In honor of the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which took place on March 25, 1911, we’re sharing a chapter from our new book. The following is an excerpt from A HAUNTED HISTORY OF INVISIBLE WOMEN by Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes, reprinted with permission from Kensington Books. Copyright 2022
Industrial Monsters: Ghosts of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Greenwich Village, March 25, 1911. The air was brisk, the sky a bright, crisp blue.
It was a Saturday, 4:45 in the afternoon. In Washington Square Park, New Yorkers scurried in the early spring chill. On nearby Greene Street, a block east of the park, sewing machines hummed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a square and solid ten-story brick edifice that daily churned out hundreds of the most common long-sleeved women’s garment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was almost closing time, and the nearly two hundred workers inside the Triangle were eyeing the clock and looking forward to collecting their pay packets and going home, when the first black columns of smoke marred the air.
The chaos was instantaneous. Within minutes, screams joined the smoke to fill the air. Fire alarms were pulled and fire wagons raced to the scene. A reporter strolling in the park ran to the burning factory, beginning to jot mental notes even as he ran. Scores of passersby crowded the scene and watched in horror. For one surreal moment, as bright frills of fabric fluttered and unfurled from the top-floor windows of the Triangle, these witnesses imagined that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were preserving their inventory. “He’s saving his best cloth,” one man declared.
It took bystanders a moment to realize those were no bolts of cloth falling from the windows.
Those were women.
By the time the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had run its course, 146 factory workers, 123 of whom were women, had died.
These were mostly immigrant women, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European, many living on the Lower East Side. They were young, mostly between fourteen and twenty-four, many hoping to be married, all dreaming of better things to come: the promise of New York, a place where they’d been told the sidewalks shone with gold. They had worked in the grinding, clanging noise of the factory six days a week for bosses who saw them as interchangeable parts of a machine to be hammered into productivity and submission. Whenever murmurs of protest began to ripple through the ranks, the bosses quelled them and locked the doors of the factory to keep their workers firmly inside. You will sit at your machine and sew, they commanded, and punch buttons, and labor until your fingers are raw, because that was the way of the world.
The tensions between the city’s garment workers and the factory owners had been high, but the largest strike by female American workers up to that date had just made a few strides. November of 1909 saw the “Uprising of the 20,000,” when garment unions, led by young women just like the Triangle employees, followed the words of Clara Lemlich, her bruised body beaten on a picket line, as she hobbled up to stand before an audience at I Cooper Union and called, in Yiddish, “for a general strike.” Thousands poured into the streets to protest myriad injustices and extreme hazards. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, supported by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, settled with factory owners in February of 1910.
Excepting the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.
Nobody knows with exact certainty how the fire got started. It was likely a stray match or cigarette butt alighting atop a bag of greased cloth. It hardly matters; there were so many potential disasters simmering in that building. Scrap bins located under the long tables of sewing machines held thousands of pounds of highly flammable cloth (cotton burns notoriously quickly).
The building’s developer had been allowed to construct his edifice without the required third stairway, substituting instead a flimsy fire escape in a narrow air shaft, which acted essentially as a chimney flue when the fire broke out. The Triangle bosses designed the factory floors to slow the egress of their workers, who were stopped and their bags inspected every night to prevent theft. And the exits were kept locked during working hours to prevent both theft and wildcat strikes or walkouts.
By the time the workers realized what was happening, they ran for the exits only to be crushed and pressed against locked doors and panicked bodies.
Those who worked on the tenth floor had the best chance of getting to one open door or skylight to the rooftop. The stairs between the levels were made of wood and were quickly engulfed. Telephone communication between the floors was lost, one floor wasn’t warned until the fire was upon them, and even then, nearly every door was locked.
The limited fire escapes were rusted and poorly maintained. They buckled under the weight of the women, who then crashed to their deaths on the pavement below. Fire trucks did arrive, but their ladders reached only to the sixth floor. The firemen had safety nets, and some women jumped into these; some missed the nets, some nets broke from too many jumping at once. Imagine seeing one’s rescuers only two floors below, just out of reach. The city was climbing higher by the year and those charged with rescue couldn’t keep up.
