The Tragic Story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

This is the tragic story of how 146 immigrant workers—mostly young women—lost their lives in one of the worst industrial disasters in US history.

Popular in the Edwardian Era—the period of Downton Abbey and Titanic—the shirtwaist was a woman’s tailored garment with design details copied from men’s shirts.

Constructed of shirting fabric, sometimes with turnover collar and cuffs and a buttoned front, shirtwaists could be highly ornamented with embroidery and lace.

Shirtwaist designs from The Modern Priscilla, a needlework magazine, 1906
Shirtwaist designs from The Modern Priscilla, a needlework magazine, 1906.

One of the best-known factories making shirtwaists was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City.

Housed in the beautiful neo-Renaissance 10-story Asch Building, the iron-and-steel structure was said to be “fireproof” and attracted many other garment makers.

Russian immigrants Max Blanck and Isaac Harris set up shop on the top three floors of the Asch Building and hired 500 workers—mostly female Jewish and Italian immigrants, about half of whom were not yet twenty years old.

Owners Isaac Harris (hands folded, center) and Max Blanck with workers, 1910
Owners Isaac Harris (hands folded, center) and Max Blanck with workers, 1910

Working 52-hour weeks, workers earned between $7 and $12 per week, the rough equivalent of between $170 and $300 a week today.

But they were docked pay both for errors and the needles and thread they consumed, which was sometimes more than they were paid.

Overcrowded, with few working bathrooms and no ventilation, conditions ranged from sweltering in summer to freezing in winter.

Packed with inflammable objects, including clothing hanging from lines above workers heads and cuttings littering the floors, unsurprisingly, the Asch Building did not comply with several safety regulations.

Scrap cloth littering the factory floor
Scrap cloth littering the factory floor

With an improperly installed water hose, no sprinklers, a fire escape unable to withstand the weight of many people and dangerously dark stairwells, the Asch Building was a disaster waiting to happen.

In June of 1909, a fire prevention specialist sent a letter to the owners to discuss ways to improve safety in the factory.

It was ignored.

In addition, there was no limit set for how many workers could occupy each floor, leading to very cramped conditions.

Garment workers wearing shirtwaists
Garment workers wearing shirtwaists

Only one bathroom break was allowed in a 14 hour day, forcing many to find ways to relieve themselves on the factory floor, only exacerbating the already unsanitary conditions.

It seemed that nobody noticed and nobody cared about their plight.

Garment workers, 1909
Garment workers, 1909


So the brave young ladies went on strike. They rose up to fight for change.

Supported by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL), the strike began in November 1909.

I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.Clara Limlich
Two women strikers on picket line during the Uprising of the 20,000 garment workers strike, New York City, 1910
Two women strikers on picket line during the Uprising of the 20,000 garment workers strike, New York City, 1910

20,000 workers walked off the job in an industry-wide strike that was the largest single work stoppage in the US up to that time.

Money talks, as they say …

Ann Morgan, daughter of the wealthy financier JP Morgan (who would later bail out the banks in the Wall St Crash of 1929), took up the cause of the garment workers.

Joined by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the multi-millionaire American socialite and a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement, most small factory owners gave in to worker demands fairly quickly.

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, 1911
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, 1911

But not Blanck and Harris of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

They hunkered down to play hardball.

Hiring prostitutes and ex-prizefighters to pick fights with the picketers, the police were bribed to arrest any who fought back and dragged them off to court bruised and bloodied.

Even judges were bribed to find picketers guilty.

But the women stood defiant.

Six Shirtwaist Strike women, 1909
Six Shirtwaist Strike women, 1909

By February of 1910, the union settled with the factory owners, gaining improved wages, working conditions, and hours.

The workers at Triangle failed to win union representation, making it very difficult to organize future protests.


It was near the end of the working day on Saturday, March 25, 1911.

In a scrap waste bin under one of the cutter’s tables on the 8th floor, smoke started to rise, which quickly flared into a fire at about 4:40 pm.

Five minutes later, a passerby saw smoke coming from the 8th-floor windows and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile, a bookkeeper on the 8th floor telephoned upstairs to the 10th floor to warn employees, but there was no audible alarm bell and no way to contact workers on the 9th floor.

Several exits, two freight elevators, a fire escape, and a stairway down to street level were all blocked by flames.

The spectre of Death rises with the smoke and flames of the burning Asch Building as people jump and fall to their death, 1911
The specter of Death rises with the smoke and flames of the burning Asch Building as people jump and fall to their death, 1911

Another stairway down to Washington Place was the trapped workers’ only chance, but it was locked.

Managers made a habit of locking doors so they could check the women’s purses before they left each night.

It also made it easier for the foreman to control the workers’ break times. But where was the foreman? He had the key—and with it, their escape to safety.

He’d long since escaped by another route to his own safety.

Dozens took a stairway to the roof, but within minutes it collapsed under the heat and overload. Twenty people spiraled 100 ft to their deaths on the concrete sidewalk beneath.

Damaged fire escape at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company after the 1911 fire
Damaged fire escape at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company after the 1911 fire
I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture—the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalkWilliam Gunn Shepard, reporter

Operators of the elevator, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo were the only heroes to be found and they made three return journeys up to the 9th floor risking their own lives to save others.

They had to be quick since the elevator rails started to buckle under the heat.

Some women desperately pried open the elevator doors and jumped into the shaft trying to slide down the cables. But their bodies fell, lifeless, onto the elevator car and made it impossible to make another return trip.

Suddenly, the reassuring sound of the firefighters rang out in the smokey air.

Horse-drawn fire engines in street, on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City March 25 1911
Horse-drawn fire engines in street, on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City March 25 1911

But their ladders were only long enough to reach the seventh floor and the workers were trapped on the ninth.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 - 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 – 1911

Workers had no choice but to jump or burn to death.

Many jumped.

Crowds gathered, watching in horror as bodies came hurtling down to certain death.

Louis Waldman, a New York Socialite was sitting reading in the nearby Astor library,

I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. I ran out to see what was happening … When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street.

146 souls died that day as a result of the fire. 123 women and 23 men. Burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or all three.

People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City
People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City


Did 146 people needlessly die in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?

Some say it was a discarded cigarette butt that started the fire. Others that it was the engines running the sewing machines.

Owners Blanck and Harris had fled to the roof for safety when the fire began. They were initially charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter. But a good defense lawyer can find holes in any case.

Max Steuer cemented his career reputation by successfully defending Blanck and Harris. He argued that witnesses were told what to say and that the owners didn’t know the exit doors were locked.

Commuted to wrongful death, plaintiffs were awarded $75 per victim in a civil suit. That was the going rate for the life of an immigrant factory worker in 1911.

Tragedy bleeds some and benefits others. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.

Two years later, Blanck was arrested for locking the exit doors. He was fined $20.

The Tragic Story of Queen Victoria’s Favorite Great Granddaughter

You came, you went with silent trace,
a fleeting guest in Earth’s Land.
Where from? Where to? All we know is:
from God’s hand in God’s hand.

—Ludwig Uhland.

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine was the only daughter of Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and his first wife, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Her parents, nicknamed ‘Ernie‘ and ‘Ducky,’ were first cousins who married at the behest of their common grandmother, Queen Victoria.

The marriage was an unhappy one from the start.

Princess Victoria Melita was eighteen at the time of Elisabeth’s birth. She was fond of her daughter, but Elisabeth was Daddy’s little girl from the outset.

Ducky wanted to end the unhappy alliance, but Queen Victoria refused to consider permitting her grandchildren to divorce because of what it might do to Elisabeth.

However, when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, so ended opposition to the end of the marriage.

The couple were divorced in news that scandalized the Courts of Europe.

It was unheard of for a sovereign to terminate his marriage legally.

Though both had done their best to make a success of their marriage, it had been a failure …Their characters and temperaments were quite unsuited to each other and I had noticed how they were gradually drifting apart.Princess Louis of Battenberg.

Ducky went to live with her mother at Coburg. She shared custody of Elisabeth, who spent six months with each parent.

Elisabeth blamed her mother for the divorce and Ducky had a difficult time reconnecting with her daughter.

Victoria Melita Grand Duchess of Hesse with her daughter Princess Elisabeth, 1898

Elisabeth and her loving father now had nothing but time to spend together.

They played endless games in the grounds of Wolfsgarten.

One day in early 1902, Elisabeth told her father about her dream of a small house of her own, hidden deep in the woods.

During a visit to her mother in Coburg, Ernie built a perfect, miniature house, just as she described, with white walls and a steeply pitched roof, a chimney looped to look like a needle, and glass witch balls in the garden to keep the little girl safe.

“This little house was built just for me in the year 1902.”

Above the door was an inscription: “This little house was built just for me in the year 1902.”

Adults were not allowed to enter “much to the frustration of royal nurses and tutors, who could be seen pacing up and down impatiently outside as they waited for their high-spirited young charges to stop their games and emerge.”

In autumn, 1903, Elisabeth and her father traveled to Poland for a long visit with their Russian relatives at Imperial hunting lodge of Skernevetski.

Elisabeth played with her cousins on swings and rides in a small carriage pulled by a pair of tame deer.

The next morning, when Elisabeth complained of a sore throat, the Russian court doctor put it down to too much excitement.

Elisabeth seemed in good spirits, but suddenly, she lapsed into unconsciousness.

Injections of caffeine and camphor revived her, but she was in agony, with sharp pains in her chest and had difficulty breathing.

By early morning, the doctor diagnosed a virulent form of suppressed typhoid.

I think I’m dying. Send a telegram to Mama.

“I think I’m dying,” Elisabeth whispered to her aunt Empress Alexandra in a brief moment of quiet. “Send a telegram to Mama.”

By the time Ducky received the telegram, it was too late.

Just as she was leaving, a second telegram arrived with the tragic news that Princess Elisabeth had died at 7 a.m.

My dearest Elisabeth was my only sunshine.

Mother and father placed their daughter’s body in a small silver casket for the long journey home to Darmstadt.

Thirty years later, still heartbroken, Ernie recalled the terrible hours on the funeral train. “My dearest Elisabeth, ” he said, “Was my only sunshine.”

Elisabeth was buried in the Rosenhohe, in a ceremony planned by her father.

Her grave can still be visited today, halfway along a quiet wooded path, guarded by a perfect Art Nouveau angel, and within sight of Ernie’s own resting place.