Don't Know Much

Don’t Know Much About® the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: [Post revised from original on 3/25/2011]Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

[Reposted from original on 3/25/2011]

On this date, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire and 146 people died, most of them women between the ages of 16 and 23.



“Look for the union label.”

If you are of a certain generation, you may recognize those words instantly. They are the first line of a song that became a 1970s advertising icon.

Sung by a swelling chorus of lovely ladies (and a few men) of all colors, shapes and sizes, it was the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Airing as American unions began to confront the long, steady drain of jobs to cheaper foreign labor markets, the song rousingly implored us to look for the union label when shopping for clothes (“When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse”).

Seeing these earnest women, thinking of them at their sewing machines, made us race to the closet and check our clothes for that ILGWU tag. (“It says we’re able to make it in the USA.”)

The International Ladies Garment Worker Union was born in 1900, in the midst of the often-violent period of early 20th century labor organizing when brutal working conditions and child labor were the norm in America’s mines and factories.

One of the companies the union attempted to organize was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at what is now Greene Street and Washington Place in New York’s Greenwich Village. It employed many poor and mostly immigrant women, most of them Jewish and Italian.

A walkout against the firm in 1909 helped strengthen the union’s rolls and led to a union victory in 1910. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Company –which would chain its doors shut to control its workers— earned infamy when a fire broke out on March 25, 1911 and 146 workers were trapped in the flaming building and died. Some jumped to their deaths.

 A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

The two owners of the factory were indicted but found not guilty. The tragedy helped galvanize the trade union movement and especially the ILGWU.

On the 105th anniversary of that dreadful event, it is worth remembering that American prosperity was built on the sweat, tears and blood of working men and women. Immigration and jobs are the issue again today, just as they were more than a century ago.

Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation offers a web exhibit on the Triangle Factory Fire. The Library of Congress also offers resources on the tragedy.

On February 28, 2011, American Experience on PBS aired a documentary film about the tragedy and the period.

The site is part of New York University and a National Historic Landmark.

I also discuss labor history in Don’t Know Much About History.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Advance Praise for MORE DEADLY THAN WAR-In stores May 2018


More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and World War I -Coming MAY 2018

In May 2018,  More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War will be published. I am extremely pleased and gratified to say that the book has just received the following advance reactions from several readers whose work I greatly admire, Deborah Blum, Karen Blumenthal, and Steve Sheinkin.


More Deadly Than War is a riveting story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, packed with unforgettable examples of the power of a virus gone rogue. Kenneth C. Davis’s book serves as an important history – and an important reminder that we could very well face such a threat again.”

Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Deborah Blum is also the Director of the Knight Science Journalism Project at MIT and Publisher of Undark magazine.


“With eye-popping details, Kenneth C. Davis tracks the deadly flu that shifted the powers in World War I and changed the course of world history. In an age of Ebola and Zika, this vivid account is a cautionary tale that will have you rushing to wash your hands for protection.”

Karen Blumenthal, award-winning author of Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different


“Davis deftly juggles compelling storytelling, gruesome details, and historical context. More Deadly Than War reads like a terrifying dystopian novel – that happens to be true.”

Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb and Undefeated

Read more about More Deadly Than War  here.

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and World War I -Coming MAY 2018


The Spanish Flu, World War I, and Suffrage,


On Friday March 9, 2018, I joined the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC in New York City to talk about the Spanish Flu, World War I, and their impact on suffrage.

The interview can be heard here.


A different Irish parade in New York-Orange Day


(Published March 16, 2017; Updated March 16, 2018)

As New York prepares for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, here is another reminder of the past view of the Irish–especially Irish Catholics– in America: the Orange Riots of 1870 and 1871.


The Orange Riot of 1871 as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The view is at 25th Street looking south down Eighth Avenue (Source Wikipedia:

Long before the nation’s birth, anti-Catholic venom was an accepted American truism –a deep divide with roots in Europe’s deadly wars between Catholic and Protestant. The hatred of all things Roman Catholic was part of America’s Puritan and Protestant roots. In 1844, Philadelphia had been raked by anti-Catholic violence known as the “Bible Riots,” subject of a previous post.

By the middle of the 19th century, waves of Irish immigrants had magnified the hatred and transformed New York’s politics. Political boss William Tweed used their votes to secure power for Tammany Hall and himself. But the growth of Irish Catholic power in New York only deepened ancient animosities.

New York’s virulent anti-Catholic sentiment peaked with the largely overlooked “Orange Riots” of 1870 and 1871. In the first of these, Irish Protestants marched in celebration of the July 12, 1690 victory of the Protestant King William III over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Taunting Irish Catholic workmen as they paraded up Eighth Avenue, the Protestant “Orangemen” went to a park where a pitched battle ensued.


Thomas Nast’s Anti-Catholic cartoon “The American River Ganges snd the Children” Harpers’Weekly September 30, 1871

Eight people died.

Another “Orange Day” march planned in 1871 was nearly banned for public safety reasons. But prominent businessmen and cartoonist Thomas Nast objected vehemently to this affront to Protestant rights. With Boss Tweed guaranteeing protection for the marchers, the 1871 parade stepped off, guarded by some 5,000 policemen and National Guard militia units.

Almost immediately, the marchers were pelted with bottles, bricks, shoes and stones. Pitched battles continued along the parade route. When it was over, the rioting and street-fighting left sixty people dead, most of them Irish Catholic laborers as well as three Guardsmen.