A single brave operator ran the last working elevator up and down again and again as long as he could, until the heat and smoke made it impossible. Some workers leaped atop the elevator shaft, attempting to hitch a ride, flaying their hands on the elevator cables in the process.
One brave New York University law professor, Frank Sommer, commanded his students to scale the roof of the adjoining building to help bring workers across to safety.
The truly desperate threw themselves from the windows. Clasping hands with a coworker or friend, they jumped to their deaths as the fire seared their backs.
Police had to keep throngs of hysterical observers from throwing themselves into the building in vain attempts to help, while others fainted away at the sight of the piling bodies and the gore pooling in the street.
A newspaper reporter on the scene, William Shepherd, dared to describe the sound of a human body on pavement: “thud-dead”. Not to be shocking for the sole purpose of shock, but to show a readership this grim reality, trying to describe the indescribable. He also recalled those girls at the forefront of the “Uprising” the year prior, marching to try to prevent this very atrocity. He suddenly grieved for what they’d been pleading for, what they’d told the city would happen if they weren’t heeded. A dread prophecy had come to pass in one of the worst industrial accidents this nation had ever seen.
By the end of the day, an ad hoc morgue had to be opened across the street from the factory on an open floor soon filled with bodies. Many women were identifiable only by their engagement rings, small sparks of gold amid the ash.
The city’s outrage was instantaneous and as furious as the fire itself. But the factory owners had broken no laws. They went to trial and were acquitted. The fury mounted.
Frances Perkins had been having tea on Washington Square North when the fire broke out and stood watching the horror unfold from across the street. The disaster prompted her to abruptly change the course of her life and, with New York Mayor Al Smith, began work on the nation’s first labor laws. Perkins would serve as the first secretary of labor and the first female cabinet member. She was quoted as saying the day of the Triangle Fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
But it didn’t change soon enough for the dead.
Contemporary reports in leading newspapers counted several unnamed dead. The New York Times account of March 26, 1911, noted, “The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age.” But those English-language newspapers hadn’t thought to go looking at the Yiddish-, Italian-, Ukrainian-, or German-language newspapers for the list of the dead. The power of the name is just one across all people, and this tragedy was further haunted by anonymity. Since then, thanks to interest and scholarship, almost all the names have been found. Every year on the anniversary of the fire, volunteers from the New York City Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) lay 146 carnations on the sidewalk where so many bodies fell.
When we speak of the Triangle on our tours, we center that discussion around the idea of residual hauntings.
In current parapsychology, a residual haunting is often defined as the energy left behind in a location by a traumatic event. Sir William Barrett of the Society for Psychical Research first wrote of it back in 1911, the same year the Triangle burned: “In certain cases of hauntings and apparitions, some kind of local imprint, on material structures or places, has been left by some past events occurring to certain persons, who when on Earth, lived or were closely connected with that particular locality; an echo or phantom of these events becoming perceptible to those now living.” Some paranormal researchers have gone so far as to try to prove these psychic residues or echoes are literally imprinted in the materials of objects and places—the so-called “Stone Tape” theory—and that residual hauntings are actually these recorded imprints being replayed. People who possess a degree of psychic sensitivity sometimes speak of physical locations having an “impression” or a “stain” on them.
A residual haunt makes no attempt to communicate with the living; they merely repeat whatever they were doing in life, usually at the moment they died. This type of haunting is sometimes described as metaphorically resembling a record stuck in a groove, playing the same note over and over: ghost trains that cross the same trestle at the same time every day, ghost ships that sail the same waters at low tide, ghost battles that rage at sunset, and so on. The residual haunt possesses a repetitious, looping nature. Disaster sites, battlegrounds, hospitals, and prisons are often the site of high levels of residual energy, otherwise known, somewhat poetically, as place memory.
