Originally published in the Forverts, December 27, 1911
Both lawyers have two hours in which to speak and then the Judge will address the jury. A witness swears that Harris told him: “The dead are already dead but the living must live: It’s certain the doors were locked: I didn’t want to enable the theft of any of my property”
Lawyer Max Steuer’s Speech to the Jury
Today’s meeting of the Triangle trial began one hour earlier than usual. By nine-thirty everyone was already in court. Blanck arrived with his wife and young daughter. Next to Harris sat his wife and brother. Only one jury-man, the third one, was late. They waited ten minutes for him to arrive.
The clock showed twenty minutes to ten when the Judge decided that Max Steuer should begin his closing speech for those assembled. He warned the lawyer not to exceed two hours speaking and also that he would be given a fifteen minute warning as he neared this limit so as not to have stop abruptly.
Steuer began with a brief introduction: “155 witnesses were brought to this trial. The plaintiff brought 103 and the accused, only 52. Of the 103 brought by the plaintiff however, 51 spoke about matters having little to do with the fire, but rather spoke more about matters that occurred after the fire. The 52 witnesses for the accused “It’s impossible for me to recount all that they’ve already said, as there’s not enough time for that. I hope the jury recalls the character of our testimony. I will just review a few of the most important points. Furthermore, the witnesses for the plaintiff are currently suing the bosses for damages. If our witnesses are partial to the bosses because they are currently working in the Triangle firm, then the witnesses for the plaintiff are covertly against the bosses because they are demanding damages from them.
“Let us now focus on the main issue. The two bosses are charged with first degree murder, firstly as due to negligence on their part the girl Margaret Shwartz lost her life in the fire and secondly, because they did not follow the law which states that the stairs in every factory building must have railings and all doors in these factories must open outwards (if it is possible to do so) and must never be locked during work hours.
“Also, firstly, there are factory inspectors who must enforce these laws. And secondly, my clients cannot be held accountable for the construction of the building and how the doors were installed. That is the landlord’s business, not theirs. “Thirdly, the law states that ‘all doors must not be locked’ and the plaintiff testified that ‘all’ doors were not locked, she brought evidence only about the Washington Place door.
“And now, about the doors. Were they truly locked? We brought as witness Miss Levantina who testified before you that she herself opened up the door during the fire and went out into the hall. Several days after the fire Mr. Blanck approached this girl and asked her to sign a sworn testimony regarding the door and she refused. The District Attorney summoned her to his office and there she gave him a statement. Mr. Bostwick spoke about this statement during the trial. But why didn’t he show it to you? Why was he afraid to tell you what the girl said to the District Attorney about the doors?
“We also brought before you the two sisters, Ida and Anna Mitelman who confirmed every word Miss Levantina said. They saw how Miss Levantina opened the door, and one of them even went out that door.
“Note, additionally, when these two sisters were initially asked whether, at the time, they discussed the fire with friends and relatives, they replied yes. The witnesses for the plaintiff all testified that they never discussed the fire with anyone, ever. Who thinks they told the truth?
“That is additional proof that you cannot rely on the witnesses for the plaintiff. One after the other they testified that the shop was always dirty. They also stated they were not permitted to eat in the middle of the working day. We’ve presented before you the two Negroes, Williamson and Harris, whose task it was to keep the shop clean and bring lunch up midday for the workers. “
Steuer stressed the testimony of three former workers of the Triangle shop: Rubin, Silverman and Wolf, who swore on the witness stand that during their time working at the factory, the doors on the Washington Place side were open.
Steuer focussed a good deal of time on the testimony of the superintendent Samuel Bernstein.
“This man lost his brother in the fire” Steuer said. “Much of the testimony you’ve heard has described the awful scene in which that unfortunate young man, smothered in flames, ran through the shop howling in pain and how, shortly thereafter, he fell dead.
“Do you think there is a power in the universe great enough to force Bernstein to lie about those doors, given the frightful image of his brother’s death he personally witnessed? And he did swear here before you that those doors were not locked.”
“The girls stated that the machinist Brown had to forcibly show them how to open the door. The girls were overcome with fear. The couldn’t see whether or not the door was locked.
“And Brown supported Miss Wilensky’s statement and added that he opened the door without a key. He only needed give the handle a twist. The door was open.”
Steuer ended with a warm appeal to jury member’s hearts.
“These two accused,” he said, “worked hard for 13 years to amass their holdings. With one word you can destroy it all. I ask you, can you tell for certain, without any doubt, that from witness’s testimony you are convinced that the accused are responsible for the death of Margaret Schwartz?”
The two wives of the bosses, Mrs. Blanck and Mrs. Harris wept bitterly when Steuer ended his speech. He concluded exactly on time — twenty minutes to twelve.
