Thomas R Lansner is adjunct associate professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in international media and communications, and has worked with human rights and social justice advocates from and in many countries. A former correspondent for The London Observer and others in Africa and Asia, his online seminars on covering conflict are found on Columbia Interactive.
I’d known since I was small that my Great Aunt Fannie Lansner died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. My father Frank explained that he was named for Fannie a dozen years after she died. There were few specifics: I heard how 20 year-old Fannie and other garment workers trapped in the inferno leapt to their deaths at the feet of stunned New Yorkers on the sidewalk below. I learned that Fannie’s brother-in-law had the terrible task of identifying her body.
And my mother told me that from this horror grew a great struggle for worker safety and rights.
These interwoven themes of individual losses and the movement to ameliorate conditions that helped cause them should be recalled on the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25.
Many descendants of Triangle victims and survivors will gather at the site of the fire close by Washington Square for a commemoration to include processions, music, and speeches by labor leaders and politicians. And much attention will be on the memory of those who perished in or survived the fire, or were otherwise affected by it. Some families have long known the details of their relatives’ experiences. In high school, I had read such accounts in Leon Stein’s 1962 history, The Triangle Fire, which are excerpted on Cornell University’s fine site about the fire. And as the Internet arrived, I searched a few times for news of Aunt Fannie and the fire. But there was never much more than her name, sometimes misspelled, in the sad long lists of the 146 dead.
It was only in 2003 when David von Drehle’s Triangle; The Fire That Changed America was published that we found any details of Aunt Fannie’s end. Based on court testimony from two survivors, Fannie was described as “doomed” by indecision in not quickly choosing between possible escape routes. Her bolder colleagues, the book related, fled without Fannie and survived to tell the tale.
It was profoundly dispiriting to read this. My ancestor had died tragically, we already knew. Now it seemed she died needlessly as well, because she froze in panic, and as others saved themselves she could not save herself.
But in the past year, we have gained a very different perspective of Fannie’s final moments. In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the fire, I was contacted by Michael Hirsch, producer of the new HBO documentary TRIANGLE: Remembering the Fire. Michael’s extensive new research produced newspaper accounts no one in my family knew of, and which David von Drehle, as he later told me — and surely Leon Stein before him — had not seen in their own.
Aunt Fannie’s actions were headlined — and headlines were prodigious in those days, longer than what today passes for entire online news stories — on page two of The New York Evening Telegram of Monday March 27, 1911:
“Heroic Young Forewoman Loses Her Life to Save Others from Death in Flames: Miss Fannie Lansner Guides Girls to Safety Until Her Own Escape Is Cut Off; THEN LEAPS FROM WINDOW TO DEATH ON PAVEMENT; Calm in Midst of Peril, She Does Her Utmost to Calm Panic-Stricken Women to the Last”.
“Speaking both Yiddish and English to the girls who were huddled about her, all crying and screaming, Miss Lansner guided some of them down the stairways and kept others waiting for the elevator,” the Evening Telegram reported, of the Italian and Eastern European immigrant workers that Fannie (who herself arrived in New York from Russian Lithuania in 1904) sought to save. “Trip after trip of the elevator was made and Miss Lansner remained on the floor, and though several girls begged her to go with them down the elevator, Miss Lansner said she would be ‘all right,’ and told them to go out as quickly as possible.”
It was from this article and another in the Hartford Courant that we heard of Aunt Fannie’s deeds, which, the Courant reported, were also detailed in testimony to the New York district attorney.
With the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire, it is time that unsung heroes of that terrible day receive official recognition: my Aunt Fannie, her co-workers Daisy Lopez Fitze, Annie Miller and Annie Sprinsock, and Asch Building worker Thomas Horton, whose acts of bravery have come to light in recent years, and others whose stories are better known, like elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, factory manager Samuel Bernstein, Patrolman Jimmy Lehan, and several New York University law professors and students. And with renewed interest and archival research, other heroes will surely emerge.
But these memories of the fire’s personal costs, as my mother taught me, should be embedded in the story of the strong campaign for worker rights before the fire that saw thousands of women and men suffer privation, and resist intimidation and assaults while striking for a living wage and safe workplaces — the “Uprising of the 20,000” — and the broader movement for social justice that rose from the wreckage of the Triangle’s sewing rooms. Public anger and massive media coverage, including of the contentious “trial of the century” that saw the Triangle’s owners cleared of any culpability for the blaze, brought sharp focus to the struggle for worker safety and decent pay and working conditions, and led to enduring reforms.
And the Triangle Fire still has resonance in 2011 because that struggle continues — here in the United States, where union rights and workplace safety agencies are under attack, and even more in places around the world where garment workers and others toil today under conditions of the sort that so troubled the American conscience, and impelled action to address them, 100 years ago.
The rediscovered narrative of Fannie’s last moments speaks to the malleability of the historical record, and the need to consider even compelling eyewitness accounts of crises with caution, something I’d learned during years as an international correspondent.
For my family, this “new” news of Fannie’s bravery was of course a revelation. And at the end of the Evening Telegram story recounting her death, we read something that strikes me as equally significant, about her life before the fire. It tells us more about who Fannie Lansner was as a person, and perhaps why she acted so selflessly that day.
Survivors told the newspaper that — at a time when workers had few rights and scant recourse with often capricious or even cruel employers — “We all loved Miss Lansner because she would not discharge us unless we broke some rule of the firm, and even then it would have to be something very bad before she would do it.” She was a strict forewoman, they said, but one known for kindness, who interceded with the boss to help girls keep their jobs.
As my family gathers this week to mark a century since her death, I know that our new knowledge of Aunt Fannie’s final acts of heroism will long inspire my daughter and my nieces and nephews, my young cousins, and many others. But from her reputation as a kind and fair supervisor, I hope they will also learn and share that there is also an everyday courage of conviction in treating people well, with the common dignity that workers and we all desire and deserve. ###