Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Letter to Wm

From Charles Willis Thompson

From the Charles Willis Thompson Letters, Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY

April 14, 1911

Dear Wm:

It is being some months or years since I wrote you a letter, I have been smitten with remorse and have determined to take my duties as your Staff Correspondent more seriously hereafter. But don't get too much cheered by this statement, as by next week I shall probably have relapsed into my normal condition of laziness agin [sic]. I don't know how to account for my present activity, but suppose it is due to the influence of Spring -- season when the sap begins to flow, and all that sort of thing.

In reporting what has happened since I am somewhat handicapped by not remembering when it was I wrote to you last, but probably it will be safe to take up the narrative from a point a year or two back. Or perhaps it would be better to begin at the present date and work backward until my own new-found energy gives out.

That being the case, I will recount to you the fact that the other day our Brooklyn man, Harry Spencer, of whom you have heard me speak, called up and said, "Is that you, Thompson?" "It is," I replied. "Well, who shall I send it to?" he asked. "What's that? I don't understand you?" Who shall I send it to?" "Send what to?" "My check for the relief fund for the Yoshiwara."

I know you don't read the papers, but perhaps somebody told you that a gloom had been cast over the world by the burning of the Yoshiwara.

The wife and kid have been having a tough winter, and some weeks ago they went down to Atlantic City to recuperate. They got back on a Saturday night, and I took them over to Shanley's to get some dinner. Several of the bunch dropped in, and we were having quite a time when Johnny Butler, one of the managers, came up and told me I was wanted on the phone. It turned out to be the night city editor, Fred Birchall, who told me that he would like to have me write the lead on the Washington Place fire.

My job is that of assistant Sunday editor, so that I can't be assigned by the night city editor, but this was not an assignment; it was a call for help. Every man in the city department had been pressed into service. Of course I responded to the alarm. Sent Mrs. Thompson and Ruth home and went down to the scene of the fire, afterwards to the police station and the Morgue.

The first impression when I got down there and looked at the building where the Triangle Waist Company had burned up 145 girls and men was that I would like to hold the rope if there was any general movement to hang Harris & Blanck. It conveys no picture to the imagination to say that the fire was 100 feet above the street: figures don't make pictures. But when you stand on the street and almost topple over backward craning your neck to see a place away up in the sky, and realize the way those bodies came hurtling down over the inconceivable distance, it seems more as if it were 100 miles.

In the days when I was a reporter I saw a good many fires and a good many dead bodies, but I never saw anything so horrible as this, and it is the first time that I ever had to get out of the place and go and get a drink to brace up. I might have thought it due to my thirteen years' absence from the reporting field, were it not that the police were all broken up, that one of them said, "This is the worst I ever saw," and that a hardened reporter said, " I saw the Slocum disaster, but it was nothing to this."

Standing on Greene Street among the wooden coffins my gaze was attracted to something at my feet. It looked like a parcel of some kind of goods, reduced to ashes. It had no shape, and was just a parcel of cinders. I looked at it for some time, idly wondering why they should have dumped that package of burned goods on the sidewalk. Then I saw the top of it, with congealed blood on it. The top was a neck. Head, arms and legs were all gone, which accounted for its peculiar shape. It was at that moment that I broke through the lines, saying to the policeman who looked at me inquiringly, "This is too much for me; I'm going to get a drink." He nodded understandingly and said in a heartfelt tone, " I wish to God I could go with you and get one too." When I got it it was about four fingers deep.

The story that I wrote when I got back to the office was so hot that they wouldn't print it as I wrote it, and made me tone it down.

Still traveling backward, I have to inform you that when William F. Sheehan and Edward M. Shepard started in to secure the Senatorship which subsequently went to James A. O'Gorman, I was commissioned to go to Buffalo and get the record of Sheehan. I went there. I prowled through Sheehan's record and came back and wrote three columns of it for the news section of the Times. The Baron Warn, our Albany correspondent, told me on his next trip to New York that Sheehan frothed at the mouth over it. I showed up him up good and proper.

Traveling still further back, I beg to report that I covered the Democratic State Convention at Rochester. I had with me a staff consisting of the aforesaid Baron Warn (who covered the State Convention of 1906 with me at Buffalo) and two men named Hambidge and Harvey. It was there that I made the biggest sensation I ever made in The Times office. The Times was Democratic. After I had been there a few days I made up my mind to tell the truth about the Convention, and I sent in a dispatch so hot that it blistered the wires. I said sinister influences controlled it, that you couldn't throw a brick in any direction without hitting a lobbyist or a railroad attorney, that it was not a people's Convention but that of the interests, that Murphy ran it from his room, that the real Convention was being held in Room 212 of the Seneca Hotel, and so on for a column and a half.

The Times printed it, and the next morning I was being cursed in every hotel in Rochester. I heard people who didn't know that the author of the dispatch was standing at their elbows damning him from hell to breakfast. Democratic politicians told me I was going to get fired; lobbyist friends of mine wouldn't speak to me. For a couple of hours after The Times got to Rochester nobody was talking about the Convention; everybody was talking about the Times story. Everywhere you went, you saw Democrats holding up The Times to each other, reading extracts from it and swearing like pirates.

Next day Roosevelt addressed a meeting in Carnegie Hall and read my dispatch to them. From that time on he and Stimson made it the issue of the campaign, ringing the changes on "Room 212 of the Seneca Hotel."

