Book Review | Disaster in Lawrence

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Disaster in Lawrence


Heath Robbins

Witnesses reported that at first, it sounded like snow sliding off a roof, a familiar sound on a mild January day in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But on this day–January 10, 1860–the sound was the precursor to one of the worst industrial accidents in the nation’s history. Around a hundred people, many of them women and children, died in the collapse of the Pemberton textile mill. The exact number was never determined, as many bodies burned to ash.

Hundreds of trapped workers had been saved in the six hours before a rescuer’s lantern set fire to the rubble. The mayor of Lawrence, Daniel Saunders Jr., was digging frantically to free a 15-year-old girl when the flames drove him away. “You must imagine the rest,” he recalled. “I can’t write it.”

Alvin F. Oickle, a former New England reporter, broadcaster, and college instructor, can. His Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill (The History Press; $19.99) not only captures the horror of the first hours but also sets the stage brilliantly with the history of the Lawrence mills, profiles victims and survivors, analyzes the causes of the collapse, and explains why, in the end, even a tragedy of this magnitude did not result in serious reforms. In 30 years of reviewing books for Yankee, I’ve read many similar historical accounts. None was better than Disaster in Lawrence.

Read an excerpt from Disaster in Lawrence.


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