Until September 11, 2001, this tragedy was the last time women died on funeral pyres in New York City.
On a blustery, voluble and volatile 25th of March day in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, caught fire. Firemen and investigatrs believed it came from a spark which flew out of the makeshift fireplace into one of the huge rolls of fabrics placed vertically, that covered the huge room.
"It was wall to wall fabric rolls in there," declared a shocked fireman.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was just across from Washington Square. It was the sweatshop of all sweatshops. Girls and women slaved there for 85 hours a week, seven days a week. To ensure that women had no distractions, the two monsters who owed the factory chained them to their posts. To be sure, the chains rusted and could be easily removed with the long hairpins that women wore to keep their hair in orderly chignons covered in turbans. The idea of being chained rendered the women even more meek and submissive than they already were. They were poor and desperate immigrants who lived in tenements - Italians, Polish, Ukrainians, Romanians, Irish and Palestinians. A hundred and forty seven women drudged away their lives there day in and day out with nary a day off for Christmas or any other holiday. Seventeen young men also formed part of this sweatshop of horrors. Most never had a youth - they had been sewing slaves since their arrival in New York. Ages ranged from 14 to 23.
Minimum wage? Ha! Fixed Salaries? A dollar a day, two sometimes. NEVER more than that. The poor, hapless and helpless women received $0.125 per shirt for twelve shirts per day as decreed by the rich owners. We are talking about $1.50 a day as wages. This cries out to Heaven!
Unions? Not even a shadow of them then. That was but a dream then. A Manager totally under the shoes of the monster/owners decided how much to pay each individual at the end of an endless day. The women had to live with the horror of the Sword of Damocles over their heads. THEY WORKED ON A DAILY BASIS. THEY COULD BE FIRED AT THE END OF A BACKBREAKING DAY.
And then... on the afternoon of March 25, someone yelled "FIRE! FIRE!"
As new immigrants many of the girls/women did not speak English, much less understand the word. Then there were those cursed chains, the huge tall blts of fabrics now blazing infernos around them. The metal sewing machines turned into ovens.
"Dear God. The doors are barred. They can't be opened," they screamed.
Indeed, the fiends who owned the factories had placed yet more bolts of fabrics, heavy machinery, sewing machines, not ony in the hallways but down the stairs. From the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory practically to the third floor, not even a rat could have squeezed through.
The heroic firemen put out the fire in exactly eighteen - 18 minutes. One hundred and forty five corpses had burnt in the holocaust of fashion. Some of the girls welded together with their sewing machines. A few jumped to their deaths, preferring death by breaking every bone and organ in your body to searing your lungs and respirtory system.
It was almost impossible to identify them. Two survivors, both men (what a surprise) remember "More or Less" where most of the girls sat. That helped. Relatives and Parents could do little , they were in shock. Their next of kin found that those who had perished from smoke inhalation could be identified. They did so through their broken sobs.
In a scene that moved the firemen to tears, they found that all the women sensing that Death was inevitable held hands and embraced each other. In an atavistic, primeval and spiritual sense they all knew deep down that Sisterhood was theirs. They had earned it. They had died for it.
All 145 lie buried in a cemetery called " Forever Green." It is situated between Brooklyn and Queens.
A monument was buit and headstones sculpted for every woman of the Triange Shirtwaist Factory in the Asch Building. Even if one third of the corpses said "Corpse number 33, Corpse number 85", and so on.
All the next of kin knew they had lost their daughters, sisters, grandaughters, wives, girlfriends forever. What they coud not say was...which was which.
Men and Women never forgot the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A distinguished and extraordinary researcher and geneaologist, Dr. Michael Hirsch became obsessed with the fire that changed New York and the rest of the world. He has dedicated the last 30 years to identifying those nameless copses.
Thanks to him, the names are all complete. In the monument erected to commemorate that tragedy, their names have now been sculpted , as well as on the individual headstones. These were the last six unknown corpses. Maximillian Florin, Russian. Concetta Prestifilippo, Italian. Josephine Camarata, Italian, Dora Evans, Irish. Fannie Rosen, Romanian.
Maria Giuseppina Lauletti, "Corpse Number 85." Italian from Sicily. She was 19 years old."
She took a century to identify but Dr. Hirsch accomplished it.
Glory to all of you dear and brave women who kept your dignity although you were slaves. You died as loving Sisters when Fire and Smoke consumed you. You were uncaring of nationality, race and religion. You worked for a better tomorrow. We are still working on that dear Sisters.
YOU DID NOT DIE IN VAIN.
The tenements have gone.
In less than a year all buildings in the city of New York had fire escapes OUTSIDE the buildings.
The two Monstrous individuals who owned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were tried for Homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison.