Italian Hall disaster

Italian Hall disaster

The Italian Hall disaster (sometimes referred to as the 1913 massacre) is a tragedy which occurred on December 24, 1913 in Calumet, Michigan. Seventy-four men, women, and children, mostly striking mine workers and their families, were crushed to death when someone falsely yelled "fire" at a crowded Christmas party. [A complete list of the dead can be found at [] ]


The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company ("C&H") was formed from the consolidation of the Calumet and Hecla mining companies in 1871. C&H was the single largest copper mining company in Michigan's copper country. One of the longest and most disastrous strikes in the copper country took place in 1913, and included all the C&H mines. The strike was the result of many factors, but the most immediate cause was the replacement of the two-man drill with the one-man drill. Prior to this innovation, blast holes were drilled by hand, with one person holding a drill and two others striking it with sledgehammers. The mechanical drills were introduced to cut costs, breaking up family groups which worked together in the mine and eliminating jobs. Wages also played an important role in causing the strike. The amount of wages paid to each worker was based on the depth of penetration into the mines made by each group each day. Miners were usually paid US$2.75 a day for ten hours of work but a select few earned $4. Working conditions also contributed: work days were usually 12 hours long; boys 12 years of age were employed deep in mines to carry drill rods to the drilling teams working 600ft deep in the mines. The strike went on for about 5 months before Christmas. ["Excerpt from "Zajednicar"."]

The Disaster

On Christmas Eve many of the striking miners and their families had gathered for a Christmas party sponsored by the Western Federation of Miners. It is estimated that there were over five hundred people at the party which 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 only be reached by climbing through the windows.

The tragedy began when someone yelled "fire." People panicked and rushed for the stairs. In the ensuing melee seventy-three people (including fifty-nine children) were killed. There was no fire. To date it has not been established who cried "fire" and why. The most common theory is that "fire" was called out by the anti-union company management to disrupt the party. During the investigation of the disaster, party goers made statements which varied so widely with regards to the appearance and location of the person who cried "fire" that no conclusion was ever reached.

A common story regarding the fire 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 which only opened inward, causing many people to be crushed. The theory appears to have first emerged in the 1950's. All photos of the doors suggest a double set of doors with both sets opening outward. The first printed mention of the doors opening inward was in the 1952 book "Red Metal" by C. Harry Benedict. 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.


After the first wave of grief had passed following the tragedy, while there was bitterness against the company, it was considerably greater against an organization known as the Citizens Alliance (the "Alliance"). The Alliance was funded by mine management and actively opposed the union and the strike. Knowing what poor condition the strikers were in, the Alliance took steps that purported to help the families. It offered money to the union, telling union leaders to spend it as they wished.

The Alliance's offer was not unconditional. Rather, it insisted that Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners, 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”. [New York Times, 12/27/1913] The Alliance assaulted Moyer in nearby Hancock, 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 WFM.

The Italian Hall has since been demolished, and only the archway remains from that day, although a state historical marker was erected in 1987. [ [ Michigan Historical Markers, Registered Site L1337] , last accessed August 24, 2007] The marker incorrectly states that the tragedy was partially caused by inward opening doors. The Michigan Department of History Arts and Libraries has indicated that it will replace the marker to correct that error.

The event was immortalized by Woody Guthrie in a song titled "1913 Massacre" [ [ 1913 Massacre] by Woody Guthrie] , which claims that the doors were held shut on the outside by scabs.

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" (1984) raises the possibility that there actually might have been a fire in another part of the hall. This suggestion has been vigorously disputed by, among others, Steve Lehto, an attorney and author of "Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder" (2006). Lehto's book concludes that the most probable culprit was mine management. Lehto does not identify the specific person who yelled "fire" but does exhaustively examine news reports, transcripts of interviews with the 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.

ee also

*Barnsley Public Hall Disaster


Further reading

*Lehto, Steve "Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder" (Momentum Books, 2006) ISBN 978-1-879094-77-2
*US Library of Congress [,gottscho,detr,nfor,wpa,aap,cwar,bbpix,cowellbib,calbkbib,consrvbib,bdsbib,dag,fsaall,gmd,pan,vv,presp,varstg,suffrg,nawbib,horyd,wtc,toddbib,mgw,ncr,ngp,musdibib,hlaw,papr,lhbumbib,rbpebib,lbcoll,alad,hh,aaodyssey,magbell,bbcards,dcm,raelbib,runyon,dukesm,lomaxbib,mtj,gottlieb,aep,qlt,coolbib,fpnas,aasm,scsm,denn,relpet,amss,aaeo,mffbib,afc911bib,mjm,mnwp,rbcmillerbib,molden,ww2map,mfdipbib,afcnyebib,klpmap,hawp,omhbib,rbaapcbib,mal,ncpsbib,ncpm,lhbprbib,ftvbib,afcreed,aipn,cwband,flwpabib,wpapos,cmns,psbib,pin,coplandbib,cola,tccc,curt,mharendt,lhbcbbib,eaa,haybib,mesnbib,fine,cwnyhs,svybib,mmorse,afcwwgbib,mymhiwebib,uncall,afcwip,mtaft,manz,llstbib,fawbib,berl,fmuever,cdn,upboverbib,mussm,cic,afcpearl,awh,awhbib,sgp,wright,lhbtnbib,afcesnbib,hurstonbib,mreynoldsbib,spaldingbib,sgproto Italian Hall Documents, Library of Congress Holdings] . Retrieved April 15, [2008]

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