I have been fascinated with the Triangle Fire tragedy since I was around 8-years-old. I first read about this disaster in a book entitled, Portal to America: the Lower East Side 1870-1925, edited by Allon Schoener. I paged through this book endlessly, honing my drawing skills by copying the photos of poor immigrants by Lewis Hine and others. Although there are just two pages on the Triangle Fire and one photo in this book, there are quite a few photos of garment workers and sweatshops that enthralled me as a child. I didn’t experience this depth of sadness again about the immigrant experience until I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when I was a teenager. The hardships suffered by these immigrants and their remarkable resolve in a strange, foreign land was incredibly poignant to me, even as a child.
I forgot about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for many years and I am not sure what renewed my interest, but I delved into the subject like never before about 6 months ago. This is a tragedy of almost unspeakable sadness – one that still grips the imagination and attention of thousands of people every March 25, and forever in the hearts of relatives of victims and survivors. In preparation for my September 2013 NYC trip, I did as much research as possible – with the goal of writing some type of article and creating a collage as homage to the 146 souls who lost their lives more than 100 years ago. Tragically, these workplace disasters are still occurring today, especially in underdeveloped countries. Much has been written about the Triangle Fire and I do not endeavor to duplicate the efforts of others. I only hope to infuse it with something artistic, meaningful, and that does justice to the memories of the victims and brave souls who survived.
It is believed that a cutter who was secretly smoking threw a half extinguished cigarette butt into a bin under his work table, sparking a fire at the northeast corner of the eighth floor. The bin held hundreds of pounds of shirtwaist scraps, made out of an extremely flammable material known as lawn. The fire claimed 146 victims (129 women and 17 men) in just 18 minutes on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building (Now NYU’s Brown Building) on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place on Saturday, March 25, 1911. It is rather telling that so many Jewish workers were forced to forgo tradition and work on the Sabbath – they had no choice – if they did not, they would lose their jobs. While this particular factory was far better than most, the owners still followed questionable practices, such as hiding child laborers when inspectors were scheduled to pay a visit and not abiding by fire safety regulations. At least 50 victims jumped to their death, a few met their death by jumping down the elevator shafts, and others were burned alive in the building. Contrary to early, lurid reports of the fire, none of the predominately female workers died at their sewing machines or trapped in the aisles between the machine tables. A sad fact is that most of the victims were very young and had not yet experienced a full life. There were 30 victims younger than age 18 with two 14-year-olds. There were 23 who were age 18 and just 14 victims who were older than age 30. Only two victims were 40 and older. Married and from Italy, Provindenza Panno was the oldest victim at age 43. Mary Herman, age 40 and divorced, was from Austria and had only lived in the U.S. for 6 months.
The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April 1911. The trial started on December 4, 1911, but despite the testimony of 103 witnesses, the jury acquitted Blanck and Harris on December 27. At the heart of the prosecution’s case was the locked door that prevented workers from escaping down the Washington Place stairwell, and the case of Margaret Schwartz, whom Assistant District Attorney Charles S. Bostwick tried to prove died as a result of that locked door. Bostwick relied heavily on the testimony of survivor Kate Alterman. The famous defense lawyer Max D. Steuer won the case for his clients by belittling the star witness, making her repeat her story multiple times to the point that it sounded rehearsed and contrived. Kate, like so many of the workers who testified, spoke English as a second language and was not allowed to testify in her native tongue – in her case, Yiddish. The jurors believed that the door was locked, but could not find conclusive evidence that the owners were aware of this fact or responsible. Blanck and Harris subsequently lost a civil suit in 1913, and while the insurance company paid them about $400 per casualty, only $75 per victim was awarded to plaintiffs in the case. Insurance companies were notoriously crooked in those days.
The fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC – until of course, the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The tragedy had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics, and planted the seeds for the New Deal two decades later. Several extraordinary women were instrumental in bringing about these changes – among them – Clara Lemlich, Frances Perkins, and Rose Schneiderman.
Just before I left for NYC, my dad revealed something to me that gave this event more personal meaning. I never met my paternal grandfather, Abraham, but certainly knew that he was an immigrant who arrived for the first time in America on Ellis Island, just like so many of those that lost their lives in the Triangle Fire. He came by himself in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother to fend for herself with one newborn, my Aunt Ella, in a small village near Lomza, Poland.
And here is where the story takes on new meaning – once he settled in NYC, Abraham went to work in the garment industry as an embroiderer. He could easily have been one of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but worked at a different, unknown garment factory in Manhattan. At the time of the fire, he would have been relatively mature compared to most of the victims – age 27. He went back to Poland sometime in late 1911 – my Uncle Jack was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, little did he know that my grandmother was pregnant with my Aunt Dottie who was born in 1913. There is no information about where my grandfather worked on this second stint in America, although it is believed he continued to work in the garment industry. World War I broke out and he was separated from his family this time for nearly 8 years. My grandfather became a U.S, citizen on June 1, 1911. The entire family stepped foot on American soil at Ellis Island on April 9, 1921 after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad was the first generation and only member of his immediate family born in America, in 1923.
As far as the Triangle Fire project, foremost, I wanted to document as many buildings as possible where the victims had lived. Knowing that my time in NYC was short, I decided to limit my research to victims who had lived in Manhattan. I read about the chalk project in which people draw on the sidewalk in front of sites where victims had lived, but I don’t think anyone has photographed the buildings in a comprehensive manner. I used Google Maps to first determine if the original structures were still standing, and in many cases, they were not. I compiled lists of the Manhattan victims and noted the addresses of those that I might potentially be able to document. They were fairly scattered, although many were on the Lower East Side, so I had to plan my course of action rather methodically.
The second part of this project involved researching the grave sites of the victims and specifics about their deaths. The Cornell site does a very extensive job – in each case, there is a copy of the death certificate, age, place of birth, address, parents’ names, how long they lived in America, and burial-place. The death certificates are scanned very small and in some cases, quite difficult to decipher. I used another site to document the cause of death – did they jump to their death or burn in the building, and this is where it really got challenging. The site that included this information was very incomplete and there were many name inaccuracies. Some of the inaccuracies I corrected through exhaustive research – comparing information on the Cornell site with other sources. Among these sources were articles that had been published by ancestors of victims and survivors, articles that were published on the 100th anniversary, cemetery records, and two books. There is an entire list of the victims on Find a Grave and I commend the people who spent countless hours documenting and sharing their invaluable research and photographs – especially Michael Hirsch. Unfortunately, I discovered this list after my return from NYC – it might have been helpful in my pursuit.
There were 16 cemeteries in which the victims were buried. I had to choose one that was easily accessible from where I was staying in the West Village. I narrowed it down to Mount Richmond in Staten Island and Mount Zion in Maspeth, Queens. While many of the Italian victims were buried at Cavalry, the enormous size of that cemetery made it seem insurmountable. After compiling a list of more than 40 victims buried at Mount Zion, I decided upon that as my cemetery. Not all of the victims listed as being buried at Mount Zion on the Cornell site were documented on the cemetery’s online records, there were name inconsistencies, and the grave locations were missing on quite a few. When the grave was noted, without understanding the layout of the cemetery, I could only surmise an approximate location. I figured I would deal with this when the time came and that the office might be of some assistance. Over the course of two months, I prepared a comprehensive list of 127 victims (the vast majority lived in Manhattan) including addresses, burial information primarily for Mount Zion, and other key data obtained from the Cornell site.
I devoured Leon Stein’s book, aptly named, The Triangle Fire, published originally in 1962. A garment worker himself, Stein befriended and interviewed many of the survivors and captured the harrowing tragedy eloquently and with a straightforward approach – truly making me feel as if I was there. I also read the more recently published Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle from 2003. I found this book more erudite and learned a good deal about the political climate in NYC leading up to the March 25, 1911 fire. A lifelong Chicagoan, I am certainly familiar with Chicago politics and corruption, but didn’t know much about Tammany Hall until reading this book. Nepotism, bribes, nasty politics, and other shady dealings were the norm. Among the names that figured into this tragedy in some regard were Charles F. Murphy, Al Smith, Fire Chief Edward Croker, and his brother Richard Croker, and Big Tim Sullivan. I have read online commentaries that there are inaccuracies about the fire in Von Drehle’s book, but I still found it a useful read.
I was blessed with the most exquisite weather on my 10-day trip, arriving on Sept. 14 and leaving on Sept. 24, with not a single day of rain. Taking photographs of the buildings seemed pretty straightforward, at least in theory. I went into this project optimistically, but soon discovered that it was not going to be easy. The addresses in NYC, in particular on the Lower East Side, do not follow a logical East-West trajectory. For example, 299 E 8th Street is just east of Avenue B, but 324 E. 6th Street is between First and Second Avenue. This made it very difficult to locate buildings in the organized manner I hoped to employ and made for a wild goose chase of sorts. Some of the addresses I thought I would locate no longer existed – lost to history and progress. Other buildings had obviously been razed, replaced with new structures and the numerical addresses had changed slightly. I was not in NYC just for this project and had to respect that my daughter and friend Barbara might not want to accompany me – part of my visit was reserved for other activities. So on two specific occasions, I missed documenting buildings. After going to dinner one night with Barbara on Second Avenue, we went to Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé, in business since 1894. Somehow I forgot that this building had been the residence of 16-year-old Jennie Franco. I came back during the day on my own to photograph that building … and satisfy my sweet tooth. And when my daughter and I were in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, I did not want to subject her to this running around, so came back again to document some of these buildings.
On a very hot Wednesday, I made my way to Mount Zion Cemetery in Maspeth Queens. I took the E train to Queens Plaza and then a Q67 bus – the entire trip taking about 65 minutes each way. When I got to the cemetery I visited the office to see if they could help me further with the map and finding sites. I think I drove them a little crazy as I stopped in three times, including my initial visit. They had a far more comprehensive database with precise information on the graves than the public site. Nevertheless, it was still rather difficult and I could not ask them to spend more than a few minutes on this. Their efforts and my months of dutiful research proved to be futile and I ended up taking photographs of just a few of the victims’ graves.
The challenge involved several issues as I see it – a jam-packed, crowded cemetery; many sections in which the gate and/or path numbers had eroded; not being able to tell where one section and/or path ended; not being able to read Hebrew; the blazing hot sun, and gravestones that were so worn that names were unreadable. The entire thing was a surreal experience – lizards (likely Geckos) were darting all over the place and there were spider webs with gigantic spiders. The ground in between the gravestones was extremely overgrown and uneven and I nearly fell several times. I spent nearly four hours at Mount Zion and two hours commuting with very little to show, although I did take many fascinating photos of other graves. The next day I was itching all over my ankles – although I was wearing long jeans, socks, and gym shoes, I picked up a rash of some kind – perhaps poison ivy.
The cemetery experience coupled with the somewhat disappointing building project hit me hard during my first week in NYC. I had the right intentions and did my homework – for months, actually, but even the best-laid plans can go awry. It became all too clear that my original goal of comprehensive documentation would not come to fruition and I nearly abandoned the project. But I thought about the monumental tragedy, visited the fire site for a second time, and accepted that despite a compromise, I could bring meaning to the Triangle Fire. So I decided to continue the project and the last two days in NYC, found a handful of additional buildings to photograph. In addition to my photographs, I collected as many photos as possible from countless online sources; credited at the end of this article. A month after my return, I finally watched the 2011 PBS-produced American Experience: Triangle Fire. While nothing really new came to light from this, it was well produced and I did glean one specific statistic I had not read before: 53 jumped, 19 fell or plunged down the elevator shaft, 20 fell to their death on the inadequate fire escape that crumbled, and more than 50 burned to death in the building. While I would like to honor each victim individually, for this article, I am including those for which I have created photo collages.
An interesting aside during my stay was that I found myself with some frequency in a church near my daughter’s apartment. I was fascinated by the interior, the colors, and the statues. Little did I know at the time that Our Lady of Pompeii had buried 18 of the victims and Father Antonio Demo provided great solace to families after the tragedy. There was a mass held to honor the victims on April 26, 1911, although not in the church building I visited. The building where all those bereaved mourners congregated was demolished in 1923 to enable extension of Sixth Avenue. This parish has been serving the community of Greenwich Village since 1892.
Honoring a Few Victims – Remembering All
Josephine Cammarata, Concetta Prestifilippo
Josephine was 17 when she lost her life and engaged to be married on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1911, less than a month after she perished. She lived with Concetta Prestifilippo who was 22 when she lost her life, and presumed to be her cousin. From Italy, they lived in America for 2 years, likely traveling abroad together. They were both buried in the Evergreens Cemetery on April 5, 1911, two of the unknown, unidentified victims. Thanks in great part to the work of amateur historian Michael Hirsch, the six unidentified victims were properly memorialized 100 years later and given a plaque with their names. Their building at 18 Cornelia Street in the West Village dates back to 1900 and was the first building I photographed. It is a neighborhood I know like the back of my hand, so I did not have to map this address.
The daughter of Carmelo Grasso and Marie Pertonateh, Rosie was 16 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 5 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 27, 1911 – the grave is unmarked. She lived at 174 Thompson Street, a building with a nondescript, more modern entrance that surprisingly dates back to 1900.
Daisy Lopez Fitzi
The daughter of Christopher and Elizabeth Lopez, Daisy was 24 when she lost her life. According to records, she was one of those who jumped into a net from a ninth floor window that could not hold the weight of the bodies. Although she survived her initial injuries, Daisy died at New York Hospital two days later of a fractured pelvis and other injuries. She had been married for just over 2 months when she died.
According to the Red Cross Emergency Relief Committee: “Her husband had recently gone to Switzerland and she expected to join him there soon. Born in Jamaica, the West Indies, she had lived in the U.S. for 3 years and 8 months. She was buried in the Evergreens Cemetery on March 30, 1911. Her death certificate lists her address as 11 Charlton St., but her 1/15/11 marriage license lists her residence as 16 Charlton St. The former is a 5-story building that was completed in 1910.
Maiale Sisters – Bettina and Frances
There were several families that lost more than one relative in the fire. Nicholas Maiale and Teresa Bello mourned for two daughters – Bettina, age 18 and Frances, age 21. Born in Italy, they must have emigrated at different times – according to the Cornell site, Bettina lived in the U.S. for 9 years and Frances for just 5. Their parents had a double funeral, with both girls buried at Calvary Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Finding their building at 135 Sullivan Street was easy – it is a street I know very well, because my older sister lived at two different apartment buildings on this street when she first moved to NYC as a young woman. It is a charming, old world building with a beautiful carved wood door. Perhaps it has been rehabbed inside, but looks original to the early 1900s on the outside, with the exception of the three security cameras.
The daughter of Antonio Prato and Threasa Raffo, Emilia was 21 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from burns and multiple injuries, but in the building – perhaps she was one of the victims who jumped down the elevator shaft. She was born in and had lived in the U.S. her entire life. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 26, 1911. She lived at 93 MacDougal Street near Bleecker, which is one of the liveliest intersections in the Village with countless restaurants. I was not certain from just looking at it, but online records state that the building is from 1900.
Isabella Tortorella and Maria Giuseppa Tortorella Lauletti
The daughter of Jack and Julia Tortorella, Isabella was 17 when she lost her life. Isabella was one of those who jumped and died of a fractured skull. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 10 years. Isabella was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 28, 1911. She lived at 116 Thompson Street, now a somewhat gloomy, nondescript building that dates back to 1920. Her older sister Maria Giuseppa was 33 when she lost her life and left behind five children. According to Find a Grave, Maria had emigrated to the U.S. in 1896 at age 19 and married Egidio Lauletti on June 13, 1897. But the Cornell site states that she had lived in the U.S. for 12 years, which means she was married in Italy before emigrating. It is unknown exactly when her husband died, but it was likely between 1906 and 1911. Her family believes she was buried with other unidentified victims in the Evergreens Cemetery, although she is memorialized on the Calvary headstone. Maria lived a few doors down from Isabella at 133 Thompson Street – at this site now is a building completed in 1950 that houses commercial businesses on the ground floor and rather expensive co-ops.
There is nothing sadder than a victim who is never identified. Dora Evans was 18 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. Her parents were unknown and she was buried in the Evergreens Cemetery on April 5, 1911. She was one of the six unidentified victims properly memorialized 100 years later and given a plaque. She lived at 239 Watkins Street in Brooklyn, just two blocks from where my dad grew up – Brownsville, one of the worst neighborhoods in metropolitan NYC and an area with many low-income public housing complexes.
The daughter of Samuel and Rae Nicholas, Annie was 18 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from multiple injuries, implying she jumped. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 17 years and was a union member. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 27, 1911. Annie’s grave was one of those that I located fairly easily. She lived in Harlem at 126 East 110th Street, but the site of her abode according to Google Maps appears to be a rather unattractive Post-WWII apartment building. Her brother Ben, however, wrote in a memoir that they lived in the Bronx on East 152nd Street.
