The Pemberton Disaster
John Kelly’s Forgotten History Lessons
One maternal great-grandfather is listed in 1900 U.S. Census records as a day laborer who did not speak English 18 years after coming to America.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly hails from the Brighton section of a Boston, whose 18th century grandees included a Yankee Protestant manufacturer who so detested Irish immigrants that he refused to hire them as servants at his estate.
The full extent of David Nevins Sr.’s bigotry was subsequently noted by local historian William Marchione in the Allston-Brighton Tab newspaper.
“When the roof of his handsome mansion sprung a leak, and he was unable to find a Yankee workman to repair it, he allowed the rain to pour in rather than employ and Irishman to make the necessary repairs,” Marchione wrote.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Marchione suggested that the psychology of the time is similar to the anti-immigrant sentiments being expressed in present days. He did not need to add that President Trump is the leading voice of intolerance, or that Kelly has come too close to echoing his boss.
“The psychology of the period, it’s very similar to the Hispanic situation today,” Marchione did say.
Then as now, there was a shortage of native-born workers willing to toil for low wages in onerous conditions. Nevins might have been willing to put up with a leaky roof, but losing money was something else and even bigotry such as his had limits. He was willing to hire the Irish—mainly women and children—to labor in his giant Pemberton Mill in Lawrence.
Nevins and a business partner had purchased the five-story facility at auction during the financial panic of 1857 and crammed additional machines into it. The 800 workers—60 percent of them Irish—tended 2,700 spindles and 700 looms, generating 150,000 yards of cloth a week for an annual profit of $1.5 million, or $48 million in today’s dollars.
In the late afternoon of Jan. 10, 1860, cast-iron columns in the building that were later found to have been defective buckled under the added weight. The structure suddenly collapsed, killing as many as 167 workers.
“The scene after the fall was one of indescribable horror,” the Boston Globe reported. “Hundreds of men, women, and children were buried in the ruins. Some assured their friends that they were uninjured, but imprisoned by the timbers upon and about them. Others were dying and dead.”
The account continued, “Every nerve was strained to relieve the poor unfortunates, when, sad to relate, a lantern broke and set fire to the wreck. In a few moments the ruins were a sheet of flames. Fourteen are known to have been burned to death in the sight of their loved ones, who were powerless to aid them.”
A woman who had already lost her husband and a daughter in the Great Famine back in Ireland lost a second daughter to what would become known as the Pemberton Disaster. A Lawrence official later recounted the fate of a 15-year-old orphan who had been working for 50 cents per 10-hour shift to support her younger siblings.
“We had nearly extracted her; ten minutes more and she would have been saved,” the official reported. “But the flames came.”
Back in Brighton, Nevins presumably found a Yankee to repair his roof, for the mansion remained in good condition as it passed on to his son, David Nevins Jr. The continuing influx of Irish into Brighton was such that the Catholic Church subsequently acquired the property. The onetime estate of the Irish-hating grandee became home to Saint Gabriel monastery and Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital.
“Two Catholic institutions,” the historian Marchione noted last week.
One would hope that Kelly was unaware of the history of his own home turf when he made his comments about immigration NPR last week. He started out promisingly, allowing that “the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people.” He then turned nativist.
“But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society,” he said. “They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from—fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”
Two researchers with genealogical skills, Monica Pattangall and Jennifer Mendelsohn, were prompted to post details of Kelly’s roots on Twitter. Kelly proved to be the great-grandson of 19th century immigrants from Ireland and rural Italy. They appear to have been largely rural people.
Kelly’s paternal great-grandparents were both of Irish extraction. One paternal great-grandfather was a blacksmith, the other a railroad worker. His maternal great-grandparents were of Italian extraction. One maternal great-grandfather, John DeMarco, is listed in 1900 U.S. Census records as a day laborer who still did not speak English 18 years after coming to America. He did speak English by the time of the 1930 census, which recorded him as working as a fruit peddler in his late seventies, but not yet a citizen. His wife, Crescenza DeMarco, still had a “No” in the “Speaks English” category 37 years after her arrival.
For a considerable time in Brighton and elsewhere, the Italian immigrants were subjected to bigotry not just by the Yankees, but also by the Irish immigrants who had suffered the same from the likes of Nevins.
“They were discriminated against by both,” Marchione told The Daily Beast.
One symbol of social progress and true American greatness came with the marriage of postal worker John Kelly and Josephine Padalino, granddaughter of the DeMarcos. The joining of a Kelly and a Padalino produced a son also named John, who joined the Marines and rose to four-star general and is now the White House chief of staff.
The John Kelly who has risen to such prominence should always speak as the great-grandson of immigrants. Kelly instead sounds too much like that long-ago grandee in a Brighton mansion, not to mention the present president in the White House.