Friday, April 17, 2020

Book Review | Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill

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Rating ⭐⭐⭐

So I am continuing with my perusal of material on man-mad and natural disasters because Kindle Unlimited hooked me by giving me another month free.

This was yet another disaster I had never heard of, but a horrific one none the less. Much like with the many train wrecks I read about in the past few weeks that were new to me, I feel like there were so many factory accidents in that same era, that many of those are not well-known as well. I think Triangle is probably the most well-known, and easily one of the worst in history. Even so, just because the accidents were common does not mean the victims and survivors are any less worthy of being remembered.

This story had heap upon heap of tragedy. First, there was the fact that child labor was rampant. Secondly, the factory collapsed and trapped many workers, primarily women and children. Thirdly, during the rescue operations lanterns were dropped and thus set the wreckage aflame. I can't even imagine attempting to rescue someone as flames inched ever so much closer, and having to accept the fact that you could not save everyone. Not only that, but you would hear every last scream of all those you could not save.

I reviewed another of the author's works here, regarding the hurricane that hit Cedar Keys in 1896. Like that one, this is a short but factual account of the disaster. I imagine it would be rather difficult to write a large volume about an event that was probably not that well-documented once those days of recovery passed. This is to be expected, as the collapse occurred in 1860.

I appreciated the many photos used to guide the reader. There were also flyers and newspaper articles to accompany the text, along with sketches and photos from the period.

It will come as no to surprise to anyone that no one was ever truly held responsible for such a terrible event. Nor was the cause ever determined with any certainty. it is true that machinery was being moved about that day, and some speculated that without the factory floors being properly supported with appropriate-sized load-bearing beams, that is what lead to the disaster. It is as good a guess as any.

Here are a few quotes I found of interest:

"In the end, the average person's opinion was as good as any expert's opinion. There were no further inquiries, no criminal court actions. The men involved in creating and managing the Pemberton Mill went about their lives. Lowell, Bigelow, Putnam, Howe, Nevins - none was punished for any actions they had taken, or had failed to take. Compound that with the families who were burdened with the finality of death, the decision-makers had been simply inconvenienced" (88%).

"An accurate final count of casualties is not likely to ever be known. The Pemberton and City of Lawrence records in the American Textile History Museum at Loewell indicates that 96 employees were killed in the disaster. Newspaper stories in the days after the disaster listed 83 deaths and later five deaths from injuries, a total of 88 dead and missing. Of 275 who were hurt, 116 were listed with serious injuries. By that count, 307 escaped unhurt from the collapsing factory. In addition, 248 Pemberton employees were considered 'not in danger' by reason of working in outbuildings or absent that day" (91%).

"In 1973, a reporter equated the Lawrence tragedy to 'the Great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake and Boston's Cocoanut Grove Fire'. The Pemberton collapse may have developed a similar contemporary public interest but, unlike the others, the Lawrence events did not lead directly or immediately to laws protecting people in their workplace" (93%).

I feel like that last quote is especially important to consider and mull over. The author spends a bit of time on this point and it is true that no meaningful change, no change at all, came about in order to prevent another disaster like this from occurring. It took so long for factory workers, coal miners, and a myriad of other workers to get any kind of protections.

Perhaps if more attention was paid to this one, later disasters like Triangle could have been avoided. Imagine how many people might have been saved from horrific and untimely deaths had we learned our lessons the first time or two around.


  1. Conditions in factories and mills at that time were horrible. I have been reading about that in A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It was all driven by profit with little concern for the workers.

    1. I won that book in a Goodreads giveaway ages ago and have yet to read it. I will get to it, whenever I find it on the shelf!


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