No One Was to Blame
A forgotten 20th-century factory fire and the fight to make workplaces safer
The fire started on the third floor, and the first alarm was a young girl’s sudden scream. The voice belonged to a factory employee named Sadie, who cried out when a “flash of fire” exploded in her face without warning. It was shortly after 9 a.m. on a bitterly cold November morning in the city of Newark, New Jersey, and Sadie worked for the Anchor Electric Company, carrying out the repetitive task of carbonizing filaments for the lamps manufactured there. The job involved pressing a series of buttons all day long; it also involved gasoline vapor, an electric current, and close proximity to waste paper. “I don’t understand how it started because I don’t understand electricity,” Sadie said later. “The boss understands, and he’ll tell you if you ask him.”
Mr. McQuat, Sadie’s supervisor, hurried out of his office and attempted to snuff out the blaze himself using three pails of sand. When this failed to contain the fire, Mr. McQuat sent a girl to the fire station across the street. Two firemen ran to the burning third floor with a fire extinguisher. They did not raise a “general alarm” until they got to the building and realized the extent of the fire. Within minutes, as the flames rose and smoke choked the wooden stairways, the first three floors of the building were evacuated. But those on the fourth floor—where 117 women and girls and one “errand boy” worked for the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company—were trapped. Smoke curled through a knothole on the floor, and a girl tried to smother it with a piece of cloth.
The only interior exit from the fourth floor was a narrow staircase, and the door at the bottom was locked. There were two fire escapes but neither was easy to reach—or to navigate in a skirt. Both were attached to large windows that sat several feet off the floor, and the flimsy wooden platforms erected to help boost people into the windowsills soon collapsed “like pasteboard” under the weight of girls trying to flee the heat. The fire escapes’ iron ladders were heavy and unwieldy, especially in unpracticed, panicked hands. One of the fire escapes led to the top of the boiler house roof. The other dangled over the road.
By this time, the fire department had arrived and a crowd of passersby had gathered on the street, looking up at the windows, where they could see terrified faces and the flicker of flames behind them. Because of the building’s structure and the location of the fire escapes, ladders could not reach all of the windows.The girls began to jump, flailing and whirling “as they fell with arms clutching at the air.” Some of them were caught in life nets held out by the increasingly desperate firemen below, but then the nets broke. Three priests from a nearby cathedral knelt beside the fallen girls, dying on the icy pavement, to administer last rites. Sadie’s lone shriek of fear had multiplied into a wailing chorus that could be heard blocks away.
In the end, at least 25 people died, six in the fire itself and 19 who had jumped fifty feet to the street to escape the smoke and “unendurable heat.” Three of the women whose “unrecognizable” bodies were found on the fourth floor were sisters: Dora, Tillie, and Minnie Gottlieb, all between 18 and 26 years old,who had waited too long to leave because they couldn’t find each other in the chaos. Another girl’s corpse was identified by her father, a shoemaker, by “the steel spring that he himself had put into [her] shoe to strengthen the instep.”
Thirty-two more people were injured, and for the survivors, feelings of terror, guilt, grief, and anger about their friends and sisters who had been lost to the fire persisted. “When I think that my sister died because those steps broke, I cannot bear it,” Clara Diehm said, of her sister Catherine, who had not been able to follow Clara to the fire escape because the wooden stairs leading to it fell apart. Clara’s other sister Sophie landed in the net when she jumped, but Catherine didn’t. “I never knew such faces,” Molly Kelly, another survivor, said of the dead on the street. Molly came home that day wearing a blood-stained dress, her cheeks dark with soot, her lips blue with cold.
The flare that started in the lamp factory found ample fuel in the paper box factory below and the clothing factory above, as well as the thin wooden floorboards, greasy with oil from decades of previous use as a pistol manufacturing site. In the aftermath, the building looked bombed out, a “blackened mass of mortar and brick and writhing ironwork.” In addition to the narrow, single exit, usually locked to prevent girls from stealing the lace they sewed onto muslin nightgowns; the hazardous fire escapes; and the high, cumbersome windows, the building had no fire alarm system and had never organized any fire safety training, though it had had ten reported fires in the previous ten years. Mr. McQuat’s and the first firemen’s delay in sounding the alarm wasted crucial minutes that might have saved lives; the men were reacting to bureaucratic or monetary incentives not to “overreact” to potential disasters.
