The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire passed today, marked by ceremonies in front of the building where 146 workers died. And for the first time all the names of the victims were read. The final few unidentified dead have now been accounted for, thanks to the work of a dogged researcher who dug into genealogical sources and previously untapped accounts in the the immigrant press. For most of the dead were young immigrant women in their teens and early 20s, although strollerderby’s Sunny Chanel notes that the youngest worker killed was only 11 — reflecting the fact that tough laws against child labor would not be enacted until 1916. [Edited to note: Most historical accounts I have seen list the youngest victims as 14, a bit older, but the point still stands.]
The fire was a landmark not only in New York City history, but in the fight for workers’ rights in general. Sadly, the lure of cheap clothes continues to fuel new Triangle-style garment factories across the globe, as Kevin Clarke reports in in America magazine. And a survivor’s granddaughter writes about the legacy of outrage and activism the fire cast over her own family, as well as the progress yet to be made.
Seems like a good time for a listen to a quintessential anthem for women workers:
You can never say never, even with the most stubborn mysteries. A case in point: a recent New York Times report that 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan burned, taking the lives of 146 workers with it, a comprehensive list of the dead has finally been compiled.
It’s a bit surprising that such a list didn’t exist before, given how much this fire has been covered in books, articles, documentaries and even a dramatized TV film. The story of “amateur genealogist and historian” Michael Hirsch (as the Times describes him) and what he did to fill in the blanks is inspiring and instructive.
The family historian struggling with their own research dead ends will be interested to learn the ways Hirsch thought outside the box to uncover the names of victims previously lost to historians. Hirsch, who became obsessed with the Triangle story after he learned that a resident of his block had died in the fire, hit paydirt by probing overlooked sources, notably contemporary accounts in Yiddish- and Italian-language daily newspapers. Seeking the grave monument of a young Italian worker, Hirsch found her tombstone, with an inscription in Italian referring to “due sorelle” [two sisters] who died in the fire, which led to another previously hidden name.
It’s an absorbing account — and thought-provoking, too. Interesting to think that vital sources can be hidden in plain sight, just waiting for the right person to think of them. Read the whole thing, (by Times reporter Joseph Berger).
You never know when you’re going to need a coroner’s report, right?
It turned out that I needed one after I pulled an NYC death certificate and got a nasty surprise — my distant cousin had died after her skull (somehow) was fractured (by someone or something un-named).
Next step: a coroner’s report, which is not held at the Municipal Archives. But they will forward a request to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, if you find a report number. (The Archives holds microfilms of coroner-related records, although not for all years and all localities.)
This search had to wait until my next visit to the Archives, which came about because an American Girl doll had had an unfortunate accident and needed a trip to the doll hospital at American Girl Place in Manhattan.
Immediately, I thought of the coroner’s log. Wouldn’t anyone?
Typically, the trip went less than swimmingly, especially at first:
1. Run out of house with my youngest, briefcase over shoulder, crying “Go Go GO!” Ignore child’s snickers.
2. Run to school. Hug child goodbye (that was correct child, wasn’t it?) Sprint for bus stop a block away. Realize I am carrying mod pink lunchbox. Sprint back to school.
3. Hop bus, get to archives. Explain search to extremely nice, extremely brisk staffer, who points to Cabinet 8 on the far side of room. Kings County coroner’s logs are in there, she says.
4. Stare intently at rows of drawers labeled many things, but not “Brooklyn” or “Kings.”
5. Explain to second staffer what I’m looking for. Second staffer says those records aren’t at this facility. Despair.
6. Staffer No. 1 strides over and rolls eyes. She eyes the cabinet, pulls open drawer marked “Richmond and Queens” and points.
7. Yep, there are the films of the Brooklyn logs for 1946. Don’t ask why. Just grab microfilm machine and get going.
And yes, I did find the coroner’s report number, shuddering a bit along the way. (Random entry: “Unidentified bones found in water at foot of 58th St.”) Incidentally, you can bypass the coroner’s logs if the death certificate includes the coroner’s report number — so check.
Then it was time to file and pay for the request. If you ever end up doing this, you will give the nice people at the Municipal Archives a check for no more than $30. Specifically, in the field where one generally writes stuff like “Ten and xx/100 Dollars,” you will write “Not to Exceed $30.”
I’m mentioning this so that I can spare you (and the nice folks at the Archives) a repeat of my torn-up checks while I internalized this concept. This oddly-written check will cover a $10 search fee and the copying of up to 20 pages at $1 per page. If there are more than 20 pages, you’ll be notified of the fee so you can decide if you want to go for it.
So after the checkbook confetti cleared, the request was filed and I was on my way to the doll hospital.
The doll, by the way, recovered beautifully.
And the coroner’s report came a couple of weeks later, but that’s another story altogether.
We now have officially entered the holiday season, which means that if anyone is vaguely interested in all this genealogical poking around we’re doing, now is the time they’re going to ask about it.
