Identifying the victims of a 100-year-old tragedy


The final unidentified victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—a 1911 tragedy that had a huge impact on the creation of American labor laws and building codes—have finally been matched with names. What's really interesting to me: The fact that the bodies weren't identified with DNA, or any other modern science, but through simple detective work.

That's because the mystery was more about consolidating and organizing information that already existed, than it was about identifying the bodies themselves. Even before they died, the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were largely anonymous, except to the people who knew them personally. So, while official historians didn't know the names of all the dead, those names were always out there, buried in articles from small, neighborhood newspapers and passed down in family histories.

No New York City agencies and no newspapers at the time produced a complete list of the dead, Mr. Hirsch said. The most thorough list — 140 names — was compiled by Mr. Von Drehle when he wrote his book, and that was largely based on names plucked from accounts in four contemporary newspapers.

The obscurity of their names is evidence of the times, when lives were lived quietly and people were forced by economic and familial circumstances to swiftly move on from tragedies — with no Facebook or reality television cameras to record their every step and thought.

Mr. Hirsch, 50, an amateur genealogist and historian who was hired as a co-producer of the coming HBO documentary "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," undertook an exhaustive search lasting more than four years. He returned to the microfilms of mainstream daily newspapers overlooked by researchers before him and to ethnic publications that he asked to have translated, like the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and Il Giornale Italiano. He estimates that he consulted 32 different newspapers.

He looked for articles about people who, in the weeks after the fire, claimed that their relatives were still missing. He then matched what he discovered with census records, death and burial certificates, marriage licenses, and reports kept by unions and charities about funeral and "relief" payments made to the families of the dead. Lastly, he sought out the descendants of three of the unidentified to confirm that the names he found were still mourned as Triangle victims.

New York Times: Unnamed Triangle Shirtwaist Company Victims Identified