Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Joseph Flecher

Job: Office Manager

10th floor

Interviewed: June 5, 1958

Interview with Joseph Flecher (hereafter referred to as F) at his home.

F started by showing his "credentials": a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, credentials as a correspondent for "Noutatea", a daily in Iassy, other correspondence.

F. then went to discuss the day of the fire.

F's office was on the 10th floor. Factory was located on 8th, 9th and 10th floor.

Work was on a 6 day per week basis, Saturday worked till 5 p.m.

At 4 p.m. F called Mary Lowenthal who had charge of distributing payroll on the 9th floor. Handed over to her a box with cash to distribute the payroll. F then went to the 8th floor where cutters were employed. Distributed the payroll. And returned to 10th floor with left over pay.

It was about 4.45 p.m, then.

I heard an awful noise coming from below : "Fire, Fire, Fire".

I did not know what to do, I started going to the 10th floor, on the freight elevator side. Smoke was coming through the shaft, I said to myself I must take care of myself -- "C'est moi". I went to the office on the 10th floor, then to the roof. I looked down.

There was already a cop on the horse by the building.

I then saw firemen coming up, running up the hose.

I saw operators looking down from 8th, 9th and 10th floor windows.

Smoke coming up from the 8th floor.

Lines of machines had a lot of trash around them -- pieces of fabric, etc. They probably caught fire very rapidly.

When F was on the 10th floor, and then on the roof, looking out of the widows and from the roof saw people "sticking out of the windows" and falling. Saw people jump. Some jumped to the sidewalk where they lay dead.

Most peculiar -- look at me -- firemen did not make any attempt to raise the ladder, which would not have reached beyond 3rd or 4th floor.

They pulled out a net -- 6 to 7 feet wide. Six-seven firemen kept the net up. When a man took it on himself to jumphe would go right through the net and hit the sidewalk.

When I seen this, I had my senses, I took possession of my brains.

Then went to the roof of the New York university. It was 6-7 feet higher than our roof. There was a wire hanging from the room.

I said to myself -- it is only 6-7 feet. I better go up and climb.

I began to pull myself up. Others saw me do It and tried to follow my way. The wire broke under their weight and they went down, down Mercer Street. (Stein asks him was it Mercer or Greene -- F corrects himself - Greene St.).

Skirts were flying in the air. But there was no attempt by the fire department to catch them.

I was living on Second Avenue then. Wife did not know about the fire. She knew there was a fire somewhere nearby. Fire engines passed. But she did not know that the fire was at the Triangle.

I brought Sarah home -- she was a sample hand in the place.

Her name is Sarah Golding. She lives at 2480 16th St, NW Washington, DC. Her phone HO 2-6392. Her daughter Elsie has a phone in Washington JU 5-8592.

After the fire, they called me to the Fire Department to get a report. Fire Chief and the District Attorney were at in the office. "F, will you please come in?" There were 10-15 reporters around there. I went over to the Superintendent of Investigation. I told him "May I ask a favor to you Mr. Fire Chief and to all in politics? I want to ask you to exclude the press. You will give me credit for this later." They kept reporters out.

Croker, Fire Commissioner, was going to ask me questions. "Why were there so many deaths?" he asked. I told him that on the 9th floor the door opened from outside to inside. Men and women panicked and rushed to the door. 40 people were trying to open the door. Is it possible to open the door with 40 people pushing against it."

Then I told him "The reason I asked you to exclude the press is to make favorable remarks to you. Maybe you will shoot me. I am not afraid. So Croker asked me why did you ask to exclude the press. And I told him. When I saw people throwing themselves out, there was not protection given them from any department to prevent their dying. Mr. Croker, I don't know your water valve system. Your hose -- excuse my expression -- only pissed to the second or the third floor. You had no water tower. We did not have fire escapes - only two elevators, front and back.

STEIN asks - no fire escapes - F. says no fire escapes.

Can you imagine it - Fire Department could not reach the 8th floor with water. After the fire, I could find nothing left in my own office.

So what does Crocker say? He says the reason the fire hose did not reach is because we need more inventions. So I told him - I will never forget this. 8 firemen stretching a net -- a 6 by 6 net -- net bursts like a piece of paper when someone jumps. Croker - he listens and says Mr. F we will never forget you for kicking out the press. The materials, you know, from which the nets are made we never had a chance to find out how strong they were. We had for 1 or 2 years before - but this was the first time we could find out whether they were any good.

Everyone shook hands with me.