A coroner’s inquest was begun to investigate the causes of the fire, and “during the first few days after the fire people in general expressed much satisfaction that ‘something’ was going to be done,” writes Mary Alden Hopkins, in her account of the fire in a 1911 issue of McClure’s Magazine. They were wrong; after listening to testimony from experts, witnesses, and survivors, the jury concluded that “the tenant was not to blame; nor the owner; nor the City Building department; nor the State Labor Department.” “In fact,” Hopkins writes, “no one was to blame.” An absurdist maze of state and local regulations—and their generous loopholes—meant that no one could be held directly responsible for the Newark factory fire victims’ horrific deaths. The prosecuting attorney in the case declared that “the law is a farce.” The official verdict, which included the name of one of the girls, Carrie Robrecht, who had died when she jumped out of the window to avoid being burned to death, read like this:
Carrie Robrecht came to her death by misadventure and accident caused by a fall…and not as the result of the criminal act, either of omission or commission, on the part of any individual or individuals.
“There’ll be a worse holocaust than this one in Newark yet,” the Newark fire chief warned. “I can name a hundred factories worse than this one was. What can I do? I can’t do anything! The Fire Department can’t touch a building till the fire starts. And then it’s too late.” Other experts testified that dangerous conditions for fire existed in factories not just in Newark but also in thousands of buildings in New York, places “with the same wood stairways and outside fire escapes that made the Newark factory a fire-trap.”
Why don’t we learn about the Newark fire in American history textbooks? One reason for this erasure from national memory might be about timing. It happened in November 1910, four months before a factory fire erupted over the river in Manhattan that was both eerily similar and somehow even more tragic, terrible, and preventable: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Although the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory eventually settled in a civil suit, ordered to pay out $75 per victim, their criminal trial also failed to secure a guilty verdict, despite widespread outrage about the factory’s conditions and locked doors. But unlike the Newark case, decided just three months earlier, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people, did spur action around securing safer conditions for workers. It led to dozens of new labor reforms in New York State, some of which later became federal law. “If the laws of any state are so inadequate as to allow girls to be ruthlessly murdered…when they are herded like sheep into such a loft and then locked in to die,” a newspaper piece written in March 1911 and linking the two fires asked, “will the legislatures permit them to stand unchanged?”
Last week, I saw a viral tweet comparing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to what had happened in December in a factory in Kentucky, where nine workers were killed by a tornado after begging their supervisors to let them go home. While the fate of the workers who died at the candle factory made headlines for a few days, the story has since slipped from notice, buried beneath blaring updates about Omicron and Joe Manchin.
Why are some tragedies galvanizing and others largely ignored, becoming significant only when something even worse happens, and they take on the sheen of unheeded warnings? Why do we “permit” some things to “stand unchanged,” but feel compelled to act by others? Why must we wait for devastation on an unprecedented scale in order to demand change? As with the victims of gun violence, the daily accumulation of individual workplace deaths and injuries passes by with little or no commentary. American workplaces are generally safer than they once were, but thousands of workers still die on the job each year, and Black and Latino workers are disproportionately more likely to die at work. Accidents and mistakes at work do happen, but we assume that thousands of what the Newark inquest called “misadventures” carry no meaning—or message—at our own peril.
In reading about the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I came across a speech that was given by a rabbi named Stephen Wise in Manhattan soon after the fire. “It is not enough to bewail the fate of those who are lost nor to wring our hands in horror,” he said. “We stand not before an inscrutable decree of divine Providence, but before the outcome of an unscrupulous degree of human improvidence and human greed.”■
“The Newark Factory Fire,” Mary Alden Hopkins, McClure’s Magazine, April 1911.
“Many Girls Perish in Box Factory Fire at Newark,” The Daily Record, November 26, 1910.
“Twelve Persons Are Known to Be Dead,” The Hutchinson News, November 26, 1910.
McClure’s Magazine, April 1911.
“How Human Lives Are Lost,” The Commercial Appeal, March 29, 1911.
“Rabbi Wise Says Contributions Will Not Undo Wrong Committed or Replace Those Killed,” Times Union, March 27, 1911.