Death on the job was a routine hazard for American workers a century ago. About 100 workers, on average, died every day as mines collapsed, ships sank, trains crashed and factories burned. Nearly all of them are long forgotten.
But not the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Events marking the 100th anniversary of that disaster in New York City have been planned across the country at public gatherings, panel discussions, art exhibitions and concerts. I used to stop on the sidewalk outside the scene of the fire a 10-story tower still standing just east of Manhattan's Washington Square and wonder why this tragedy is set apart from all the others. I could picture the horrific spectacle. On a bright spring Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at closing time inside the city's largest blouse factory. Fueled by hundreds of pounds of highly flammable cotton and tissue scraps, the blaze spread quickly through the top three floors. Hundreds of onlookers converged as horse-drawn fire engines thundered from every direction. Trapped by flames and a locked door, workers on the ninth floor began to leap to their deaths. By the time the last victim succumbed to her injuries, the toll was 146 dead 129 of them women, dozens of them teenagers.
It's often said the tragedy was so gruesome that New Yorkers could not possibly look away and forget. But that underestimates the vast and awful store of history that humans have gladly forgotten. The real reason we remember the Triangle fire is its legacy, not its toll. The story remains a compelling study of political power where it comes from, what it's for as relevant today as it was in the angry aftermath of that inferno.
At the dawn of the 20th century, New York had been run for more than a generation by the corrupt Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. Boss Charles F. Murphy ruled the city from his private room at Delmonico's restaurant, quietly tending the gears that turned the votes of poor immigrants into power and profit for Tammany. But new waves of immigrants were filling the grim tenements of Manhattan, and many of them weren't content to do the Tammany ward heelers' bidding. Especially among the East European Jews who fled the oppression of the dying Russian empire, a spirit of independence led the new arrivals to organize their own institutions: newspapers, charities, labor unions.
They made their numbers known in the autumn of 1909, when more than 20,000 shirtwaist workers, most of them women, went on strike for better wages and union recognition. The following year, an even larger strike by the men of the cloakmakers' union created a model for modern industrial relations. Murphy had always taken the side of management but his genius was the ability to count votes. He saw that the Triangle fire was a chance to win over the voters of this new generation.