Friday, October 29, 2010

Triangle Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the worst fires in the history of New York City.  It took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building.  The factory produced women's blouses (also referred to as "shirtwaists").  The factory employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays.

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, just as the workday ended, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutters' tables on the eighth floor, likely caused by the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt.  Although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection.  No accusation of arson was made in this specific case, however, as both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor warned employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor.  The first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself.  The floor had a number of exits - two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Square - but flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Square stairway was locked.  Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof.  Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they still operated.

Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in either direction.  Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire but in any event soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims onto the concrete pavement over a hundred feet below.

 The elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, saved many lives by travelling three times up to the ninth floor for passengers, but Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped down the empty shaft in a desperate attempt to avoid the flames; the weight of these bodies made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

Much to the horror of the large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two persons died by jumping or falling from the ninth floor.  Socialist Louis Waldman, later a New York state assemblyman, described the grim scene in his memoirs published in 1944:

“One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire. 

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. 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. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines."

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them.  The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor.  The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to reach the building.

The death toll was anywhere from 141 to 146 people.  Six victims were never identified.  Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.

It is often stated that most or all of the dead were women, but almost thirty of the victims were men. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men and women jumping out of the windows; the first jumper was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Love Story of Lancelot and Guinevere

One of the saddest loves tories is that of Lancelot and Guinevere.

One of the greatest knights of the roundtable of King Arthur was Lancelot.  He was loyal, wise, strong, and kind.  But unfortunately, he fell in love with Queen Guinevere.  They tried to keep their love a secret from the king, but eventually, it became known and was a catalyst for the Round Table to fall. 

Like most romances, their love bloomed slowly.  At first, Guinevere ignored Lancelot.  But not for long and she soon succumbed to his charms and they became lovers.  

Another knight, Sir Meliagaunt grew suspicious and e confronted Sir Lancelot in the presence of the King and Queen.  

This led Lancelot to issue a challenge to Meliagaunt to dispute the charge.  But in such a contest, Sir Lancelot became the victor when he cleaved his oponent's head in half.  Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere's honour were restored.

But rumours continued to abound and several other knights became suspicious of Lancelot and Guinevere's romantic trysts.  Sir Agravain and Sir Modred, King Arthur's nephew gathered 12 knights and stormed
Guinevere's chamber, catching her with Lancelot in bed.  

Sir Lancelot tried to escape and fought hius way out of the castle, but guards seized Guinevere who was tried and later condemned to burn to death for her infedility.  

Upon hearing the news of his beloved's imminent execution, Sir Lancelot attempted to rescue her.  He killed several of King Arthur's knights in the process.   

Angered, King Arthur gathered a troop of men and attacked Lancelot's castle, but they failed.  

Lancelot ended his days as a hermit and Guinevere became a nun at Amesbury where she died.

Lord Alfred Tennyson immortalized the doomed lovers in a poem:

Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere
Like souls that balance joy and pain,

With tears and smiles from heaven again

The maiden Spring upon the plain

Came in a sunlit fall of rain.

In crystal vapor everywhere

Blue isles of heaven laugh'd between,

And far, in forest-deeps unseen,

The topmost elm-tree gather'd green

From draughts of balmy air.
Sometimes the linnet piped his song;

Sometimes the throstle whistled strong;

Sometimes the sparhawk, wheel'd along,

Hush'd all the groves from fear of wrong;

By grassy capes with fuller sound

In curves the yellowing river ran,

And drooping chestnut-buds began

To spread into the perfect fan,

Above the teeming ground.

Then, in the boyhood of the year,

Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere

Rode thro' the coverts of the deer,

With blissful treble ringing clear.

She seem'd a part of joyous Spring;

A gown of grass-green silk she wore,

Buckled with golden clasps before;

A light-green tuft of plumes she bore

Closed in a golden ring.

Now on some twisted ivy-net,

Now by some tinkling rivulet,

In mosses mixt with violet

Her cream-white mule his pastern set;

And fleeter now she skimm'd the plains

Than she whose elfin prancer springs

By night to eery warblings,

When all the glimmering moorland rings

With jingling bridle-reins.

As she fled fast thro' sun and shade,

The happy winds upon her play'd,

Blowing the ringlet from the braid.

She look'd so lovely, as she sway'd

The rein with dainty finger-tips,

A man had given all other bliss,

And all his worldly worth for this,

To waste his whole heart in one kiss

Upon her perfect lips.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Turning of the Tide by Liz Shakespeare

Review by Sheila R. Lamb

The Turning of the Tide by Liz Shakespeare is an immensely engaging story that captures the reader from the first page. Selina is a destitute, unwed mother, forced into the Bideford Workhouse. Trapped by her unfortunate circumstances, she – like all the mothers in the workhouse – lives for the few hours a week that she can visit her sons.

Dr. Ackland, a visiting physician to the workhouse, feels compassion for Selina when her eldest son dies. He employs her as a maid in his own home, much to the consternation of his wife, Sophia. Although their home is a better environment than the institutionalized prison-like life of the workhouse, Selina longs for her only son, Will, who is sent to live with her parents in the neighboring village of Clovelly.

