New book tells the story of Carmela Teoli, child mill worker
By Yadira Betancesybetances@eagletribune.com
LAWRENCE — It was a secret in Frank Palumbo Jr.'s family that he could no longer keep inside.
His grandmother was Carmela Teoli, who in 1911 was a 14-year-old working in the city's mills. One day, her hair became entangled in a machine and it ripped her hair and scalp from her head. She spent seven months in the hospital.
But shortly after the great Strike of 1912 began, Carmela went before Congress and told the story of her accident. It was her testimony which was prompted sweeping changes in child labor laws in the United States.
"I'm very proud of her integrity, her honesty and courage to go to Washington and to tell the nation and the world what was happening here, not for her own benefit or to get rich, but to stop what was going on here," Palumbo said.
But the details of Teoli's life have been a mystery as she made her own son keep her story a solemn secret. But now her grandson has written the book "Through Carmela's Eyes," which tells the story of Teoli based on her own diaries and letters. Palumbo's book will be published next year in time for the 100th anniversary of the Strike of 1912, also known as the "Bread and Roses" strike.
Palumbo, whose aunt, Josephine, lives in Methuen, is in Lawrence this weekend to speak about the book at the Bread and Roses Festival on Monday at 12:30 p.m. He is also thumbing through historical photographs of the strike and workers at the Lawrence History Center which he hopes to include in the book. The strike began after 20,000 workers walked out of the mills when their wages were reduced along with their work hours. The strike ended on March 14, 1912 when workers received wage increases and overtime pay.
Testifying before Congress was not easy for the Teoli family. Palumbo said the family's home was fire-bombed and his great-grandfather was beaten by those who wanted to discourage him from sending his daughter to Washington D.C. to testify.
"Thinking about a little kid, her innocence and having her think like an adult must have weighted so heavy on her," Palumbo said.
While in Washington, President William Taft's wife Helen took Teoli to the White House to ease her fears.
"She gave her confidence. She was terrified because she thought she was going to be killed when she came back," Palumbo said. "This is the reason why it was kept a secret in my family."
Palumbo was 14 when he first learned about his grandmother's history. He recalls how he was sent to his room to finish his homework when his late father, Frank Palumbo Sr., received a telephone call, which made the older man uneasy.
"I tipped-toed downstairs, and I heard my father saying there was nothing to say about his mother. He looked like a ghost coming to dinner," Palumbo said.
Palumbo's father had made a solemn promise to Teoli to never talk about her story. At a function the father and son were catering in 1978, Palumbo asked his father who was skinning the excess fat off a chicken, why he did not write a book about Teoli. His father put the knife down and reminded his son about the vow of silence.
"But if you want to write the book, you can because you didn't promise anybody to keep the secret," Frank Palumbo Sr. told his son. "You just have to wait until I'm gone."
In 2007, the elder Palumbo became very sick. Before he died, he gave his son Teoli's diaries, letters she exchanged with her husband in Italy, newspaper articles about the strike and other correspondence.
That's when Frank Palumbo Jr. began to write. Palumbo said the book will set the record straight on several facts such as how his grandmother did not speak broken English and how she had to clean bed pans and floors to pay for her seven-month hospital stay.
Frank Palumbo Jr. said he dedicated the book to his father who is buried in Lawrence.
"This is no longer a secret," Palumbo said. "I'm passing down the legacy to my children so when they pick up the book they can see what she (Teoli) did for Lawrence."