(Most towns and small cities are possessed of a sound, that conveys it’s character, in essence a summation of the life of it’s inhabitants. For a variety of reasons, this sound is especially clear and distinct during the workdays of the week. The coastal fishing/shipping port city will have the subtly insistent sound of harbor buoys, with the endless chorus of sea birds, adding a throaty counterpoint. Awake in a dusty farm/cattle town, your day will echo the earthy lowing of livestock, mixed with the woody staccato of corral gates and animals huddled together in tight desperate herds. Even the modern city, home to the more abstract interactions of men, the banking cities, they too sing through the working day, their song bright with the brass flourish of the honking of vehicles that fill the streets, a shrill melody of thousands of people occupied with getting from one point to another point, a chorus at once entirely human, yet completely inhumane.)
It was January 12, 1912 and Friday dawned as just another workday in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The dark quiet of night fades and the insistent sounds of the day grow with the light of the winter sun. This transition, of the growing sound of the dawning day, is surely the most subtle we experience in our lives. The simple reason is that we are all part of a chorus, yet always our waking life begins with a solo performance. The woman wakes to the world, sighs with contentment and, as the first murmur (or whine) from the children in the next room crawls into bed with her, changes her song. The man, pulled from a deep sleep by the motion of their bed, stretches and hearing only a sigh next to him, might begin to hum a quiet invitation, the day not yet making its demands. He hears the cries (or the laughter) from the next room, his wife’s own song leading it and he begins whatever song is necessary to get him through the day. And so it is with us all, as we join the world of the day, one (or more) person at a time, the countless solos meld and fuse into a complex, but all-encompassing chorus.
The sound of a workday in Lawrence Massachusetts was the sound of its textile mills in full production.
This workday sound is both distant and, at once, of the earth itself. It’s tone is low, like the basso thundering of the ocean on a rocky shore. And, like the roar of that ocean, the sound of the mills in full production not only was heard, it was felt, through the oft-patched soles of workers shoes, as they made their way to and from their daily stations. The sound (of the mills of Lawrence) was powerful and subtle, was felt as a persistent vibration transmitted through the granite sidewalks that surrounded them, as much as it was heard in the air.
Contralto voices whispered between the narrow aisles of the production floors of the Mills. It was the everyday (every workday) song workers sang to themselves, the liturgical hymn to their mechanical god in their brick cathedrals.
Mill workers spent their days in very small worlds, little more than the area required to support a single machine or, perhaps, a row of machines. Their job, in the most simple and direct terms, was to serve the machine. Once the shift began, the machine never stopped. Even when rest breaks and lunch were required, (by the weakest link in the production chain), the machine did not shut down, it idled. No matter how simple and routine their job, be it maintaining take-up bobbins or repairing broken threads on braider machines, as long as the machine was operating, the human must not stray, physically or (and especially) mentally. To forget what one was doing, while at work in a mill, is to risk disfiguring injury or death. As a result, it could be said that every worker worked alone. As if to assure this solitary service, the sound of the machinery was so loudly pervasive it destroyed any and all thought of communicating with others, to connect, to not be alone.
A song can include thoughts and ideas, usually as lyrics, meant to be sung. Often the words are incredibly subtle and suggestive. Then there are songs that are so rudimentary as to exist simply as a melody, without words or lyrics. This type of song appeals, not to mind as much as to the body, the appreciation of the song felt, not thought.
There was a song shared among mill workers. Perhaps it found a place in the minds of the men and women of the working class, first as a lullaby. A quiet song of hope sung to a baby, in a voice thickened by exhaustion, words nonsensical, as there was no need for words, only the tone of the singer’s voice. This song would stay with a person throughout their life, if for no other reason than it’s very lack of words and lyric message. This song served the mill workers, set to playing in their minds as the long days passed, having the effect of muting the constant raving of the machinery that surrounded them in the brick castles that lined the Merrimack River.
