1 minute read

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: 1911

146 Triangle Employees Die, Blanck And Harris Go Free

Defendants: Triangle Shirtwaist Company partners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: Max D. Steuer
Chief Prosecutors: Charles S. Bostwick and J. Robert Rubin
Judge: Thomas C.T. Crain
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: December 4-27, 1911
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite Max Blanck's and Isaac Harris' acquittal, the death of 146 young workers in a sweatshop fire focused public attention on the problem of poor workplace safety conditions and led to the passage of legislation providing for stricter regulations and tougher enforcement.

As American industry grew through the 1800s and into the early 20th century, the number of persons employed as factory workers or in other industrial occupations soared into the millions. Always eager for the cheapest possible labor, big business had no qualms about hiring women and children to perform tasks that required minimal strength, because companies could pay them lower wages than male workers commanded. Lower wages meant bigger profits, and so did spending as little as possible on safety precautions. For example, most factories had few, if any, safeguards to prevent accidental fires, such as sprinkler systems, proper ventilation, or adequate emergency exits. There were no federal safety laws, and while there were some state laws, enforcement was spotty at best.

In 1911, an incident occurred that dramatically illustrated the need for industrial safety reform. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which manufactured articles of women's clothing, operated several factories or "sweatshops" in New York City. Two partners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owned Triangle. As was common in the garment industry, Triangle employed mostly young women, who were usually barely in their teens, to perform the fabric cutting, stitching, and sewing that went into making the finished product. The women worked side-by-side at their cutting tables and sewing machines in cramped, dirty rooms. Further, Triangle supervisors routinely locked the door to the workplace from the outside to ensure that the employees never left their stations. Triangle factories were occasionally inspected by the lax city authorities, who took no actions to improve safety.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917