Almost a century after the fire, the five women and one man, all buried in coffins under the Evergreens monument, remained unknown to the public at large, though relatives and descendants knew that a loved one had never returned from the burning blouse factory.
Now those six have been identified, largely through the persistence of a researcher, Michael Hirsch, who became obsessed with learning all he could about the victims after he discovered that one of those killed, Lizzie Adler, a 24-year-old greenhorn from Romania, had lived on his block in the East Village.
And so, for the first time, at the centennial commemoration of the fire on March 25 outside the building in Greenwich Village where the Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, the names of all 146 dead will finally be read.
The fire was a wrenching event in New York’s history, one that had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics and the beginning of the New Deal two decades later.
Among the most anguishing aspects was the memory of the more than 50 young immigrant women and men who were forced to leap from the high floors to escape the inferno. However, many of the 146 victims — 129 women and 17 men — burned to death in the loft building, at Washington Place and Greene Street, and had no telltale jewelry or clothing to help identify them.
The day the six unidentified victims were buried was the culmination of the city’s outpouring of grief; hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out in a driving rain for a symbolic funeral procession sponsored by labor unions and other organizations, while hundreds of thousands more watched from the sidewalks.
A century later, names and even circumstances have finally been attached to those “unknowns.”
“We consider his list to be the best ever produced on the question,” said Curtis Lyons, director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University, which holds one of the most thorough repositories about the Triangle fire.
Workers United, the garment workers’ union, and David Von Drehle, who wrote “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” a 2003 history of the fire, said they also regarded Mr. Hirsch’s list as the most authoritative.
Descendants of those who perished, like a great-granddaughter of one 33-year-old victim, Maria Lauletti, were heartened by the news, though no one interviewed had yet made a decision whether to exhume bodies from the Evergreens cemetery and attempt a DNA match.
“It means that there’s recognition that she actually died in the fire,” said Mary Ann Lauletti Hacker, 57, of Fountain Hills, Ariz. “To me, that’s a finality. She positively can be part of the record of those who died.”
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.
“I’m passionate about the history of this neighborhood,” Mr. Hirsch said of the combined Lower East Side and East Village, where most of the workers had lived. “From my window, I can see the stairs that Lizzie Adler had probably walked down to go to the factory the day of the fire.”
Typical of his illuminating morsels was an article in the Forward asking if anyone had seen Max Florin, a 23-year-old immigrant from Russia and one of the six unidentified victims. “We believe that he survived the fire, but from great fear and being upset he went mad and is wandering the streets,” the article said, in Mr. Hirsch’s rough paraphrasing. “He is of average height and was wearing a black suit.”
Mr. Hirsch began his quest modestly by trying to confirm existing lists. He found that they contained misspelled names, names of those who had actually survived and of those who had not worked at the factory. He was not surprised, given the bureaucratic fumbling and hurried journalism that often follows tumultuous disasters.
He also learned that a name of one identified victim had been omitted. He found an article bypassed by earlier compilers in The New York Times from March 31, 1911, about someone named Jacob Dashefsky, who had come forward six days after the fire to say that his sister Bessie, 25, a Russian immigrant, had not returned home. Her body was identified through dental records and barely missed being buried at the funeral for the unidentified on April 5, 1911. That finding convinced him that there were others who had been omitted for similar reasons.
Mr. Hirsch visited the graves of each of the known victims, who had been buried in 16 cemeteries, to further ensure a comprehensive list. At Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, he came across what he called “my Rosetta Stone.”
He was looking for the monument for Isabella Tortorelli, 17, but instead found a family monument whose Italian inscription spoke of “due sorelle” — two sisters — who perished in the fire. Mr. Hirsch had never seen the name of Isabella’s older sister, Maria Giuseppa Lauletti, on any list before. He checked with the Calvary office and was told that her body was not in the grave.
He located her granddaughter, Mrs. Hacker, in Arizona, who told him that the family had never been able to single out Ms. Lauletti’s body among the unidentified bodies, suggesting that she was probably buried at Evergreens. She also informed him that Ms. Lauletti had been an immigrant from Sicily and the mother of five children, four of whom were put in an orphanage after the fire.
On his own, Mr. Hirsch found a 1912 report by the Red Cross that sought to protect the anonymity of the families receiving cash payments but whose details matched that of Ms. Lauletti. It also revealed that the mother of “Number 85,” as Ms. Lauletti had been identified, was “almost crazed with grief” and “did nothing but moan and weep for weeks.”