The young woman he mentions in his review, Rosie Freedman, did, in fact, die in the fire, and her life story is an important part of "Triangle." She was born in Bialystok, Poland, in the early 1890s. In 1906--as a young teenager--she survived one of the deadliest pogroms in Russian history. Her family then sent her, alone, across Europe to board a steamship for the crossing to New York. After clearing Ellis Island, she went to live with an aunt and uncle who were already in New York. It's likely she had never met them.
At age 14, Rosie managed to earn enough in the garment factories to pay her room and board, cover her expenses, and send money home to support the family she left behind.
Rosie Freedman died in the Triangle fire, on March 25, 1911.
About 350 workers survived that fire. One was a teenager named Rose Rosenfeld. Years later, she married a man named Freedman, and Rose Rosenfeld became Rose Freedman. Mr. Peladeau is correct that Rose Rosenfeld-Freedman lived to the age of 107, and was the longest-lived survivor of the fire.
This is all explained in the end notes of "Triangle." Mr. Peladeau is wrong. These are two entirely different people. This is not a major mistake--in fact, as other reviewers have noted, "Triangle" contains more information about the lives of the Triangle factory workers than any previous book on this subject.
--David Von Drehle
Ironically, the Triangle factory made shirtwaists, which were the women's blouses of the time, and they were something of a sartorial liberation for women. It was a practical garment, with no hoops or corsets, and yet it was fashionable enough for the Gibson Girl. The book covers the lengthy strike at Triangle of 1909, but the strike was not about safety, just hours and pay. Von Drehle shows that there had already been factory buildings successfully protected from fire. Automatic sprinklers, firewalls, and fireproof doors and stairways were, from the 1880s, standard in some factories. The Triangle owners paid lots for insurance, and little for safety. The building itself was promoted as fireproof, and it proved essentially to be, but the contents were certainly not. There were about 250 workers in the building, and as they attempted to escape, each fire hazard took its toll. A door to the rear stairway was locked, for instance, because the owners insisted that workers use only one stairway. This ensured that before leaving the building, everyone could be checked for goods smuggled out. Crowds mobbed shut other doors which opened inwards. The account of the fire is vivid and scary. 140 people died in the fire, 123 of them women. About a hundred of the deaths were those who fell or jumped.
The owners were tried for manslaughter. Van Drehle has uncovered a lost transcript of the trial, which focused on the locked doors. On the stand, one of the owners stressed the importance of having the door locked to prevent theft, but when pressed to state how much loss there had been to theft, he admitted that it was less than $25 a year. The owners were deemed not guilty, and gained $60,000 in insurance payments. The resulting public outcry provided a new impetus for workplace safety, creating rules that are in force even today, like the ones requiring outward swinging doors. Van Drehle shows that even more importantly, it began to be taken for granted that a progressive government ought to be regulating such matters. Tammany Hall came around to protecting the workers, and from this change grew such philosophies as the New Deal. _Triangle_ compellingly tells the story of the building's fire, but even better, it covers the stories of the women workers involved in the disaster, and the changes the fire brought. The fire lasted a horrific ten minutes in 1911, but it has not finished burning yet.
Framed by the scorn and indifference toward laborers before the fire, and the realization of guilt that led to the rush to reform after it, the events of March 25, 1911 are heartbreakingly described by Mr. Von Drehle's vivid prose. But the description of the actual fire is only part of the book. He doesn't linger over the gruesome details to satisfy some cruel, voyeuristic hunger that some readers might have expected. There's just enough narrative to convey the chaos, terror and sadness of the event. To prevent the story from getting too morbid, the author diligently included the many individual acts of heroism by police, firemen, passersby and neighboring NYU students.
The main purpose of the book, as the subtitle explains, is to demonstrate how the Triangle catastrophe profoundly affected Tammany Hall, New York City and State government, the federal governemt, the labor union movement, socialists, and Democrats. The dedication of the reformers and labor leaders like Al Smith, Frances Perkins, Robert Wagner, Sr., Clara Lemlich, and so on, is also highlighted. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, receive the vilification they deserve. And somewhere in the moral gray area are the two most enigmatic figures: Tammany leader Charles Murphy and the attorney for Blanck and Harris, Max Steuer.
One last note: the book is a fascinating history of the history of the disaster. By that I mean that Mr. Von Drehle reports how others before him--the newspapers, Attorney Steuer, Clara Lemlich, and Leon Stein--recounted the events of that dark day, and how frighteningly close we came to losing these records (especially Steuer's). It represents the debt we owe to Mr. Von Drehle's dogged research, as well as the debt he owes his predecessors. Amazing.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points