Review

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

by David Von Drehle



The Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned for only a matter of
minutes, but the embers of the fire that took hundreds of lives
still smolder today. Around 4:30PM on March 25, 1911, the top three
floors of a ten-story building at the corner of Washington and
Greene Streets in New York City began to burn. Close to 500 women,
mostly teenagers and young adults, occupied those floors. They were
nearly all Jewish immigrants working nine and a half hours, Monday
through Saturday, on piece goods for around $15 a week in wages. In
fifteen minutes, 146 of the workers would be dead.

Seventy-nine years later to the day, Miami Herald reporter
David Von Drehle was covering the story of another fire in New York
City. A deranged man had firebombed a nightclub in the Bronx,
killing 87 people. The coincidence of the date of the fires
prompted some to be reminded of the Triangle fire. One year later
Von Drehle would move to New York, living one block from the
location of the factory. His curiosity now piqued, he began to
learn details about the fire that altered the history of the labor
movement in America. TRIANGLE: The Fire That Changed America is the
product of that research. It is a powerful work of history made
even more riveting by an author who writes of the event with a
style that brings vibrant life to an event nearly a century
past.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a fierce battle was
waged between workers and owners. Von Drehle begins his account of
the fire with a portrayal of the squalid working conditions of
trade's people in New York. Union organizers and workers fought a
bitter struggle with owners in many industries. The Women's Trade
Union League was a major participant in the battle. Despite their
efforts, the owners held the upper hand. Thousands of immigrants,
desperate for work at any wage, created a substantial pool of
workers that undercut union efforts to organize. Workers had little
bargaining power in March of 1911.

On the day of the fire, the factory workers were helpless to save
themselves. Exit doors had been locked to prevent the girls from
sneaking out on the fire escape to take a cigarette break. Other
doors had been locked to prevent employees from leaving work with a
purloined garment. Fire hoses that might have put out the fire in
its nascent stage were rotten at the folds. Panic-stricken women
jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor of the building,
forcing arriving fire wagons to maneuver around the corpses. The
victims, many of whom could not even be identified, were buried in
a single grave. Nearly 100,000 New Yorkers attended the
funeral.

What occurred after the fire serves to make the Triangle fire such
a compelling historical event. One event --- the criminal trial of
the factory owners --- served only to compound the Triangle
tragedy. The other event --- public and government response to the
fire --- meant that those who perished in the fire did not die in
vain. The discussion of those events in TRIANGLE completes the
historical saga in a riveting fashion.

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of the Triangle factory,
were indicted for multiple counts of manslaughter. While the trial
lacked the modern elements of media mayhem, the public interest in
the proceedings made it the era's equivalent of the O.J. Simpson
trial. Harris and Blanck retained Max Steuer as their attorney.
While an excellent biography of Steuer remains to be written, Von
Drehle gives the reader substantial information about the legendary
New York trial attorney. Steuer is not as well known as another
famous attorney of the era, Clarence Darrow, for one significant
reason. Unlike Darrow, Steuer represented only those clients able
to pay his significant fees. His fee for the Triangle fire was said
to be $10,000 per man. Harris and Blanck got their money's worth.
Through his strategy and tactics, both defendants were found not
guilty. Just as in the Simpson case, the community was outraged.
Although free men, Harris and Blanck had to be smuggled out of the
courthouse in order to avoid facing the angry throng of spectators
waiting outside.

While the verdict of acquittal stung the city of New York, the 146
victims of the Triangle fire did not die in vain. Out of the
tragedy came fire-prevention legislation, factory inspection laws,
workers' compensation acts, and the International Ladies' Garment
Workers' Union. David Von Drehle has captured the full meaning of
the tragic events of March 25, 1911, and by his effort has created
a lasting monument to those who perished on this sad day.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 23, 2011

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
by David Von Drehle

  • Publication Date: August 16, 2004
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 080214151X
  • ISBN-13: 9780802141514