Triangle Boss a Witness
Originally published in the Forverts, December 23, 1911
Isaac Harris, forced to give evidence on the witness stand, said that there had been five fires in the Triangle shop, and that he had given instructions to inspect the girls’ pocketbooks.
Witnesses forget what they said right after the fire:
Isaac Harris, from 342 W. 101st St., one of the two bosses of the Triangle Shop, stood as a witness in his own defense yesterday. His lawyer, Max Steuer, put only one question to him, about the doors, and the assistant district attorney almost didn’t want to cross examine him. The judge, however, showed with a question that one could obtain a great many details from Harris to help the inquiry. Altogether Harris’s admissions were more hurtful than helpful.
Steuer asked first about the business:
“How long have you been in the waist business?”
“What is your work and business?”
“I am the manufacturer and designer.”
Harris then described how he used to arrive at the factory each day at 8:00 in the morning. He also said that he often used to go down from one floor to another, through both doors, from the Greene Street and Washington Place sides. They were both always open, he explained.
“Who used to open and lock the doors?” Steuer asked him.
“Not me. Mr. Alter used to do it.”
“Did you, when necessary, search the pockets of the girls?”
“But you did know that the watchman used to search the pocketbooks?”
Harris then described how he saved himself from the fire.
“I was on the 10th floor, in my office, when the fire broke out,” he said. “I wanted to get down by elevator, but the elevator didn’t come up. I ran up to the roof and crawled over the wall to the next building. There, along with more people, I took a ladder and put it against the roof so that people following could also save themselves.”
Mr. Bostwick, not wanting to cross-examine, asked him only one question:
“It is true that Mr. Blanck attended to all the financial affairs of the business?
“That’s it,” Bostwick said.
Harris wanted to get off the witness stand, but the judge held him back.
“How many fires have you had since you moved into the Asch building?” the judge asked him.
“Five,” Harris answered.
The assistant district attorney then proceeded to cross-examine.
“How much damage did you incur in the first fire, in April 1902?”
“And in the second fire, in November 1902?”
“When were the other fires?”
“In 1908 and 1909.”
“Did you and Mr. Jack instruct that the girls should be searched when they left the shop?”
“You were afraid that the girls would steal waists?”
“Yes, we once caught six girls stealing waists. We went to their homes and had them arrested. We did, however, have some trouble from these arrests, because some of the girls sued us for damages. Thereafter we carried out a system of searching the girls.”
“How many thefts were there in the year of the fire?”
“Fewer. We once caught a girl with a waist under her hat. We fired her.”
“How many losses did you suffer each year because of these thefts?”
Steuer objected to these questions, but the judge overruled his objections. But the lawyer began to argue with the judge, insisting that these questions and answers be struck from the record.
“If you want, I can explain why I allow the questions,” the judge said.
“You could say I have no fear,” Steuer answered.
“Well, I allow these questions because we want to find out through them if it is logical to believe that the bosses locked the doors to guard against possible thefts, particularly the Washington Place door, where they didn’t have a watchman.”
“It doesn’t bother me what you believe,” Steuer answered. “I submit that each boss has a right to order his workers to leave by one designated door, even if there are 50 other doors.”
After this small discussion between the judge and Steuer, Bostwick continued the cross-examination.
“How many people worked on the eighth floor when the fire broke out?”
“One hundred and eighty.”
“On the ninth floor?”
“Two hundred and sixty.”
“On the tenth?”
“How many of the workers were women?”
“Around 60 percent.”
“How old were they?”
“Some of them were 30 years old, some 20, some of them 18. Around 20 percent were older than 20 years old.”
“How many of them couldn’t speak English?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t talk to them.”
Mr. Bostwick showed Harris the layout of the shop, and asked him if he had arranged the machines. Harris answered “yes,” and at this point the session ended and the cross-examination was interrupted.
The next Tuesday, when the trial reconvenes, Harris will again be called to the witness stand.
Yesterday, a large number of other witnesses were called on Harris’s behalf, almost all of them relatives or people put forward by the bosses. The first was Mrs. Dinah Lifschitz, Mr. Blancks’s cousin, who, at the time of the fire, was the timekeeper on the shop floor. She described how she would often go through the Washington Place door.
On cross-examination, Bostwick presented to her several of her own statements, which she made several days after the fire.
“Didn’t you say, that at the time of the fire, Bernstein yelled to the machinist, Brown, to go help the girls open the Washington Place door?”
“I don’t remember!”
“Didn’t you then say that you never used to go through the Washington Place door?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
The next witness was the salesman Emile Messner. He described how he often used to go to the 10th floor, and how he used to take customers through the ninth floor via the Washington Place door, which was never locked.
On cross-examination, Bostwick asked only one question: “Do you work for Harris and Blanck”?
“That’s it,” Bostwick said.
The next witness was Mrs. Eva Harris, Harris’s sister. She described how she escaped from the fire.
“I ran to the Washington Place door on the eighth floor,” she said. “The door was open. I ran up the stairs, and what happened after that I don’t remember.”
Steuer asked if a previous witness’s testimony was true, that when she ran to the door she yelled out, “My God! The door is locked!”
“That is not true,” she replied.
Bostwick didn’t cross-examine her.
The next witness was Sam Hornstein, who now works in the Triangle factory. As a witness he had very little to say. He was actually not sure what he did in the factory at the time of the fire. Bostwick didn’t bother to cross-examine him.
After him, Steuer called Mr. H. Bernstein, an uncle of Samuel Bernstein, the superintendant of the factory.
Bernstein worked as an operator on the ninth floor. He said how he had often gone through the Washington Place door, one time to ask Blanck to send another worker to replace one who was sick. Several times he went through that door to smoke in the hallway.
In the cross-examination Bostwick brought up statements which Bernstein had made a few days after the fire. He had said that he knew that there was a door onto Washington Place, but that it was locked. He had at that time also said that he never saw girls going through the Washington Place door.
Bernstein denied these older statements. He said that he had never made them.