Michigan’s Copper Country was in turmoil from July 1913, as miners struck for union recognition, shorter hours, extra pay and a return to two-man drills. Unrest was sparked by the introduction of a new one-man drill. Miners rightly feared this innovation would lead to job losses and isolation as they were forced to work alone rather than in traditional groups – groups that were often drawn from single families.
The struggle became increasingly bitter as mining companies hired blackleg labour and the Michigan state militia was deployed to break up strikers’ gatherings. But their resolve held firm and leaders like Big Annie Clemenc worked tirelessly to maintain morale as the strike dragged on into the hard winter. She hit on the idea of organizing a Christmas party sponsored by the union for which the strikers sought recognition, the Western Federation of Miners.
Calumet on Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula was the chosen venue. Miners and their families gathered on Christmas Eve in the upstairs function room of the Italian Hall, which had shops on the ground floor. Spirits lifted at the thought of a few brief hours in which wretched circumstances could be forgotten, but someone had other ideas. A loud voice shouted ‘Fire’ and the yell led to instant panic in the crowded hall. People dashed for the narrow staircase en masse and a crush developed at the exit door.
The consequences were predictable, and tragic. Over 70 men, women and children died and in the aftermath the miners were quick to blame a company agitator for the fatal shout. Though highly credible, this accusation was never proved and an unsatisfactory inquest promptly cleared the mining companies of culpability. The Italian Hall has been demolished and the site of the tragedy is now a memorial garden.
When: December 24 1913
Where: Calumet, Michigan, USA
Death toll: 73 died, mostly children
You should know: The depth of feeling in the mining community may be gauged by the fact that their name for this disastrous event – the 1913 Massacre – is still widely used rather than the less judgmental ‘Italian Hall Disaster’, squarely placing blame for the deadly shout of ‘Fire’ on the mining companies, who funded a shadowy group called the citizens Alliance that made every effort to disrupt the strike. After the disaster, they kidnapped and shot a union leader who wouldn’t accept a substantial donation in return for exonerating them, instead, he accused the Alliance of being responsible and refused to be cowed when they put him on a train and told him to leave the state… or else.