ON THIS DATE in 1912, 30,000 mostly immigrant textile mill workers won national sympathy for their strike when a partly bald fourteen-year-old girl from Lawrence, Massachusetts, told a U.S. Congressional hearing about the workplace accident that nearly took her life.
The twelfth child called before the panel, Camella (sometimes spelled Carmela) Teoli described starting at the American Woolen Company at age thirteen and losing part of her scalp when her hair got caught in a textile machine two weeks later. The girl, along with two pieces of her sliced-off scalp, had to be rushed to a hospital, where she remained for seven months.
Testifying before Congress was no easy task for Teoli, according to grandson Frank Palumbo Jr., author of 2011’s Through Carmela’s Eyes. He told NECM.com that his grandmother’s home was fire bombed and thugs who wished to prevent the family from letting Teoli testify beat his great-grandfather. Palumbo said Helen Taft, first lady to the president, took the girl to the White House and tried to ease her
Bruce Watson, author of Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream (2006) found that Teoli’s courage before Congress played well in Washington. “Gradually it dawned on the panel that these were not children at all … but apprentice adults who had left childhood at the mill gates,” he wrote.
The press picked up Teoli’s story and public sentiment swung to the strikers, who had been attacked by police serving the interests of mill owners before the congressional hearings took place. The owners eventually agreed to raise wages, pay overtime, and rehire the strikers.