March 31, 2016 Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye

I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II. The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn. They named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin Kaminsky, 1Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion, 78th Infantry Division in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war. Most of his work was in finding and defusing explosives, though on five occasions his unit had to drop their tools and fight as Infantry.

At one point Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. They were so close they could hear Jolson, BlackfaceGerman soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, singing them an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform in black face, “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  Polite applause could be heard from across the river, afterward. I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.  He was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC “The Admiral Broadway Review”.Mel Brooks

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to do a play so bad that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with their money when the play closed. Problem was, the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”. Even before the age of suffocating PC, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks, who could have gotten away with that one.Melvin Kaminsky, 2

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Young FrankensteinMarvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT” in history.

Melvin Kaminsky will be 92 in a couple of months. Last year, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 92-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

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March 30, 1282 War of Sicilian Vespers

It was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Since the early 12th century, the southern Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily had been united as the Kingdom of Sicily. Until the invasion of the French King Charles I of Anjou, who ousted Sicilian King Manfred in 1266.

The Anjou King’s rule in Sicily was vicious and repressive, with the French King himself absent for long periods. Charles’ Sicilian subjects could not have hated him more.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIt was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Accounts vary as to what happened, but there’s a good chance he was just looking for a feel, and that’s what he got. The lady’s modesty thusly offended, someone in the crowd avenged her honor, knifing the French guard.

At first merely agitated, this first taste of blood drove the mob to a frenzy. Spreading across the Capital and into the countryside, Sicilians killed every Frenchman they could get their hands on.

Revolutionaries devised a linguistic test, to see who was authentically Sicilian. Native French speakers can’t pronounce the word “ciciri”, even to save themselves. And that’s the way it worked out.  God help you if you couldn’t say that word. Over four thousand Frenchmen would die over the next six weeks.

Meanwhile in Spain, Peter III King of Aragon, Peter I King of Valencia, and Peter II Count of Barcelona (these three are all the same guy), had a claim to the Sicilian throne through his wife, Constance.

The Italian physician John of Procida had been a loyal subject of Manfred’s, fleeing to Aragon after the Anjou invasion. John proceeded directly to Sicily where he spent several weeks stirring up Sicilian resentment against the French King. Sicily then appealed to the Spanish King to intervene, while John sailed for Constantinople to procure the help of Michael VIII Palaeologus.war_of_the_vespers

History records what followed as the War of Sicilian Vespers. The Angevins were supported by the Papacy and his Italian supporters (Guelphs), while the Aragonese received help from Sicily itself, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Ghibellines, Italian supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Several players changed sides over the course of the next twenty years. In the end, the son of the Spanish King took the Sicilian crown in 1302, becoming King Frederick II, beginning near 400 years of Spanish rule over the island.

And so it was that a French soldier molested an Italian woman, and lost the kingdom of Sicily, to Spain.

March 29, 1973 Vietnam

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

French Indo-China, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, was governed as a French Colonial territory since the late 19th century. The region came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat in WWII, but soon faced the same opposition from the  army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. What began as a low level, rural insurgency, later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal dien_bien_phu-resupplyfrom Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south, led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in the north and south, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871, and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917.

Domino effectUS policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe, as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and so on across Southeast Asia.

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.Paddy

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time, that’s your business, but they followed a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time that French support was pulling back. By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam” (“NLF”, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders. JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam in 1961.

Vietnam War CiviliansThe war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.Three_soldiers

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 and 30, 1975, as those who could boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.  We continue to feel the political repercussions, to this day. I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968. I remember feeling horrified at the way some of my fellow Americans conducted themselves. I came to feel at that time as I do to this day, that anyone who has a problem with our country’s war policy, needs to take it up with a politician.  Not a member of the military,

.The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975-‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build their perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of the alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone until it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among the more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.Vietnamese_boat_people

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes in the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.   A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in their attempt to flee.

The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979-’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.  The last boat people were repatriated from Malaysia in 2005.  Thailand deported 4,000 Hmong refugees in 2009.

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the day it opened in 1982. Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

Things they carried

March 28, 1915 Thrasher Incident

That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba

102 years ago, the Great War was in its 8th month.  The war of mobility of the early months was long gone, replaced by the lines of trench works which would characterize the rest of the war. Off the battlefield, the German and British governments each sought to choke the life out of the other’s economy. Great Britain held the upper hand, with the superior deep-water surface fleet.  To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, parity would come in the form of a submarine.

Picture_of_Leon_Chester_Thrasher_who_died_on_the_RMS_Falaba
Leon Chester Thrasher 1st American killed in WW!

Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer. That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba.

The German submarine U-28 stopped Falaba on this day in 1915, sinking the ship to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher.  The first American killed in the “War to End all Wars”.

German policy varied over the course of the war, from unrestrained submarine warfare, to strict adherence with international law. U-28 Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner claimed to have given Falaba 23 minutes to evacuate, cutting that short and firing his torpedo only in response to Falaba’s distress rockets and wireless messages for help. British authorities claim to have been given only 7 minutes’ warning.

The death of the first American in the European war set off a diplomatic row which threatened for a time to bring the Americans into the war. American newspapers called it the “Thrasher Incident”, denouncing the sinking as a “massacre”.   An act of “piracy”.falaba

The Germans claimed that subsequent explosions proved Falaba to be carrying contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.  Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, some even tended to support the German view.

President Woodrow Wilson stayed his hand, winning re-election the following year with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”.

What remained of Leon Thrasher washed ashore on the coast of Ireland on July 11, 1915, after 106 days in the water.  Authorities mistakenly believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating him Body No. 248.

The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland 40 days earlier, killing 1,198, 124 of whom were Americans. The US came close to the brink of war that time too, but the last and final straw wouldn’t come for another two years.  In the form of a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.

March 27, 1912 Cherry Trees of the Potomac

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

Eliza_Ruhamah_Scidmore
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore was an American journalist, world traveler, author and socialite.  The first female board member of the National Geographic Society, her brother was a career diplomat, who served 38 years in the Asian Pacific. Frequent visits led to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the ‘Sakura’, the Japanese blossoming cherry tree, which she called “the most beautiful thing in the world”.

In January 1900, Federal judge William Howard Taft was summoned to Washington, to meet with the President. He hoped it was to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing. Taft would head up the commission to organize civilian self-government in the island nation.

Helen & William Taft
1st Lady & President Taft

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

Years later the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura, and suggested the city of Tokyo make a gift of Cherry trees, to the government of the United States.

For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream 34 years in the making.  It was she who raised the money to make it happen.

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft, in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson memorial. The two were planted in a formal ceremony, the first of 3,020 trees.Jefferson cherry trees

It was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived from Japan two years earlier, in January 1910, but they had fallen prey to disease along their journey. A private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees. The 3,020 were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin, East Potomac Park, and the White House grounds.

The blossoming trees were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. Inpotomac_blossoms 1934 city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming cherry trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

During WWII, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

It’s not clear to me, if the trees along the Arakawa River today are entirely from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock.  After the conflagration that was the war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters. It may even be the whole point.

Cherry Trees along the Arakawa

Cherry Trees along the Arakawa

March 26, 1881 Old Abe

It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot. Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided. He would be called “Old Abe”.

Ahgamahwegezhig
Ahgamahwegezhig

In 1861, leader of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe band Ahgamahwegezhig, or “Chief Big Sky”, captured an eaglet, and sold it for a bushel of corn to the McCann family of Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Captain John Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Eau Claire “Badgers”, bought the young bald eagle from Daniel McCann.

The asking price was $2.50.  Militia members were asked to pitch in twenty-five cents, as was one civilian:  tavern-keeper S.M. Jeffers.  Jeffers’ refusal earned him “three lusty groans”, causing him to laugh and tell them to keep their quarters.  Jeffers threw in a single quarter-eagle, a gold coin valued at 250¢, and that was that.   From that moment onward, the militia unit called itself the Eau Claire “Eagles”.1861 quarter eagle

Perkins’ Eagles entered Federal Service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot.  Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided.  He would be called “Old Abe”.

Old Abe accompanied the regiment as it headed south, travelling all over the western theater and witness to 37 battles. David McLain wrote “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings”.

Old AbeAbe became an inspirational symbol to the troops, like the battle flag carried with each regiment. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade recalled, “Our eagle usually accompanied us on the bloody field, and I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin, than to take a whole brigade of men.”

Confederate General Sterling Price spotted Old Abe on his perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi.  “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards”, Price remarked. “I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags”.OldAbe

Old Abe was presented to the state of Wisconsin at the end of the war. He lived 15 years in the “Eagle Department”, a two-room apartment in the basement of the Capitol, complete with custom bathtub, and a caretaker.  Photographs of Old Abe were sold to help veteran’s organizations. He was a national celebrity, traveling across the country and appearing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic National Convention, and dozens of fundraising events.

OLD_ABE_AND_GEORGE_GILLES
Old Abe & caretaker George Gilles

A small fire broke out in a Capitol basement workshop, fed by cleaning solvents and shop rags.  The fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the bald eagle’s cries of alarm, but not before Old Abe inhaled a whole lot of that thick, black smoke.  Abe’s health began to decline, almost immediately.  Veterinarians and doctors were called, but to no avail.  Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity. Old Abe died in the arms of caretaker George Gilles on March 26, 1881.  He was 20.

His remains were stuffed and mounted.  For the next 20 years his body remained on display in the Capitol building rotunda. On the night of February 26, 1904, a gas jet ignited a newly varnished ceiling, burning the Capitol building to the ground.

Since 1915, Old Abe’s replica has watched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber of the new capitol building.Old_abe_capitol

In 1921, the 101st infantry division was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves with headquarters in Milwaukee.  It was here that the 101st first became associated with the “Screaming Eagle”.  The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne participated in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and Bastogne, becoming the basis of the HBO series “A Band of Brothers”.

101st_Airborne_Division_patchAfter WWII, elements of the 101st Airborne were mobilized to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to protect the civil rights of the “Little Rock Nine”, a group of black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, as the result of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.

For 104 years, Old Abe appeared in the trademark of the J.I. Case farm equipment company of Racine, Wisconsin.Old_Abe_Case_mascot

Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  We all know how stories change with the retelling.  Some stories take on a life of their own.  Ambrose Armitage, serving with Company D of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in his diary on September 14, 1861, that Company C had a “four month old female eagle with them”.   Two years later, Armitage wrote, “The passing troops have been running in as they always do to see our eagle. She is a great wonder”.

Ten years after his death, a national controversy sprang up and lasted for decades, as to whether Old Abe was, in fact, a “she”.  Suffragettes claimed that “he” had laid eggs in the Wisconsin capitol.  Newspapers weighed in, including the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oakland Tribune, and others.Abe Feathers

Bald eagles are not easily sex-differentiated, there are few clues available to the non-expert, outside of the contrasts of a mated pair.  It’s unlikely that even those closest to Old Abe, had a clue as to the eagle’s sex.

University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility researchers had access to four feathers, collected during the early days at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall.  In March of 2016, samples were taken from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, and examined for the the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). After three months, the results were conclusive.  All four samples showed the Z chromosome, none having a matching W.  After 155 years, Old Abe could keep his name.

 

March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The fire started in a wicker scrap bin on the 8th floor, and spread quickly. A bookkeeper warned coworkers on the 10th by telephone, but there was no way to contact anyone on the 9th.

As the late 19th century gave way to the 20th, the increasing number of women in the workforce was driving a change in women’s fashion.  Gone were the confinements of Victorian era bodices.  The “shirtwaist” blouses of the Edwardian era were patterned on men’s shirts only looser, ranging from plain, “ready to wear” simplicity to the elaborate detail and stitching that transformed the plain shirtwaist to haute mode.

A September 16, 1906 article in the Pittsburgh Press said, “A very fashionable woman with a half a hundred waists boasts that there are no two alike.”  Shirtwaist blouses were sold around the country, but most were made in Philadelphia and New York City.

Triangle_Shirtwaist_FactoryAt the turn of the century there were over 450 textile factories in Manhattan alone, employing something like 40,000 garment workers.  Many of them were young, immigrant women of Jewish and Italian ethnicity, working nine hours a day on weekdays and seven on Saturdays.  Wages were typically low:  $7 to $12 per week, equivalent to $3.20 to $5.50 per hour, in 2016.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located in the Asch Building in the Greenwich Village area of New York City, now known as the Brown Building and part of New York University.  In 1911, the factory occupied the 8th – 10th floors, employing some 500 people.

The fire started in a wicker scrap bin on the 8th floor, and spread quickly. A bookkeeper warned coworkers on the 10th by telephone, but there was no way to contact anyone on the 9th floor.  Survivor Yetta Lubitz said the first warning came about the same time as the flames themselves.TriangleFireengine_crop

Every one of the fatalities that day, came from the 200 working on this one floor.  The Washington Place stairwell was locked to prevent thefts & unauthorized breaks, and the foreman had fled with the keys.  The Greene Street stairwell was packed solid in three minutes.  The only survivors were those who fled to the roof.

Terrified employees crowded onto a rickety fire escape, collapsing it under the weight and dropping 20 people some 100′ to their death.  Fire companies were quick to arrive, but ladders only reached up to the 6th or 7th floors. A life net was unfurled, but ripped away when three women jumped for it, simultaneously.  For the most part, fire companies could only look on helplessly, along with the crowd gathered on the street.  62 people, some already on fire, jumped or fell to the street below.  As on 9/11, at least one couple stepped off together, holding hands as they fell.Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_March_25_1911

With one exit on fire and the other locked, elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo did everything they could to save lives.  Mortillalo made three trips before being forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat.  Desperate to get out, some victims pried open the other elevator door, hoping to slide down greasy cables, or just to jump into the shaft and hope for the best.  The weight and impact of their bodies warped Zito’s elevator car, making another rescue attempt impossible.

Reporter William Gunn Shepard learned a sound that day, that many of us remember from those first hours of 9/11.  Before the media censored itself.  “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk”.triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire-escape-everett

Louis Waldman, later to become a Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene:  “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp”.

146 died that day, 123 women and 23 men.

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, survived by fleeing to the roof when the fire began. The pair had four suspicious factory fires between 1902 and 1910, but arson was not suspected in this case.Triangle-Shirtwaist-Fire1

Blanck and Harris were indicted on charges of 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter, but the jury acquitted them both. Their attorney convinced the jury that witnesses may have been “coached”, since their stories didn’t change on cross examination.

They lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which plaintiffs won compensation amounting to $75 per dead victim. The insurance company paid $60,000 more than the reported losses, for a profit of $336 per corpse.

The fire led to 64 new laws regulating the health and safety of New York’s factory workers, and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).  In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking a factory door during working hours. He was fined $20.

The Triangle Shirtwaist conflagration led to the largest loss of life by fire, in New York history.  The second largest would be the “Happy Land” night club fire in the Bronx.  79 years later, to the day.

triangle shirtwaist factory