When I was looking through the January 1, 1914 Seattle Times last night, I found some coverage about a disaster I had never heard of. 73 dead — 59 of them children — died in Calumet, Michigan, when someone shouted “Fire!” in the crowded Italian Hall where striking mine workers and their families were celebrating Christmas. There was no fire. Eight witnesses swore that the shouter was wearing a Citizens’ Alliance badge; Citizens’ Alliance was the anti-union organization funded by mine management.
Woody Guthrie wrote the song “1913 Massacre” about it:
“The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
‘See what your greed for money has done.'”
The Italian Hall Disaster Resource Center Facebook page maintained by Steve Lehto is posting a day-by-day report of what happened 100 years ago:
December 31, 1913 – 100 years ago today, the Coroner issued his ruling exonerating the guilty and placing the blame on the victims. The English-language papers continued blaming the unions for everything while mine management told people they would continue to investigate (which they wouldn’t). Management wanted to buy time, so their guy could get away and witnesses could be intimidated into silence. Meanwhile, the grand jury was hand-picked by management (and loaded with friends of management – it included a slew of men who admitted being members of the Citizens Alliance!) They would eventually refuse to indict anyone for any of the illegal acts against the workers. They would indict the union leadership, calling their actions a conspiracy.
Lehto is the author of a book about the disaster, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913.
Last month, PBS aired a documentary about the strike and the tragedy, Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. You can watch it online.