Two Criminal New York Fires, Justice Served Just Once
March 25, 2010

It Often Takes Tragedy to Bring About Justice and Change

Fire On the Upper Floors Pushed the Capabilites of the NYFD in 1911

On This Date in History:  In the early 20th century, the industrial revolution was in full swing but social and business response natually lagged behind as the rapid growth of industry presented new challenges.  As corporations grew, new accounting and management techniques had to be developed and, in response to those needs, colleges and universities had to expand their curriculum to address the requirements of  advanced business and accounting.  Social and labor practices were also under pressure from change.  In cities like New York, manufacturing utlized labor such that workers had very few rights and were subject to harsh and unsafe working conditions.  Advocates of the workers had tried to address the potential problems and the grievances of the workers largely to no avail.  As is often the case, it took a tragic and monumental event to serve as a catalyst for change.

Typical Garment Factory

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a good example of what became known as a sweatshop.  New York’s garment district was well known as featuring factories that employed women who gained little pay but had to endure difficult and potentially dangerous working conditions.  Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which took up the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building.  The majority of the factory’s 500 workers were young immigrant women who worked 9 hours a day during the week and 7 hours on Saturdays.  Sunday really was a day of rest for the ladies who often lived in conditions not much better than their work environment.  Smoking was banned in the factory but the Fire Marshall concluded that a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin on the eighth foor ignited a fire toward the end of the day on this date in 1911.  Other experts drew other conclusions but the result was a fire quickly spread through the eighth floor to the floors above.  Blanck and Harris escaped to the roof but others weren’t as lucky.   Workers on the eighth floor were able to telephone the tenth floor to warn of the danger.  But, there were no alarms and no way to contact the ninth floor.   Within 3 minutes, the interior staircase became unusable and the only exterior fire escape collapsed under the weight of the terrified people crowding onto the structure to make their escape. 

Police Have Grim Task Confronting Bodies on the Sidewalk

Sixty two people either jumped or fell to their death to the horror of observers from the street.  Louis Waldman, who would later become a New York Assemblyman who subsequently was expelled for his communist leanings,  was in the crowd and wrote that he “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. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. 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. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”  In all, 146 people were killed in what remains one of New York’s worst industrial incidents.

Civil Court Ruled The Dead Were Worth $75 a Piece; Insurance Company Paid $400

The owners were taken to trial but were acquitted from criminal charges as their defense attornies were successful in compromising the integrity of the witnesses.  Blanck and Harris were later both found guilty in a civil lawsuit but they actually came out ahead in the deal.  See, the civil suit awarded just $75 per deceased victim.  I suppose life was pretty cheap to the courts because the insurance company compensated the owners $400 per victim. Around the same time that Blanck was found guilty in the civil trial, he was found guilty of locking the doors in a factory, potentially trapping workers if there was another incident.  This time, Blank really was taught a lesson:  he was fined just $20.   But, the circumstance was not totally without some silver lining.  Aside from the assemblyman in the crowd, another eyewitness was Frances Perkins, who later became the Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She pushed for stricter safety and compensation legislation and unions gained more support to force management to address the grievances that long had troubled the workers, most of whom were immigrants and relatively poor.  There is a saying that the people of Venice did nothing about the sewage problem until water was flowing into the buildings.  Unfortunately, societies and governments have not learned the lesson even today. 

Confederates Hoped to Find New York City The Same Turmoil As 1863

Confederates Hoped to Find New York City The Same Turmoil As 1863

 Another New York Fire: When you get to late 1864, the prospects of the South in the Civil War were running low. The West was pretty much subdued and General William T. Sherman was making his march to the sea. Now, in a post from  October 2008, I told you about how Confederate raiders in October 1864 made the northernmost attack on the Union in Vermont as they raced into St. Albans, Vermont and robbed several banks before fleeing back to Canada. Well, the Candian plot wasn’t done just yet.

Harper's Weekly Rendition of Arsonist

Harper's Weekly Rendition of Arsonist

The Confederate Canadian agents, perhaps emboldened by their Vermont excursion came up with a bolder plan. They would burn New York City. The agents had been assured that the city was ripe for rebellion. Now, that may have been true earlier in the war when there was the infamous New York Draft Riot against the war, but by late in 1864, it was no longer the case. A case of bad intelligence. Undeterred, the plotters decided that they would bring the horror of war home to New Yorkers and carried out their plan on November 25, 1864. Happy Thanksgiving, right? Here was the plan: An agent would check into a Gotham hotel, concealing a incendiary liquid in glass. Its called a Greek fire in a valise. The perpetrator would set his room ablaze and then leave. After several of these firebugs successfully created several infernos, the city streets were filled with rumors as panic people ran about and firemen ran helter skelter from hotel to hotel. One thing the arsonists didn’t count on was the famed New York Fire Department. Today’s heroes of

Kennedy: Bad Timing

Kennedy: Bad Timing

New York were yesterday’s heroes of New York as well. Twelve fires broke out almost simultaneously but the firemen reacted so quickly the damage was limited and the fires were extinguished. So much for the great Greek fire.  Instead, it turned out to be a Greek tragedy for one of the perpetrators. Two were captured, including Confederate Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy. On this date in 1865, Kennedy was hanged for his failed enterprise and received the distinction of being the last soldier hanged before the end of the Civil War…which effectively came a little more than 2 weeks later with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 9, 1865. They say that timing in life is everything, but I’d say this is one of the greatest examples and consequence to bad timing.

This Picture Might Produce Some Snow...don't bet on it and don't break out the snow shoes just yet

Weather Bottom Line:  Just a little wrinkle in the forecast.  See…the GFS suddenly has decided to throw out about a quarter inch of snow on early Friday morning.  The idea is that the southern storm will throw out moisture that will over run a cold front coming in from the northwest.  Okay..I said it.  If you hear about that in the forecast, that’s where it comes from.  But, my guess is that before the lower layers get cold enough the overnight rain will have ended.  I suppose that the rain could drag down cold air to support some snow but,  you know what?  If it does happen it won’t be a big deal except as a conversation piece because the ground is too warm.  Just a note:  The NAM has no snow. 

Any such activity will be over certainly just after sunrise on Friday and clouds will be decreasing as the day goes on but it may be tough to get out of the 40′s.  Saturday still looks great with highs in the lwo to mid 60′s and plenty of sunshine, though clouds will be increasing as the afternoon wears on.  Sunday we’ll have another southern system that will bring rain with a chance of some rumbles of thunder.

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