Recovery of Bodies 
Pemberton Mill Collapse

The Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts collapsed on January 10, 1860. The debris was set on fire while trying to extricate people that were trapped in the ruins. After the fire, the former mill resembled a twisted mass of rubble, and it took around 10 days to find all the deceased victims. The following describes the subsequent salvage operation and recovery of bodies:

"The flames, which had capped the climax of the disaster, raged through that night, and on the morning of the eleventh the breaking of day disclosed the rum they had left, and the smoke and half-smothered fire still rising from that funeral pyre. Towards daylight, most of the crowd who had been laboring unceasingly in battling with the devouring element, dispersed, some to seek for the lost, others to attend the wounded, and a few to seek that temporary rest which they so much needed.

Some still lingered about the scene of devastation, and their number was soon augmented by people Hocking from the City Hall and from the surrounding towns. Each arriving train brought crowds of visitors, who gathered to gaze on the disaster, till the bridge, the ice-bound canal, and the street which overlooked it, were thronged. They pressed as close to the ruin as the heat of the still-smoking pile would allow. The firemen, many of them, were still at work, and some of the spectators were manly enough to relieve them at the brakes. The water hissed as it fell upon the charred masses of timbers and the heated machinery.

Gradually the ruins became cool enough to allow workmen to resume the search for dead bodies, and energetically they plied themselves to the task, not with the moderation of hirelings, but spurred on by intense anxiety and despair, tempered with the hope of finding at least the remains of those they were seeking. With but little success was the work continued through the day and succeeding night, for the masses of stone and metal retained an overpowering heat.

In the evening the Pemberton Company took charge of the ruins, but many of the common laborers had friends among the dead and wounded, while nearly all who took an interest in the search for the missing were worn out with fatigue. During the night the drizzling rain had changed to snow, and but few remained about the spot.

At ten o'clock on Thursday forenoon the smoke was still curling up from fires in the caverns of the ruins to which the water and snow had not penetrated. Three streams from hydrants were playing upon them, and the water was gradually congealing upon and encrusting the mass of brick and machinery, which filled and rose above the cellars of the mills. At the same time the rapidly falling snow was weaving a winding sheet over the dead as it sifted through the crevices of the ruins.

Two or three hundred people stood sadly gazing upon the smoldering fragments, and a few men and women wandered over the vast funeral pyre and gazed into the dreadful depths with the vain hope of discovering some intimation of life, or relic of the dead. But little labor was done at excavation during that day, but on Friday a hundred men were at work, and the overhauling and removal of the rubbish progressed rapidly. Derricks were raised over the parts of the ruins where the most weighty masses were, and long trenches in the complicated masses of machinery, filled with men at work with hands and tools, indicated the progress of the labors. From this time until near the close of the succeeding week bodies were almost hourly recovered and conveyed to the dead-room at the City Hall.

Some were found in nearly a perfect state, and were easily recognized; others were horribly mutilated or disfigured, and could only be identified by fragments of clothing.

On one occasion, while two or three men were digging in the ruins, a man proposed to them to dig at a place where he saw a young woman buried. He said she was struck by the shafting, her legs doubled under her, so that she could not move, and that just before the fire he heard her cries. Her name was Kate Cooney, recently from Ireland, and without friends in Lawrence. The men dug as requested, and soon came to her body; it was horribly mutilated by the fire around the head and shoulders, but below that the flames had not extended, and her dress and apron were not scorched. Her arms were burned off to the elbows, and above them the bones had been broken in several places. Near her head was an ear-jewel.

The body of John Hughes, a muscular man, who had escaped from the building but was overtaken and buried by the falling rubbish, was found in the Duck Mill yard. The face had been pressed out of shape by some heavy weight, but no other injuries were manifest.

On Saturday, thirteen bodies were exhumed; like all recovered after the fire, these were more or less disfigured. In some eases nothing remained of the forms so recently animate, but fragments of charred limbs and portions of the vitals, so effectual was the work of the devouring element.

The work, which had actively progressed all day, was postponed Saturday evening at dark. The workmen had progressed to that part of the ruins where it was supposed a large number of the bodies would be found; and the work was stayed by the fear that these bodies might be unnecessarily mutilated if the workmen should proceed to exhume them in the night.

On Friday night the bonfires burned but dimly, and the work went on amid a solemn gloom, relieved only by a fitful glare. The progress of the labor was the subject of an intense and universal anxiety, but the cessation was caused only by a feeling of humanity. It was resumed Sunday morning by a force of a hundred and fifty men, commencing inside of the walls.

The last of the bodies recovered were almost entirely destroyed. By Friday, January 20. Every part of the ruins had been examined, and it was believed that no bodies remained unrecovered, except such as had been completely burned.

The mayor was daily in receipt oi’ intelligence from many of the surviving operatives, who, until the knowledge of their safety was gained, were supposed to have been buried in the ruins. Many were heard from at Methuen, Andover, and Lowell.

The crowds at the ruins continued immense for several days, and almost every person bore away some relic from the scene of the disaster. A gentleman from St. Louis procured a large bundle, taking not only burned fragments of clothing found upon the victims, spindles and yarn from the general mass of ruins, but even a part of a brick, and the mortar which came from its surface. Several gentlemen from New York were also ladened with relics. Spindles which were found bright and polished were favorite relics; but any part which could be conveniently carried found a customer. The passion grew to such an extent that orders were given against allowing further acts of the kind, and only a favored few could enter the lines which surrounded the ruins.

After the ruins had been thoroughly examined for bodies, the workmen were directed to remove such portions of floors and rubbish as were considered dangerous. Then they were occupied in removing the bricks and machinery from the pile, and in taking from it the burned cloth and other property which could be saved, a long and difficult work. As soon as the expectation of finding bodies no longer prompted haste, the gangs of workmen who had been hired in other towns and cities were dismissed to give an opportunity for work to such as had been thrown out of employment by the accident."

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