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The Factory Witches of Lowell
Author: C. S. Malerich

 

 

1: The Foot Loom


THE EIGHTH OF APRIL found the Merrimack River running sure and fast with thawing snows, which set the wheels of the cotton mills turning again after the freeze of last month; the agent Mr. Boott devoted his entire evening’s correspondence to sharing this felicitous news. The Boston gentlemen whom he addressed had built the industrial city of Lowell, not with their hands but with more mystical faculties like “ingenuity” and “entrepreneurship.” And money, of course. Most mystical of all.

Textile production, the agent wrote, now proceeded at a pace to match last November’s. With the minor adjustment to the mill girls’ rent, the owners could expect returns of twenty-two percent again by mid-August. Mr. Boott signed the final letter with a confident flourish of his pen, extinguished the lamps in his study, and retired.

* * *

As this God-fearing man greeted his bed, the young women of Mrs. Hanson’s boardinghouse were leaving theirs. Groping along the banister or holding fast to the girl in front of them, they deserted the dormitories and climbed to the attic, where the taller among them had to stoop to avoid knocking skulls against the eaves.

Creaks and cracks on the staircase, and the susurration of whispers up and down, would have surely roused the house’s matron from her own bed on the first floor, had she not been awake since supper. Indeed, Mrs. Hanson herself had progressed to the attic an hour before, where she took up a stool in the corner, while two of the mill girls, Judith Whittier and Hannah Pickering, made preparations.

“Have you any siblings living?” asked Hannah, as she sliced a lock of coppery curls from her head, then dropped it into the collection that lay before Mrs. Hanson’s ancient spinning wheel.

“Yes, four. One brother. Three sisters,” said Judith, the shorter and sturdier of the two. The pile already contained a lock of her own brown hair, as well as blacks and blonds, in every texture from pin-straight and fine to tightly coiled curls. “True. And you, your siblings?”

“None living. Five dead in childhood, one brother lost at sea.” Hannah’s voice was as thin and reedy as she was, weak from frequent coughing. “True!” she announced, after clearing her phlegmatic throat.

“Try something harder,” Mrs. Hanson suggested, as the two girls set to spinning the motley locks into thread. “Something you’ve reason to lie about.”

“Very well.” Judith sniffed as she set the wheel spinning with her palm. She would have preferred to leave the matron out of it entirely, but Hannah had said they must have Mrs. Hanson’s permission if they meant to use her wheel and loom, and she was sure to scent out any mischief in the house.

Fortunately, this seemed to be the sort of mischief Mrs. Hanson liked.

“Why did you leave Dover?” Hannah asked.

“Half the girls there promised never to strike again,” Judith replied. “I wouldn’t take that pledge. And no corporation for miles would hire me.”

This history came as no surprise to the matron. Judith resembled an animal bred to fight, like a mastiff or bulldog, and her character so far only matched her countenance.

“True,” she admitted. “My turn: are you a witch, Hannah Pickering?”

From the way her narrow shoulders stiffened, Judith knew Hannah disliked the question. Which Judith regretted, but which also made it useful for their purpose.

“I have always had an unusual gift,” Hannah answered, speaking to the spindle. “But I haven’t made a spell before today.”

Judith nodded, even before Hannah pronounced her words truthful.

“I have one,” said Mrs. Hanson. “Judith Whittier, who are you in love with?”

Judith scowled and shook the loose hair that hung down her back. “Who says I’m in love with anyone?”

“She’s only bound to tell me the truth, Mrs. H. To you, she can lie as much as she likes.”

“Then you ask her,” replied the matron, saucy as any of her young charges.

But the attic was filling with more girls. From the dormitory where Judith and Hannah slept also came Lucy, who was flaxen-haired and sunny whether it was midnight or not, singing “Barbara Allen.” Beside her, Lydia bore herself stiffly and with great dignity, her rosebud lips pursed. Because Lucy worked as a “drawing-in” girl in the factories, stringing the looms, and Lydia had a deft hand despite her disposition, Judith set them to threading the harnesses of the foot loom in the center of the attic. Meanwhile, Georgie Hempstead took over spinning from Hannah, and Abigail North—tiniest of the boarders in Mrs. Hanson’s house but two years senior to Judith—wound bobbins.

As their labors continued and more girls joined in, Judith thanked Mrs. Hanson for the loan of her stool, set it before the loom, and climbed atop. “My sisters,” she addressed them, “to make our stand against the greed of our employers is of course noble and just.” Her voice carried through the attic as well as any preacher’s, whether Methodist, Unitarian, or Universalist, and inspired nods of agreement and exclamations of “Amen!” just the same. “But as you may know—as you know now—I was in Dover before Lowell, where the mill owners are not so enlightened even as here. We struck. We lost.”

The attic grew quiet. The only sound was the scraping of chalk against the floorboards as Hannah drew a circle around the loom. Crowded though it was, any girl not engaged in some task drew her feet beyond this ring, as surely as if it marked a picket of bristling bayonets.

“We were crushed,” said Judith, “for lack of resolution more than lack of numbers. A strike is nothing if a worker may pledge herself to it today and return to the factory tomorrow. So we gather here, tonight, to unite and entwine our fate.” Around her she could count thirty-one weavers and spinners, elbow-to-elbow below the eaves. “Emelie and Sarah have already left—”

“I’m here,” protested Sarah Payne, from among the press of operatives.

“So am I,” called Sarah Hemingway.

“Sarah Adams and Emelie have already left—”

“Only until we’re back at work,” said Lucy, from Judith’s right.

“Some of us,” Lydia sniffed, “have families to think of.” She touched the shorn patch of scalp on her own head regretfully. Yes, yes, thought Judith, impatient: Lydia had beautiful hair, sable dark; under other circumstances, it would have been a crime to damage it, but—

Her chalk circle complete, Hannah pressed close behind Judith, and Judith steadied herself atop the stool by reaching for the taller girl’s shoulder. This assembly of mill operatives would listen to her if she spoke with assurance. “When we strike, we are thinking of our families. All of us are sisters of the mills, or we soon will be.”

Lydia had not finished. “And you’re sure this—kitchen magic will do the job?”

“Kitchen magic has its uses,” Mrs. Hanson called from the corner.

Others spoke up in agreement. Every one knew a country wife who twisted charms for a child’s health or a sweetheart’s loyalty, and not a few had swallowed Mrs. Hanson’s tonics. Judith looked at Hannah, wondering if she would add her voice. Only someone with the Sight could say if the charm truly made the difference.

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