As today is “Salem Women’s History Day” as proclaimed by our mayor, I thought I should write about a “notable” Salem woman. I’ve certainly featured lots of Salem women here, including accomplished authors, artists, and activists, some prominent socialites, a few domestic heroines, and even an accused murderess, but there are lots more stories to tell. When considering my options, one particular woman kept popping up in my mind, or rather I couldn’t get her out of my mind: Hannah E. Leary of Cross Street, a carding machine operator at the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company in the late nineteenth century. To my knowledge, Hannah did not write anything, or paint anything, or organize anything of note, but she did suffer a tragic, terrible accident in the summer of 1894 which is perhaps representative of the challenges of daily working life for many Salem women at this time. And that makes her notable. On a hot day in late July, Miss Leary’s hair was caught in a carding machine, effectively “scalping” her: the suffering that she experienced on that day and over the next week was chronicled daily in the pages of the Boston Post, giving her a notability that her fellow workers, both male and female but all un-maimed, lacked.
First reports on the scalping of Hannah Leary, Boston Post, July 27, 1894; the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, popularly known as Pequot Mills, in the 1890s, Frank Cousins.
The reporting is very detailed, and thus hard to forget. Hannah never lost consciousness although many around her fainted. Her bloodied scalp was retrieved from the machinery and she was conveyed to the Salem Hospital on Charter Street (after a considerable time, as the hospital’s one and only ambulance was in Swampscott). There the doctors began the delicate task of re-attaching her scalp to her head with the hopes that it would “knit”. We are informed that Hannah is one of the oldest women workers at the Mill, at age 43, and that her employment began when she was 15. We are also informed that she normally wore her long hair braided and pinned, but that on this particular day she did not. Reaching down to pick up something under the machine, she was caught in its mechanical death grip, an occurrence that has happened many times before, the paper tells us. Every day over the next week the Post checked in on her condition: things look bleak as we read one lurid headline after the next, and then we read that “she may live”, and no more—I guess she ceased being news.
Daily Reports on Hannah’s condition in the Boston Post, August 1-5, 1894.
Some context: these industrial accidents happened all the time. I went through all the regional newspapers trying to determine Hannah’s fate and read about worker after worker falling, losing fingers, being scalded or burned or blown up. The “scalping” reports definitely receive the biggest headlines. Hannah’s doctors are almost blasé about her injury (it happened to a girl last year), and she had suffered another mangling earlier in her career. Everyone knows about the big industrial tragedies, like the Pemberton Mill collapse of 1860 or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 or the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but the daily toll on individual workers seems relentless. I am also struck by how neglected Salem’s industrial and labor history is: it’s as if we’re caught in a colonial Groundhog Day where we have to repeat the same stories again and again and again. My colleague at SSU, Avi Chomsky, has focused on industrial relations in this era for both a book chapter (in Salem: Myth, Place and Memory by my other colleagues, Dane Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz) and an exhibition on the Pequot Mills Strike of 1933, and more recently, Jacob Remes has examined workers’ organization in the aftermath of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 in Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. There is a lot more work to be done, however, to put Hannah’s story in a more comprehensive context: the “mill girls” of Salem stare out at us in the photographs of Lewis Wickes Hine but we don’t know much more about them than their names.
More: reports in the North Adams Transcript and Fitchburg Sentinel, 1899, 1903 & 1913; Factory women photographed in the Workforce Washington Factory in Lawrence, MA, March 27, 1903, Lawrence History Center.
And what of Hannah? Because of her tragic accident she does emerge from the pack of “typical old-maid workers” in the words of pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson, but only in bare outline. The newspapers abandoned her as soon as it appeared that she would recover. She returned to her sister’s house on Cross Street, but not to work. She died four months later of a “tumor in the uterus”, still only forty-three years old.