No song, no matter how simple and private, can remain buried if it is held and used by people, all engaged in a common task. The song that the mill workers heard as they toiled through their days grew in complexity. No longer was it the song of the weary, seeking only the promise of rest. As if in response to the never-ending demands of greater effort, more productivity, the song took on a questioning tone. And, as it must, questions that remain un-answered for too long, curdle and spoil, becoming resentful, more and more a statement of an emotion given to grow and blossom into anger. At some point further, this song of frustration turns into a song of rage, and rage, always waits for the appropriate symbol to happen along which becomes a clarion to action.
“Short Pay!! All Out!! All Out”
Clenched fists holding their first pay checks of the New Year, the workers took to the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
The managers, (and their owners), believed they understood the people working in their mills. They were almost correct. Where they erred was ironic in the way that irony always expresses itself. The owners (and the managers they employed), believed that the workforce, by virtue of being predominately female (and of a variety of ethnic and cultural origins) lacked the aggressiveness and independence to organize and go on strike.
They were wrong.
The song in the minds of the mill workers, when seeing that their pay was cut, was the simplest of songs, a song for a child, only two lines, really quite catchy… ‘Short Pay! All Out!’
Sung by 13,000 women, it caught the attention of the Furies (as they might exist in the modern era). And myth or not, modern days or ancient times, the Furies have always been near… hidden in dark woods at the edge of farm fields of constant labor or perhaps trapped in the towers of the Mills of New England. They waited. Three sisters: Alecto (“the Unceasing”), Megaera (“the Grudging”) and Tisiphone (“the Avenging”) took to the January sky, ready to right the path that had been so deformed by the rich and the powerful.
On an unseasonably warm January day in 1912, the Furies heard the song that had always been there, hidden in the bright, modern song of capitalism; they now heard the contrapuntal melody of human suffering in service of the bosses. And they joined in the singing. The voices of 13,000 workers were raised enough to be heard over the machines that they served. They left the tall brick mills and took to the streets of Lawrence Massachusetts.
Annie LoPizzo left Building Number 5 of the American Woolen mill and stood in the middle of Canal Street. The repeated banging of metal door against brick wall behind her added a stridently martial sound to the late morning hour. She turned and faced the Mill, the Merrimack River to her back. As a living symbol of the call to action, it was clear that the only path was forward, there was no retreat or return to what once was. The streams of women who walked away from their machines increased in volume, becoming rivers flowing from the brick buildings, the few becoming many. The first groups of workers walked along the sidewalks, just as they had every workday since they could remember. But, just as a channel receiving more than its normal amount of water, overflows the river banks, women began to walk down Canal St in the middle, to the sides, around the occasional vehicle. There was a near palpable sense of freedom from the routine. Emboldened by the fresh morning air, made all the more special by the fact that they were outside… in the middle of a workday, the workers began to chant and sing.
Realizing that all the carefully plotted strategies and plans crafted by the Union committees were now totally moot, given that reality trumps anticipation every time, Annie did what came naturally, she helped those in need by taking charge.
Almira Ristani heard the strike begin before she saw it. Working that morning, her row of braiding machines required tending to. She knew enough not to look away as the sounds of shouting, rising from the streets poured in through the open windows. She maintained her focus if for no other reason than it was her first day back in the mill. Her caution in moving up and down the rows of whirling bobbins and take-up spools was as intense as it had been her first month at the American Woolen. She decided that she’d find out in due time what the noise was all about.
After an hour, Almira noticed that there was no else working. The machines had not shut down, but as she stood in the middle of her row of machines (safely in the center of the aisle), she saw that the bobbins in the machines along the rows on either side of her’s were twirling empty. It was quite strange. She thought of Alice in Wonderland for no reason she was aware of, but having thought it, decided that she would say, ‘Well this is certainly curious… and curiouser’ and laughed to herself.