The daughter of Louis Oringer and Gussie Trenner, Rose Oringer was 19 when she lost her life. Born in Austria, she had lived in the U.S. for 10 years and was a union member. Rose was one of the girls who jumped – she was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital where she died of her injuries. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 65 East 101st Street, which is right near Mount Sinai Hospital and the northeast section of Central Park. The tenements in this area where Rose lived (now Spanish Harlem) were razed to make way for the George Washington Carver public housing development. The development is bordered by East 99th Street to the south, East 106th Street to the north, Park Avenue to the east, and Madison Avenue to the west. At the time of Rose’s death, the hospital had not yet moved to this location, but she likely enjoyed the beauty of Central Park.
Saraphina (Sara) and Teresina (Tessie) Saracino
The daughters of Vincenti Saracino and Rafallis Kunz, Sara was 25, and Tessie was 20 when they lost their lives. They both died from multiple injuries, implying they jumped. Could they have been the pair of girls embracing one another as they plunged to their death? Born in Italy, they had lived in the U.S. for 2 years. The sisters were buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 28, 1911. Sadly, their very elderly and sick father died from tuberculosis just 8 months after identifying his two daughters. They lived at 118 East 119th Street, which has been home to the NYC Police Department 25th Precinct since 1970. Shortly after the tragedy, the family moved to Brooklyn to live with another married daughter.
Lower East Side/East Village/Alphabet City
The daughter of Louis Altman and Sarah Dreadolph, Anna was 16 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 5 years and was a union member. According to records, she died from multiple injuries, implying she jumped. She was buried in Ocean View Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Her grave is one that was restored thanks to the efforts of Michael Hirsch. Anna lived at 33 Pike Street which no longer exists, but the photograph by the great Berenice Abbott taken in 1936 likely pictures her tenement building in the block of Pike at Henry Street.
The son of Max and Libbie Bernstein, Jacob was 38 when he lost his life. A relative of the owners by marriage, Jacob died from multiple injuries after plunging down one of the two elevator shafts. During the trial, there was testimony that he was one of the workers trying to open the locked door. Born in Russia, he had lived in the U.S. for 7 years and was married. His two girls, age 12 and 14 were still in Russia living with their grandparents. His brother Samuel, a manager and superintendent at Triangle survived by escaping like quite a few others over the roof of the Asch building. Before escaping, Samuel tried to turn a hose on the flames, but this proved futile. Joseph was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 26, 1911.
I had a very interesting experience when I was photographing his building at 224 E. 13th Street, a beautiful, original building that no doubt has not changed much since Jacob walked down the front stairs for the last time that Saturday morning. According to a very intriguing blog, this building was completed in 1901, and the area, which is nice enough now, experienced some sordid times.
I noticed that there was an enormous amount of junk being brought out of the building – there had to be 20 crates of old record albums and a few other things. The two men carrying out the stuff were Chinese and didn’t speak English, but gestured for me to take what I wanted. The supervisor and a neighbor explained that an elderly man with no relatives had died and they were discarding everything left in his apartment. This seemed very sad, but kind of fitting for the solemn mood associated with my project. I met an interesting couple from Argentina who were visiting NYC for a week and staying in the building next door – they were thrilled to find many vintage albums. I, however, was not particularly interested in the albums, but spied a few really old wooden and metal crates. I couldn’t carry more than one since I was quite far from my daughter’s apartment and still photographing other buildings in the area. I emptied a Queens Dairy Farm crate that was quite heavy and filthy, carrying it around with me, sitting on it when I needed a break, and eventually making my way home to my daughter’s apartment in the West Village. This excursion was later in the day after returning from Mount Zion, so this was a nice souvenir of sorts of my day devoted entirely to documenting the Triangle Fire victims.
The son of Louis Bernstein and Sade Trauve, Morris was 19 when he lost his life. According to records, he died from multiple injuries, implying he jumped. Born in Russia, he had lived in the U.S. for 18 months and was a former union member. He was buried in Baron Hirsch Cemetery on March 26, 1911. He lived at 309 5th Street – according to online records, the building was completed in 1900. The ground floor currently is home to SobaKoh, a popular Japanese restaurant.
The daughter of Morris Bierman and Mollie Goldstein, Gussie was 22 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from burns. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. Her last name on the death certificate is spelled Bierman, but the Cornell site and her gravestone are spelled Birman. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 27,1911. Gussie lived at 8 Rivington Street – according to online records, the current structure was built in 1920.
Brenman Sisters – Sarah (Surka) and Rosie
Rosie was 23 when she lost her life and Sarah was 17. According to the Cornell website, Sarah and Rosie had the same mother but different fathers. Find a Grave states that the two were sisters, but according to their death certificates, were likely half sisters. Israel Brenman and Yetta Greenberg were the parents of Rosie, while Christopher Lopez was the father of Sarah. Rosie had lived in the U.S. for 5 years, while Sarah had lived in the U.S. for just 6 weeks, arriving at Ellis Island on February 5. Immigration records list her first name as Sure. Rosie’s body was so badly burned that identification could only be made through a dentist who recognized a filling he had placed in one of her back teeth. According to records, Sarah also died from asphyxiation and burns and it took six days to identify her body. Their brother Joseph, age 21, was an inside contractor and had gotten both of them jobs as sewing operators. He had been one of the first to notice the fire and escaped through the one unlocked door before the flames started to spread. Remembering his sisters, he returned to the ninth floor to search for them, but was unable to find either Rosie or Sarah in the smoke and flames that were enveloping the entire loft. After this futile attempt to save his sisters, he escaped via one of the elevators. They were buried in Baron Hirsch Cemetery, Rosie on March 31 and Sarah on April 2.
They lived at 257 East 3rd Street, which is the site of Bracetti Plaza, a large public housing complex. Completed May 31, 1974, the development is located between East 3rd and East 4th Streets, between Avenues B and C. I located an old photo from archives of 3rd Street at Avenue C which captures how their street looked at the time they lived there.