The defense hadn’t much improved its situation with yesterday’s testimony. Their first witness was locksmith Herman Hurvits of 271 East Broadway, whose statements led one to believe the plaintiff had tampered with the lock and that after the fire they had nailed it to the bit of door in order to support their proof that the door was locked. The ‘expert’ locksmith testified the lock couldn’t have belonged to the door as firstly, it’s too thick for it and secondly, there was one catch in the lock that had melted from the heat and if it had been bolted to the door during the fire that bit of door would surely also have burned to ash. “A fire that can melt the material of which locks are crafted, can also burn a bit of wood.” he stated.
During the cross-examination Bostwick brought a door into court, from the sixth floor of the building where the fire had taken place. He called on witnesses to survey the door and tell him whether the found lock would have been able to fit it. Hurvits examined it for several minutes and then declared that the lock didn’t suit that door. “There would still be a bit of wall around either side of the lock, about an inch on both sides,” he stated.
Bostwick then alerted him to the fact that all the doors in the building were exactly the same size and precisely the same thickness and that if the lock fit the door on the sixth floor, it surely fit the door on the ninth floor.
After the cross-examination Bostwick called to the witness stand Mr. Kelly, the man who manufactured the lock. He had already been a witness for the plaintiff. Yesterday he again stated that he recognized the lock as the same one he sold the firm that placed them in the door. As expert, he denied everything Hurvits had previously stated. He said the lock was not too large for the door and that it was fabricated of a material that wouldn’t melt. Steuer used a variety of ways to try and confuse these witnesses, but to no avail. It was possible for him to show that his expert Hurvits was more of a real locksmith artisan than Kelly because Kelly wasn’t able to desconstruct the lock and Hurvits was able. Kelly simply admitted that Hurvits had a better pair of hands than he.
After Hurvits, the defense called the second boss from ‘Triangle’ Max Blanck. He was on the witness stand for a mere ten minutes. He gave the same testimony as his partner Harris had on Friday, that everyday he used the Washington Place door several times, and it was always open. His lawyer then asked him to explain how he managed to be rescued from the fire. Blanck then began speaking about his wife who was then traveling in the south, and about his children who were in the shop at the time, waiting for a car. These details didn’t make a good impression. Steuer pointed out that it’s not appropriate to speak of cars and pleasant journeys when everyone is engaged in clarifying and debating the fate of the 145 immolated girls. He halted Blanck and quickly ended the examination.
Bostwick also didn’t bother much with Blanck’s cross-examination. He read Blanck his statement made before the District Attorney’s office several days after the fire. At that time the District Attorney had asked him: “Mr. Blanck, is it not logical to believe under the circumstances, that the doors were locked during the fire?” And Blanck had answered “Of course it is certainly logical to believe that,” Bostwick asked Blanck if that question and his subsequent response were true, and Blanck replied that he didn’t remember.
Bostwick also inquired about the place and whether the security-men used to search the pocket-books of the girls. “Is it not true, that they would often remove items from the purses, in order to better search?” Bostwick asked. Steuer objected to this question and the Judge asked Bostwick to withdraw it.
When Blanck left the witness stand, the plaintiff called one of the strongest witnesses. That witness was Robert Wolfson of 208 West 148th Street. He worked at the “Triangle Factory” for nine years as head-cashier and resigned immediately after the fire.
On the witness stand, Wolfson stated that 2-3 days after the fire he talked with the boss Isaac Harris, and Harris had said the following: “the dead are already dead, the living must, however, live. Certainly the doors were locked, I wouldn’t permit them to steal my property.”
Steuer tried with all his skill to weaken Wolfson’s testimony but wasn’t able. Having no choice then, he called Harris to the witness stand who denied Wolfson’s testimony. “I never said that to him,” Harris stated.
The plaintiff then called Camilio Frank of 342 East 11th Street. He spoke of how the Italian woman May Levantina, chief witness for the defense, told him that the door was locked. As is known, Miss Levantina testified in court that she had opened the door during the fire and had herself gotten out through that door, into the hall. Frank said that she never told him that.
Bostwick then called several stenographers and clerks from his office who had noted that many of the witnesses for the defense had, after the fire, stated at the District Attorney’s office that the doors were locked.
It was precisely 5 o’clock and the lawyers for both sides stated they had nothing more to present. There was silence in the courtroom. Seated behind the 2 accused were their closest relatives, not far from Harris sat his elderly mother and near Blanck were his wife and young daughter. The Judge then turned to Steuer asking if there was anything else he wanted to present before the last order of business. Everyone in court felt the end of the long, emotional trial was approaching. In a low tone, Steuer then made a familiar request, moving that the accusation be repealed, as the plaintiff didn’t bring enough evidence and the Judge rejected the motion.
In yesterday afternoon’s courtroom were two elite guests: the singer Madame Nardico and millionaire Mrs. Belmont. They sat there for several hours listening to the proceedings. When court was adjourned, Mrs. Belmont said she didn’t like that the witnesses were sworn in on Christian bibles and not with a Jewish Old Testament. “The witnesses are obviously Jewish,” she said, “so what good is their oath on a New Testament. It’s as though they were sworn in on a spittoon.”