On Tuesday afternoon January 10, 1860, the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence buckled and crashed, killing dozens instantly and trapping the workers inside.
Rescue teams rushed in, only to find “faces crushed beyond recognition.” Around 9:30 p.m. an oil lamp was knocked over, and flames spread quickly, leaving only “brick, mortar and human bones … promiscuously mingled”.
The five-story Pemberton Mill, built in 1853 in Lawrence, was financed by John A. Lowell and his brother-in-law J. Pickering Putnam, who sold the mill to George Howe and David Nevins during a financial downturn. Howe and Nevins jammed new machinery into the building, hired more workers and made it profitable. The weight of the machinery exceeded the design capacity of the building, and steel plates were welded to the beams and girders by the new owners.
The Boston Journal reported:
“The moans and cries for help of those in the ruins whose lives hand ot been immediately crushed out, mingled with an alarm rung out by the factory bells, called almost the entire community to the spot. Darkness lent additional horror to the scene, for while a thousand hands were ready to rescue it was impossible to know whence the calls for assistance came.”
The Boston Globe described the scene the next morning:
“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.”
Up to 145 people, mostly Irish and Scotch female workers, are believed to have been killed by the collapse and subsequent fire. There were also young children. Almost 300 more were injured. The Pemberton Mill collapse is the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history. Engineer Charles Bigelow, who designed the mill, denied responsibility for the structural failure, but was found guilty of allowing malformed cast-iron columns to be used.
The Pemberton Mill was completely rebuilt and still stands. After the second Pemberton Mill was opened, new workers were brought in, who often reported seeing the apparitions of the dead workers walking the aisles, and then suddenly vanishing.