After the Fall

A while back I wrote a fairly silly entry about the naming of children and what seemed to me a playful attitude toward middle names, citing the example of Pansy Blossom Lovewell, one of the two daughters of Simpson Grant and Cora Del Hutchens Lovewell.  Although it crops up repeatedly as her middle name on that premier genealogy site, “Blossom” may instead have been a pet name used by her family.  Her mother’s 1950 obituary states that she was survived by a daughter whose married name was Pansy Maudella Wurth.  Both of her girls seem to have been given some form of their mother’s middle name, if “Del" truly was her middle name.  Simpson Grant Lovewell’s wife, like their daughters, was given a name that is rendered differently depending on the source.  Sometimes we find it as Cora Del, sometimes Cora Dell, or even as a single word, Coradell.  Coming upon her eldest daughter’s obituary I was surprised to learn that Violet Lovewell’s middle name was not really Del, or at least not simply Del.  It was either Del Ivory, or Dellivory.  Trying to learn the source of that middle name, I found instead a reference to an historical event I really should have known about, but had never heard of before, the fall of the Pemberton Mill.

Lawrence, Massachusetts, was a mill town with a population of 18,000, a third of whom worked in the local mills.  The Pemberton Mill was a gigantic textile factory, five stories tall, built of bricks cemented together with substandard mortar.  The structure was only seven years old, but even when brand-new and empty of machinery, the thin walls bowed out under their own weight and had to be bolstered by 22 tons of iron plates.  The iron supports holding up floors that were piled high with heavy machinery were, like the building itself, cheaply-made and brittle.  The mill was a money-machine, bought by new owners for a song in the Panic of 1857, and crammed until it bulged with ever more machines, where hundreds of poorly-paid workers toiled during 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

At five o’clock on January 10, 1860, the Pemberton Mill collapsed into a 2-acre, 30-foot-tall heap of bricks and timbers, burying hundreds of men, women and children.  The roster of dead, missing, and badly injured are predominantly feminine names, and chiefly Irish:  Fifteen were Margarets or Maggies.  Twenty-two were some form of Catherine or Kate, eight were Bridgets, and there were thirty-three Marys.   The dozens who were killed instantly were later regarded as the lucky ones.  Dispatches from Lawrence arrived at the news desk of the New York Times all evening, all bearing bad news that was quickly superseded by even worse.

About 9 1/2 o'clock fire was discovered. This additional horror, although somewhat apprehended, struck terror to the hearts that had before been hopeful of saving more lives. Still the work of removal went briskly on. The force-pumps and all the engines which were on the ground, at once got streams of water on, and have been pouring on torrents, so that now (11.30 P.M.), although volumes of smoke and steam are rising, yet the fire does not seem to gain, and it is certainly to be hoped that it has been stayed.

Bonfires had been built on the edges of the ruin so that heroic efforts to pull out bodies and rescue survivors could continue through the night.  Little thought was given to the fact that what the mill turned out was flammable textiles, and all five stories of wooden floors were regularly coated with oil and covered in sawdust. 



Calamity succeeds calamity! In ten minutes the whole mass of ruins has become one sheet of flame. The screams and moanings of the poor buried creatures can be distinctly heard, but no power can save them.

In 1869 feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps put vivid but fictional faces and names to the disaster with her story “The Tenth of January,” part of a collection entitled “Men, Women and Ghosts.”  Her Pemberton tale concerns two mill-girls vying for the love of a boy.  Ms. Phelps, in tune with her time, pours it on a bit thick.  Sene (Short for Asenath) Martyn, a girl with a slightly crooked back, misshapen in childhood by the blows of a drunken mother, is trapped in the ruins with her rival.  As fire spreads there is only time to pull one of the pair from the rubble.  Sene elects to stay behind and manages to cradle and comfort a young co-worker by singing to her, while rescuers carry away the fortunate “Del Ivory, a pretty, fascinating, giddy creature whose beauty she sometimes envied, but whose frivolity she despised.”

While there is probably no connection at all between the story and the naming of a Lovewell daughter, it is nearly the only occurrence of the name Del Ivory that I have found in print, except for funeral notices, Cora Del's and that of young Violet Del Ivory Lovewell herself, who died in a Topeka hospital in November of 1914 at the age of twenty-three.

About two weeks ago she was taken violently ill and all that medical aid and tender nursing could do was of no avail and it was deemed necessary to send her to the hospital for an operation, from the effects of which she was too frail to rally.

The funeral was held at the Methodist church in Lovewell last Tuesday and burial made in the White Rock cemetery.

The story of the 1860 Pemberton Mill disaster was, as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps pointed out, a nine days’ wonder, soon pushed out of the national consciousness by politics and war.  A shortened version of her melodramatic treatment of the event, a sort of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for industrial America, was reprinted in 1878 in a collection of inspirational readings and recitations.  For those with a few tears still left unshed, the tale of Sene Martyn’s sacrifice and Del Ivory’s deliverance was immediately followed by the account of the death of Little Jo from “Bleak House.”  Readers needing a good cry now and then must have considered the book a real bargain.    

© Dale Switzer 2023