Half a Million People in Mourning
Originally published by the Forverts on April 6, 1911
In the midst of a downpour, 120,000 men and women participated in the largest march that New York has yet seen. Hundreds of thousands fill the streets. The silence that dominated the ranks made the biggest impression. Hysterical crying when the marchers approached the ruin where so many young workers lost their lives.
A quiet black stream of 120,000 mourners wound its way yesterday for six hours through scores of New York streets. With rain pouring down, the cold and dampness was bone chilling. But no one thought about that; no one abandoned the lines until the People’s Mourners’ March ended.
New York has never witnessed such a scene. Thousands of young women walked without hats, in thin coats, without umbrellas, without rubbers. Their clothes were soaked through, and streams of water ran from their hair. Many of them grew faint while walking and their girlfriends had to hold them in support. Many of the hundreds of thousands who filled the sidewalks shed bitter tears watching these girls. However, the marchers themselves did not cry. They walked with bowed heads, not saying a word. Silently and slowly, enveloped in grief, they walked holding each other’s hands, united in their sorrow, joined in their grief.
At 10 a.m., people were already beginning to gather at Rutgers Square, but the rain kept dispersing the crowd.
At 12 p.m., when the rain was at its height, the square suddenly turned black with people without a chance to notice where they had come from. And the mass grew larger and larger, crowding the square in its denseness. By 1 o’clock, it was impossible to push through the throng. There was no more room in the square, so the multitude began to spread into the surrounding streets. Seward Park, Jefferson Street, Rutgers Street, East Broadway, Clinton Street, block upon block were packed with people standing on both sides of the street like thick, black walls. And among them, two long rows of marchers formed, holding black flags and banners.
It is estimated that the number of participants reached more than half a million.
The police did not cease to wonder at the peacefulness of the people who comprised this tremendously large mass. Two hundred policemen were in attendance, but they themselves admitted that they weren’t necessary, since no one pushed or attempted to break through the lines. Cars and trolleys waited for the march to pass before they proceeded. Everyone felt that it was a righteous demonstration and they made sure not to weaken its godliness.
Many of the buildings and stores displayed black cloths and signs that said, “We Mourn the Victims of the Big Fire.” In some windows hung pictures of the deceased in black frames.
The shops and factories of the downtown streets also displayed signs of mourning. Black flags waved from scores of factory windows, leaving a chilling impression on the marching workers. Many of the girls’ eyes filled with fear when they looked up at those symbols of death that hung from their firetraps.
The march began at five minutes before one o’clock in front of the Forverts building. Leading the procession was a large black wagon filled with flowers that were later sent to grace the graves of the deceased. Then came the 1,200 surviving workers of the Triangle shop, all wearing black. The men wore black bands on their hats and sleeves. Practically all of the girls were pale and shaken. Some of them who had lost sisters and good friends wept silently, but it was obvious that they were trying with all their might to steady themselves.
Every heart of the hundreds of thousands was touched when the Triangle wagon passed with the surviving girls walking behind it. Women sobbed audibly. Men wiped their eyes.
Following the Triangle workers was the Shirtwaist Makers Union with its great army of heroic devoted members. More than 20,000 girls were in line. Almost all of them were dressed in black. Many of the rows were comprised of children, 13 and 14 year olds. It was woeful to witness them walking in the rain in thin shoes, without umbrellas, some without shawls or hats. The poor onlookers said to each other, “They’ll catch cold, get sick. Where are they getting this courage from, this corporeal strength?” But the girls did not think about any of these things. It was obvious from their faces that there was only one thing, one feeling charging their hearts, the sense of grief and distress.
Following the Shirtwaist Makers Union were all the other East Side unions, 60 in all, each carrying its banner shrouded in black. Some carried the American flag embellished with black bands.
The march proceeded from East Broadway into Clinton Street. From there it went to Broome and then to Broadway. The lines were generally eight across.
A frightening scene occurred when the girls from the Shirtwaist Makers Union approached Washington Place, where the Triangle factory was located. The march did not directly pass the factory; it only passed the street the factory is on, but that was enough to remind the girls of the horrifying disaster scene that many of them had personally witnessed.
When they got to that street, a low wail emanated from the marchers. The girls were exhausted from the long march and bad weather. They were barely able to lift their feet when a sudden outburst nearly drove them to hysterics. The bystanders also began crying. Many became frightened that some of the girls would not be able to withstand it and would fall apart. But the same amazing strength that quickened them throughout the long mourners’ procession fortified them at that moment, as well.
The march passed the dreadful street of the Triangle shop without any mishap.
The march was arranged so that not one disturbance or scuffle occurred among the various people during the entire six hours that the march lasted. Everything transpired in an orderly and peaceful manner. The United Jewish Trade Guild and the Ladies Waist And Dressmakers Union organized the entire march and deserve credit for their good management.
The Brooklyn unions and the branches of the Socialist Party gathered around the Rand School of Social Science on 19th Street. Their lines marched down to Washington Square, where they hooked up with the Downtown Division and, from there, both units joined the march up Fifth Avenue to Madison Square Garden.
Participating in the uptown arm were also members of the Women’s Trade Union League among which many prominent women took part. Mrs. Rose Schneiderman, vice president of the league, walked without a hat and without a shawl. She was horribly pale and because of weakness could not manage on her own. Her two friends helped to support her the whole way.