Gentlemen, I do not know whether this investigation did it, but a week later Croker resigned.

This was the main theory attributed to the Police department. Police stood there, just stood and did absolutely nothing. But one has to blame someone. They could not blame municipal people and rules, If there was negligence - it was of the Building Department.

You know Jewish people, how they get excited. They indicted, them because 140 people were killed - why was the door closed? To find out, they had a lawyer who was the best - Max D Steuer. Just because DA wanted to run for governor, they indicted them.

At that time I spoke several languages - I spoke Italian fluently, STEIN How old were you at the time? F, You figure it out. On August 24th I will be 80 years old.

So, Max D Steuer told Harris and Blank that he wanted to use only F for defense, I was from them for 6 whole weeks with Max D Steuer.

I did not know at the time that I was followed by detectives. But you know, as a young man, I wanted some entertainment -- so I used to go to the Bowery Burlesque. Next day, at court -two detectives asked me: "Joe, how did you like the Burlesque show?" This is how I learned I was followed.

You know, Witman, at the first session in court said: gentlemen, I want F excluded from the room. Every witness was asked - Did you see Mr. F? Did you talk to Mr. F? They feared that F primed them.

Steuer told me earlier - Joe, I want you to be as far as possible from the witnesses and not to contact them. You will be followed.

When I told Steuer what I said to the District Attorney and Croker, Steuer told me -that what I wanted you to be with me.

Steuer showed in court how with 30-40 people pushing against the door, It could not open.

Steuer also tried to get a number of witnesses who saw the happenings from the street below. One man saw his sister jump into the net and fall through it and get killed. They saw cops doing nothing. They saw water hoses that could not reach the fire.

The trial lasted 4-5 weeks and they were acquitted.

STEIN asks about the labor situation. Oh yes, there were strikes over there. But you know how things were. There was a captain at the 15th precinct. He was our $100 man. Our man. We told him not to interfere. We hired real hoodlums to take care of things, real hoodlums with their girl friends- you know- prostitutes. Men could not hit women in the pickets as they walked by. Prostitutes, on the other hand, could start fights. This is how we licked things, I dont know exactly how we settled. But we had protection from the police department. If the policeman was there and saw one of the prostitutes hitting a picket, at the worst he bowled her out and told her not to do it again.

We never settled this strike. But because hoodlums thought someone might attack me, they told me: Don't worry, Joe, If any one would try to touch you, we will take care of him.

After the fire they opened up at 79 Fifth Avenue. For a time we had an office at the Brevoort hotel after the fire, to make out the payroll for those we did not pay.

STEIN: How was the payroll reconstituted.

F. There no problem. I closed the safe with the payroll in it, I put everything in the safe before going up to the roof. After the fire, everything was safe in the safe. I used to have a revolver.
Not c1ear as to whether the revolver disappeared in the fire L.T./
You know we had several shops - in Newark, Philadelphia, Jamaica, Staten Island. They were the biggest shirt waist house. I took payroll in a box to Philadelphia- and paid them and came back.

I worked for them for a number of years. Harris and Blank used to be at 279 Broadway. They moved in 1904 to Asch building. I worked for them for 12-15 years.

Harris was of a quiet nature. A serious man. But highly inclined for female pleasure, highly. In 1904, Blank had a packard, with a chauffer. Harris had a Cadillac with a Chauffer.

Harris was of a tight nature. He knew about operating. He could pass remarks to the foremen and designed. But always, "he looked forward to meeting nice girls".

Blank was more or less of a diplomat. He was thinking always about making material, financial and moral advances. He was thinking of creating new factories and getting more business. He was a family man with 3 sons. To advance financially, expenses for entertaining and bribing the field of customers was without a limit. We have seen samples of such gifts to big buyers of department stores or specialty stores that a millionaire cannot afford. That's the reason they progressed in finances and in management. This is what made the Triangle Waist Company. And yet, pertaining to rules of the factory - they were as stingy as you can make it. You just could not get a raise. They had three, four hundred machines. One good operator would be allowed to take to have 6 machines and take on 6 learners -greenhorns to learn at $2.50 a week. Consenctly, when they finally managed to make $5-6 after 3 or 4 months- that was it - all the benefits went to Harris and Blank. They had Joseph F. in charge of the office. Their expansion of finance did not stop at waists. They started in real estate. Bought a Lennox Avenue apartment house, between 110th and 112th streets. A real fancy one. They put F in charge as a manager with an increase - $25 a week. Tenants were big people. The building was up to date -with elevators. And I tell you, about the fancy people. One day I get a call. F, this is Mrs. Gebulka - I have to see you right away. So I go down, and Mrs. Gebulka complains. At 8:30 in the morning the elevator man was not in the elevator. He was not in uniform, and was cleaning the floor. So I told her, Mrs. Gebulka, I am surprised at you complaining. You are really no lady. Let me tell you. Everybody in the building who is lady and gentlemen they don't go down to work or anyplace else before 9 o'clock in the morning. So what are doing up so early at 8.30 before everybody even gets up. And when do you expect to have the elevator cleaned up.