Today, the building where the Triangle occurred has been repurposed by New York University. The renamed Brown Building contains undergraduate biology classrooms; the sewing machines have long been replaced by microscopes and lab equipment. It is the original building, the actual walls in which it happened. (Ironically, the building itself was fireproof.) People do reportsensing something palpable when they stand in this location; it is hard not to. NYU’s blog quotes Dennis Kroner, a public safety officer who works on the site, as saying, “I know the building is haunted, because you can feel it. But I’ve never seen ghosts or anything.” Kroner speaks to the idea of residual haunting, but stops short of claiming to have had any apparitional experiences. Almost anyone lingering long enough at the Brown Building would, we think, come to agree with the SPR’s William Barrett that there is “an echo or phantom of these events [perceptible] to those now living.” It is the same feeling anyone gets when in the presence of any place that makes them a witness to history: Gettysburg, Auschwitz, Flanders Fields, the Freedom Tower.
Residual haunting remains writ large here, as if emotion became a kind of flash paper capturing the silhouettes of falling women who held hands as they jumped, and there that memory still falls, a shadow out of the corner of one’s eye. The story of the jumpers does tend to bring to modern mind the stories of the World Trade Center, and an old, early twentieth century horror is instantly made more personal. The ache of this residual psychic scar is felt every time these stories are told, and yet retelling them is precisely how human beings metabolize such tragedies.
Whether or not there really are ghosts at the Brown Building, or even a residual haunting in the parapsychological sense of the term, this is absolutely a building haunted by history and memory, as all disaster sites are.
Legends do abound, as perhaps is inevitable, ranging from wisps of smoke in the air, to NYU coeds feeling choked or struggling to breathe, to vague apparitions of disordered, sooty women staggering down the street or floating down the hall, charred.
Stories are told of formerly locked doors suddenly and mysteriously unlocking themselves, ephemeral faces appearing in bathroom mirrors, and coeds feeling vaguely pressed to flee the building with no real reason why.
Body-shaped shadows have been said to appear, falling from windows. The sounds of screams. The echoes of crackling fire. The smell of smoke. Worse, burned flesh.
But first-person accounts of ghost stories are notoriously hard to pin down, and this is one locale where it doesn’t do to be glib. When discussing a tragedy of such seriousness, how does one then turn around and declaim, wide-eyed, that you can still smell the charred flesh of the burning bodies!?How can one in good conscience repackage this suffering for profit, particularly in the absence of any concrete evidence that a single living person anywhere has actually experienced these ghosts and apparitions? Because here is the interesting thing about the Triangle ghost sightings: It seems they have been manufactured by those with a vested interest in profiting from them.
When researching ghostly accounts involving the Triangle Fire, there is a dearth of plausible primary sources to choose from. Most of these tales come from books and websites that cite no sources for their ghost stories. A search for Triangle ghost stories online takes you to the Squareup store of American Hauntings Ink, a company whose online bookstore boasts an impressive 130 titles, including And Hell Followed With It, a recounting of American disasters and their subsequent hauntings, among them the Triangle Fire. Other paranormal accounts can be found on the blogs of local ghost tour companies. These retellings are characterized by abrupt tonal shifts that veer off into the ghoulish: “Their screams often shatter the night, as if they are still trying to escape from the terrible blaze. So powerful is their paranormal panic that it infects the living. So don’t be surprised if you suddenly feel the urge to flee during your visit!” There is money to be made in these wisps of smoke and smells of charred flesh. Tales of residual hauntings like Dennis Kroner’s aside, we have yet to come across a single highly sensory or graphic apparitional encounter written by anyone who could be described as “unaffiliated” with the paranormal industry. And it is an industry, filled with haunted hotels, ghost hunts, guided tours, and cities competing for the title of “America’s Most Haunted.”
In fact, almost every single printed ghost story associated with this site can be traced back to someone with something to sell. In an irony so thick you’d need a cutter’s knife to slice through it, the women of the Triangle perform the ultimate invisible labor.