She stopped and walked to the end of her aisle. She saw only two people in the vast open space of the 3rd floor. The first was Mrs Monteforte. Mrs. Monteforte worked at the mill longer than anyone else, since 1897, it was said. She was very short, had white hair and only 3 fingers on her left hand. The shortage of fingers was the indirect result of a group of co-workers deciding she should celebrate her 10th year at the mill. After returning from the lunch, on Monday in July, 1907, she nodded off while working. She returned to work after two weeks, bandaged but willing to find a way to do her job with three less fingers. She had a family that depended on the pay she brought home.
The other person left on the floor was the shift foreman, an overweight Belgian by the name of Matteo Kuiper. Friendly and not unkind to the women who worked his shifts, it was rumored that he’d fathered several children by women over the 7 years he worked as foreman of 1st shift on the 3rd floor.
One day, towards the end of November, as Annie waited by the door for Almira to join her for lunch, Matteo called out to Annie,
“Annie what will it take for you to quit that packaging department and come to work for me here? I’ll treat you better than the boss you have now, I guarantee it! Ask anyone who works for me!”
“When you get those things of yours caught in the braider so they can’t cause a girl any trouble, then I’ll consider it!”
He laughed as loudly as Annie.
“Where is everyone?”
Almira stood in the middle of the main central aisle that ran the length of the production floor.
Matteo pointed towards the windows that overlooked Canal Street. Almira walk over and saw throngs of women pouring from all of the entrances of each of the mills that lined the river.
“My God! They’re all outside!”
“I don’t know what the world’s coming to, but if I were you, little Almira, you might want to stay in here. I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I know my bosses and they are not going to let this happen without doing something to stop it.”
For the first time in the history of Lawrence, Massachusetts, alarm bells were heard. As a quick and effective way to warn citizens of danger or calamity, they had, until this Friday in January, remained silent. The workers, now filling Canal St didn’t hear them over the sound of their own singing and chanting. The Lawrence militia did. These citizen soldiers were called out to protect the City of Lawrence from itself. A ragtag army of weak men with weapons, predatory men with license to hurt and dull men allowed to feel as if they were finally more than; they were called to protect the city of Lawrence, which is to say, the property of the Essex Company.
“Hey Sterling! you wanna make a quick buck?”
I was sitting at a booth at the Cage & Whistle, writing and looked up at the sound of my name. Though I was through with college, (an opposing view might hold that Dartmouth College was through with me), habits are hard to break and so, my time spent writing, in the semi-public of small bars and pubs. These establishments were the barnacles growing on the undersides of the body politic in all towns and cities, large or small. They served the most destitute of people, those who had nothing, or no one, that could be mistaken for a home. I liked to sit with my pad and write, making a beer last longer than the average customer could remain sober. I was tolerated by the inn keepers because on more than one occasion I would help escort patrons who, perhaps catching too true a reflection of the emptiness of their life in the broad mirror behind the bar, out of the building before they could exact too great a price from those who offered the only home they might ever enjoy.
I saw Arron Langdon standing in the open door, the brightness of the sunlight reducing the man to a voice in a black silhouette.
“There’s something going on down at American Woolen and the coppers are looking for men to back them up.”
Hearing ‘American Woolen’ was enough to get me out of my chair. Arron’s smile as I approached the doorway, evaporated along with his anticipated bounty as I brushed him aside, nearly knocking him to the ground, as I exited the bar at a dead run. Almira was back to work at American Woolen today and any police action that involved the use of people like Arron was not a good thing.
I approached Canal St coming down Embankment St where it ends in Water Street. What I heard was refusing to make sense in my mind, it was the sound of women, many women. But not simply the sound of a group talking among themselves, it was more a collection of moods than it was the combined sound of a crowd. There was cheering and there was singing and there was cursing, carried a far greater distance by the buildings that lined the waterfront. This natural echo chamber magnified the sound. As I got to Water Street, which turns into Canal Street a block further towards the mill district, I stopped as a ragged line of cops ran towards Canal St. Though being led by the regular police, I saw Sergeant Herlihy at the head of what could only be described as a mob. I heard him shout as he walked, deliberately slowly, the better to force the group of men to listen.
