Buzz Potamkin: Still Getting Away With Murder Manslaughter

By Buzz Potamkin, former studio executive and producer, in the biz for 40+ years, now a consultant

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Readers of this blog will notice a certain resemblance between Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, proprietors of the Triangle Waist Company, and today’s financial industry titans: serial fires (at least 4 previously, apparently at times with excess inventory, all conveniently insured), disregard for risk, blatant violation of governmental regulations and codes, use of corporate veils, aggressive legal representation, friendly “powers that be,” and continued unaltered conduct after the fact. Neither of them ever went to jail: both were beneficiaries of Judge Thomas C.T. Crain’s overly limiting jury charge in their trial for manslaughter in the death of 24-year old Margaret Schwartz, and both were cleared in the death of 23-year old Jacob Klein by Judge Samuel Seabury’s instructions to that jury to find for the defendants. (If you, humble reader, notice a certain pattern in judges named Crain and Seabury presiding in the cases of victims named Schwartz and Klein, let me not dissuade you.)

While Harris does not appear to have come to the notice of the authorities in later life, in just 2 years Blanck was back in court over another locked fire door at his new factory at 79 Fifth Avenue. Chief Justice Isaac Franklin Russell apologized to Blanck for his troubles, and then fined him the mandatory minimum the law provided: $20. No further action.

As for developer and landlord Joseph Asch, nothing. No citation or action regarding the rusted-close standpipe, the rotted inoperable fire hose, or the flimsy, incomplete, and collapsed fire escape. He did renovate the Asch building and add fire prevention aides, including sprinklers – but in August, 1913, the Times thundered that the Fire Commissioner’s visit to the renovated building (still called the Asch by the Times, but already name-changed to the Greenwich Building) “revealed once more the singular carelessness of humanity.” However, the building was not closed nor even cited.

And in 1914 the wrongful death civil suits were settled for $75 per life.

Today, the Triangle Fire commemoration industry is in full swing: TV specials, theatrical productions, street art projects, New York Times blanket coverage, and an expected 10,000 person march from Union Square to the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street ending with a solemn service in memory of the 146 who died in the fire and a speech from US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. The tonality of most of these remembrances can be summarized as “This was horrible, but these 146 victims will not be forgotten and their deaths brought us to today’s enlightened and forceful workplace safety standards.” Unfortunately, not true.

Mike Wallace (not that Mike Wallace, this one is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York and co-author of the 4.2 pound 1,416 page Gotham) put it far better than I ever could:

Such triumphalism, while inspiring, overlooks the fact that history can run backward, and that gains won can be lost again — and have been, repeatedly. Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen. Unable at first to prevail amid mass indignation at the fire and shocking revelations about working conditions in the city and state, they were soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives.

Not to forget that laws, regulations and codes require enforcement, and enforcement requires not only intent but also appropriations. Both intent and enforcement have been on the decline this century throughout the land, and currently all regulatory appropriations (federal, state and local) are under attack with the convenient excuse of The War on The Deficit. Over the past few years:


BP refinery in Texas City – 15 dead, over 150 injured


Sago mine, West Virginia – 12 dead

Darby mine, Kentucky – 5 dead


Deutsche Bank fire, NY – 2 firefighters dead, 2 injured


Sugar refinery, Georgia – 13 dead, over 40 injured


Power plant, Connecticut – 6 dead, over 50 injured

Upper Big Branch mine, West Virginia – 29 dead

Deepwater Horizon – 11 dead, GOM decimated by worst US oil spill

Interestingly, the Deutsche Bank fire brings us back full circle to Triangle: faulty standpipe, inoperable sprinklers, blocked exits, no city inspections, even no permits, and parties that should be indicted but aren’t, including the City of New York for gross negligence. Yes, there are 4 indictments: John Galt and 3 others are currently on trial for second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. (I would hope that Alan Greenspan and the other Randians have formed the John Galt Defense of Freedom Committee with tax-deductible donations from the Koch brothers and others, but I have no cite.) In Galt’s case, the maximum fine is $10,000 or $5,000 per life, not much off (current-dollar adjusted) the $75 per life paid in 1914.

One final ironic question: what happened to the building? Asch continued to operate the building for manufacturing tenants, until 1915 when NYU began to expand into the building from its Main Building next door; by 1919, NYU occupied all 3 Triangle floors, now renovated. In 1920 Asch sold the building to the Arrow Holding Company, which 4 days later sold it on to Bleecker-Washington Properties, Inc., headed by Aaron Rabinowitz and Maurice Spear. (Maurice Spear later sold Spear Co., Inc., to Harry Helmsley to form Helmsley-Spear. Harry’s second wife was Leona of “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes…” fame.) NYU expanded in the building, taking all of it by 1926. In 1929, Fredrick Brown bought the building from Bleecker-Washington for $700,000 and gave it to NYU the same day. Amid much publicity, NYU renamed it the Brown Building. Brown assumed the building’s $280,000 mortgage and added another $120,000 mortgage on top; he agreed to make all due payments. Unfortunately for NYU, but true to the building’s history, in 1932 Brown ceased making payments and the debt was left for NYU to pay. Nevertheless NYU kept his name on the building, as it is today.

