TWO DISASTERS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
The Pemberton Mill Horror
This date, January 10, 1860, is marred with tragedy. It was on this day that the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts caught fire and killed as many as 145 people, mostly women. But all was not as it seems – the first disaster that occurred that day resulted in an impossibly small loss of life, followed by second disaster that left a community -- and a nation – stunned with horror.
Lawrence, Massachusetts was a city founded to promote the growing textile industry. The land that was to become the site for the new city was purchased in 1845 by a group of Boston industrialists with the intention of bringing in textile mills. The location was perfect for this purpose. It was on the Merrimack River (a great amount of water was required to run the mills), it was just a short train ride from Boston, and it was downriver from Lowell. The city of Lowell had been founded twenty years earlier and was already the largest textile producer in the U.S. The area also had a huge labor force that was really and willing to work, largely Irish and Scottish immigrants.
Lawrence became a boom town. Entire families often worked for the mills, but the largest labor force for the textile mills were women. The largest employer in Lawrence was the American Woolen Company. Over half of their employees were girls between 14 and 18. Many children accompanied their parents and older siblings into the mills, some as young as eight, but most companies shied away from hiring children that young, preferring to wait till they were at least 10. Women and children could do much of the work and it was expected that they would be paid less than the men.
The working and living conditions did not allow for a healthy work force. The mills were terribly dangerous, especially for the children. It was not unheard of for a worker to be terribly injured, perhaps losing a hand or arm in a loom. The procedure was to escort the injured outside where they would wait, in hopes that they did not bleed to death, until a friend or family member would find them and take them home. Workplace injuries, along with disease and malnutrition, took a very high toll. A child in Lawrence or one of the other mill towns had only a 50 percent chance of surviving past the age of six. Life expectancy wasn’t much better for adults. Of those who worked in a textile mill, 36 out of every 100 men and women died before reaching the ripe old age of 25.
For those who worked at the Pemberton Mill in January 1860 – lives were unexpectedly cut short.
A contemporary illustration of the horror of the Pemberton Mill Disaster
In 1853, John Lowell and his brother-in-law, J. Pickering Putnam, decided to go into the textile business. They hired an engineer named Charles H. Bigelow to construct a large building that would house the most modern textile equipment available. Their new Pemberton Mill, a cotton-spinning mill, met their expectations and then some. The building was five stories high and several hundred workers were hired to staff the soon to be thriving business.
After only four years, Lowell and Putnam lost their nerve during a financial panic in 1857. They sold Pemberton Mill to George Howe and David Nevins, Sr. for a substantial loss. The new owners moved in more equipment and hired more operatives to increase the output. The mill operated with great success and earned the owners an average of $1.5 million each year. The building was so packed with machines and workers that it was said to “vibrate with energy.” Based on what was to come, that vibration was more than likely literal rather than figurative, as over 1,000 people toiled there, running 2,700 spindles and 700 looms.
The industrial area where the Pemberton Mill was located had several working textile mills, situated side by side along the Merrimack River. There were thousands of workers going to and from the mills at the same times each day. The area was terribly congested with buildings and people and buildings filled with people. Looking back, it was a disaster waiting to happen. And so it was that on Tuesday, January 10, 1860, at a few minutes before 5:00 in the afternoon, there were many people on hand to witness what was to be the single worst industrial accident in Massachusetts, and one of the worst in U.S. history
A scene inside of the Pemberton Mill, which was largely staffed with women and young girls. The building was so packed with machines and workers that it was said to “vibrate with energy.”
People outside and inside the Pemberton Mill building were startled when, as described in American Heritage magazine: “Suddenly there was a sharp rattle, and then a prolonged, deafening crash. A section of the building’s brick wall seemed to bulge out and explode, and then, literally in seconds, the Pemberton collapsed. Tons of machinery crashed down through crumpling floors, dragging trapped, screaming victims along in their downward path. The factory was a heap of twisted iron, splintered beams, pulverized bricks, and agonized, imprisoned human flesh.”
Workers from neighboring mills could do nothing but watch in horror and disbelief as the entire Pemberton building - all five stories - collapsed before their eyes.
The air was rent by the screams of the operatives trapped inside the ruins. Where there was once a huge industrial building was now a pile of rubble under a huge plume of dust. Nothing remained except a section of an exterior rear wall. Everything else was gone, reduced to a massive pile of rubble. Cries for help filled the air as workers in nearby mills rushed to the scene. Somewhere between 800 and 900 people had been in the building when it collapsed.