Stein asks when he started with the firm. F. I first started with Bernstein, Blank's brother in law. But then Bernstein started a fire in his shop near 3rd avenue.

Belmont Park was open then, Bernstein was living with mother. Used to go to Belmont Park regularly.

Blank also liked to go to Belmont Park. I used to help him out, once in a while. So I asked him for a job. He told me that he can give me $15 a week. But why do you want the job? You can make as much on the races. I prefer to start with a sure thing so I started at $15. Then they raised me to $25. One day Blank called me and told me I cant go to the race, today. Go for me to the race. He told me what to play and gave me $500.

You know what happened. I got to the racetrack late. The early races- the horse he gave me -- did not win. In the fourth, the horse he picked and I did not like so I bet on a sure thing. And did not bet in the other races. When I got back, I went to Blank and gave him $600. He was surprised. So I told him. In the first place I came too late to the track. So I did not have a chance to bet on the horses you told me to bet- they already lost.

In the 4th race-- you gave me a dog so I played another horse and made $100. And that's all. Blank was pleased and gave me $100.

So I told him- do me a favor, please, don't send me to the track anymore.

RE FIRE** questions by STEIN

His wife was in Florida then, at Palm Beach. I do not remember when he:

Blank's kids were around the shop on the day of the fire.

Harris and Blank were usually in the shop daily. Blank used to stay around till 1:30 and then frequently go to the track. Harris used to deal with the workers. Was very strict. Never had a smile. Yet he was always looking at the gals. He'd stop by the one and say: "I'll see you after the office hours."

His wife was real Yidische, balabustische woman. But for him, the collar was too low.

Harris did not deal with customers.

Blank was a bit more human. Did not deal with the workers. Was the outside man.

Their dollar volume was very big-- in millions. $1,000,000 a year.

Sold goods for $16.50 and $18 a dozen. Used to make cottons. At 79 Fifth Ave began making silks.

My office on 10th floor used to face Washington Place.

On the 8th floor there were only 20-25 workers.

It was an ordinary day. Just like any other day. No premonitions of any kind.

I was called to the morgue to identify the dead. Mary Lowenthal she used to pay them on the 9th, I took care of the 8th and the 10th floors.

Mary Lowenthal was a most darling, a most lovable girl. I recommended her some time before to my colleague -Jake Zacharia - the dentist. I had to get Mary identified. She was burned beyond recognition. I told Jake Zacharia to come and help to identify her.

He opened her mouth and recognized his work. She lays in the same cemetery where my family is buried the Mt. Zion cemetery.

For 4 weeks after that I could not fall asleep.

Q. Where did the gals eat Z. At their machines. They brought their own lunch. Even men did not really went out. There were not many stands in the neighborhood.

Most of them walked to work- not far -- from the East Side. Only 2 or 3 came from Brooklyn. Most of the workers were Italians.

Even after 2 weeks' experience, workers would know how to sew well -but still they got only $2.50 a week. Operators would get so much per dozen. Would get 4-5 dozen bundles. Mary Livingston used to give out the work. She would enter in the book. She used to enter it in the book when the work was done and she used to pay for the work.

The operators did not know how much he would get for the work. There was no rate setting.

They worked with their helpers in a section - one would do one job the other another.

One thing I can tell, never did an operator become rich from what he paid his helpers.

Pressers were on the 10th floor, gas pipe irons were used.

Cutters used up and down machines.

Sewing machines - Singers - special heads for tuckers. Machines run electrically - 8 rows. Gave out embroidery.

A. There were several theories. Some thought that fire started from a dropped match from a cigarette. The head of the bums Morris - he was too free-- he was part of the gag-- he used to throw cigarettes around. He used to monkey with girls in the shop. There was tucker in the shop - started going out with him. He gave him a ring. I saw him with another girl at the Metropolitan Opera. The other girl found out that he was also keeping the tucker. His name was Morris Goldfarb, he was the leader of the Starke.