The reaction to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory calamity was a half-million person march. The trial was set for a date nearly 100 years ago: Dec. 4, 1911. Extra police were called to prevent rioting, and when the defendants entered the courtroom, the women observers cried “Murderers, murderers!”

They were not to receive satisfaction from the jury, but the tragedy did result in greater safety for other workers.

This story began on a warm spring Saturday in New York City, March 25, 1911. Shortly before quitting time, a fire broke out in the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, a manufacturer of women’s blouses. Only the top three floors of the 10-story building off Washington Square were occupied, filled with cutting rooms, sewing machines and offices – and 180 people.

The streets below swarmed with horrified spectators watching helplessly as emergency workers arrived on the scene and attempted in vain to avert tragedy. The building was well known for the stream of female employees that lined up for entry at the beginning of each shift. When the smoke cleared, the corpses of 146 garment workers were discovered.

This was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001. The story and its chilling details are kept alive in “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), a Cornell University Web site, and numerous articles published in The New York Times and elsewhere over the years.

Public outrage fueled the search for blame and fingers were pointed at the city’s buildings department. District Attorney Charles Whitman called for an immediate investigation, but the Borough President reported that the building had met code standards at last inspection. (Whitman later became the 44th governor of New York in 1915, and his grandson married Christine Todd, who went on to be a Republican governor of New Jersey.)

The Fire Marshall announced the finding of waste near oil cans, cigarettes and clippings lying around, and locked exit doors. The discovery of those locked doors focused the investigation on the Shirtwaist owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, proprietors of the largest firm in the garment business. The grand jury indicted them less than two weeks after the fire; they were freed on a $25,000 bond each.

The trial judge was Thomas Crain, who, prior to being appointed to the bench, had been a member of the law firm of Kennison, Crain and Alling at 35 Wall St. But it was another position he had held that, as suggested by Von Drehle, may have influenced how Judge Crain viewed the Shirtwaist fire, and thus how he handled the trial.

He was serving as Tenement House Commissioner in 1905 when a Lower East Side tenement fire resulted in the deaths of 20 people, 10 of them children. Crain blamed the tenants for not keeping the fire escapes clear, but ultimately public pressure forced him to resign.

Enter the Defense Attorney

The defense attorney, Max. D. Steuer, was clearly the star of the show and one of the most sought-after litigators for three decades. An article in The New Yorker on May 16, 1931, cited an example of his persuasive skill: He “convinced a jury that expert accountants had committed twelve hundred thousand dollars’ worth of negligence . . . the judge, holding that the verdict was one part justice and five hundred and ninety-nine parts Steuer, reduced the award to two thousand dollars.”

An article from the same publication a week later reported that Steuer was not enamored of his clients and often referred to them as rogues or morons. S. S. Kresge, the founder of the famous chain store, reportedly “paid a fortune to hear himself described as an old fool.”

Steuer, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, worked in a garment sweatshop as a boy and could easily relate to the witnesses. But he lived at 300 Park Ave. and when he died in 1943 he left an estate of almost $5 million. The honorary pallbearers at his funeral included New York state Governor Lehman, former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, Mayor LaGuardia, U.S. Senator Robert Wagner (father of former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.), Simon Guggenheim, and notable attorneys Sol Stroock and Joseph Proskauer. Steuer’s son Aron was later named a Supreme Court Justice for New York.

Testimony for the Prosecution

At the start of the trial the defense resisted all requests that the witnesses be allowed to testify in their native languages, mostly Yiddish, through an interpreter: Steuer believed this would force them to speak in English, not their native tongue, resulting in confusing and less compelling testimony. They would be easier to trip up on cross examination and perhaps the jurors would equate their poor English with low intelligence and discredit their testimony. Judge Crain did allow some witnesses to testify in Yiddish, but because Steuer knew the language, he would often contradict the translator, further undermining their testimony.

The prosecutor’s theory of the case was simple: Locking a factory door during working hours was a misdemeanor, and a misdemeanor that led to a death was felony manslaughter. The prosecution produced 103 witnesses, mostly young Triangle women, to establish that the fire quickly cut off their escape route, turning workers to face a locked door.

Many witnesses testified that the door was locked. According to “Triangle,” one Katie Weiner told jurors:

“I turned the knob this way and that. I pushed it toward myself and I couldn’t open it; then I pushed it inward and it wouldn’t go . . . .” Witnesses testified that the defendants locked doors to prevent pilfering.

One of the prosecution witnesses, Kate Alterman, offered gripping testimony about the death of Margaret Schwartz, one of the factory workers. As also recounted in “Triangle,” Steuer focused on her testimony and asked her to repeat her account of Schwartz’s death, guessing that she had memorized the story. He then asked her to repeat it a couple more times. Each time the words Alterman used were similar but not identical, and some of the jurors began to notice that it was a recitation.

Steuer effectively caused the jurors to think they had made a discovery, that the girl was just speaking rehearsed lines. While the story was true, the fact that she had committed it to memory decreased its credibility.

The prosecution placed a lock in evidence as an example of the type locked during the fire. Herman Hurwitz, a locksmith, testified that the lock on the Washington Place door, now in evidence, could not have been on the door at the time of the fire, saying that he reached this conclusion after examining the door and lock, finding that the lock was much too thick for the door.

The prosecution called one of the defendants, Blanck, to the stand. He testified that he had occasion to go from floor to floor on a regular basis and never used a key. The defense presented witnesses designed to show that deaths resulted from fire blocking the stairwell, even though the doors were actually open. One of the defense witnesses, May Levantini, testified that she turned the key in the door and opened it only to find flames and smoke which made her turn back.

On Dec. 27, Judge Crain read to the jury New York’s labor law: “All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be so constructed as to open outwardly where practicable and shall not be locked bolted or fastened during working hours.” Crain told the jury members that to return a verdict of guilty they must find that the door was locked and the defendants knew or should have known that it was locked.

The jury deliberated for less that two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty. According to “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial” by Douglas Linder, one juror said,

“I believed that the door was locked at the time of the fire, but we couldn’t find them guilty unless we believed they knew the door was locked.” Linder, Douglas, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial (2007). available at SSRN:

None of the other jurors would make a statement. It was discovered that three ballots were taken, the first being 8 to 2 for acquittal, with two jurors not voting.

The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.

The New York Legislature created a commission called The Factory Commission of 1911, headed by U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner, Alfred E. Smith and Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. One of the commission’s most significant results was the creation of the Fire Prevention division as part of the Fire Department. Restrictions were made to prevent fires from happening and to prevent the blockage of escape routes.

Kenneth Knott is business continuity manager at Proskauer Rose.