The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 25, 1911

Assignment:  Read about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 25, 1911.  The stories of Bessie Cohen and Rose Freedman, the last two survivors of the fire, were written upon their deaths in 1999 and 2001 respectively.  

     Write a reaction to the readings, and include in your reaction: What impresses you the most about each of the two women?  How were each affected by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?  Can you think of other people in history, or in your own life, who have been similarly shaped by traumatic events? 

Triangle Shirtwaist Company 

Bessie Cohen, Survivor of 1911 Shirtwaist Fire,
Dies February, 24, 1999


Bessie Cohen, who as a 19-year-old seamstress escaped the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in which 146 of her co-workers perished in 1911, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 107 and one of the last two known survivors of the Manhattan fire, according to the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

Her son, Jack Kosslyn, an acting teacher and casting director, said she died at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Los Angeles, where she had lived for the last 14 years. Until six weeks ago, he said, she had retained much of her vitality and memory.

Over the years, she had graphically recalled for her family, as well as for historians and documentary filmmakers, what she experienced and witnessed on March 25, 1911, when the worst factory fire in New York history raged through the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Streets.

Inside, about 500 women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, worked behind locked doors making shirtwaists, blouses of lightweight fabric, depicted as the uniform of modern womanhood in the illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and Mrs. Cohen, then Bessie Gabrilowich, was on the ninth floor. She had come alone from Russia to New York two years earlier and had worked in several shops as a stitcher, saving money to bring her sisters to America. The workers were near the end of their 6-day, 52-hour workweek, and since one of the women on the ninth floor had just become engaged, someone had brought a cake, and slices were being passed around.

For the rest of her life, Bessie Cohen would remember that earlier in the day, she had urged her friend, Dora Abramowitz, who was 15, to ask the foreman to give her a 50-cent raise to bring her salary up to the $3 a week that Bessie was earning. At the moment that someone screamed fire, Bessie was teaching a dance step to a fellow worker. The flames were coming up from the cutting room on the floor below.

Within the next 15 minutes, nearly 30 percent of all the Triangle Shirtwaist workers were killed. Mrs. Cohen would later tell her children that after the warning, she went to look for the cheap straw hat she had bought the day before, when she heard a foreman shout to her in Yiddish, "Bessie, save yourself." She looked across the room and could see her friend Dora, looking frightened. But when she looked again, Dora was gone. She was one of those who jumped from the windows and died.

The fire trucks' ladders could reach only to the seventh floor. Firefighters held nets below, but so many women were jumping at the same time that the nets tore and did not hold them. Some rushed to the elevator shaft, hoping to escape by sliding down the cables, only to lose their grip. Most of those who lost their lives had worked on the ninth floor.

Later inquiries found that doors leading from the shop areas had been locked, presumably to keep the women at their sewing machines. The owners, who were tried for manslaughter, were acquitted when the jury could not establish whether they had ordered the doors locked or had even known they were locked. But in 1914, civil suits brought by relatives of 23 victims ended with payments of $75 to each of the families.

On the day of the fire, Mrs. Cohen would recall, she somehow found her way to a staircase and covered her face with her purse as she ran to the street.

The next day, she returned to the street outside the building, where the bodies were arrayed so that friends and relatives might identify them. A newspaper photographer took a picture of her as she collapsed at the sight; Kosslyn said his mother kept that newspaper picture throughout her life.

She took other jobs, he said, and became active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, whose organizing efforts gained momentum after the fire. Two years before the blaze, a three-month strike of about 20,000 shirtwaist workers in New York City and Philadelphia had helped to entrench the union and had focused public attention on conditions in sweatshops. The needle trades union is a successor to the International Ladies Garment Workers.

At least one survivor of the fire is still living, according to The Associated Press. Rose Freedman, 105, of Beverly Hills, Calif., escaped by fleeing to the roof, her family said.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire has become the most vivid symbol of the struggle for workplace safety. As outrage mounted after the fire, the union intensified its demands for safer working conditions. A huge crowd of sympathizers, Mrs. Cohen among them, paraded in mourning to the arch in Washington Square Park. Hearings were held, and by the end of 1911, the city of New York had established a Bureau of Fire Investigation, headed by the future senator, Robert F. Wagner, who was later the father of the Wagner Labor Act. The bureau had the power to impose and enforce safety regulations.

