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The Italian Hall Disaster (sometimes referred to as the 1913 Massacre) is a tragedy that occurred on December 24, 1913, in Calumet, Michigan. Seventy-three men, women, and children, mostly striking mine workers and their families, were crushed to death in a stampede when someone falsely yelled "fire" at a crowded Christmas party.
The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company ("C&H") was the single largest copper mining company in the copper country in the Keeweenaw Peninsula of northwest Michigan. One of the longest strikes in the copper country took place in 1913, and included all the C&H mines. The Western Federation of Miners first established a local in the area in 1908 but it wasn't until 1913 that the WFM had a large enough membership to effectively strike. At the time, there were perhaps 15,000 men working in the mines and the WFM claimed 9,000 of them as members. The membership voted in favor of demanding union recognition from management, and asking "for a conference with the employers to adjust wages, hours, and working conditions in the copper district of Michigan." The membership also voted to "declare a strike" if management refused to "grant a conference or concessions." After the vote was held, the WFM sent letters to the mines demanding the conference; the mine managers refused the request and the strike was called on July 23, 1913. The strike would not end until April 1914; the miners and the mines were still at a standoff at Christmas, 1913, in a strike that was then five months old.
On Christmas Eve many of the striking miners and their families had gathered for a Christmas party sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners. The party was held on the second floor of Calumet's Italian Hall. A steep stairway was the only way to the second floor, although there was a poorly-marked fire escape on one side of the building and ladders down the back of the building which could be reached only by climbing through the windows.
The incident began when there were over four hundred people in the room and someone yelled, "Fire"; there was none. However, people panicked and rushed for the stairs. In the ensuing melee, seventy-three people (including fifty-nine children) were killed. To date, there has been much debate about who cried "fire" and why. It is conjectured by some historians and Woody Guthrie that "fire" was called out by an anti-union ally of mine management in order to disrupt the party.
There were several investigations into the disaster. In the coroner's inquest, witnesses who did not speak English were forced to answer questions in English, and most witnesses were not asked follow-up questions. It appears that many persons called to testify had not seen what happened. After three days, the coroner issued a ruling that did not give a cause of death. Early in 1914, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives came to the Copper Country to investigate the strike, and took sworn testimony from witnesses for a full day on March 7, 1914. Twenty witnesses testified under oath and were offered interpreters. Eight witnesses swore that the man who first raised the cry of "fire" was wearing a Citizens' Alliance button on his coat.
A common story regarding the tragedy states that the doors at the bottom of the Italian Hall's stairs opened inward. According to the story, when the fleeing party goers reached the bottom of the stairs, they pressed up against the doors, preventing them from opening and causing many people to be crushed. All photos of the doors suggest a double set of doors with both sets opening outward. The book Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder pointed out that the doors were not mentioned as a contributing factor at the December 1913 coroner's inquest, the 1914 subcommittee hearing, or in any of the newspaper stories of the time. That book also included blueprints of the building drawn by an architect, showing the locations and configurations of the doors, the staircase, and the landings. A recent book by Alison K. Hoagland, Mine Towns (declared to be a Michigan Notable Book 2010), alleges that there were two sets of doors opening onto a vestibule, and that the outer doors opened outward; and there may have been a set of inner bifold doors. In support of this, Hoagland notes, among other things, that "A newspaper article at the time of its dedication mentioned safety doors such as 'the ample main stairway', two fire escapes, and 'All doors open outward.'" She notes that the club had previously been cited—for the predecessor building—for having doors that opened inward. Further, she opines that the foreshortened stereopticon photo was "impossible" and misleading; and further notes that according to the "pro-company" Daily Mining Gazette they opened out. The issue of the Italian Hall being built in 1908 with "outward swinging doors," was also published previously in Death's Door which was also named a Michigan Notable book by the Library of Michigan in 2007.
After the first wave of grief had passed following the incident, while there was bitterness against the company, it was considerably greater against an organization known as the Citizens' Alliance (the "Alliance").
The Alliance's offer was not unconditional. Rather, it insisted that Western Federation of Miners president Charles Moyer publicly exonerate the Alliance of all fault in the tragedy. Moyer refused. Rather than provide such an exoneration, Moyer announced that the Alliance was responsible for the catastrophe, claiming that an Alliance agent yelled the word “fire”. Members of the Alliance subsequently assaulted Moyer in nearby Hancock, then shot and kidnapped him. They placed him on a train with instructions to leave the state and never return. After getting medical attention in Chicago (and holding a press conference where he displayed his gunshot wound) he returned to Michigan to continue the work of the union.
The Italian Hall was demolished in October 1984 and only the archway remains, although a state historical marker was erected in 1987. The site is a park maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The marker incorrectly stated that the tragedy was partially caused by inward-opening doors.
Ella Reeve Bloor was present at the disaster and puts forth her own version in her autobiography. Her telling is problematic. She claims she was near the stage when the panic occurred, but no witnesses ever testified to her presence. Critics have noted that Bloor's version of events in Calumet in 1913 is untrustworthy. For example, she claimed that Big Annie Clemenc led the funeral procession for the victims carrying a "red flag," even though all other accounts say that it was an American flag.
The disaster has generated a fair amount of scholarly debate. Historian Arthur Thurner's Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners' Strike of 1913–1914 raises the possibility that there actually might have been a fire in another part of the hall, perhaps in the chimney of the building. Perhaps the strongest argument against an actual fire is that none of the investigations found any witnesses who would claim there was a fire. The fire log of the Red Jacket Fire Department (the local fire department that responded to the fire call) also specifically states "no fire." Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder, by Steve Lehto, first published in 2006, concludes that the culprit was most likely an ally of mine management. Lehto did not identify in the first edition of the book the specific person who yelled "fire", but he did exhaustively examine news reports, transcripts of interviews with survivors, the coroner's reports and other documentation in an attempt to answer the question of whether this was a calculated act by the mine management or a tragic error. In the second edition of Death's Door, published in 2013, Lehto identifies who he believes was the man who cried "fire," going so far as to give the man's name and occupation, as well as evidence to support the claim.[dead link]