The daughter of Blacilo Buseemi and Mary Rosa Dangelio, Josephine was 31 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from burns and multiple injuries, so likely suffered burns before jumping. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 10 years and was a union member. Josephine was married and left behind her husband (who had a slightly injured arm) and three children, all under school age. According to the Report of the Joint Relief Committee, at the suggestion of Josephine’s family, the husband was given $400 in funds to start a small grocery store. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Josephine and her family lived at 502 East 12th Street. The building appears newer and pretty nondescript, but online records indicate it was built in 1900 – it has likely undergone major facelifts.
The daughter of Kalman Dockman and Gussie Schlaffen, Clara was 19 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 7 months and was a union member. According to Ellis Island passenger records, Clara, or Chaje, came from the Russian city of Dinowic, most likely the modern city of Dunayevtsy in what is now the Ukraine. She sailed alone on the RMS Campania from Rotterdam, the Netherlands on August 13, 1910. Her Aunt Sadie and cousin Louis already lived in NYC. She was buried in Montefiore Cemetery on March 29, 1911. She lived with her relatives at 524 East 11th Street in a low-rise building completed in 1900.
The son of Mandel and Ida Donick, Kalman was 24 when he lost his life. According to records, he died from multiple injuries, implying he jumped. Born in Russia, he had lived in the U.S. for 4 years. He was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Kalman and his wife Sarah had a baby girl named Lillian who was 11 months old when her dad died. His family says that Kalman’s older brother Harry came from Russia, married Sarah, and raised Lillian as his own. Harry’s grandchildren never knew the truth until after he died in 1963. Kalman and his family lived at 214 Monroe, an area where all the tenement buildings were razed to make way for public housing, now on the outskirts of Chinatown.
Concettina “Jennie or Tina” Franco
The daughter of Carmelo Franco and Amelia Crito, Jennie was 16 when she lost her life. She had lived in the U.S. her entire life. According to records, she died from burns. Since Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé was established in 1894 on the ground floor of where she lived, it stands to reason that Jennie and her family were patrons of the bakery. At 342 East 11th Street (between First Avenue and Second Avenue) in the East Village, this is a really interesting neighborhood. The building, circa 1900, has been well maintained and likely looks much the same way it did in 1911. Veniero’s was obviously housed in a different building for about 6 years, but I could not find any information on this.
The daughter of Hyman Friedman and Sophia Sormenshein, Rose was 18 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Von Drehle dramatized her death in his book, page 170. “We know only that she died inside the loft, and was one of the last victims to succumb. The damage that the flames did to her body was so severe that there could not possibly have been later victims falling on top of her. She was fully exposed to the fire, shielded by nothing, suffocated by the smoke even as the flames chewed through her clothes and hair.” She was buried in Washington Cemetery on March 27, 1911, but her gravestone cannot be found. The photo pictures the gate where her grave is supposed to be. She lived at 77 East 4th Street – according to online records, the current structure was built in 1920.
The daughter of Herman Grossman and Sophie Haeler, Rachel was 18 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Romania, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. She was buried in Washington Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 98 East 7th Street, which according to online records, was completed in 1900.
The daughter of Gregory Horowitz and Charna Isenberg, Pauline was 19 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 5 years. She was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 58 St. Marks Place – a beautiful building, circa 1900, which looks today much like it must have in 1911 – minus those incredibly bright stoop lights.
Five Beckies – Kessler, Koppelman, Neubauer, Ostrovsky, Reines
The daughter of Barney and Essie Kessler, Beckie Kessler was 19 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. According to records, she died from multiple injuries, implying she jumped to her death. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Her grave must have the Yiddish spelling – her name is not listed this way anywhere else. She lived at 276 Madison Street, one of quite a few victims who resided in an area where all the tenement buildings were razed to make way for public housing, now on the outskirts of Chinatown.
The daughter of Jospeh Koppelman (mother’s name illegible), Beckie Koppelman was 16 years old when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 1 year. According to records, she was badly burned. She was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 26, 1911. She lived just a few blocks from Beckie Kessler and Beckie Reines at 191 Madison Street.
The daughter of Samuel Neubauer and Mollie Hoffman, Beckie Neubauer was 19 when she lost her life. Born in Austria, she had lived in the U.S. for 3 years. According to records, she died from multiple injuries and burns, implying she had already suffered burns before jumping. She was buried in Baron Hirsch Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 19 Clinton Street – now a modern building, completed in 1996, with retail businesses on the street level and apartments on upper floors.
The daughter of Morris Ostrovsky and Fannie Wheland, Beckie Ostrovsky was 20 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 16 years. According to records, she died from multiple injuries and burns, implying she had already suffered burns before jumping. She was buried in Bayside Cemetery on March 26, 1911. She lived at 108 Delancey Street, which is now home to a Popeyes Chicken in a structure that according to online records was built in 1920 – it is renovated and painted with garish colors. This is just around the block from where the Lehrer brothers lived. Perhaps they walked home together from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The daughter of Simon and Rosie Reines, Beckie Reines was 18 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Annie Marcus identified her cousin Beckie through earrings she was wearing. She was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 26, 1911. She lived fairly close to Beckie Kessler, at 215 Madison Street.
The daughter of Hyman Kuhler and Rifta Baler, Bertha was 19 when she lost her live. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Austria, she had lived in the U.S. for 3 years and was a union member. I am not certain why Cornell lists her last name as Kula, when the newspaper clipping and death certificate are spelled Kuhler. She was buried in Mount Richmond Cemetery on March 27, 1911. Bertha lived at 99 East 4th Street – which is now an elegant co-op in a building completed in 1928.
The daughter of Julia L’Abbate (father’s name illegible), Annie was 16 when she lost her life. According to records, she died of multiple injuries, implying she jumped. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 6 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 509 East 13th Street, the same building where two other victims of the Triangle Fire lived – Anna Pasqualicchio Ardito and her unmarried sister Antonietta Pasqualicchio.