To the utter amazement of the witnesses, living, breathing people began crawling out of the rubble. A few hundred people were either unhurt or had only minor injuries and were able to pull themselves from the wreckage. With a catastrophic event that should have meant certain death for almost everyone in the building; there were survivors -- many survivors! In fact, other than a few dozen who had died instantly, almost everyone in the building survived the collapse, even after falling several stories as the floors fell from beneath their feet. Iron columns had crumbled, massive beams had had splintered, and many tons of brick and mortar lay in heaps, but somehow many, many people were still alive. Witnesses believed it was nothing short of a miracle.
As the dust began to settle, though, more than 600 workers were still held captive in the tangled, twisted ruins. Some were merely trapped, some had minor or at least survivable wounds and still others were still breathing but had sustained substantial injuries. George Howe, one of the owners, had escaped as the structure was falling. His partner, David Nevins, was away from the building when it fell.
Apparently, the large and heavy machinery inside the building that had helped cause the collapse also helped protect the workers inside. Those who were able to avoid being crushed by the falling machines were in turn protected by them, as they created safe pockets of space while holding up the timbers and other debris. In some cases, as many as 25 people survived by huddling in the same protected space.
One woman, who was standing near a window along the wall that remained standing, became so frightened that she threw her bonnet and shawl out the window and then jumped out herself. She soon died from injuries sustained from her dramatic leap.
While many people were able to free themselves from the wreckage, it took herculean efforts to free others. Workers from nearby mills and the surrounding community ran to the aid of the victims. Every able- bodied person pitched in, working at a breakneck pace to free trapped people as quickly as they could. Friends and family members arrived on the scene and began a frantic search for their loved ones. A general alarm had gone out to the Lawrence fire department and to those in the surrounding towns. When the firefighters arrived they climbed down and went to work with the rescue effort.
There were many tales of daring escapes, remarkable rescues and unbelievable recoveries. A group of men heard a young girl screaming and crying for help. She was found covered by at least 10 feet of rubble and debris. After working to remove the twisted mass from on top of her, the rescuers were shocked when the girl jumped up unhurt and smiling, thanked them for freeing her, and ran off to find her family. In another part of the ruins, a family of five was released from their tomb unharmed when a large section of floor was lifted from above them. They climbed from the hole, the terrified mother scooped her children to her, and praising their rescuers, cried out a prayer of thanks.
Another miraculous escape was that of Selina Weeks. Miss Weeks had been working in the fifth-floor spool room and dropped with it when the building fell. As she regained her senses, she realized that she was still standing on the spool room floor, but was waist-deep in debris. She was able to dig her way out and made her way home unharmed.
At the same time that Miss Weeks fell from the top floor, Damon Wyhom was working in the basement. He found himself completely buried under a dozen feet of debris. After repeated tries, he was able to tunnel his way to an area where rescuers could reach him and he was pulled to safety.
Three young sisters with the appropriate surname of Luck all survived. Jane Luck was buried for nearly five hours but was released unharmed. Her sister Anna Luck heard the crashing as the building collapsed and dove under her loom. She called to her other sister and friend to do the same. All three of the girls survived. Not all of the Luck family was as lucky. The girls’ two uncles who were working in the mill were killed.
Thomas Watson was on the fifth floor when it fell. His jaw was broken in three places, and he sustained three broken ribs and several deep cuts. Despite his injuries, he climbed out from the rubble unaided. He noticed to his surprise that he had not felt any pain until he was walking about free. His wife also worked at the mill, but that day she had stayed home for the first time since she had started work six months before. Mr. Watson was to leave on a trip the next day and she had stayed home to prepare his traveling clothes and pack his things.
Henry Nice was both victim and hero. He was working in the boiler room when the building fell. As rubble began to fall on him, he rushed for the door and fell out onto the porch, where debris piled onto him. After being nearly suffocated by a cloud of steam and dust, he was able to burrow through to safety, but instead of leaving, he began a search of the area. He found a young girl whose arms and legs were injured, pinned to the floor by a beam across her neck. He found a saw and cut her free, passing her off to a rescue team as he continued to search for survivors. Then, he located a friend of his, lying over a young woman who was pinned under a mass of wreckage. The woman urged Nice to free the man first as she was not as badly injured. After the man was removed, a team worked feverishly, trying to remove a heavy piece of machinery from over her, but they were unable to free her. They planned to come back to later with tools but after the second disaster of the night befell them, she was killed where she lay.
