In the Cemetery of the Evergreens on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, there is a haunting stone monument to the garment workers who died in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 but were never identified. It contains the bas-relief figure of a kneeling woman, her head bowed, seemingly mourning not only the deaths, but also the fact that those buried below were so badly charred that relatives could not recognize them.
Michael Hirsch, an amateur genealogist and historian, helped attach names to the six “unknowns.”
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.