March 25th, 2016, will commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh last year.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect. For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
March 25, 2017 will be the 106th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?
One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)
Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:
Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.
She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.
Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference. Now 106 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices. We all can.
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims.
There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.
Short but Deadly Burn
Did you realize that the fire at the Triangle factory lasted only half an hour, from the initial spark to final burning embers?
Near closing time, the fire erupted on the eighth floor in a bin of scrap materials and fabrics. A steady flow of wind rushed through the elevator shafts from the street and fed the flames. Smoke began its way upward to the ninth floor. Garment workers, seamstresses, mostly women and young girls, raced to the exit door on Washington Place. It was locked.
Later, some claimed the doors were kept locked so the girls didn’t steal the fabrics. Within minutes the eighth and ninth floors were raging infernos. In my next blog, I’ll talk about the forensics of fire.