Just before Turkey Day, in one of those feast-planning phone conversations, my sister Mary and I got to talking about the genealogy stuff and about our ancestor Martin Haigney in particular. (I know, I know: The last half of this year has pretty much been MartinFest, but his Civil War pension file has just had so much interesting stuff in it.)
One of the questions my sister and I discussed is a classic: When was he born, exactly?
And even better: You mean he didn’t know either?
It’s so interesting to contemplate the radically different relationship our ancestors had with concepts such as vital statistics. Not being sure exactly when you were born? To me it feels dislocating, upsetting. How much in my life would be difficult, if not impossible, if I could not prove when I was born?
To Martin, it did not appear to be something one thought about at all. In fact, I’ll bet he didn’t worry much about it until his old age, when somebody at the Bureau of Pensions noticed a discrepancy in the ages Martin had reported on various pieces of paperwork.
The result was this 1907 affidavit, which neatly illustrates the vague relationship many of our ancestors had with their own birthdates, and the subsequent difficulties we can have trying to establish a timeline for them. In my Part II post, I’ll discuss Martin’s various ages, as stated by himself and others.
State of NEW YORK
County of STEUBEN
In the matter of Pension Ctf. #592,963 of Martin Haigney, Ord. Dep. U.S.A. – Claim for pension, Act of Feb. 6, 1907.
Personally came before me, a Notary Public in and for aforesaid County and State Martin Haigney aged 75 years Citizen of the Town of Bath (S. & S. Home) County of Steuben State of New York well known to me to be reputable and entitled to credit, and who being duly sworn, declares in relation to aforesaid case, as follows:
I am the above described claimant for pension under the Act of Feb. 6th, 1907, and in reply to official letter of March 18th calling for proof of my age, I have to state that I cannot get proof of same by record evidence or otherwise, and hereby wish to ammend [sic] my claim on account of a slight discrepancy and error discovered by me. I have figured back and well remember now that I was 22 years of age at my first enlistment in the Regular army on March 7, 1854. According to that I must have been born in 1832 instead of 1831 as I thought when filing my claim on age on or about Feb. 12, 1907.
Therefore, I wish to amend said claim so as to have my pension commence at the rate of $20 per month from the date of the filing of this statement in the Pension office; and that a rating of $15 per month be granted me commencing from the date of filing said claim, on or about Feb. 12, 1907, because I was more than 74 years old at the date of said filing, and supposed I was 75 years old, but as before stated, I now recollect well that I was 22 years old at the time of my first enlistment, and the records in Washington no doubt will corroborate my statement.
I am unable to furnish proof of my age, and respectfully ask that my claim be amended as above requested.
Witnesses to Mark: Daniel J. Orcutt Thomas B. Hannon
Martin X Haigney
[Receiving stamp at Pension Office: March 27, 1907]
Note: Martin sent this affidavit not from Watervliet (West Troy), his longtime home, but from Steuben County, New York, where he was a resident of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ home in Bath. I wrote a little bit about the home here.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
When Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine penned “Simple Gifts” in 1848, it is a fairly good bet he was not thinking about symphonic variations, pop-artist cover versions or theatrical dance extravaganzas.
Nobody else was, either — “Simple Gifts” remained quite unknown to general audiences for nearly a century after its creation. But then Aaron Copland fell in love with the clean sweep of its melody and worked it into his beautiful score for Appalachian Spring, and nobody has been able to resist it since.
If you’re interested in more about the history of the song, take a look at this page, which corrects many errors often perpetuated about “Simple Gifts.” The most obvious one is calling it a “Shaker hymn.” It is really a Shaker dance song, which a close look at the last two lines should have told us all along.
Although I have now been on three journeys to the Watervliet, NY area, I have yet to pay a visit to the Shaker historic site there, where Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee is buried. My ancestry hunts have always taken me to a very different side of Watervliet. But I hope to correct this oversight someday. Meanwhile, I’ll take a listen to “Simple Gifts,” which seems like an ideal meditation for Thanksgiving Day.
“Simple Gifts” is a perfect example of Shaker art: supple, clean-edged and just a little bit mysterious in its simplicity. No wonder singers and instrumentalists explore it again and again.
Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma have done “Simple Gifts” as a richly beautiful duet that can be heard here.
And here is Judy Collins, singing it in February 1963:
Finally, how can you have a Shaker dancing song without dancers? This version from “Blast,” the brass-and-percussion theatrical event, brings it all together. A far cry from Sabbathday Lake, but still … enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving.
I cannot tell a lie. This was one of my favorite artifacts in the museum at the Watervliet Arsenal in Watervliet, N.Y., where my ancestor Martin Haigney served as a soldier between 1854 and 1867.
Aren’t these superb examples of caffeine-producing equipment from the 19th century?
Oh yes, and they made armaments and stuff there, too.