bubonic and pneumonic plagues.  The research and debate continue.

THE EYEWITNESS

A Franciscan friar named Michael of Piazza described the torments of a sickness never witnessed. “Then, a boil developed on their thighs, or on their upper arms a boil…. This infected the whole body, so that the patient violently vomited blood.  This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means for curing it, and then the patient died.”

Helplessness embraced the area.  There was no diagnosis, no cure, no hope.  The game of Russian Roulette played over and again, where one awakened from a restless sleep in hopes they were clear of the boils which embellished the skin and the cough which ravaged the lungs. Moral decay soon followed as faith in mankind and God dwindled away.

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Michael of Piazza writes, “Soon men hated each other so much that, if a son was attacked by the disease, his father would not care for him.”

The body count increased.  Large pits constructed to bury the deceased.  Soon, the government shut down.  Harvests remained unattended.  Leaders died.  The city stopped working.  No sanitation, no food, and no one to bake the bread.  Mothers turned away from their children; husbands left their wives. Clergymen refused to give last rites to the ill and the poor were paid to enter the dwelling of the infected to report news to gather information on who was alive and who was dead.

Many were blamed for the origins of the plague—–cats, dogs, stinking wind, Jews and witches.

Where will oimmeddam go now?

The ships which carried the disease were forced out of port, but it was too late.  Death walked to the seaport of Catania and into Northern Africa via Tunis, to the Balearic Islands, Cyprus, Corsica and Sardinia.  It crept to the north to the port of Genoa, then Venice.  It raged across Italy forcing the inhabitants to live in a perpetual state of terror.

Like a dark rain cloud, it blew into France, consuming the enormous operation at Avignon, which held the Papacy of the Catholic Church.  Faith in God diminished further.  Hopelessness and fear accompanied with the disease. The Black Plague gusted past France into England.  It raged intermittently for the next 300 years and took the lives of millions of people.

Sources & References: