by David Von Drehle

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Chapter 7 Summary

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Last Updated on August 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1238

Protests occurred throughout New York in the aftermath of the fire. For socialists, the fire had confirmed "that no one would protect the workers but the workers themselves" and proved that factory owners “had not even guaranteed basic safety” in response to the strikers’ demands a year before.

Despite the growth of progressivism, with workers organizing themselves and asserting collective power, many were skeptical about the lasting impact that the Triangle fire would have, pointing to the fact that such tragedies often followed the same trajectory:

Certainly, the fire at the Triangle was a sensational variation on the theme of mass tragedy . . . and yet larger disasters, in terms of lives lost, had amounted to little or nothing enduring, except grief.

Despite the fact that New Yorkers had responded to the fire with an outpouring of donations, mass meetings, and emotional speeches, skeptics remained unconvinced that the tragedy would lead to real reform. The case, however, caught the attention of Charles Whitman, the District Attorney of New York and "the most prominent young reformer in New York electoral politics." Whitman, who was aware of the importance of publicity, was always looking for the big case that would make his career, and he rushed to the site of the incident as soon as he heard that the Triangle factory was on fire. At the same time, there was a collective realization among city officials and journalists that the workers and factory had played a part in the uprising a year before and that "the same police force that harassed strikers on these same sidewalks was now assigned to collect the bodies of the Triangle dead."

Whitman arrived at around 5 p.m., as the fire department was getting the blaze under control. Police officers introduced him to the elevator operator Joseph Zito, who had been placed under arrest as a material witness. Whitman ordered that he be freed immediately. When he learned that the death toll was as many as two hundred, Whitman realized that New Yorkers “would demand that someone, or some agency, be held accountable. His job was to figure out who it should be.”

In considering who to bring to justice for the fire, Whitman had several options. Firstly, some of those who witnessed the fire were highly critical of the fire department. Whitman knew this would be a difficult theory to sell to the public, however, as New York "took great pride" in its fire department, and Fire Chief Edward Croker "was perhaps the most respected public official in the city." Croker had predicted a fire on Triangle's scale around four months earlier, warning that the buildings in the area were too tall for the fire department to access and that too many people worked in them with insufficient safety provisions. He claimed that the blame should lie with the City Building Department, because they had failed to enforce adequate safety regulations. Although Whitman was drawn to this line of argument, he recognized that it would portray the tragedy as a problem of bureaucracy—while prosecuting the factory owners would mean the fire was an individual crime. Since it would be "difficult to emphasize two competing theories," Whitman chose to prosecute Blanck and Harris, believing the case would be the one to propel his career forward.

With the fire itself over, the process of dealing with the victims’ bodies began. Each corpse was tagged before being taken to Charities Pier on 26th Street, known as “Misery Lane”: “when the tagging began, bodies were piled so thickly on the sidewalk they covered the fire hoses.” The police department started with those who...

(This entire section contains 1238 words.)

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had jumped to their deaths. Two officers examined each body, dictating a general description of gender, hair color, and distinguishing marks or items of jewelry. A third officer wrote this description down in shorthand, numbering each entry and tagging the bodies with the corresponding number. After being placed in a coffin, the victims were taken to a makeshift morgue at the pier to be identified by family members. Many of the victims were identified through jewelry, or even unburned scraps of material, as the bodies were badly damaged by fire. By Wednesday, all but sixteen had been claimed, and by the end of the week, only seven bodies remained. Union leaders arranged for a funeral procession through Manhattan to honor the victims, and the Local 25 relief committee paid out small sums to cover burial expenses.

Widespread journalistic coverage of the fire obscured the facts of the case, and there was a lack of consensus as to what went wrong or who ought to be blamed. Political figures were vague and defensive, with mayor William Gaynor deciding not to visit the scene and sending his secretary instead. Joseph Asch, who owned the building, briefly went into hiding and eventually told a reporter that he had done everything city officials had asked. Blanck and Harris denied that the doors were ever locked during working hours, and the union-supported Joint Board of Sanitary Control, whose inspectors had visited the factory prior to the fire, claimed it was one of the safer sites they had visited. Official investigations were equally inconclusive, with Fire Marshal Edward Beers concluding after two days of hearings that the fire's deadliness was not to do with panic or inadequate means of escape, but "the rush of heat that preceded the flames themselves." On the same day that he made this announcement, essentially exonerating Blanck and Harris, the DA's office leaked news that criminal indictments were on their way to the Triangle factory’s owners.

The fire quickly became a political tool, and it appeared that the socialist Meyer London's prediction that the tragedy would be dismissed with a token gesture appeared to be coming true. Few people felt that serious reform was likely, especially given the political makeup of Albany: “For the first time in some forty years,” Von Drehle writes, “the governor, John Dix, and both houses of the legislature were all under the control of the enemies of reform: Tammany Hall and Charles F. Murphy.”

The days surrounding the Triangle fire were, for Charles Murphy, consumed by a tense political battle over who would become senator of New York. Murphy felt that Tammany Hall had enough political control in Albany to directly choose the senator, ideally someone loyal to Tammany. Standing in his way was the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who blocked the election of a new senator. Roosevelt refused to stand down to Murphy's intimidation campaigns, and the stand-off was reaching a fever pitch when the Triangle fire appeared in the headlines. Without providing justification, Murphy relented and chose a different candidate for the Senate seat, the respected Judge James O'Gorman. The next election was at the forefront of Murphy's mind, particularly the problem posed by the East Side and new immigrants. Murphy realized his next actions could not be token gestures, but would have to address "something the East Side cared about" if he wanted to win the next election.

Less than a week after the tragedy, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York was packed with a crowd demanding action on fire safety. Four days later, around 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for the victims of the fire, and "the whole city was muffled in black." The American noted that it was "one of [the] most impressive spectacles of sorrow New York has ever known."


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