The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

Political polarization often magnifies the public significance of a tragedy. As Americans prepared for a bitterly contested presidential election in early 1860, a gruesome industrial accident in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reignited conflict between champions and critics of wage labor. Unlike the violent episodes of 1856 and 1863 in Lawrence, Kansas, the Pemberton Mill Disaster seemed distant from issues of sectionalism and slavery, but it quickly became a political Rorschach test: some viewed the calamity as evidence of the need for repentance or reform, while others regarded the smoking ruins as proof of the superiority of slavery.

Pemberton Mill, built in 1853 by John A. Lowell and J. Pickering Putnam, was one of Lawrence’s newest and largest textile mills. Lowell and Putnam sold out during the Panic of 1857, but prosperity returned under new owners George Howe and David Nevins, and New England textile output reached record levels in 1859. By 1860, the mill’s 650 looms devoured 30 tons of cotton each week and employed nearly 1000 people; most were women and girls, and many were Irish immigrants.[1]

“Ruins of the Pemberton Mills, at Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Morning after the Fall,” Harper’s Weekly 4, no. 160 (January 21, 1860), 33. Several images of the smoking ruins of the Pemberton Mills circulated widely in the American and European press, including this image which made the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Late in the afternoon of January 10, 1860 – a cold, snowy Tuesday – around 600 workers were toiling in the mill’s six-story main building when the south wall collapsed and pulled the entire structure down with it. Onlookers rushed to free hundreds of people entombed in a mountain of brick, iron, wood, and machinery, but progress was slow. Around 9:30pm, a lamp overturned and ignited an inferno fueled by raw cotton and leaking oil.[2] The “whole mass of ruins has become one sheet of flame!” reported a journalist. “The screams and moans of the poor, buried, burning, and suffocating creatures can be distinctly heard, but no power on earth can save them.”[3] Trapped, a foreman tried to slit his throat rather than be burned alive. A girl caught in a machine ripped off two fingers to make a desperate escape.[4] Between 90 and 150 people died and scores more were seriously injured; among the dead was fourteen-year-old Margaret Hamilton, who arrived that morning for her first day of work.[5]

Inevitably, observers drew conflicting lessons from the horror. Ministers deemed it an act of divine judgment and a reminder to repent.[6] Soon, however, an inquest blamed human negligence, not heavenly wrath, for the suffering. Its report attributed the collapse to faulty iron supports, shoddy masonry, and excessive loads of machinery (recently added to maximize output) and named four engineers and architects as being especially responsible for the ghastly blunder, although none received any punishment.[7] The report absolved the mill’s past and present owners of culpability, but other observers accused them of sacrificing workers on the altar of profit. The New York Herald blamed what it called the “Lawrence Massacre” on cost-cutting capitalists who had killed and maimed over five hundred “white slaves of the North” by skimping on construction.[8] Long after 1860, critics ranging from pioneering feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to the Knights of Labor cited Pemberton Mill to illustrate capital’s inhumanity to labor.[9]

“The Building of the Pemberton Mills,” Vanity Fair 1, no. 4 (January 21, 1860), 56. Northern periodicals, like the New York-based Vanity Fair, blamed the Pemberton Mills disaster on business owners and contractors who settled for substandard building construction.

Responses took a peculiar twist in the South, where analysis of the tragedy became entwined with proslavery ideology. In the 1840s and 1850s, a vocal squad of southern theorists began to defend slavery as the best possible relationship between employers and workers of any race. They carefully avoided alienating nonslaveholding southern whites, but the abstract defense of slavery did percolate into popular publications.[10] Outraged by John Brown’s recent raid on Harpers Ferry and steeling themselves for a Republican victory in the looming presidential election, proslavery journalists pounced on the Pemberton Mill catastrophe to make provocative comparisons between wage labor’s brutality and slavery’s benevolence.

Some southern editors echoed northern criticisms of the wage-labor system they blamed for the catastrophe. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, for instance, applauded the New York Herald’s denunciation of Boston elites who excoriated slavery while sending northern millhands to be slaughtered on the factory floor. Tellingly, however, the Dispatch added its own overtly proslavery gloss to a passage attributed to the Herald but actually written by the Richmond editor, who savored the bitter irony that “the white slaves of Lawrence were massacred” while toiling to enrich “fine old Boston gentlemen” who had armed antislavery activists in Kansas and supported John Brown. Even as the “white slaves at Lawrence are mourning over their kith and kin slain by their philanthropic masters,” gloated the Dispatch, “the black chattels of the South are making merry with their holiday festivities.” The Virginian closed with a loaded question: whose lot – “that of the cotton picker in Georgia, or the cotton weaver in Massachusetts” – was “the preferable one?”[11] A New Orleans editor the same Herald article and opined that in the “strife between labor and capital in Massachusetts, labor has to endure what a Southern slave is never made acquainted with.”[12] The southern press transmuted the Herald’s bitter rebuke into an explicitly proslavery comparison between the northern and southern labor systems.

Even without northern inspiration, southern journalists wove proslavery arguments into coverage of the calamity. Three days after the disaster, a New Orleans editor carped that if it had occurred in the South, New England writers would have blamed it on slavery. In fact, he insisted, no “Southern master” was capable of the “fiendish cruelty” of northern capitalists who exposed operatives “of their own color and race” to dangerous working conditions.[13] From North Carolina came a similar argument couched in ostensibly innocuous terms. “Far be it from us to contrast slave labor with white labor in any offensive sense,” wrote a Raleigh editor. “But we must say that, as a general rule, there is more care manifested for the comfort and safety of black laborers in the South than is shown for white laborers in the North.” The latter had no masters to “bind up the broken limbs,” “provide for the poor cripples,” or care for them in old age.[14]

To be sure, none of these southern journalists openly endorsed the enslavement of white laborers. Their tone and timing anticipated the “whataboutism” rampant in modern American politics. But by weaving proslavery doctrines into their critiques of the society which produced the Pemberton Mill tragedy, southern editors escalated sectional strife as American voters anticipated a uniquely momentous election. Among those who visited Lawrence after the disaster was Abraham Lincoln, who passed through the somber town just days after giving the speech at New York’s Cooper Union which catapulted him toward the Republican nomination.[15] The Pemberton Mill disaster cast a long shadow over the climactic moments of antebellum politics.


[1] Alvin F. Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008), chapter 1.

[2] Ibid., chapters 2-3.

[3] Quoted in An Authentic History of the Lawrence Calamity (Boston: John J. Dyer & Co., 1860), 9.

[4] Authentic History, 15, 20.

[5] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 38.

[6] Authentic History, 38-46.

[7] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 91-109.

[8] “The Lawrence Massacre Again,” New York Herald, January 16, 1860.

[9] Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “The Tenth of January,” Atlantic Monthly 21, no. 125 (March 1868): 346-362; George E. McNeill, ed., The Labor Movement (Boston: A.M. Bridgman & Co., 1887), 122-123

[10] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[11] ”The Lawrence Calamity,” (Richmond) Daily Dispatch, January 18, 1860.

[12] “Wholesale Slaughter of Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 23, 1860.

[13] “Southern Slaves – Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 13, 1860.

[14] “The Calamity at Lawrence,” (Raleigh, NC) Semi-Weekly Standard, January 18, 1860.

[15] Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 185-186, 190.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

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