The daughter of Louis Lansner and Annie Cohen, Fannie was 21 when she lost her life. Fannie was a forewoman at the factory and a heroine. By the time she thought of herself, it was too late and she jumped to her death. Her story was given front-page news, but was lost to history until David von Drehle wrote about her and later Michael Hirsch unearthed more details about her heroic actions from several newspaper accounts.
“Speaking both Yiddish and English to the girls who were huddled about her, all crying and screaming, Miss Lansner guided some of them down the stairways and kept others waiting for the elevator,” the Evening Telegram reported, of the Italian and Eastern European immigrant workers that Fannie sought to save. “Trip after trip of the elevator was made and Miss Lansner remained on the floor, and though several girls begged her to go with them down the elevator, Miss Lansner said she would be ‘all right,’ and told them to go out as quickly as possible.”
Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years. She was buried in Acacia Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 78 Forsyth (now Chinatown) in a tenement building completed in 1900. On the outside it pretty much looks the same today, as it must have in 1911, with the exception of the commercial businesses.
The daughter of Morris Lederman and Pauline Bromberg, Jennie was 21 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 20 years. She was buried in Washington Cemetery on March 26, 1911. She lived at 152 East 3rd Street – the building I photographed stood where her building must have been. This newer building did not seem to have a numerical address and looked to be from the 1940s-50s.
The Lehrer Brothers – Max and Sam
David and Esther Lehrer lost two sons, Max, age 18, and Sam, age 19 in the fire. It has been noted that Sam had a halo of blonde curls and that both died from multiple injuries and fractures – Von Drehle theorizes that when they jumped, they landed feet first and unburned on Washington Place. Born in Austria, Max lived in the U.S. for 18 months and Sam for 2 years. Their parents had a double funeral, with both boys buried at Mount Zion Cemetery on March 26, 1911. This tombstone is double-sided – one boy memorialized on each side. It took me awhile to locate this grave, but I circled back after wandering around a bit and found it. They lived at 143 Essex Street, a building still standing that harkens back to 1889, according to the date at the very top. This building is on the other side of the street from the Essex Street Market, which replaced the street vendor pushcarts the boys would have seen in their day – but not until 29 years after the fire.
The daughter of Vito Leone and Lousia Kerchlin, Kate was 14 when she lost her life. She was one of those who jumped and died of a fractured skull. Her body was identified on March 27 by her uncle Dominick and members of her immediate family and was poignantly covered in the March 28 New York Times: “One of the last identifications made was that of Kate Leone. Four of her family worked in the factory and only one was saved. Last night three brothers and a sister gathered around the last coffin in the row. Dominick Leone, an uncle, had been the first man to enter the Morgue after the bodies had been brought there. He had identified two cousins, Nicolina Nicolose and Antonina Colletti, but his search for his brother’s child had been unavailing. Now they thought they had found her. The shoe on the body they surrounded seemed like hers. Then the uncle stooped down and parted the singed and matted hair. He reached in where the tresses close to the head seemed to have been unharmed and with his penknife cut off a lock of hair. As they followed him to the gate where an arc light gleamed, (a) storm broke. Lightning flashed around the building and began to beat in at the open windows. But the little group under the light paid no attention. Suddenly the sister cried out. She had made up her mind that the lock of hair came from the head of the girl they were looking for. The men in the party sobbed. Their search had been successful and the toll of three out of four members of the family was completed. Then, unmindful of the heavy rain, they left the building.”
Born in the U.S., she had lived in this country for her entire life, but had only worked at the factory for a couple of weeks. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 28, 1911, but her name is not marked on the gravestone. She lived at 515 East 11th Street, but I cannot find date information online for the condo building currently on this site.
The daughter of Solomon Liebowitz and Gertrude Ester, Nettie was 23 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Romania, she had lived in the U.S. for 18 months. She was buried in Montefiore Cemetery on March 27, 1911. This is the cemetery my paternal grandparents are buried at and I contemplated a visit. However, only a few Triangle Fire victims are buried here and it is further out in Queens than Mount Zion. Nettie lived at 27 East 3rd Street – which is now a very charming building with lovely stonework, completed in 1920.
The Maltese Family – Caterina, Rosarea, and Lucia
Astoundingly sad – three women in one family lost to the fire, mother Caterina, 39 and her daughters Rosarea, 14 and Lucia, 20. There has been much written about this family – in both the Stein and Von Drehle books (and presumably others) and several published articles. It is really a remarkable story about loss and resolve.
Serafino Maltese, a shoemaker, landed at Ellis Island on May 19, 1906 after 18 days of sailing. Several months after his arrival, he decided to remain and establish himself in America permanently. He wrote to his wife and invited her to bring the entire family to join him in America. Serafino’s family arrived at Ellis Island on August 3, 1907 – Caterina, Lucia, Vito, Rosarea, Maria, and baby Paolo. Before they even left Ellis Island, Maria died from an illness that she had been suffering from for several months. After the Triangle Fire claimed the remaining females in the Maltese family, Serafino was left with two sons to care for while mourning these horrific losses. While he identified his daughters and they were buried in Cavalry Cemetery on March 28, 1911, his wife’s body was so badly burned that he could not identify it. She was buried at the Evergreens Cemetery with the other six unknown victims. Months later, Serafino recognized one of her possessions among those still unidentified. According to Leon Stein, this identification took place on December 18, 1911, and according to Find a Grave, in June 1911. Regardless of the date, her body was exhumed from Evergreens and given a proper burial at Cavalry with daughters Maria, Lucia, and Rosarea. They lived at 35 Second Avenue – I was in disbelief when I walked past what should have been this address and there was no such number – the result of progress to this block. But I included a photo anyway.
