Pemberton Mill Disaster
January 10, 1860
Most of the 88 victims were women, recent immigrants from
The Pemberton Mill, built in 1853, was a five story building 280 feet long and 84 feet wide. Its chief engineer was Charles H. Bigelow and its construction was financed by John A. Lowell and his brother-in-law J. Pickering Putnam at a cost of $850,000, "a fortune for those times".
During a financial panic in 1857, Lowell and Putnam sold the mill to George Howe and David Nevins, Sr. for a $350,000 loss. The new owners jammed more machinery into their factory attempting to boost its profits. The mill ran with great success, earning $1,500,000 per year, and had 2,700 spindles and 700 looms in operation at the time of the disaster.
Shortly before on a Tuesday afternoon, workers in nearby factories watched with horror as the Pemberton Mill buckled and then collapsed with a mighty crash. According to later court testimony reported by the New York Times, owner George Howe escaped as the structure was falling.
Dozens were killed instantly and more than six hundred workers, many of them women and children, were trapped in the twisted ruins. When the winter sun set, rescuers built bonfires to illuminate their efforts, revealing "faces crushed beyond recognition, open wounds in which the bones showed through a paste of dried blood, brick dust, and shredded clothing."
Around , with many people still trapped in the twisted wreck of the factory, someone accidentally knocked over an oil lantern. Flames raced across the cotton waste and splintered wood — some of it soaked with oil. One trapped man cut his own throat rather than be consumed by the approaching flames; he was rescued, but died from his other injuries. As the fire grew, rescuers, physicians, families of the trapped victims, and spectators were all driven back by the conflagration. The screams coming from the ruins were soon silenced, leaving rescuers to eventually discover only the burned, smoldering remains of “brick, mortar and human bones … promiscuously mingled”.
The Boston Almanac and Business Directory notes the event by describing that:
The Pemberton Mills at
The Boston Globe describes the carnage more vividly:
The scene after the fall was one of indescribable horror. Hundreds of men, women, and children were buried in the ruins. Some assured their friends that they were uninjured, but imprisoned by the timbers upon and about them. Others were dying and dead. Every nerve was strained to relieve the poor unfortunates, when, sad to relate, a lantern broke and set fire to the wreck. In a few moments the ruins were a sheet of flames. Fourteen are known to have been burned to death in the sight of their loved ones, who were powerless to aid them.
American Heritage magazine gives this account of the late-afternoon disaster:
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. At a few minutes after five, the factory was a heap of twisted iron, splintered beams, pulverized bricks, and agonized, imprisoned human flesh.
Estimates of the number killed by the collapse and subsequent fire vary from 90 to 145. Most were recent immigrants, either Irish or Scots, many of them young women. A 2002 fictionalization of the disaster recounted:
Flames spread rapidly, and now terror of fire threatened those waiting to be saved. Mary Bannon, pinned in the wreckage, handed her pay envelope to the friend comforting her and asked that it get to her father. 'Bid him goodbye for me,' she said, 'You will be saved; I will not'.
While Irish and Scots were the majority, the list of the Pemberton Mill's casualties is indicative of New England’s labor force at that time. There were also Yankees from
The mill above was the new Pemberton Mill
built shortly after the collapse of the first.
The mill still stands today.
The collapse of the Pemberton Mill was determined to have been caused by a number of preventable factors. Ignoring already questionable load limits, extra heavy machinery had been crowded into the upper floors of the factory. Investigators also discovered substandard construction. The brick walls were improperly mortared and supported. The iron pillars supporting the floors were cheap and brittle but had been installed nonetheless.
In the wake of the disaster, area ministers delivered "sermons on God’s inscrutable wrath," but it was apparent that blame lay in the manner in which the factory was built and operated. The Scientific American wrote, "...there is now no doubt that the fall of the building was owing to the most gross negligence and want of fidelity in casting the columns." The tragedy became a rallying point for efforts to improve safety standards in industrial workplaces.