Cultural critic Alicia Puglionesi wrote for Baltimore City Paper that “haunting originates in the structural violence of capitalism,” an idea that becomes quite literal when writing about the ghosts of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The ghosts of the Triangle workers—who were barred from unionizing, whose demands for better, fairer, safer, and more humane working conditions went unmet—are one example of Gilded Age excesses haunting America’s ghost stories. Collective anxiety about a system riddled with endemic inequality suffuses every retelling of the Triangle. Ghost stories bring to light the repressed and troubling parts of our history, and our society, those we have difficulty talking about any other way. Far from being mere morbid voyeurism, the discussion of these ghosts potentially gives us an outlet to confront the darker chapters of our past and what they mean for us today.
Of the many stories we tell on our tours, the Triangle most connects emotionally with guides and customers. Our customers, who are, as a group, very astute, sensitive, and intelligent people, immediately recognize their own complicity in a modern global economic system that still exploits workers—who among us has not bought a “fast fashion” item in the last decade or so? And, as guides, it allows us a moment to reflect on our own place in the industry of tourism. Tour guides themselves are, as we will tell you at the end of a tour when soliciting tips, members of the service industry. It is an industry that, like many others in our current age, is rapidly becoming decentralized, one where benefits and a social safety net are disappearing and being replaced by the “gig economy,” the modern version of piecework (the paid-by-the-piece sweatshop sewing so many women performed for pennies, working long hours in cramped, stuffy tenements).
How much does a human life cost? Companies around the world decide an arbitrary number, life reduced to ticking numbers in growth portfolios. People still perish in garment factory fires, as evidenced in 2012 in Bangladesh. To this day, women across almost all industries remain underpaid for their labor (women in the global south are even more badly compensated for the work they continue to perform in the modern garment industry). Behemoth industrial monsters still churn, chew, and rend raw material like all the old mills, but many of the substances mined, manufactured, and commercialized have changed.
Perhaps we all, on some level, identify with the precarious lives of the Gilded Age underclass. The obvious, even if unspoken, parallels between the average American worker in the twenty-first century and the garment workers of 1911 seems to resonate with nearly everyone. Incidentally, the term for the type of invisible, automated, gig-based labor that drives the current internet-based information economy is “ghost work.” A telling term if there ever was one.
When done properly, ghost tours have the potential to serve a very serious purpose. Ghosts can be presented not as frivolous fun, but, as historian Tiya Miles writes in her examination of plantation ghost tours in the South, “messengers from another time that compel us to wrestle with the past, a past chained to colonialism, slavery and patriarchy, but a past that can nevertheless challenge us and commission us to fight for justice in the present.” By keeping this imperative in mind, and by being careful to present the spirits of the Triangle in an honest and forthright manner, we are capable of leading responsible, ethical, and nonexploitative ghost tours, and reminding people of their responsibility to honor the spirits of the Triangle by continuing to fight for justice in the world of the living.
We memorialize the lives of the women and men who worked and perished here. We must, encouraging our audiences not to take labor laws for granted, and to fight against any efforts to weaken them. The Triangle’s litany of injustices are cautionary tales that should, then, haunt us all, an eternal warning. A spectral demand for vigilance.
The ghosts of capital are still here on Washington Place, not far from the thousands of bones below the surface of Washington Square Park, where a long-hidden eighteenth-century potter’s field lies secretly beneath some of the most valuable real estate in the country. Here in the NYU buildings that ring the park, in the hallways of what is now a staggeringly expensive private university, young minds are molded and shaped, taught to earn their keep to repay their student loans; here adjunct professors toil without safety nets. Outside on the streets, taxi and delivery drivers, waitstaff, performers (and tours guides) are all surviving. The push and pull of capital and labor continues as the ghosts move between two worlds, in the endless dance of profit and loss.
A very interesting story. I would love to read the book. I work as a guide at the Tenement Museum on Orchard street in the Lower East Side and mention the Triangle factory fire on several of my tours. This excerpt has given me more to think about.
Thank you so much! You can buy the book wherever books are sold, or borrow a copy at any NYPL or BKPL library 🙂
We love the Tenement, too! 🙂