In another area, a man named Adams was trapped in the basement by several heavy beams. Because of the precarious position of the beams relative to where he was trapped, rescuers were unable to reach him, but instead passed him an axe and a saw. With these tools, he was able to cut and chop his way to freedom.
Dramatic rescue efforts continued throughout the site, with person after person being pulled from the wreckage. The Lawrence City Hall had been prepared for double duty as a makeshift morgue and as a hospital. As the dead were removed, they were carefully carried to the “dead room.” When the injured were removed, they were taken to the hospital room in the same building.
It was a cold January day, but the rescuers stayed warm with exertion. Soon it began to grow dark and colder. Large bonfires were built in a circle around the collapsed building to provide light for the rescuers as they continued their search into the darkness. At about 9:30 that night, after four and a half hours and hundreds of people freed from the wreckage, someone either kicked over or dropped an oil lamp. The burning fluid quickly spread to a pile of debris. The flames shot across the splintered wood and wads of cotton, some soaked with oil, and quickly ignited the ruins of the building where many trapped but living people were waiting to be released. The second disaster of the day had begun.
A fire broke out on the second day of the disaster, claiming many more lives than the collapse of the mill had done.
In one area, a man who saw the flames coming toward him cut his throat rather than be burned to death. He was rescued before the fire reached him but he soon died of his injuries. In another section, very near to where the fire started, rescuers had nearly succeeded in freeing a woman when the fire swept through. She had survived the collapse, only to be consumed by the fire.
As the fire spread, rescue volunteers, firemen, friends and family were forced back by the extreme heat. Fire crews poured a steady stream of water on the burning section, seeking to halt the spread of flames while rescues continued on the other side, but it was a losing battle. The fire soon spread across the entire ruin and the terrified screams of those still trapped inside were quickly silenced, with only the sounds of the fire remaining. Fourteen people were known to have burned to death in the sight of their friends and families.
The fire burned long and hot, raging through the night and into the next day, Wednesday, January 11. There was little that anyone could do but stand back and watch. Anyone who had been left alive after the collapse was now dead, ravaged by fire. By evening, the fire had mostly burned itself out but too much heat was radiating from the wreckage for anyone to approach.
During the day on Wednesday, a crowd had begun to form. Flocks of people from other towns and cities, including Boston, began arriving by train. They filled every available inch of space they could find, filling the streets and lining the bridge over the Merrimack. They had come to see the wreckage of the once-thriving factory. As the day drew on, a light rain had begun to fall, later turning to snow. The Pemberton Mill Company took over the ruins. From here on, company men would be directing the efforts, as rescue had become recovery.
By 10:00 o’clock Thursday morning, January 12, the fire was almost completely out but smoke continued to bellow up from deep inside the rubble. The firefighters continued to pour streams of water where they saw smoke. It was still too hot to enter the wreckage so recovery efforts had to be put off another day. The smoke and cold didn’t seem to deter the crowds of the morbidly curious. They would have to wait another day to see flesh and bone released from the ashes. As snow continued to fall, it drifted down through the burned-out beams and machinery, falling gently onto the upraised faces of charred corpses who patiently waited to be released from their tomb and taken to their families.
On Friday morning, January 13, the pit had cooled enough for the recovery efforts to continue. Derricks were set up around the ruin to help lift and remove heavy machinery and debris. Victims were once again being removed, but this time, none were among the living. The recovery was now more dangerous, but the 100 men working there were determined that no one would be left in that miserable pit. The crowd continued to look on, but a few of the men left the safety of the road and stepped inside the perimeter, adding themselves to the recovery operation.
At one point, as groups of two and three worked their way through the wreckage, a man remembered where he had seen a young woman named Kate Cooney partially buried. She had been struck by a beam and her legs were pinned under her so she couldn’t move. It had been just before the fire found her that he had heard her cries for help. The men dug in the area the man indicated and they soon came upon her body. She had been badly burned about her head and neck and her arms had been burned off up to her elbows, but her lower body was relatively untouched. Her skirt and apron were not even scorched.
Thirteen more bodies were pulled out on Saturday, the 14th. As before, some were only partially burned. Some were completely charred, and others were found with only portions of limbs remaining to indicate that a human body had once lain in that spot. As darkness approached, the men stopped working, as they did not want to further mutilate, by accident, any bodies they might find in the darkness. They made every effort to get everybody identified and returned to the people who loved them.