David Nevins, Sr. bought out his partner and rebuilt the mill. After his death it passed to his sons, David Nevins, Jr. and Henry Cotton Nevins. The mill still stands today.
George Howe (1819 – 1899) of Boston was a 19th century merchant, industrialist, and investor. He was, with David Nevins, Sr., co-owner of Pemberton Mill when it collapsed in what is "is likely the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history" and "one of the worst industrial calamities in American history". According to later court testimony reported by the New York Times, Howe escaped just as the structure was falling.
David C. Nevins, Sr. (born 12 December 1809 in Salem, New Hampshire, died 19 March 1881) was a wealthy New England industrialist. He owned the Pemberton Mill, is the namesake of the Nevins Memorial Library, and fathered the Methuen, Massachusetts family of whom an author wrote, "The public spirit and generosity of the Nevins family seems to have no bounds in the town in which they made their home".
From the Lawrence Eagle Tribune:
Gravestones of Lawrence disaster victims preserved 88 perished in Pemberton Mill blaze
By Yadira Betances
LAWRENCE — At St. Mary Immaculate Conception Cemetery, Jimmy Jacobs has been on a fact-finding mission for five months.
Using a ledger and a map from the 1860s, Jacobs unearthed some of the gravestones of victims from the Pemberton Mill disaster.
"It's exciting," he said. "It means that we can document it for the future."
Pemberton Mill collapsed on Jan. 10, 1860, due to inferior cast-iron support pillars, trapping 900 workers in the rubble. A lit lantern tipped over during the rescue effort, setting the building ablaze and killing 88 people and injuring more than 200.
Most of the 88 victims were women and recent immigrants from Ireland.
Jacobs first learned about the worst mill disaster in the city while in grammar school, and his interest was rekindled last year when he read Alvin Oickle's books, "Disaster in Lawrence: Fall of the Pemberton Mill" and "Pemberton Casualties." Oickle used city and cemetery records in his research for the books.
"I'd heard the story for years and it almost seem like a legend, but seeing the names and their graves brought it home," said Jacobs, director of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Cemetery.
The victims' graves are in clusters, but scattered throughout the cemetery on the Lawrence/Methuen line.
Jacobs went on a fact-finding mission of his own and found 30 grave sites.
What he found astonished and saddened him, he said.
Most of gravestones, while marked, were riddled with misspellings and incorrect ages when compared with the information on cemetery records. A few headstones had sunk underground, and the names, birth dates, countries of origin and epitaphs engraved on them were so well-preserved that they looked new. By contrast, others had been so damaged by acid rain, the weather, and old age that the engravings was no longer readable, and some graves were not marked at all.
"This is an important part of Lawrence history that is dying," said Jacobs, a Lawrence native.
To keep that from happening, Jacobs had put the toppled headstones upright, and, using aluminum and plastic binding, pieced together the stones that have broken.
His hope is to get financial donations to restore the grave markers to their original luster and generate enough interest to preserve them for the 150th anniversary in 2010.
"I've invested 35 years of my life in this cemetery and the city of Lawrence. This is all part of the city and the cemetery history, so it makes it a part of me."
"I couldn't sleep at night knowing I couldn't preserve it for future generations."
Jacobs said the stones are made of marble, which is easy to carve, but does not hold well to the elements. He wants to preserve the stones by using granite, which lasts longer.
Jacobs has an artist's rendering from Rock of Ages in Methuen that shows the restoration of a memorial for a Julia Roberts, who at 11 is the youngest known casualty.
"There is a historical value here and at some point, they'll all be erased completely. It's sad because it is the history of Lawrence and of the whole country."
- Little, George P. (1860). The Fireman's Own Book, Chapter: Destruction of the Pemberton Mills, Lawrence, Mass. . pp. 247-255.
- Oickle, Alvin F. Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1596295063 .
- Lawrence History Center
- Methuen History