The first in an occasional series on the Mayors of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Replica of a portrait of Luther Lawrence donated to the city by Lawrence Academy.
It was a rainy Wednesday morning.
Mayor Luther Lawrence was excited to show his brother-in-law and Harvard classmate, Watertown attorney Tyler Bigelow the improvements made to the old woolen mill at the Middlesex Mills on the banks of the Concord River. It was one of five mills and dye houses owned by Lawrence and his brothers that manufactured underwear and stockings.
Middlesex Mills, courtesy of UMass Lowell
During the tour, Lawrence tripped, pitching himself 17 feet into a wheel pit, striking his head on a cast iron wheel. His skull was fractured and he died within 30 minutes. He was 16 days into his second year-long term as Mayor of the city he helped transform from a town to a city.
“The news spread rapidly throughout the city and carried sadness to every heart,” wrote Lawrence’s nephew Dr. Samuel Green, who later served as the City Physician and Mayor of Boston.
The City Council held a special meeting that night.
In the Illustrated History of Lowell, historian Charles Cowley notes: “Appropriate resolutions were passed by the city council bearing testimony to his high-minded and honorable character – his judicious administration of the city government – his lively interest in the various public institutions with which he had been connected . . . .Mr. Lawrence was a gentlemanly, kind-hearted man with the popular manners of his family, public spirited and well-fitted for county practice.”
Luther Lawrence was born in Groton on September 28, 1778, the oldest son of Samuel Lawrence, who had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War.
Luther and his bothers Abbott, Amos, William and Samuel all attended Groton Academy (renamed Lawrence Academy in 1845 in honor of the contributions of the Lawrence brothers); he graduated from Harvard College in 1801 and studied law under Timothy Bigelow, older brother of Lucy Bigelow, who he married on June 2, 1805.
Luther Lawrence ran a successful law practice in Groton and served as Groton‘s state representative at the Statehouse from 1812-1822; he served as Speaker of the House in 1821 and 1822.
In 1831, Lawrence moved to Lowell where his brothers had heavily invested in manufacturing. He setup a law practice with Elisha Glidden and quickly became involved in business and civic life of the city, serving as one of the original directors of the Railroad Bank.
Lawrence was chosen to chair the committee that studied whether the town of Lowell (est. 1826) should move to a city form of government. On Feb. 17, 1836 he presented the recommendations of that committee to Town Meeting, which was to do just that.
“The principal defects in the operation of the town government is the want of executive power and the loose and irresponsible manner in which money for municipal purposes is granted and expended,” Lawrence sad in his report.
By Feb. 27, he had drafted a city charter, which was adopted by Town Meeting on April 11 by a 961-328 vote; the population of the commonwealth’s newest city was 17,633.
On March 5, 1838 he became the second Mayor of Lowell (succeeding Elisha Bartlett) and was re-elected the following year.
“The sensation produced in the community is deep and very extensive,” Rev. Theodore Edson of Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church wrote in his diary regarding Lawrence’s unexpected death.
Lawrence had worshipped at Saint Anne’s until an October 1838 disagreement about religion with Edson led him to remove himself and his family from the congregation.
“The kind neighbor, the useful citizen, the trusty counselor, the judicious friend in whom the widow and the fatherless often confided, the devoted and efficient public officer, he filled all stations with strict integrity of purpose,” Rev. Henry A. Miles said of Lawrence in the sermon given at the South Congregational Church on the Sunday following Lawrence’s funeral. “Sincere in his manners, frank in his address, firm and faithful in his friendships, how many had he bound to his generous, manly heart. By his large circle of acquaintances, by us of this society with whom he worshipped, by numerous public institutions of which he was an active member and supporter, by this city – its able executive head – too deeply for our poor words to describe, will his loss be felt.”
He was buried in the Old Burying Ground in his hometown of Groton; his family decided against holding a public funeral. People lined the streets as the funeral procession made its way from the Groton Common to the burial ground.
- Lawrence Street in Lowell is named for Luther Lawrence
- Lawrence, Massachusetts was founded by and named for Luther’s brother Abbott Lawrence.
- Luther Lawrence’s nephew Amos Adams Lawrence founded the University of Kansas, as well as the city of Lawrence, Kansas; he also helped found Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. His father-in-law, Samuel Appleton, brother of Nathan Appleton, one of the founders of Lowell, donated $10,000 to the school’s library so the city was named in his honor.