An apology for Kate Alterman

I was first introduced to Kate Alterman during law school, though I didn’t know her name for many years. She was an immigrant girl who worked in the factories of New York. It was her work in a particular factory that eventually brought Kate into contact with Max Steuer, one of the most famous trial lawyers of her time. The event that brought Steuer and Alterman together was the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that occurred on March 25, 1911. Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to a federal cabinet post, is also a part of this story.

A well-regarded evidence professor used Steuer’s example to teach cross-examination. He sternly admonished us never to allow a witness to repeat harmful testimony. Steuer broke this rule when defending the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory who were prosecuted for locking the factory doors and thereby preventing escape from the fire. Steuer cross-examined the immigrant girl by asking her to repeat her testimony about the locked door. He realized in the repetition that she had omitted a piece of her description and asked her to start anew. She did so, correcting her oversight. Steuer used the girl’s memorized testimony to argue that her story was a practiced fabrication and won an acquittal of the factory owners.

It was only years after law school that I learned the name of the witness, Kate Alterman, and that she was new to America and spoke English as her second language. This factory was full of immigrants, mostly from Italy and Eastern Europe. Most were teenage girls. Some were legal and some, like my grandfather, were quasi-legal.

Kate Alterman, it turns out, did practice her testimony over and over, but not because it was a fabrication. She practiced because she was afraid to make a mistake in her new language.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory made women’s garments. Its conditions were unsanitary and unsafe. The young women who worked in the factory were paid pitifully, many by the piece. When the fire engulfed the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building where the company was located, the workers learned that the elevator did not work, the outside fire escape gave way under the weight of those fleeing and, indeed, a door that led to a stairway was locked. The factory did not have sprinklers and the hoses and ladders of the New York City Fire Department could not reach these upper floors.

Frances Perkins happened onto the fire that Saturday and saw workers perched on the ninth floor window sills between engulfing flames and fire department nets too frail to the task of catching them. One hundred and forty-six workers died in the fire, hundreds more were injured. Workers compensation funds did not exist. Death benefits were unheard of. Years later, the factory’s insurers paid about $75 in compensation to families of the workers who had died.

Perkins helped form the New York State Factory Commission, which was created in the aftermath of the fire to review conditions in the sweatshops. Four years later, based on the commission’s work and lots of work by labor, New York had its first comprehensive package of worker safety and wage protection laws.

Twenty years or so after the fire, FDR appointed Frances Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. Many of the laws first adopted through Perkins’ work on the Factory Commission became federal law under Roosevelt. These laws were directly influenced by what Perkins had witnessed that tragic Saturday in March 1911.

For some time, I have felt that I owe Kate Alterman an apology for misunderstanding her role in the trial. She was a witness who, like many witnesses, tried too hard. I did not bother to learn why or to learn the context of her efforts. My view was much too narrow and overly focused on Steuer and what there was for me to learn from him. I did not question my professor and I missed learning of the factories of Steuer’s time and the ill treatment of the immigrants – “aliens” in today’s parlance – in those factories.

A lasting vision of justice cannot be achieved through such a limited perspective. I hope, over the years, that I have learned to do better.

Andru Volinsky is a lawyer with Bernstein Shur in Manchester. This article is from his blog, which appears on NHBRNetwork at

Categories: Opinion