At the time of his mother’s death, Paolo was just 5-years old. Paolo’s son, Serphine R. Maltese, a former NY State Senator from Queens, has worked with his brother Vincent and others to ensure that the memory of his family members and all that perished are not forgotten. They formed the Triangle Fire Memorial Association, Inc. on Facebook, an expansion of the Triangle Fire Survivor’s Group, established in 1955 – they currently have more than 1,600 members – I joined prior to my trip.
The daughter of Morris Meyers and Rose Fuller, Yetta was 19 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 3 years and was a union member. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 30, 1911. She lived at 11 Rivington Street, now home of the Off Soho Suites Hotel – I wonder which room Yetta lived in.
Anna Pasqualicchio Ardito and Antonietta Pasqualicchio
The daughters of Vincenzo Pasqualischia and Colomba Petronelli, Anna and her younger sister Antonietta both lost their lives – Anna was 25 and Antonietta was 16. Anna had lived in the U.S. for 10 years and was buried in Calvary Cemetery on April 3, 1911. Antonietta had lived in the U.S. for 1 year and was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 27, 1911. Anna’s body was so badly burned that it took a few days for her husband Francesco to identify her body. According to records, Antonietta died of multiple injuries, implying she jumped. Anna had been married for just shy of 5 years at the time of the fire and left behind a 4-year-old and a baby. In addition to her sister Antonietta living with the married couple, they shared their 4-room apartment with a brother, a married sister, and another relative and his wife. They resided at 509 East 13th Street, the same building where Annie L’Abbate lived.
Julia and Israel Rosen
The daughter of Behr Stillman and Gussie Rosen, widowed Julia was 35 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she lived in the U.S. for 4 years and was a union member. Her young son Israel, age 17 had lived in the U.S. for 3 years, was a union member, and also lost his life in the fire. According to records, Julia jumped and suffered a fractured left leg and multiple injuries; Israel died from asphyxiation and burns. Esther Rosen identified her mother by the braids in her hair and her brother by the signet ring still on his finger. Both were buried at Mount Zion Cemetery; Julia on March 28 and Israel on March 31. They lived at 78 Clinton Street – the low-rise building now on this site was completed in 1920, is five stories tall, and houses just eight apartments.
Santina “Sophie” Salemi, Giuseppina “Josie” Del Castillo, Rosina Cirrito – Cherry Street Neighbors
There was a story of two girls who leapt to their deaths with their arms wrapped around each other. In his book The Triangle Fire, Leon Stein identifies these two girls: “Sophie Salemi and Della Costello (sic) lived in neighboring houses on Cherry Street at 174 and 155, respectively. They had worked at adjacent machines in Triangle. A score of carriages followed the two white hearses. It was altogether fitting that they shared a funeral. The two had leaped from the ninth floor, their arms around each other.” Rosina Cirrito lived at 135 Cherry Street and shares a memorial stone with the other two women. The Italian portion of the gravestone inscription at Cavalry translates roughly, “Here lie, in dreams eternal, three young victims who miserably perished in the enormous fire at Washington Place. Born in Cerda, Sicily. Erected by the families in memoria”
The photos of their street were taken respectively at 135, 145, 149, and 172 Cherry between 1928-1939, but certainly capture closely enough how the street looked when the girls lived there. The women could see the Manhattan Bridge from their block, which opened on December 31, 1909. Nearly all the tenements were razed to make way for public housing.
The daughter of Giacomo Salemi and Marie Ilardi, Sophie was 24 when she lost her life. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 9 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 29, 1911. Her brother and mother identified Sophie’s body, reportedly when her mother recognized a darn in Sophie’s stockings that she’d mended only a day before the fire.
The daughter of Frank Del Castillo and Mary Capona, Josie was 21 when she lost her life. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 8 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 29, 1911. Josie’s brother Benny identified her by the style of her shoe.
The daughter of Joseph and Antoinica Cirrito, Rosina was 18 when she lost her life. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 6 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 28, 1911.
Gussie Schiffman was 18 when she lost her life. Her parents’ names are illegible on the death certificate. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 9 years and was a union member. According to records, Gussie leapt out the window and suffered a fractured skull and neck. The Report of the Union Relief Committee indicates that she earned $7 a week and was the main breadwinner for her family. Her father was a cutter, but worked irregularly, and she had four brothers, one age 14 and the others all pre-school age. She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery on March 27, 1911. She lived at 535 East 5th Street, which is now a large brick apartment building, completed in 2000.
Theresia (Ziegler) Schmidt
Theresa Schmidt was 32 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Find a Grave research reveals some insightful data: Theresia’s birth name was Ziegler and she was from the Turn-Teplitz region of Bohemia (now Austria). She set sail on the SS Kroonland from Antwerp, Belgium on September 17, landing at Ellis Island on September 27. I did some further sleuthing and looked at the ship manifesto – Theresia was the first passenger listed and wrote that her sister Mrs. Lena Thieme lived at 118 East 8th Street (NYU territory), presumably where Theresia lived for a while and a 5-minute walk to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Theresia was Jewish, but married Oscar Schmidt (Schmitt), a German Roman Catholic on June 13, 1909 in NYC. The Red Cross report notes that she was married without children and sent money home to her parents in Austria – this explains why her parents are listed as Frank and Annie Schmidt on the Cornell site, but these were her in-laws. It also explains why she is buried in a Catholic cemetery. Her husband Oscar identified her by jewelry she was wearing. She was buried in Most Holy Trinity Cemetery on March 28, 1911 – the grave is unmarked. Theresia lived at 143 First Avenue at 9th Street, in a building that was completed in 1900. It likely looks much the same way as it did in 1911, with the exception of the commercial businesses on the ground floor.
The daughter of Frank and Marie Stellino, Jennie was 16 when she lost her life. Born in Italy, she had lived in the U.S. for 4 years. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery on March 28, 1911 and her gravestone looks new. She lived at 315 Bowery, an address made famous when the punk rock club CBGB opened there in 1973. The club closed in 2006 and now houses an upscale boutique of designer John Varvatos. The building also has a shelter for homeless men in need of a safe haven, run by BRC.
