The mirror in the Brown Building: Remembering the Triangle fire (1911)

[Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine has removed artist Judy Taylor’s 36-foot-wide mural (2007) from the building of Maine’s Department of Labor. The work celebrated working men and women, including iconic Rosie the Riveter. Governor LePage claimed that the mural was biased toward unions. Perhaps Governor Page would consider establishing The Ministry of Selective and Condemned Memory and ditch the Department of Labor. He has also requested the renaming of conference rooms, which honored workers and labor activists, including Rose Schneiderman, the trade unionist, who gave a blistering speech in April 1911 condemning the public’s complicity with the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.]

“The struggle of people against power,” wrote the Czech writer Milan Kundera “is the struggle of memory over forgetting.” To know is to understand, to understand is to act morally, to act morally is to effect change. In this sense, knowledge is power.

When I was young, 1had only a dim sense that the world was full ghosts. Now that I’m old and I see the horizon of life fading in the gorgeous blaze of a clear wintry sunset, I know what to call these ghosts. They are called memory, and they are the whole of the wealth we take with us—and leave behind.

So this, in part, is a story of ghosts—of ghosts and mirrors. Mirrors, as literature tells us, are symbols of incompleteness—but also of quest. Looking in mirrors, we ask symbolically: “Who am I, where do I come from, where am I going?”

When I started college at New York University in 1959, I took most of my general education classes in the Brown Building, the site of the worst industrial workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know that on a balmy day in the early spring of Saturday, March 25, 1911, at approximately 4:47 pm, closing time at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a fire broke out on the 8th, 9th, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, now called Brown. In 18 minutes, this fire had devoured the lives of 147 young people—124 of them immigrant women, a great number Italian, like me. Most of the victims were the young women who worked on the ninth floor, practically all of them to be married soon—some were children. “I must have been a child at that time,” a survivor recalled, “because I remember that when the inspector from the labor department used to come they would push me into the toilet to hide.”

Unlike those young women, however, I did not work in a factory because my parents did instead. They had come to America with one objective—to secure for me a university education. Like 50 percent of Europeans, we had been the post-war homeless and like many more, we had been refugees on a European sub-continent ravaged by war.

The 15 famished years it took Europe to recover from WW2 had been too long for my father’s patience. He took his skills as an electrical shipyard mechanic from Italy to America to be safe from war and to educate his daughter. He took a deskilled job making mechanical toys in a tiny, unsafe factory on then grim, un-gentrified, factory-row that was Houston Street, in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the Triangle fire, off Washington Square, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His wage was $35 per week in a decade when $75–90 per week was a middle-class wage. My mother, initially, went to work cutting up vegetables at a midtown Manhattan Italian restaurant, where she understood the language. She took home $20 per week. Later, she worked seasonally in the garment district, making as much as $50 per week as an ILGWU member—the union the victims of the Triangle fire had gone on a historic strike in 1909 to strengthen. Every penny of that union wage my mother earned was added to my education fund.

Settling in America, we moved from an apartment that cost $70 per month because the rent was too high and went to live in one that cost $35. It was located above the neighborhood’s rat- and vermin- extermination facility. My parents and their friends—immigrants build incredibly efficient social-support systems—transformed a virtual transient flop house into a neat and cheerful place in a couple of weekends. Within nine months, my parents had saved $560—a huge sum—to pay for my tuition at one of the most expensive private universities in the city. In the meantime I had learned basic English—my second non-native language in two decades in my third nation- home.

I still remember my humiliation as I held up the line at the Bursar’s window at NYU, counting out the cash of my tuition in small bills, while the other students signed an effortlessly elegant check.

Still, I was unique in my immigrant circles—I had matriculated at a first-class university. None of my contemporaries had, though their children today are doctors, lawyers, professors, and some are notable millionaires and celebrities in the city. Never forget what this nation owes to immigrants—there is no such thing as “illegal” immigrants under international law, by the way—in their dogged determination to secure a future for their children.

And so there I was, fortunate immigrant girl of 19, headed for the ninth floor of the Brown Building—not to work 60 hours a week in a dusty, crowded, and unsanitary loft, stitching together light cotton blouses at lightning speed for the Triangle factory’s millionaire bosses, Blanck and Harris—no, but, rather, to attend my geology class.

I took the elevator to the ninth floor of Brown. This was the first and last time I went to my geology class by that route—crossing the vast, empty lobby of Brown, going up a few steps, and taking the Washington Place elevator to my left—that elevator which had been reserved for management only—that elevator, too, which on the ninth floor came up to the door of the stairway that had been locked. “We were never allowed to go down the front way—either by elevator or staircase,” survivors of the ninth floor fire testified.

I never took that elevator again. Subsequently, I routinely went to my class by taking the elevator of the Main Building, seamlessly connected to Brown, from where I could walk a few feet of soft, carpeted corridor from the lively and noisy Main Liberal Arts Building into the quiet gloom of the Brown Science Building, stepping inside the vestibule, where once the locked door had stood, unyielding, struck and pummeled by the desperate hands of frantic victims, seeking access to the stairs that might have delivered them to safety. They were some of the last to die—the group of twenty-some victims, unaccountably turning to face the fire at the last minute, a few feet from the door they had tried so vainly to unlock. Their bodies were found in the vestibule that I crossed regularly to go to my classes. Thus did I step, ignorant, of my own working-class history over its funeral grounds

There was only me and the operator for the ride, which felt ominous. I was an impressionable young person—the scars of war were still with me. Cities bombed into scraps of industrial waste; trains full of refugees; displaced-person camps; orphans; hunger. But others have felt this strange chill in Brown. A few days ago, my daughter wrote that one of her friends dropped out of NYU for sound, material reasons but also because she disliked the spooky aura of Brown. Many years after the fire, a man, a witness of the fire, had felt the haunting, too: “My wife and I stood across the street and we looked up at the building and I think I could hear the girls screaming again.”