The bloodshed of these “Orange Riots” and Tweed’s failure to secure the parade were crucial factors in breaking his stranglehold on New York politics and government. The city’s newspapers and largely Protestant-controlled business and financial world turned on him. Tweed was deposed, eventually arrested, and later convicted of corruption.

Anti-Irish sentiment in New York and elsewhere continued for decades.

When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots


(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on March 17, 2012)

A reminder once more that the “dangerous, dirty, job-stealing” immigrants were once Irish and Catholic. 

It is the day for the “wearing of the green,” parades and an unfortunate connection between being Irish and imbibing. For the day, everybody feels “a little Irish.”

But it was not always a happy go lucky virtue to be Irish in America. Once upon a time, the Irish –and specifically Irish Catholics– were vilified by the majority in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. The Irish were considered the dregs by “Nativist” Americans who leveled at Irish immigrants all of the insults and charges typically aimed at every hated immigrant group: they were lazy, uneducated, dirty, disease-ridden, a criminal class who stole jobs from Americans. And dangerous. The Irish were said to be plotting to overturn the U.S. government and install the Pope in a new Vatican.

One notorious chapter in the hidden history of Irish-Americans is left out of most textbook– the violently anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Bible Riots” of 1844.

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.

You can read more about America’s history of intolerance –religious and otherwise– in this Smithsonian essay, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING.

A Nation Rising

“Two Societies, One Black, One White”


(Revised post originally published on February 29, 2016)

Once again, it is necessary to repost this piece about the Kerner Commission, formed fifty years ago to address violence in American cities. The latest school shooting only adds to the urgency.

On July 27, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He was responding to a series of violent outbursts in predominantly black urban neighborhoods in such cities as Detroit and Newark.  (New York Times account.)

Time Magazine cover August 4, 1967

Time Magazine cover August 4, 1967

On July 29, 1967, President Johnson made remarks about the reasons for the commission:

The civil peace has been shattered in a number of cities. The American people are deeply disturbed. They are baffled and dismayed by the wholesale looting and violence that has occurred both in small towns and in great metropolitan centers.

No society can tolerate massive violence, any more than a body can tolerate massive disease. And we in America shall not tolerate it.

But just saying that does not solve the problem. We need to know the answers, I think, to three basic questions about these riots:
–What happened?
–Why did it happen?
–What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

Source:Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks Upon Signing Order Establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.,” July 29, 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

On Feb. 29, 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, issued a stark warning:

“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”


Governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, Jr., meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House. Date29 July 1967 SourceLBJ Presidential Library

Governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, Jr., meeting with Roy Wilkins (left) and President Lyndon Johnson (right) in the White House. 29 July 1967 Source LBJ Presidential Library


The Committee Report went on to identify a set of “deeply held grievances” that it believed had led to the violence.

Although almost all cities had some sort of formal grievance mechanism for handling citizen complaints, this typically was regarded by Negroes as ineffective and was generally ignored.

Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

Source: “Our Nation is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”: Excerpts from the Kerner Report; American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY)
and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University).

Issued half a century ago, the list of grievances reads as if it could have been written last week.

Read more about the unrest of the Civil Rights era in Don’t Know Much About® History. The crucial role of race in the American military is also treated in The Hidden History of America at War. And the long history of slavery is addressed in In the Shadow of Liberty.

Don’t Know Much About® Executive Order 9066


On this date- February 19, 1942 – a different kind of infamy

 Dorothea Lange In this 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph from the newly published “Impounded,” a family in Hayward, Calif., awaits an evacuation bus.

Dorothea Lange
In this 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph from the book “Impounded,” a family in Hayward, Calif., awaits an evacuation bus.

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told Americans when he was inaugurated in 1933:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

But on February 19, 1942 –a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor— President Roosevelt allowed America’s fear to provoke him into an action regarded among his worst mistakes. He issued Executive Order 9066.

The result of this Executive Order was the policy of “relocating” some 120,000 Japanese Americans, and a smaller number of German and Italian Americans,  into “internment camps.”

I have written about the subject of the internment of the Japanese American population in the past including one on photojournalist Dorothea Lange,  and Ansel Adams, who also documented the period.


Photo: (National Park Service, Jeffery Burton, photographer


Among these resources is a site devoted to the War Relocation Camps –a Teaching With Historic Places Lesson Plan from the National Park Service called “When Fear Was Stronger than Justice.”

It is NOT Presidents Day. Or President’s Day. Or Even Presidents’ Day.


So What Day Is it After All?

Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.

But, it is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’  Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.

Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.

There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.

Washington’s Tomb — Mt. Vernon (Photo credit Kenneth C. Davis 2010)

Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)


Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Who Started the “War on Christmas?”

"in the interest of labor and morality"

“In the interest of labor and morality” (1895: Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

(Revision of post first published 12.11.2103)

It’s that time of year. Cue the lights, decorations, music.… and the “War on Christmas.

Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has become a seasonal staple, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. The President made saying “Merry Christmas” a campaign issue and it has been a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years.

The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — is seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” are part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”

But in fact, most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.

In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war.  But where did this all start?

The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)

“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659

The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.

This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:

‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’

In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.

In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.

So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.

Read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History.  The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don't Know Much about the Bible

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Don’t Know Much About® the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

[Reposted from original on 3/25/2011] On this date, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire and…

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