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  1. DownSouth

    When it comes to regulation and criminal justice, there is little difference between Mexico and the United States. In both countries, it’s pay to play. In both countries, those able and willing to expend the necessary financial and political capital are treated with kid gloves, and everybody else gets the book thrown at them.

    The corruption in Mexico is more democratic, however. In the United States, only the wealthiest of white collar criminals get to play the corruption game. In Mexico everybody gets to play, rich or poor, and regardless of what color shirt they’re wearing.

    1. dictateursanguinaire

      Exactly. That’s what pisses me off so much about these “public choice theory” types. They act as if somehow banning small interest groups or sectors of the population from petitioning the gov’t would make things more fair. The rich and powerful will always have the ear of the politicians; the question is whether the rest of us can exert enough influence to counterbalance that. A “liberal dictatorship” that they so desire never works, e.g. Pinochet. Reminds me how von Mises was okay with fascism for a bit because it ‘saved capitalism.’ For those people, it’s all about the means (i.e. whatever happens under the rules of liberal democracy is fair because the rules are fair) until it’s about the ends (i.e. oh shit, poor people are voting for less extreme capitalism.)

    2. Peter Clemenza


      You are totally correct. As a Mexican/American and a D.C. resident I miss the ways of Mexico. To get anything done in D.C. I have to have a fundraiser and or form a PAC and put together 100k just so I can talk to a congressman’s chief of staff. In mexico a nice lunch or a bottle of scotch will do it. We need to form buyers clubs for regular citizens where we pool resources and then compel the members of congress to sing the hokey pokey or actually spend time with real people.

  2. Woodrow

    “Deutsche Bank fire brings us back full circle” –

    Jury selection started this week in this complete miscarriage of justice. “Sovereign Immunity” is now just another way of saying “I’m untouchable, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. The father of one of the dead firefighters is boycotting the trial, as he knows that there are many more players at fault, but got a free pass.

    1. BuzzP

      From my research:

      “Why were Blanck and Harris rotten risks? They repeatedly had early morning fires when no one was in the factory. There were two fires at their Triangle factory in 1901 (shortly after it opened) and two at their new factory, the Diamond Waist Factory, in 1907. The shirtwaist business had two peak periods in the year. Having a large inventory at the end of the peak period was not good business. Blanck and Harris were able to get rid of the leftover inventory and be reimbursed by the insurance company. Their policies covered all of their losses, or more.
      Although Blanck and Harris were never charged with arson or
      insurance fraud, the circumstantial evidence of repeated early morning
      fires at the end of the busy seasons with full reimbursement from the insurance companies speaks for itself. Too bad this did not come out during their trial.”
      John M. Hoenig, Ph.D., The Triangle Fire of 1911, History Magazine, April/May 2005

      I understand that David Von Drehle (Triangle – the Fire that Changed America, Grove Press, 2003) discusses at length the interest of the insurance companies of the time in looking the other way; apparently it had something to do with high premiums and not rocking the boat. Could you believe that of an insurance company?

      1. fish

        Could you believe that of an insurance company?

        Yeah…almost as greasy as some of the stunts government pulls.

  3. JTFaraday

    “until 1915 when NYU began to expand into the building from its Main Building next door”

    Which is interesting because it’s a maze to navigate your way around and escape that collossus.

    Worse, the administrative offices for the undergrad school of arts and science are up at the top of the building and classes–including, I think, chemistry labs– are held on the lower floors, so it’s always thronged with masses of students, crowds left waiting for the elevators, etc.

    It’s a living monument to the event every time you’re in there. (NYU doesn’t notice these things).

  4. Shane536

    Interesting, the book 120 Minutes on the 9/11 attacks covers the Shirtwaist fires in detail. There were a lot of changes in building safety legislation introduced after these horrific fires. But when the Trade Towers were being built, big business was lobbying heavily to have them reduced or removed to lower building costs and to make more office space possible.
    Eg Emergency stairwells had to be far apart so there was less chance of them being blocked after Shirtwaist.
    After a series of payoffs and such, a lot of this legislation was removed, and the Trade Towers could offer vastly cheaper office space because of it (they put all their emergency stairwells in a tube down the centre of the building for example. Of course, the Trade Tower explosions and fire easily cut all the stairwells and people from the upper floors couldn’t escape.
    Glass-Steagal anyone?

    1. Destrier

      The World Trade Center was developed by the New York Port Authority and was an ill conceived boondoggle of the government. Blame “big business” all you want but it is “big government” that has the monopoly power of deadly force and seizure of private property. Therefore, they are the source of this kind of evil.

  5. SH

    I have a documentary on this event in my Netflix queue. It streams. This post piques my interest.

    As an aside, the building I work at lost it’s water main this week and we placed more OSEA complaints ever in our state in such a small time frame and one of the concerns was that we’d all burn if there was a fire. Bottom line, the fire mains were seperate from the water main so we would not burn and in a company where morale is relatively low, we proved we’re an organization looking for a day off of work. OSEA sided with the company for reasonable reasons. As a postive, this issue actually came up.

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