On Sunday the 15th, over 150 men arrived for work at sunrise and the search continued. They did not wish to cause any more grief than was absolutely necessary for the families that were still waiting for someone to be pulled out of the rubble. They chose to work through their one day of rest.
On January 20, ten days after the building had collapsed; the last bodies were recovered from the debris. These bodies were completely unrecognizable. They were taken to the “dead room” at the city hall, even though no one there would be able to claim them. In the end, 13 bodies had been charred and mutilated beyond any possibility of identification. A little more than two months after the disaster, the city purchased a plot in Lawrence’s Bellevue Cemetery and on Sunday, March 4, 1869, funeral services were held and the remains of the unknown workers were laid to rest. Later, a monument was placed at the head of the plot in memory of all who lost their lives in Pemberton Mill.
The crowds remained at the disaster site for many days after the last body had been removed. It was as if they just couldn’t move on. Soon, people began to wander onto the site and started sifting through the debris, searching for relics or mementos of the disaster. A man from St. Louis collected a large bundle of gristly souvenirs that included burned clothing from some of the victims. Two New Yorkers collected pieces of broken bricks and splinters of burned beams. The ferocity with which the relic-seekers went about their business was becoming a hazard to the cleanup crews and the intruders alike. Eventually, realizing it had to stop, the mayor and the company gave orders for it to stop, and hired men to guard the ruins. Eventually, the crowds dispersed and went home.
Hearings were held to investigate the cause of the collapse and to determine fault. After several days of testimony, the blame was laid at the door of engineer Charles Bigelow. The primary problems with the building lay in faulty, or otherwise substandard materials. The iron pillars that had been put in place to support the heavy machinery were found to be brittle and badly cast. In a moment of stress, they had crumbled. It was also determined that the mortar used with the bricks was extremely poor and was completely ineffective at holding the brick joints together. The committee felt that the use of appropriate materials and construction systems should have been Bigelow’s responsibility and that his design must somehow be at fault as well. The committee failed to take into account that most of the other mill buildings in Lawrence had also been designed and built by Bigelow. They also ignored the fact that the mill’s second owners had severely overloaded the structure, well beyond its design limits. No blame was assigned to the owners, since they obviously had purchased a faulty building without knowledge of its shortcomings.
Some of the final statistics were startling. Women and girls made up 62 percent of the mill’s workforce, but they made up 73 percent of the dead and missing and 67 percent of the injured, leaving questions of how these proportions became so out of balance. After the dead and the living had been counted, and counted again, it was believed that of the 1,003 employees of the Pemberton Mill, between 99 and 145 people lost their lives in the disaster. The best estimate as to those injured is 302.
All of these numbers are horrifying and unfortunate, but the most remarkable thing of all is that while a five-story building suffered a catastrophic collapse into rubble in a matter of seconds, nearly 600 people either climbed out or are pulled free of the wreckage without injury, and were able to walk home on their own.
After all the bodies had been recovered, the company called in those who were unemployed as a result of the disaster and hired them to work on the cleanup crews. When all the wreckage had been removed, the owners rebuilt a new mill on the old foundation and reopened for business.
For a long time after the second Pemberton Mill was opened, workers reported seeing people they didn’t recognize walking through a room, or down an aisle. The employee might turn a corner and catch a glimpse of a mysterious person wearing old-fashioned clothes who suddenly vanished. It didn’t take long for the living workers to suspect that they were sharing their workspace with people who were long since dead. Over time, fewer and fewer people spoke about seeing these spectral workers in the mill. It is impossible to determine if they were appearing less frequently or if the living had grown so accustomed to their ethereal comrades that they no longer noticed when they were around.
The second Pemberton Mill is today used as an apartment building – but it’s still staffed by spirits from the past.
The mill has long been closed down but the building still stands on the bank of the Merrimack River. There is talk of turning it into loft-style condominiums, or possibly a shopping center. It will be interesting to see if any of the future occupants of the old Pemberton Mill building turn a corner one day, and come face to face with a woman in a floor-length skirt and long apron, looking for her machine in order to spin cotton into yet another century.
The tale of the Pemberton Mill Disaster is just one of the many stories included in the book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. This story is an excerpt from the book, written by Rene. The book is available in print byclicking on this link – it’s also available as Kindle and Nook e-books!