The elevator was rising, smoothly. I had no facts to imagine the screams of 250 terrified workers above on the ninth floor, the flames licking at their hair and coats as they ran from the elevator on the Greene Street side to the elevator on Washington Place, across the loft’s burning floor. I did not know that this elevator’s then operator, Mr. Joseph Zito, had been unable to continue his heroic rescue to the ninth floor because 19 burning human rockets had flung themselves into the elevator shaft and were lying dead on top of Mr. Zito’s elevator.

I didn’t know, but words have been recorded. Frances Perkins, the US Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration from 1933 to 1945, was the first woman to hold a cabinet position—and she was the leading force behind the progressive workers-rights legislation of the New Deal. She had witnessed the Triangle fire, coming on the scene as the first bodies flung themselves from the windows of the burning floors. She said, in 1961, in a speech at Cornell University, that into this elevator shaft “some of the people jumped grabbing the cables and letting themselves down that way. Some of them fell, some of them were awkward and didn’t grab right, don’t you know, and couldn’t hold on. Some of them merely blistered their hands; others took the skin and flesh off their hands coming down on the cables.”

The ride seemed interminable. It felt, and maybe only retrospectively, like the first leg of an important journey to a very long awakening to the class nature of my world. Alighting on the ninth floor, I found myself staring into a curious long and narrow mirror—curious because it reflected my image as I didn’t know it.

It was me—and yet not me.

My silhouette, the outline of my narrow skirt, my buckled high-heeled shoes, my oversized leather school bag were all there, but the image throbbed and rippled from left to right unsteadily. The head was particularly alarming—unfocussed, flickering like a pallid, dying flame, changing size. The wavy distortion was uncanny. Possibly, it was some sort of instrument, part of a psychological experiment. Brown housed the Psychology Department, so perhaps the mirror had something to do with that, but I think today that that ghostly, disturbing mirror was the buried face of history, beckoning to me—a history asking to be known, understood, and held up as a burning torch, to the memory of that fire—a torch signaling the ongoing struggle for social justice that every generation must take up if it is to be truly human.

In my geology class, I remember distinctly, the aged, gentleman-professor, in his elegant tweeds, who might even have been 10-years old at the time of the fire, and who now held up to us in loving, worshipful hands a beautiful azurite rock, quaintly saying, “Tell me, ladies, which of you would not wish a dinner gown in this color?” I smiled. Who today, I thought, wore “dinner gowns”? But in his time, privileged women did, and their gowns were made by the likes of the young women who were the last to die in this very corner of Brown, the Greene Street corner, where the antique, wood-paneled classroom stood at the opposite corner of the Washington Place elevator and its locked door. The same corner with the same windows from which young women, their spirits bright with hope only 15 minutes before, abandoned hope and jumped into the void to smash, broken-bodied, on the pavements of Greene Street and Washington Place below. Not one jumper survived the fall.

“We watched in horror,” said a witness, “how bunches of women came hurtling down from the top stories of the building. The firemen were helpless. The nets were ripped from the hands. Many stooped and picked up the nets again with their hands bleeding.”

This is the whole of my story—a story of ghosts and mirrors in that haunted building of my bewildering arriving at the expensive grounds of higher education in America.

On March 25 of this year—Friday—bells rang in cities across America at the exact time that the fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and I hope, too, that some of the people pausing to listen in Chicago, in New York have remember the enflamed words of Rose Schneiderman, the slight girl with the burning red hair, a member of the Ladies’ Dress and Waist Union, who stood trembling with passionate intensity on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City before her speech. Twenty thousand New Yorkers, the best, the finest, and the most comfortable, were waiting to hear her speak. They had donated $25,000—a vast sum then—to the Triangle fire victims’ fund, but Rose Schneidermann did not comfort them:

“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire. We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us. I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Perhaps, Governor LePage of Maine is right: Rose Schneidetmann was too biased toward unions and workers’ rights. Too biased in favor of social justice. Too biased in favor of preserving life. Perhaps, he will consider renaming the Rose Schneiderman Conference Room at Maine’s Department of Labor the Blanck-Harris Conference Room—in honor of the two partner-bosses, who had refused the Triangle girls a union shop after their valiant strike of 1909, during which they had been beaten, maligned, and arrested by the same cops, who at the scene of the tragedy in 1911, lovingly and reverently gathered their poor charred and broken remains to take to the improvised 26th Street pier morgue.

The same bosses who had paid a fortune in fire insurance but had refused to enact fire-safety measures. The same bosses who had kept the door to the escape stairway locked because they feared losing roughly $20 per year in thefts. The same bosses whom the law found not guilty of knowingly causing the death of one symbolic victim because it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they knew the door to the Washington Place exit was locked on the day of the fire—though everyone knew that it was always locked at closing time, including the jurors, and was locked on that day. Perhaps Governor Le Page and his anti-labor co-conspirators governing Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and throughout the post-industrial Mid-West would like to take the country back to 1911—to conditions that treated workers worse than slaves because workers were not bought but hired and so deserved not even the minimal care that private property so sanctimoniously invokes among the fundamentalist buccaneers of free trade.

Perhaps they should consider changing the “Preamble to the US Constitution” to read like this:

“We, the Corporations of the United States, in Order to form a less perfect Union, establish Injustice, insure domestic Despair, provide for the common defence of Profits, promote the general Welfare of the Rich, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Corporate States of America.”

We all need to look back into the mirror of the past because, unless we fight back, that is where our future lies.

Luciana Bohne teaches at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 public universities threatened by a 50 percent budget cut in education by Republican Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at lbohne@edinboro.edu.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.