The Asch Building, its interior long since gutted and rebuilt, became a part of New York University and still stands.

Mrs. Cohen is survived by her son, Jack, of Los Angeles, and a daughter, Sylvia Scott of Calistoga, Calif. A grandson, Jan Tangen, died last year.

In 1915, Bessie married and moved with her husband, Lewis Cohen, to New London, Conn., where her son and daughter were born. For many years after the fire, her son said, she would react fearfully to thunder and lightning, burying her head in her arms and sobbing.

The family moved to Passaic, N.J., and then to New York. In 1940, after her marriage ended, she moved to Los Angeles, where her son was living. Mrs. Cohen, an independent woman, lived on her own until she was 93 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, staying on after most of the Jewish residents had left.

When she was 89, she was mugged and had her jaw fractured by two men who took her purse, which contained a bus pass and 60 cents.

After two weeks, she returned to her home and neighbors, sipping liquids through her wired jaw for months. When she finally did leave for the nursing home, about 200 of her neighbors, almost all of them Hispanic, saluted her with a festive street party. 

Saturday, February 17, 2001 

Last Survivor of 1911 Sweatshop Fire Dies 
History: Rose Freedman was a link to New York's Triangle Shirtwaist blaze, a turning point for U.S. labor. 

By ELAINE WOO, Times Staff Writer

Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York that claimed 146 lives and raised the nation's consciousness about workplace safety, died at her home in Beverly Hills on Thursday. She was 107. 
Her memories of the industrial disaster that ultimately transformed working conditions for Americans remained sharp well past her 100th birthday. She lived independently until she became ill several months ago, amazing friends and family with her energy and an intellectual zest that had her studying Spanish, her seventh language, in her last years. 
 She supported the labor movement, speaking at a garment workers rally in Los Angeles when she was 104. In January she was featured in the first episode of a PBS television series on centenarians called "The Living Century."  Freedman was born in Vienna in 1893 when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At 15, she joined the wave of European immigrants to America, arriving in New York on the steamship Mauritania in 1909. 
Although she had a comfortable life in Vienna, she regarded her arrival in the United States "like a miracle"--the first of several in a remarkable life.  The daughter of a businessman, she stayed home and tended house. But insulted when her sister said that housework was not really work, she decided to become like other American girls and get a job. 
"I wanted to show that I'm [a] real American and I want to work like everybody else. And I went on my own, found a job," she said in the PBS documentary. "And then, I almost paid with my life."  She became one of more than 500 young women--mostly 16- to 23-year-old Italian and Jewish immigrants--who found work at Triangle Shirtwaist Co., which made a popular style of dresses. She was 16 and was hired to stitch buttons. The going wage was $3 for a six-day week. 
Freedman was at work on March 25, 1911, when a fire alarm sounded at 4:43 p.m. The factory, which occupied the 10-story Asch Building off Washington Square in Lower Manhattan, had 700 employees, and nearly all were there on that Saturday. It was payday and close to quitting time.  On the eighth floor, a small fire smoldering in a rag bin had suddenly exploded, fed by oil from sewing machines and by the rows of tissue patterns hanging above the cutting tables. Workers surged to the fire doors, but the doors had been bolted to prevent the women from taking breaks or stealing. The factory had one fire escape, but when women piled on, it collapsed, plunging them to the pavement nine stories below. 
Flames chased the workers, igniting their skirts and hair. Many felt they had no choice but to jump. Some aimed for firefighters' nets, which did little good. A 13-year-old girl hanging by her fingertips for several minutes on a 10th-floor ledge fell into one of the nets, along with two other women, but it split apart on impact and all three died. A man was seen gallantly offering women his hand as they stepped one after another into the thin air, until finally he embraced one of them and dropped her before falling to his own death. "They hit the pavement like rain," a fire chief sadly testified much later, after the sidewalks had been cleared of the broken bodies. 
Within minutes, the fire bounded to the ninth floor, where Freedman worked.  "All of a sudden, you've got a terrible panic," Freedman said. "Everybody was running to the door. It was locked." 
