It’s oft-repeated that, in spite of our freedom of speech, one still can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded room. For a chilling illustration, look no further than the event known as the “Italian Hall Disaster” of December 1913.
The tragedy occurred on Christmas Eve, 1913, in the Upper Peninsula mining town of Calumet, Michigan. A strike had been going on for some five months. The Western Federation of Miners, which claimed around 9,000 miners as members, organized a strike for better wages and safer working conditions.
Because the strike had carried on for so long, many mining families had little money to spare for gifts or food that holiday season. So, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners organized a Christmas party to be held on the second floor of Calumet’s Italian Hall. There would be food and presents for all those who attended.
Calumet’s Italian Hall was a two-story building with a single steep stairway leading to the second floor. Hundreds of partygoers gathered upstairs to eat, drink, and be merry that night. What exactly happened next is uncertain. Someone yelled, “fire!” into the crowded room, likely from the foot of the stairs, even though there was no fire.
The results were as immediate as they were tragic.
Revelers rushed to escape the apparent blaze. Seventy-three people—59 of them children—died in the ensuing stampede. They were either trampled underfoot suffocated in the crush of bodies.
According to some accounts, the death toll was made worse by the fact that the Italian Hall’s front doors only opened inward, although most scholars maintain that the hall’s doors did indeed swing out. Others hold a darker explanation for the high body count: They claim that the hall’s lone exit was sealed from the outside, presumably by company men or members of the Citizens’ Alliance, an anti-strike group organized by the mining companies.
In his 1941 song “1913 Massacre,” famous protest singer Woody Guthrie claimed that the “copper boss’ thug men” were the ones who made the false claim of fire, and that they then held the door closed so revelers could not get out. Guthrie wasn’t alone in believing that the person who yelled fire was in the pocket of the copper mine companies. Witnesses at the scene identified the agitator as someone wearing a Citizens’ Alliance badge.
Charles Moyer, who at the time was the president of the Western Federation of Miners, publicized the aforementioned accusation connecting the mining companies to the tragedy. Soon thereafter, he was kidnapped and actually shot—not fatally—by members of the Alliance, who put him on a train with a warning to leave Michigan and never return.
Instead, Moyer went to Chicago for medical care, and then held a press conference where he told the story, displayed his gunshot wound, and vowed to return to Michigan and continue battling for the union.
Though there were investigations into the truth behind the disaster, no formal charges were ever brought against anyone. The first coroner’s ruling did not even list a cause of death for the 73 people who lost their lives. In the wake of the tragedy, many of the miners, some of whom had lost all of their children at the hall, left the area. As a result, the strike ultimately failed to achieve its stated goals. Yet many historians see the Italian Hall Disaster as a turning point in the history of labor unions, especially in Michigan’s copper country.
The Italian Hall was demolished in 1984, and today only a single archway remains, framing a state historical marker commemorating the tragedy that occurred there on Christmas Eve in 1913.