When I got back to the office, I found that on the night the dispatch arrived it was a bombshell. The telegraph desk held a council of war on it; at first they were not going to print it; then they put it up to Van Anda, the managing editor, and he said. "Print it." But they were a sore bunch. When I got back they objurgated me and expressed their unbiased opinion of my ancestry, character, habits and destination in the hereafter. "The first time the Democrats get a show to carry an election," said old John O'Neill, the night editor, "you try to get 'em licked. You are a hell of a fellow."

The atmosphere was distinctly formal for a few days. I didn't know quite where I was at. The more so in view of Roosevelt's action. A few days after my return I was standing in the ante-room of Mr. Reick, the general manager of the paper, talking with Mr. Thomas R. Ybarra, a reporter who left the paper some months before to go on The World, and who had just returned. Reick came out. It was the first time I had seen him since Rochester. He saw Ybarra first, and said, "Hello, Mr. Ybarra; where have you been?" "On the World," replied Ybarra. "Ah," said Reick." Then he caught sight of me, and broke into an irrepressible grin. "And where have you been, Mr. Thompson?" he inquired, still grinning: "on the World too?"

A few days later I interviewed John A. Dix, the Democratic candidate for Governor, and wrote a page character sketch of him as well. Just before the paper went to press Reick came into the Sunday room and said, "Mr. Thompson, please let me have a proof of that Dix story. I want," he explained, with another radiant grin, "to make sure there is no dynamite in it."

So I felt pretty sure that I was all right with Reick. But as to the other bosses I was by no means sure. However, all things work together for good to them that love God. I had had a big indication of the confidence my paper had in me, that they would print a dispatch raising hades of their own policy, and liking it as little as they evidently did. After Gov. Dix began to make the monkey he has of himself and the Democratic party, and after Murphy has assumed personal control of the Legislature, everybody made the amende honorable for the thoughts they had thought -- they never said anything. The first to come across was Brougham, one of the editorial writers, and Editor Miller's assistant. He said, "We thought you were wrong about that Rochester matter, but it has turned out that you were right and we were wrong. We never were so badly fooled in our lives." Later, going down on the elevator, I saw, standing in the corridor, Dithmar, an editorial writer of higher position. He shouted, as the elevator passed down, "Well, events have vindicated you!"

So the net result is that I am stronger than ever. It seemed a reckless thing to do, but it turned out to have been much better than if I had simply followed the policy of The Times and written dispatches which had no teeth. It is talked of in the office yet, and that is going some, for as a rule a newspaper story is never heard of in the office a week after it is published.

I got so thoroughly disgusted with what I saw at Rochester and the conclusions to which it led me as to the probable result of a Democratic victory -- conclusions which were more than justified by the course of Gov. Dix, the actions of the Legislature, and Murphy's unprecedented course -- that I voted the straight Republican ticket for the first time in fifteen years. On election day, I dropped in to see Harry Spencer. "How did you vote, Harry?" I asked. "Oh," he said, languidly, "I voted for the Pennsylvania, after all; I don't think the New York Central is as well qualified to be trusted with the reins of government."

The appearance of Sheehan and Shepard as candidates didn't excite me as much. I couldn't see that it made much difference which set of interests won out. In December I was asked which I thought would be elected -- Sheehan or Shepard? I always replied, "Neither of them." "Who then?" "I don't know his name, but he will be either a Justice of the Supreme Court or an ex-Justice of the Supreme Court, and he will come from New York City and be a member of Tammany Hall." Considerable prophet, what?

It is only in New York that the Democrats have pied their type. They seem to be behaving very well elsewhere, especially in Washington, New Jersey and Maine.

As I have egotized over three pages I will give you a relief from this Thompsonification, or Thompsonapotheosis, by something impersonal. It concerns an April Fool joke played on our telegraph editor, Jack Payne. The hands of the clock stood at midnight on March 31. Five minutes thereafter, Payne looked up amiably, surveyed his subordinates and remarked, "This is a light night; nothing is happening. I'm here to bet that I go home early."

At that moment an office-boy came down from the telegraph operators' room, bringing the usual batch of envelopes containing telegraphic dispatches. Payne opened one carelessly, glanced at it, and then his eyes popped out of his head and he let out a yell that rent the ceiling. It read:

"St. Petersburg, March 31. Czar Nicholas was assassinated by means of a dynamite bomb in front of the Winter Palace at 9:35 P.M. Further details in a few minutes.


Payne jumped out of his chair, hurled the dispatch over to his head copy-reader and made a bee-line for the door. "Put three men on the Czar's obituary!" he shouted, as he ran: "assign a man to the Russian Consulate, and wire the Washington bureau. I'm going to the composing room to notify the foreman to get ready!"

The most widely excited telegraph editor you ever saw was on the dead run for the stairway; he couldn't waste time on the telephone. As he reached the head of the stairs another office-boy met him with another telegram. With feverish hands Payne tore it open and read the following:

"St. Petersburg, March 31.--The Czar's dying words were: 'April Fool.' "

If my present fit of industry continues I will write you an account of the next meet of the KLT. How are you? I am glad you are back in Silver Springs; it will save me the trouble of looking up your address, which I would have had to do if you had been in Detroit. Hope your wife and progeny are well.

As ever,

Chas (signed)

New York Times letterhead dated April 14, 1911