On Dec. 24, 1913, striking mine workers gathered with their families for a Christmas party at Italian Hall in Calumet, Mich. A man wearing a pin for a citizens group aligned with the mining companies entered the crowded second-floor room and shouted “Fire!”
Frightened partygoers rushed to the exit and tumbled down the stairs, on top of fallen others. Seventy-three people, including about 60 children, were killed. The community scrambled to find enough tiny caskets.
No one was ever charged for causing these deaths. A full century later, the event still haunts the Copper Country of the Upper Peninsula.
“I’ve gotten death threats,” relates Steve Lehto, a Michigan attorney who has written extensively on the tragedy. “I’ve been assaulted — literally — at book signings. I’ve had people come up to me and start screaming.”
Lehto understands and even sympathizes with such reactions, which he believes played into the decision to raze Italian Hall in 1984. The community just wants to forget; his duty as a historian is to not let that happen. “This is too important a story,” he says.
Folksinger Woody Guthrie immortalized the tragedy in “1913 Massacre,” written in 1941. The song was reprised by Bob Dylan and, most famously, Woody’s son Arlo. Its shattering final line: “See what your greed for money has done?”
Now a superb new documentary, “Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913,” is airing on PBS stations nationally. It’s not scheduled to run on Wisconsin Public Television, but Milwaukee Public Television plans to show it beginning on Tuesday, Dec. 17. Lehto, who has been screening the film across Michigan, says many audience members tie its account of the strike to current events, including the 2011 labor eruptions in Wisconsin.
Lehto, in establishing the film’s relevance to Wisconsin, also cites the Badger state’s geographic and psychological links to the UP. As he puts it, “There are more Green Bay Packers fans than Detroit Lions fans in Copper Harbor.”
When the strike began, in July 1913, an average of one miner a week was being killed on the job. “More people died in the mines than died in Italian Hall,” Lehto says. “No one could get the mine owners to care about that.”
The strike ended in April 1914, in total defeat for the union. Miners had to renounce their membership to reclaim their jobs. But Congress was moved to pass pro-worker laws and, Lehto says, the ball moved a little in favor of unions.
Truth matters, no matter how much time has passed. Guthrie’s song is lamentably loose with facts. In his telling, the “copper boss’ thug men” deliberately sparked the panic and held the door shut so no one could exit. Then, as children died, they “laughed at their murderous joke.”
Lehto’s 2006 book on the tragedy is titled “Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder.” He believes the person who yelled “Fire!” was acting with malevolent intent, and incurred criminal culpability.
But Lehto thinks the goal was to disrupt the party, not kill people. The culprit was probably as horrified as anybody. And “Red Metal” reveals that mining officials made a secret donation to miners’ families.
In the wake of tragedy, people tend to demonize. A newspaper article at the time claimed more than 20 gunmen stormed the hall, whereupon one of them snapped the neck of a child and tossed the body under the feet of the fleeing crowd. None of this was true.
Pro-mining newspapers also engaged in malicious distortions. When union president Charles Moyer asked for an investigation, without ascribing blame, a Christmas Day headline screamed, “USES CHILDREN’S DEATHS TO BENEFIT HIS STRIKE.”
The next day, Moyer was accosted in his Calumet hotel room, beaten, shot and put on a train to Chicago. During a brief stop in Milwaukee, reporters saw his bloody wounds. Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, fearing for his safety, canceled his plan to deliver a eulogy at the funerals.
But there were plenty of other mourners on hand.