Triangle

by David Von Drehle

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Chapter 9 Summary

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The widespread atmosphere after the fire was one of anger, and District Attorney Charles Whitman was certain that the factory's Washington Place door had been locked. After taking testimonies from many survivors, he instructed his chief detective, Barney Flood, to return to the Asch Building's ninth floor sixteen days after the fire. As the detective conducted a search of the debris, he found "a blackened fragment of door with a shot bolt protruding," which showed little sign of damage aside from discoloration of the locking apparatus; “this suggested to Flood that the bolt had been protected from the fire by the door frame, while everything around it burned." Under New York law, it was forbidden for factory doors to be locked during working hours. Whitman and the prosecutors intended to use the lock to show that Blanck and Harris had intended for the door to be locked and that as a result, several workers died in the fire who otherwise would have survived. The crime of manslaughter, which Blanck and Harris would be charged with if found guilty, carried a sentence of twenty years in prison.

The day after finding the lock, Flood showed a grand jury, who passed an indictment to have Blanck and Harris arrested. They were charged with six counts of manslaughter stemming from two of the 146 deaths—prosecutors had limited the charges to two of the deaths because the penalty was the same no matter how many counts were proven. The two men hired the best lawyer money could buy, Max D. Steuer, and pled not guilty. Considered the greatest lawyer of his time, Steuer had close ties to Tammany Hall and secured Blanck and Harris’s release on $25,000 bail. He also challenged the indictment on technical grounds, stalling the process and buying the Triangle owners more time to prepare for court. The trial began on December 4th, 1911, and prosecutors decided to focus on only one victim, Margaret Schwartz. Crowds gathered in the hallways of the courthouse, including many who were family members of those killed in the fire. Police had to clear the hallway, and the judge ordered police protection for Blanck and Harris after they were hounded by victims' relatives as they had lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Charles Bostwick was the lawyer for the prosecution, and his second was J. Robert Rubin, who had seen the bodies of Triangle victims on the sidewalk firsthand. In their opening statements and examination of witnesses, Bostwick and Rubin tried to present as many horrifying details of the fire as possible in order to outrage the jurors. Steuer, however, "was determined to have as little vivid testimony as possible," and the judge agreed that there could be "almost no mention of victims leaping from the windows, of the collapsing fire escape, of the rain of bodies falling on Joseph Zito's elevator car." Devastatingly for the prosecution, Crain ordered that "any general description of outside conditions"—that is, any of the horrifying things that happened during the fire—had to be excluded from jury consideration.

In the second week, Bostwick reached the heart of his case and called one survivor after another to the stand to tell their story of the fire. Every day for a week, survivors demonstrated how they had tried to open the door and testified that it had been locked. The power of these testimonies meant that Steuer "needed a whole bag of tricks to limit the damage," and he began resisting all requests by witnesses to be allowed to testify in Yiddish through an interpreter. Steuer wanted the testimony to be less compelling and...

(This entire section contains 1411 words.)

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easier to trip up, as well as to play on the assumption that poor English equated to low intelligence. Although the judge permitted an interpreter, Steuer used every opportunity to undermine the witnesses by correcting the translations, therefore creating doubt in the jurors' minds. He also repeatedly attacked the motives of the prosecution and heavily implied that the story of the locked door had been created and rehearsed by union lawyers in an attempt to appeal to the number of business owners who sat on the jury.

The blackened lock proved a contentious issue in the case, and after arguments about whether it could be permitted as evidence and presentations by experts, Crain admitted the lock into evidence. Bostwick called nearly a dozen survivors who all testified that they had escaped the fire through the eighth-floor Washington Place door, but only after it had been unlocked for them. This supported the argument that all doors on the Washington Place side of the building were routinely kept locked. The prosecution's closing evidence was the testimony of their star witness, Kate Alterman, who was a friend of Margaret Schwartz’s and likely the last person to see Schwartz alive. In an emotionally charged testimony, Alterman described how she saw Schwartz fall near the locked door, her dress and hair catching fire. Jurors were stunned as she sobbed, detailing how people around her were consumed in flames and jumping from windows.

Steuer's tactic to undermine Alterman's credibility was to heavily imply that her speech had been rehearsed and coached by the prosecution. After rapidly asking a series of dry, factual questions, Steuer asked Alterman to repeat the story "just as [she] told it before." He noticed that she added certain details and left out others but that some of her phrases were word-for-word repetitions. Steuer subtly pointed out that she would repeat expressions such as "red curtain of fire" and "like a wildcat," but after repeating the story again, Alterman denied that she had discussed the story more than once or with anyone other than her family. During the cross-examination, Steuer never suggested that the details of her account should be doubted, but heavily implied that her story had been rehearsed and that its wording was not her own. In doing so, he transformed the details of her account into signs of deceit, creating doubt about the prosecution's motives in the minds of the jurors.

Steuer's defense can be categorized into three main themes, Von Drehle writes—none of which were individually strong enough to win the case but which created reasonable doubt when taken together. Firstly, Steuer argued that it was implausible for the Washington Place doors to be always locked, painting a picture of an unrelentingly busy factory that required a constant flow of workers and deliveries in and out. He called fifty-one witnesses, who all testified that they regularly used the doors during working hours. Secondly, Steuer wanted to humanize Blanck and Harris, calling character witnesses to testify about how the owners dealt with the fire. He also called the men themselves to the stand to recount their own experiences. However, during cross-examination by the prosecution, Harris was cornered when asked to estimate how much money the company lost through theft each year. He had previously described the measures he had taken to stop theft, including raiding workers' homes, and so came across as petty when the estimated amount was no more than twenty-five dollars. Thirdly, Steuer tried to instill confusion by calling three witnesses who claimed that the stairway was blocked by fire and therefore impassable anyway. He also attacked the use of the lock as evidence, showing how easily the lock could be tampered with, and rested his case.

The key issue for jurors, who deliberated for less than two hours, was whether or not the Triangle owners knew that the door was locked. Judge Crain had repeatedly made it clear that the jury was to decide if there was sufficient proof that Margaret Schwartz would have lived if the door had been open and that Blanck and Harris knew the Washington Place door was locked "at that specific time on that specific day." Public opinion was that Crain's instructions were too favorable to the defense. The judge had been blamed for a tenement fire six years prior, when he was a commissioner at the Tenement House Department, and Von Drehle argues that it was this that led him to do everything he could to make it nearly impossible for Blanck and Harris to be convicted. Jurors who initially voted against conviction when deliberating felt that the judge had left them no choice but to acquit the Triangle owners. When the jury's decision of acquittal was announced, Blanck and Harris had to leave court through the prisoner's pen in order to avoid the furious crowds in the hallway.

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