‘Now, men! Listen to me! You were deputized so that you can aid the police. You are here to back up the police force of Lawrence, until the militia can take over and secure the mills. You are bodies, that is all. You are not to do anything other than what I tell you to do and that is to form a line in front of the Mills and protect them from the strikers. Do you understand me?’
He turned and lead the group of maybe 25 men towards Canal St. At the tail end of the group, cutting away to run up an alleyway, was a thin man with red hair. Robbie Maclachen moved with the quickness of a ferret and succeeded in escaping the ranks following Herlihy. My concern for the well-being of Almira grew in intensity, left worry behind and advanced directly into anger. I decided that I needed to get ahead, up nearer to the mills, where workers were now moving with a kind of vaguely random motion.
As I got closer, I heard Annie’s voice. Being Annie, her voice carried over the more random sounds of the crowd, which now filled Canal Street from Jackson Street down to the bridge at Water Street. I could hear her touch the hearts of the crowd, trying to shape the direction of the mass of workers, now cut off from one end of Canal Street by the line of police.
I heard Sergeant Herlihy, standing on the tailgate of a supply truck that was mired in the sea of people,
“By the authority of the City of Lawrence I am ordering you to disperse. Either return to your workstations or go home. Martial law will be in effect at dusk. Anyone remaining on the streets after that time, without official purpose will be considered a looter and be arrested. Go home, people. The strike is over. The Essex Company is meeting with your Union Officials even as I speak. There is nothing to be gained by this action.”
The sound of breaking glass is, in the right circumstances, one of the loudest of sounds. It was loud enough to drown out whatever else Sergeant Herlihy may have intended to say.
I heard both Annie and Herlihy desperately try to focus the attention of the mass of people, workers and militia alike.
While breaking glass can command attention, a gunshot will demand it. A single gunshot, seemingly from an alley between the mill buildings, where one wall accidentally intersected with another, forming a small alcove.
The sidewalk was grey. In a clearing in a moving forest of brown and beige dresses and coats, a girl sat on the winter-cold granite sidewalk. Like the river of women that flowed around them, the current of humanity pulling all past, a few with startled recognition, eddying around this one spot, the girl was dressed in grey. She cradled a woman in her arms, her legs bent to create a safe harbor from the moving figures that swirled around them. The woman laying in the girl’s arms was staring up, into the other’s eyes. It was a look seen when one searches the horizon, at the very end of a long journey; she seemed to be looking for the strange surroundings to transform into something familiar, something homelike. The woman reached up and touched the girl, very gently on the face. Her fingers were scarlet red. As she reached up, her coat fell open. The blouse was a still-life scarlet in ruby-red, in a pattern that mimicked a woman’s form, sides of breasts like hills in spring, half covered in a blood-red snow.
The girl stared down into the woman’s eyes.
The dying woman looked up into the eyes of the young girl, seeing a storm growing in a face that, although dominated by a nose that was out of proportion to features that were, at least once, delicately formed, a face of natural sensitivity.
There came a look of sorrow and concern for the young girl, as if she were the one, too soon to leave the world.
Almira held Annie’s fingers to her face, as if that connection of touch, despite being dyed by the lifeblood of the woman, was as vital as any mother to her unborn child.
Almira looked into Annie’s eyes. There was no sound in the world. The light and sound of the near surroundings ceased to exist. There was only the face of her dying friend. In Annie’s eyes grew a look of searching, as if she was at once in a different place and yet looking to the near and to Almira from an invisible terrain. Annie’s concentration on seeing that which only she could see grew stronger and stronger.
Annie LoPizzo died, not simply by closing her eyes. She died, being held close by Almira, by continuing on, to another place. Annie’s gaze into that far distance seemed to draw her essence away, to a place that so captured her spirit, her mind, that she could see only this new place. And so, went on, leaving her body.
Almira cried, her tears burning, her hope shrinking like a glowing balloon losing it’s air until it vanished with a single spark of light.