On this day in 1911, 146 women burned or leaped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  fire. Without the right to organize to demand  safe working conditions, these immigrant  sweatshop garment workers were locked inside when the building caught fire.  It took until this year for the official record to record all of their names.

The building still stands at 29 Washington Square in Greenwich Village, as part of the NYU campus. I wrote the following poem three years ago, while sitting in that very building.  I post it here to remind myself  that my assurance of reaching fifty, and of having choices, is governed by history, circumstance, privilege and the suffering of women who came before me.


When they fell like angels
winged in fire, god was
watching the clock. Gates

locked, he stood by meting out justice:
the mechanical hell of stitch and brown lung
or the hunger. What’s worse now,

to leap or to burn? Some hope of heaven
must have tugged their garments upward,
immodest ohs of mouth and eyes

reflected in grimy windows as they passed.
Others took the long way down dark
chutes for elevated freight. One survived

the passage to America, the Uprising and then
the burning and the falling and the drowning.
Her sister’s bodies held her head afloat.

The bodies are still there, crushed
violets on the lawn. They wait for us
to claim them. Each one has a name.

— Mistinguette Smith

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  • Chris  On March 25, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Larry  On March 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Each day you bring growth and experience to my life. Intentional 50 Indeed!

  • Dawn  On March 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    There was a movie made of that fire – oh, maybe in the late 1960’s, starring Tovah Feldshuh. I saw it then & have wanted to find it again – it was incredibly moving to me as I was their age when I saw it. I tried cruising Netflix & looked on Amazon, but I wonder if PBS has it in their archives somehow or maybe Craig’s List or E-bay? On your recommendation, I will find the building where you wrote the fine poem & remember those girls. Thank you…

    • Intentional50  On March 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      Dawn, tell me the name of the film, if you find it.
      And look for the wreath on Washington Square: in that spot, a woman died by jumping from the 8th floor and falling so hard she went *through* the hollow New York sidewalk beneath your feet.

  • Jude  On March 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Mistinguette, I am glad any time a woman writes, I am grateful every time a woman says what I cannot. But I got no adjectives for the combination of knowing the voice behind such true speaking.

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