She worked just one floor below the executives. She wondered: Where were they?  She ran up to the 10th floor, but the bosses were gone. While terror reigned below them, they had fled to the roof.  "They saved themselves already," she said.  Freedman pulled her dress over her head and rushed to the roof. Firemen hoisted her to the top of the adjacent building. She was exhausted, her faced was charred and her eyebrows singed, but she made it down several flights of stairs, sat on a stoop and cried. 
The flames were extinguished in half an hour, but 126 women and 20 men were dead. Investigators later decided that a lit cigarette was the probable cause of the worst factory fire in New York history.  Horror followed the revelations of conditions inside the building: the locked doors, poor sanitation and crowding, and the employers' disregard for the simplest precautions, such as fire drills. Public outrage intensified with the acquittals on manslaughter charges of the Triangle owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. 
The Triangle fire became a watershed in labor history, resulting in changes that profoundly affected the modern American workplace. Thirty-six laws were passed in three years, improving everything from building design and fire regulations to working hours for women and children.  Although the Triangle owners tried to buy Freedman's silence, she refused to lie about the locked doors and did not participate in their trial. She left the garment business and went on to college but never forgot about the greed and exploitation that caused so much suffering and death.  "The executives with a couple steps could have opened the door. But they thought they were better than the working people," Freedman said in the PBS show. "What good is a rich man and he hasn't got a heart? I feel it. Still. I feel very bad about it." 
Surviving the fire was the first miracle in her life, Freedman said, and she often spoke of two more. The second came three years later, in 1914, when she returned to Austria for a visit and wound up saving a man's life as World War I erupted around them.  A friend of her grandparents had rushed into their house one day and begged for shelter. He was a Russian Jew who had been spying for Austria. Now he was being pursued by the Cossacks, who were terrorizing the part of Austria where Freedman was staying. She hustled him to the basement and buried him in a bin of coal. When a Cossack showed up at the door moments later, Freedman--a tiny woman, barely 5 feet tall--explained that she and her family were visitors from America and asked him to leave. 
The Cossack left, and the next morning, so did the spy. Several weeks later, Freedman found the man's wife at the door, on her knees in thanks for saving the father of their five children. 
Freedman said the third miracle was seeing two of her children recover from polio during the epidemic of 1942-43.  She was married for 25 years to Harry Freedman, who ran a typewriter business. After his death in 1952, she went to business school and at the age of 59 was hired by the Mark Cross pen company in New York. When she was 64, she left for a job in customer relations at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., but lied about her age. Fifteen years later, when her employers thought she had finally reached pension age, she retired. She was 79. 
She moved permanently to Los Angeles when she was in her 90s. She continued her lifelong passion for learning, taking classes and painting. At 100, she went to Mexico to study Spanish. She always dressed up in heels, had her hair done weekly and did her own shopping. She steadfastly spurned all invitations to move in with her children, explaining that "young people belong together and I have a life of my own." 
A year ago, she mesmerized Occidental College students when she spoke at a seminar on sweatshops. "There was a chain of history that Rose was a part of and that still threads through the 20th and 21st centuries, from New York to Los Angeles," said Peter Dreier, the professor who organized the seminar. "It was so wonderful because she's seen the worst and it didn't make her cynical. She turned her anger into a positive force in her life." 
Her family said that although she never lost sight of the lessons of the Triangle fire, she was not obsessed by it. She took pride in her family, particularly the women, who have all pursued careers with her strong encouragement.  "She loved her career . . . and felt that added a dimension to her life," said granddaughter Dana Walden, head of 20th Century Fox Television. " . . . She believed quite fully in doing things that make you happy.'  Freedman, who was honored on International Women's Day in 1998, is survived by a daughter, Arlene March of Los Angeles; two sons, Herbert, of Rye County, N.Y., and Robert, of Los Angeles; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. 


Other Pictures of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire