What became of the Triangle factory owners?

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.


From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.


“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

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12 Responses to “What became of the Triangle factory owners?”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    The Congressional Cemetery, outside of Washington, D.C., holds a marker honoring the lost lives from the ‘Triangle Shirt Factory Fire’; Closer to the actual blazing building – there is a stone in Brooklyn at the Evergreens Cemetery as well as another at Mt Zion in Maspeth, N.Y.

    As for the two owners of the company, they are where they deserve to be – LOST. Their infamous deeds should never be forgotten – not only for sake of workers in our nation, but those toiling in sweat shops around the globe. Think of this tragedy when you buy your next blouse / shirt and it was sewn in China, India or Viet Nam or… Then, reconsider and buy Union-made apparel from the USA!

  2. bk gregor Says:

    But their names made headlines again. Not “there”.

  3. Louise Bernikow Says:

    Does anyone know if these factory owners- were German immigrants? I’m looking at the various Jewish groups in nyc at the time and would like to “locate” them- ethnically? thanks

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    My understanding is that they were Russian-born Jews, per Von Drehle’s book and other sources.

  5. Alex Says:

    Yet another incident where the criminally negligent owners and management evade successful prosecution. We still see this today regardless of the more stringent regulations and laws.

  6. trilby1895 Says:

    Those responsible should have been charged, tried, found guilty and punished with very long prison sentences at hard labor. Even after the Triangle fire, one of them hadn’t learned a thing…still locked a factory door.

  7. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    I have no connection with this business – however, if you are interested in ‘Fires in NYC’ – here is a fascinating story that accompanys a T-shirt design. (Stay with me on this one…HA!) The blaze began in a WHALE OIL Company – destroyed hundreds of buildings, took a couple dozen lives. Because of this disaster, all new construction was to have been made of brick or stone – no wood. The shirt was created so the story would be better known. Read & learn more…

  8. The Hatching Cat Says:

    A lot of conditions have improved in the past 100 years for workers, but sadly, some things, like greed, have not changed at all.

  9. tsemorile Says:

    In addition to Jewish immigrant workers, the Triangle Waist Company also employed many Italian immigrant workers, many of whom also died in the fire. The two Italian elevator operators are credited with saving many lives; they crammed people into the tiny elevator to take them to street level, and returned again and again, to retrieve more.

    In 2010, there was a fire in a Bangladesh sweatshop making clothes for American corporations, which mirrored the Triangle in all particulars. (America has outsourced sweatshops). For the very large march and memorial for the 100th anniversary, in 2011, red carnations were left at the Triangle site during the ceremony, in addition to the 146 white carnations, each with the name of a Triangle worker who died, which are left.

    A fire bell is rung for each death, and the name and age are called out, and a fire truck ladder is raised to the sixth floor (the highest they could go at the time); the fire started on the eighth floor.

    Isaac Harris and Max Blanck had refused, unlike many other factory owners, to negotiate union contracts consequent to the strikes for better wages and safe conditions known as the Uprising of the 20,000, in 1909, so there was no union; the doors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from access to workers.

    This left women not incinerated where they sat to choose between jumping to their deaths or staying to burn alive. After the fire, the factory owners who, as noted, escaped prison, opened another factory, around the corner on University and recreated the exact same conditions.

    In 1909, NY state passed legislation making employers liable for injury/death caused in the workplace. It was rescinded on March 24, 1911, the day before the Triangle fire–one of the reasons, besides political and economic status, that these men avoided justice. Until September 11, 2001, it was the worst industrial disaster in America.

    The fire–seen by Frances Perkins, the first woman to head the US Labor Dept, and creator of the New Deal (FDR just signed it)–also resulted in the creation of the NY State Labor Dept and the first Workers’ Compensation for those injured and killed on the job. One of the posters used by the NY State Labor Dept shows a photo of the collapsed fire escape ladder with the title, “Born of Fire”.

    Every year, on the anniversary, members and volunteers of Remember the Triangle, go to the locations where factory workers lived, and chalk their names, birth/death dates, any other known information, and that “here” a Triangle worker lived, whether or not the original building still stands.

    In honor of the centennial, the Forward (in 1911 was a Yiddish language newspaper; now in English) translated the edition which reported the fire, as part of it’s regular edition, and made copies available to conferences and educational groups.

    I disagree with the comment that the names of the factory owners should be erased. They should be known and remembered as examples of the consequences of greed and the abuse of power for profit. Behaviors which continue to maim and kill workers, enforce poverty and wreak havoc on the environment. To erase history–and the names of those who do harm–is to erase memory and to lose the lesson and to redirect the future.

    • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

      This was a powerful commentary. I am especially touched at learning of the chalk-inscribed names at the homeplaces of the lost girl’s homes… This brings their deaths back into the lives of their old neighborhoods and into the modern world of today’s generation.

  10. Steve Thornton Says:

    Triangle connections with Hartford CT

  11. The rich activists of New York’s “mink brigade” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Through an organization called the Women’s Trade Union League, Morgan and Belmont helped mobilize and support a strike by workers from the Triangle Waist Company (yep, that Triangle company). […]

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