Italian Hall disaster

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Italian Hall, aka Società Mutua Beneficenza Italiana of Calumet.

The Italian Hall Disaster (sometimes referred to as the 1913 Massacre) was 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 shouted "fire" at a crowded Christmas party.[1]


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.[2] 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.[3]


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.[4][unreliable source?] 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.[citation needed]

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 to disrupt the party.[5][6][unreliable source?]

Rough caskets for victims of the disaster
A funeral procession held on Sunday

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.[7]

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.[3] 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.[8]

A common story regarding the tragedy states that the doors at the bottom of the Italian Hall's stairs opened inward.[9] 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.[10] 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[11]), alleges 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.[12]

In support of this, Alison Hoagland notes 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.'"[12] 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.[12] The issue of the Italian Hall being built in 1908 with "outward swinging doors", was also published previously in Death's Door[10] which was also named a Michigan Notable book by the Library of Michigan in 2007.[13]


Remaining arch and informational marker

After the first wave of grief had passed following the incident, while there was bitterness against the company, it was considerably greater against the Citizens' Alliance (the "Alliance"), which opposed the union and the strike. It was widely believed that the man who had yelled "fire" was wearing an Alliance badge, and Western Federation of Miners president Charles Moyer—who publicized the accusation—refused to retract it. A relief committee made up of Alliance members collected $25,000 for the aid of the families affected by the fire. The bereaved families would not accept the committee's money, saying that the Western Federation of Miners had promised them aid. The New York Times reported that Alliance members who served on the relief committee learned that Moyer had forbidden them from taking the funds.[14]

The Alliance members who served on the relief committee visited Moyer at his hotel 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, he held a press conference where he displayed his gunshot wound and promised to return to Michigan to continue the work of the union.[14][15]

The Italian Hall was demolished in October 1984 and only the archway remains, although a state historical marker was erected in 1987.[16] The site is a park maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park.[17] The marker incorrectly stated that the tragedy was partially caused by inward-opening doors.[18]

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.[19] Some critics claim Bloor's version of events in Calumet in 1913 is untrustworthy.[10] Bloor claimed that Big Annie Clemenc led the funeral procession for the victims carrying a "red flag" although all other accounts say that it was an American flag.[20]

The event was memorialized by Woody Guthrie in the song "1913 Massacre", which claims the doors were held shut on the outside by "the copper boss' thug men".[21]

The disaster generated a fair amount of scholarly debate. Historian Arthur Thurner's Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners' Strike of 1913–1914[22] 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".[10]

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.[10] 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.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A complete list of the dead which is a reprint from P. Germain, Tinsel and Tears (1984), can be found at "The Italian Hall Disaster, Calumet, Michigan". Retrieved January 4, 2011. 
  2. ^ Lankton, Larry D. (1991). Cradle to Grave: Life, and Work and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 319. 
  3. ^ a b Thurner, Arthur W.; Halkola, David T. (Foreword) (1984). Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners' Strike of 1913–1914 (Paperback ed.). Lake Linden, Michigan: John H. Forster Press. 
  4. ^ While this fact can be found many places, at least one witness testified to it at the coroner's inquest. Lehto, Steve (ed.). Italian Hall: The Official Transcript of the Coroner's Inquest. Troy, Michigan: Momentum Books. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-879094-80-2. 
  5. ^ "1913 Massacre lyrics". Woody Guthrie website. Retrieved January 4, 2011. 
  6. ^ Bradley-Holliday, Valerie (November 30, 2009). Northern Roots: African Descended Pioneers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Xlibris Corporation. p. 39. ISBN 978-1-4535-1590-7. Retrieved January 11, 2013. 
  7. ^ Lehto, Steve (ed.). Italian Hall: The Official Transcript of the Coroner's Inquest. Troy, Michigan: Momentum Books. ISBN 978-1-879094-80-2. 
  8. ^ U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Mines and Mining (1914). Conditions in Copper Mines of Michigan (Report). GPO. pp. 2064–2209.  Hearings before subcommittee pursuant to House Resolution 387, 63d Congress, 2d Session.
  9. ^ Doors that opened only inward, however, had been a feature of the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire, the 1908 Collinwood school fire, and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, all of which led to their prohibition in fire codes. Arnold, Jim (April 7, 2005). "Large Building Fires and Subsequent Code Changes" (PDF). Clark County Department of Development Services. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 7, 2008. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Lehto, Steve (2006). Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder. Troy, Michigan: Momentum Books. ISBN 978-1-879094-77-2. 
  11. ^ "Mine Towns: Buildings for Workers in Michigan's Copper Country". Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved January 4, 2011. 
  12. ^ a b c Hoagland, Alison K. (2010). Mine Towns: Buildings for Workers in Michigan's Copper Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 222–24. ISBN 978-0-8166-6566-2. 
  13. ^ "2007 Michigan Notable Books". Michigan Department of Education. 2007. Retrieved August 27, 2011. 
  14. ^ a b "Moyer Driven out of Calumet Region; Head of Miners' Federation Flees After a Conference with Citizens' Alliance Men". The New York Times. December 27, 1913. Retrieved June 13, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Moyer Wounded; Lays It to Plot". The New York Times. December 28, 1913. Retrieved June 13, 2016. 
  16. ^ "Registered Site L1337". Michigan Historical Markers. Retrieved August 24, 2007. 
  17. ^ Hauglie, Kurt (October 21, 2010). "Remembering the Italian Hall Tragedy". The Daily Mining Gazette. Houghton, Michigan. Retrieved December 26, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Italian Hall Memorial". Retrieved December 23, 2015. 
  19. ^ Bloor, Ella Reeve (1940). We Are Many: An Autobiography of by Ella Reeve Bloor. New York: International Publishers. pp. 122–24. 
  20. ^ Bloor, Ella Reeve (1940). We Are Many: An Autobiography of by Ella Reeve Bloor. New York: International Publishers. p. 126. 
  21. ^ "1913 Massacre lyrics". Woody Guthrie website. Retrieved January 4, 2011. 
  22. ^ Thurner, Arthur W.; Halkola, David T. (Foreword) (1984). Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners' Strike of 1913–1914. Lake Linden, Michigan: John H. Forster Press. p. 314. 
  23. ^ Lehto, Steve (2011). Shortcut: The Seeberville Murders and the Dark Side of the American Dream. Create Space. pp. 93–95. ISBN 978-1-4565-8865-6. 

Further reading[edit]

Coordinates: 47°14′54″N 88°27′19″W / 47.2484°N 88.4553°W / 47.2484; -88.4553