Tragic Youth: Lost Victims of Industrialization

Young immigrant lives cut short in the factory panic of 1902. 

This story is dedicated to the memory of the nine young ladies who perished at the Milne Building: Lizzie, Mary, Annie, Louisa, Maria, Hannah, Ida, Annie, and Johanna.

For many Russian and Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, South Philadelphia’s mills and factories were lifelines. But they could also be death traps.

The Milne Building was a five-story brick factory that took up an entire city block on the north side of Washington Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, in an industrial stretch of South Philadelphia known today as the Washington Avenue Factory District on the National Historic Register. On April 30th, 1902, it became the scene of a violent panic that took the lives of nine young women and injured more than 60.

Caleb J. Milne, a textile magnate, commissioned the building for  his cotton goods company which occupied the top story. Ground level was rented to a US Army quartermaster depot, and the remaining floors in between housed the American Cigar Company, which employed about 600 immigrants rolling cigars on the fourth floor. Most were women and many were children – some as young as eleven (!).

Child labor laws were poorly enforced back then, and shady notaries commonly falsified work permits for a fee. Indeed, the average age of the victims that day was just 15 years old. Like most of the workers employed here, their English was very limited, a fact that would play a key role in the tragedy that unfolded in a series of ill-fated mishaps.

It all started around noon, in the last few minutes before the lunch whistle blew. A 16 year old Crimean immigrant named Isadore Berks was waiting on a bale of twine to come down on the freight elevator, when he made an impulsive mistake. Eager for his break to begin, he impatiently peeked into the elevator shaft to see how close it was. BAM!

10th and Washington (1914)

The elevator arrived just in time to clobber him. The blow struck his head and split his scalp wide open. As you would imagine, he screamed bloody murder – unfortunately, Isadore was deaf and non-verbal, so the foremen who ran to assist the bleeding, shrieking boy had his hands full, trying to make sense of what happened.

As he frantically called an ambulance, blood poured from Isadore’s head wound, streaming down his face and into his eyes. He staggered blindly into the view of his coworkers, who jumped up from their work stations and began screaming at the sight of him. On the other side of the building, the women heard the wild commotion and grew understandably alarmed.

Their supervisor on duty heard someone ask if there might be a fire, to which he very loudly announced, “There is no fire!” and then – to quell the growing agitation around him — he repeated it emphatically a few times for good measure: “There is no fire! No fire! NO FIRE!”

But these girls barely spoke English. The only word they understood was “fire” – and in a flash they freaked out, and came running madly for the stairs.

The next morning’s newspapers described the panic in morbid detail:

Fourteen foremen rose with requests and commands of silence. Six hundred terrified women rose against them. The foremen were swept aside like saplings before a cyclone. Through the room, the girls and women, crazed with fear, rushed in a wild stampede.

The insane crowd, goaded by the cries of fire from the rear, pushed into the narrow winding-stepped tower. The third floor was reached in comparative safety. Pushing, struggling, crying, and praying; the maddened crowd even reached the landing between the third and second floors.  (Inquirer)

Midway to the second floor, one girl’s skirt caught at a turn of the stairs. She tripped and fell. Another stumbled over her, and then another. Then, a dozen went down. Back of these came an irresistible mass, forced along by half a thousand frantic women further up the stairs.

In an instant, the corner was piled high with human bodies surrounded by a swirling group of others bereft of reason, kicking, gouging, biting, and even stabbing in their frantic efforts to pass the landing. (Philadelphia Times)

When the ambulance arrived for Isadore, its clanging bells drove the frightened workers to struggle even harder for escape. Two young women in the back of the crowd made a run for the fire escape, but were unable to get the rope-and-pulley mechanism to lower them down. Frightened now to the point of frenzy, they jumped. One died instantly, the other suffered critical internal injuries (but lived).

For fifteen horrifying minutes, the panic surged in waves:

Prayers for deliverance were uttered by the dying. Angry cries for help and groans came from the maimed. But still, the crowd behind and above pushed on.

Prostrate bodies three feet deep lined the flight of the steps. The ones underneath, crushed and suffocated, groaned and prayed in their helplessness. The ones above, with but one thought of self-preservation, fought each other with the ferocity of tigers. Sharp nails tore clothing into shreds. Sharper teeth sunk into each other’s flesh. Even when the rescuers came, they were fought back by the fear-crazed women. (Inquirer)

Some Army clerks from the first floor offices tried to help untangle the girls, but were beaten back. “It was a horrible sight,” one told reporters, “The girls seemed too insane to realize that we were there to help them, and while their pitiful cries for help rent the air, they scratched and bit at us like wild beasts.”

Finally, police and ambulances arrived at the scene; order was restored, and the injured were taken to Pennsylvania Hospital (8th and Spruce) and Howard Hospital (Broad and Catharine). Word quickly spread through the immigrant community, prompting whole families to descend upon the emergency wards, seeking news of their loved ones. Soon, the wails of grief-stricken parents filled the halls.

The scenes that transpired in the blood-stained receiving ward defy description. The awful shrieks that arose were heartrending in the extreme. Fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters crowded together in hopeless confusion and added to the din and excitement with their half-crazed actions.

Given the terrible nature of the accident and the attendant grief of the relatives and friends, the police were exceedingly lenient to the crowd, and the numerous breaches of the peace that occurred were entirely overlooked. (Inquirer)

The dead were identified as:

  • Lizzie Tarantino, 12, daughter of Vincenzo and Maria Tarantino (939 Ernst Street).
  • Mary DiGenova, 13, daughter of Donato and Antonia DiGenova (1009 Carpenter Street)
  • Annie Ford, 13, daughter of Peter and Catherine Ford (929 League Street).
  • Louisa DiSipio, 13, daughter of Camillo and Domenica DiSipio (907 Kimball Street).
  • Maria Tulino, 14, daughter of Michael and Angelina Tulino (922 S. 7th Street
  • Ida Green, 17, daughter of Albert and Mary Green (1303 McClellan Street).
  • Annie Rothschneider, 18 (927 S. 5th Street).
  • Johanna Gilley, 22 (1331 S. Front Street).

Isadore Berks recovered from his injury but lost his job when authorities discovered his falsified papers. He soon found work washing bottles at Feldman Brothers Bottling Company (11th and Bainbridge), where he held the job for five decades before dying from heat exhaustion in 1952, at the age of 66.

Caleb J. Milne died at age 73 when he was struck by a taxi on a trip to London in 1912. His great-grandson made national news in 1935 when he faked his own kidnapping in an elaborate scheme to shake down his grandfather, Caleb J Milne, Jr. (and effectively got himself cut from the old man’s will).

The Milne Building served as a warehouse for the Curtis Publishing Company, and later for Southwark Metal Manufacturing. Abandoned in 1983, the building caught fire ten years later and razed soon after. In the 90’s, a strip mall occupied the footprint, anchored by a CVS and Sherwin-Williams paint store. Today, it’s the site of luxury condos whose occupants likely come and go, unaware of the great loss, sacrifice, and exploitation endured here at the height of Philadelphia’s industrial history.

May the immigrants who come to the US today find a safer, kinder city. 🧳🫂🏙️🙏

READ MORE: Get the full story in Bob McNulty’s original narrative that brings his history to life with names, addresses, backstory (originally published October 8, 2018 and printed in April’s LOCAL newspaper).

For more great history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. And check out Bob’s previous Local column HERE on the remarkable life of W.C. Fields, legendary comedian and life-long Philadelphian (at heart).

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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