Selina, timid and skittish from the abuse she has endured, faces societal condemnation for having two children out of wedlock.  Her sharpest critic is Sophia Ackland, although Sophia’s harsh judgments are internal. While the two women deal with their unspoken fears, Dr. Ackland is determined to bring hygiene, and therefore health, to Bideford. Shakespeare deftly illustrates the medical practices of the time and the diseases people were challenged with daily.

The Acklands agree to keep Selina employed on a temporary basis. Sophia slowly learns to trust her new maid and teaches her to read, yet she still retains a snobbish sense of betterment over her.  As the story unfolds, Sophia is compelled to face the hardships Selina has borne. In the meantime, Selina grows in confidence and health, and begins to recognize dreams and longings of her own.

In a unique and fascinating twist, Shakespeare smoothly inserts primary source documents within the text as the novel is based on historical figures from Bideford and Clovelly Documents include Bideford Workhouse records, newspaper clippings, marriage certificates, letters and photographs. Each document corresponds to an event that occurs in the novel (or perhaps, the novel corresponds to the event.) For example, in the novel, Dr. Ackland attends a tempestuous board meeting over his goal of expanding the local Smallpox Hospital. A newspaper article follows the chapter, dated December 1871, recounting a similarly dramatic board meeting.

Shakespeare provides a fascinating glimpse of life in 1871 Devon, England. She paints thorough portraits of the landscape as well as of the social community. No detail is left out, from examining social health, the class system, and attitudes of the time. Even more importantly, she writes a beautiful story of Selina’s strength and courage that holds the reader until the end.

The Turning of the Tide is available through Ms. Shakespeare's website.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Great Boston Molasses Disaster 1919

On an unusually warm day on January 15, 1919, the Purity Distilling Company faced disaster. Molasses, a favourite sweetener was being stored there. It was popular because it could be fermented into rum and ethyl alcohol.

The rather large tank was awaiting transfer to the Purity plant situated between Willow Street and what is now named Evereteze Way in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It suddenly collapsed.

The rumble resounded loudly and shook the ground.  Huge waves of molasses between broke the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and lifted a train off the tracks. Buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Waist deep molasses covered the street, sweeping and covering people and animals in its wake.

The Boston Globe reported that people and vehicles alike "were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet."

21 people and several horses were killed, most crushed and drowned by the molasses. Coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast.

Rescuers ran several blocks toward the accident. They worked to keep the curious from getting in the way of the rescuers while others entered into the knee-deep sticky mess to pull out the survivors.  Some nurses from the Red Cross dove into the molasses, while others tended to the wounded, keeping them warm as well as keeping the exhausted workers fed.  Many of these people worked through the night.  The injured were so numerous that doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building.  Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims.  It took four days before they stopped searching for victims; many dead were so glazed over in molasses, they were hard to recognize.  Two found on the fourth day were never identified.

Clean up efforts took over 87,000 man hours to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes.

The site is currently a recreational complex, officially named Langone Park, featuring a Little League ballfield, a playground, and bocce courts.

Here are the names of some of the men and women who died that day.

Patrick Breen 44 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
William Brogan 61 Teamster
Bridget Clougherty 65 Homemaker
Stephen Clougherty 34 Unemployed
John Callahan 43 Paver (North End Paving Yard)
Maria Distasio 10 Child
William Duffy 58 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
Peter Francis 64 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Flamino Gallerani 37 Driver
Pasquale Iantosca 10 Child
James H. Kinneally Unknown Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
Eric Laird 17 Teamster
George Layhe 38 Firefighter (Engine 31)
James Lennon 64 Teamster/Motorman
Ralph Martin 21 Driver
James McMullen 46 Foreman, Bay State Express
Cesar Nicolo 32 Expressman
Thomas Noonan 43 Longshoreman
Peter Shaughnessy 18 Teamster
John M. Seiberlich 69 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Michael Sinnott 76 Messenger

A small plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park, placed by the Bostonian Society, commemorates the disaster.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Loi Chan

To see her on land, Loi Chai-san looked like a normal, unassuming, young woman. She wore delicate silks and satins and kept her hair tidily knotted at the nape of her neck.

But on water, aboard one of her 12 armed junks she inherited from a pirate named Honcho Lo, off came the silks and satins and on came the garb of man - pants and jackets. Transformed, she became Queen of the Macao Pirates, ruthlessly scouring the waters around Hong Kong during the 1920’s. Pillaging cargo and kidnapping wealthy people and holding them for ransom was how she earned her fame and amassed her wealth.

She adored her fame and encouraged it. A journalist by the name of Aleko E. Lilius paid her $43 dollars per day to follow her and write about her exploits in an article entitled “I Sailed with Chinese Pirates.”

Whenever she attempted a raid, two women accompanied her and acted as a mediary between Loi Chai-san and her crew of male pirrates. Loi never spoke directly to the men of her crew and they were always banned from her cabin.

Whenever she kidnapped someone, she sent a message to his or her relatives. If they refused to pay the ransom, Loi Chai-san sent them the captive’s finger or ear. If this failed to persuade them to pay the ransom, she killed her prisoner.

The history books are silent regarding what happened to Loi Chai-san. Some say she attacked a torpedo squadron during the Chinese-Japanese War and was killed during battle. Another rumour tells that the International Coast Guard caught and arrested her in 1939 and sentenced her to life imprisonment.

Most Viewed Posts