The daughter of Falik Stiglitz and Pearl Wetzlin, Jennie was 22 when she lost her life. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Her dentist identified her by fillings in her teeth. The Cornell site states that she was single, while her gravestone says, I bemourn the loss of my loving bride. Either she was married or engaged to be married. Born in Austria, she had lived in the U.S. for 5 years. She was buried in Montefiore Cemetery on March 29, 1911. She lived at 231 East 13th Street – right across the street from Jacob Bernstein. I thought this was the original building, but online records state that the building was completed in 1920.
The daughter of Mose and Sarah Arwitz, Rosie was 20 when she lost her life. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for 9 years and was a union member. According to records, she died from burns and multiple injuries, implying she jumped. She was buried in Washington Cemetery on March 26, 1911.
Her great-niece Suzanne Pred Bass, said Rosie was engaged to be married, and had saved $4,000 towards a farm she planned to buy with her fiancé. She and her sister Katie lived at 119 St. Marks Place at Avenue A – this building was just a year old when she lived there at the time of her death – built in 1910. Ironically, the day of the fire, Rosie and Katie were likely aware that it was the anniversary of the death of a third sister, Esther, who lost her life in a trolley accident on Grand Street in 1903. Katie survived the fire and was regarded as a hero for having escaped the fire by sliding down an elevator cable. She testified at the manslaughter trial about how she could not open the locked exit door; the central point of the prosecution’s case.
The daughter of Motel and Esther Wisotsky, Sonia was 17 when she lost her live. According to records, she died from asphyxiation and burns. Born in Russia, she had lived in the U.S. for only 6 months. She was buried in Mt Richmond Cemetery on March 26, 1911. Sonia lived at 303 East 8th Street in the neighborhood now known as Alphabet City. The charming building harkens back to 1900, is fully renovated, and houses very expensive co-ops in the range of $800,000 to 1.6 million!
Commemorating a Few Brave Survivors
While her hair was burned in the fire, 19-year-old Pasqualina jumped to safety from the rooftop to another building. She married Luigi Pellino a year or two after the fire, and they had five children, 13 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. She died in 1979 at the age of 87.
Rose Rosenfeld Freedman
Rose was just two days shy of 18 at the time of the fire. She escaped death by following company executives to the roof to be rescued. She became a lifelong crusader for worker safety, sharing the story that the Triangle workers died because the owners were not concerned with their welfare.
When she and her mother took a trip to their Austrian hometown to show her grandparents that she was really alive, World War I had broken out, and the Russians had invaded Austria. During this time, Rose helped save the life of a spy by burying him in coal in the basement. After her husband’s death in 1952 at age 59, Rose was left without any income. She went back to work to support her three children, two of whom had polio. She lied about her age and worked at a Manhattan insurance company until she was 79. Rose was the oldest survivor and died in 2001 in Beverly Hills, Calif. at age 107.
Giuseppe Alessandro “Joseph” Zito
One of two passenger elevator operators at the Triangle Waist Company at the time of the fire, Joseph and the other operator, Gaspare Mortillaro were heroes, credited with saving more than 150 people. Much has been written about Joseph’s heroic actions to save so many workers that fateful Saturday afternoon. He had only been working in the Asch Building for about 6 months.
As smoke-filled the building, the brave elevator operator made two trips to the tenth floor, filling his elevator with as many people escaping from the flames as he could fit in the 6-by-9-foot elevator. Subsequent trips were made to the eighth and ninth floors. Bodies piled up and blood leaked through the elevator as Joseph made his final trip down. There were more workers than the elevator could hold, and eventually the smoke made it hard to see anything. Joseph reportedly was quoted in The New York Times, “They pulled my hair, dived on top of me, climbed on the roof, and packed themselves in on top of each other. The car is built for 10 passengers. I carried 40 on the last trip down.”
A firefighter found Joseph in the basement with a broken leg, suffering from smoke injuries and nearly drowned from the firefighter’s water that had begun rising at the bottom. The fire affected him profoundly and he was never the same again. Joseph lived with his pregnant common-law wife Maria Carmela DiMatteo and a young child just around the corner at 120 MacDougal Street – the building was nearly brand new when he lived there, completed that same year.
After the fire, he worked as a railroad worker in Ohio, was eventually laid off, returned to New Jersey, where he remarried and had six children. On October 25, 1932, Jersey Observer‘s headline read, “Saved 100 From Death, Dies Penniless.” Joseph was 48 when he died and was buried at Bayview Cemetery.
On December 20, I had the great honor of talking to historian Michael Hirsch, who called me to discuss this article. I gained a good deal of insight about the Triangle Fire during our conversation, and enjoyed reminiscing about the NYC of old and commiserating about the unfortunate gentrification that has taken place, especially in the East Village and Lower East Side. He generously offered to accompany me to a cemetery or two the next time I am in NYC and validated the fact that a lot of the graves at Mount Zion are difficult to locate – I thought there was something wrong with me that September day! I also discovered that many of the photos I used in this article should be attributed to him. I am a huge believer in accuracy and getting it right, so his name has been added under photo credits. I am indebted to Mr. Hirsch for making this article possible and for taking the time to contact me.
Betsy van Die
George Grantham Bain
Hebrew Free Burial Association
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue
Museum of the City of New York
New York Public Library
Robert Di Tolla
Theodor Eismann, Fine Art Printing and Publishing Establishment
East Harlem Preservation, Inc.
Find a Grave
Injured Worker’s Alliance
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, ILR School
The Morningside Post
Mount Zion Cemetery
New York Labor History
The New York Times
Triangle Fire, Leon Stein
Triangle Fire Open Archive
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, David Von Drehle