Little Bits of History

Italian Hall Disaster

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 24, 2014
Italian Hall Disaster burial procession

Italian Hall Disaster victims burial procession

December 24, 1913: The Italian Hall Disaster takes place in Calumet, Michigan. The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company (C&H) was the biggest copper mining company in the Keeweenaw Peninsula of northwest Michigan. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was established in 1908 but it wasn’t until 1913 that had a large enough membership to effectively strike. About 9,000 of the 15,000 miners were members of WFM when they demanded union recognition from management and asked for a meeting to discuss conditions. They were denied and went on strike on July 23, 1913. The strike did not end until April 1914.

On Christmas Eve, the Ladies Auxiliary of the WFM held a party for many of the striking miners and their families. The party was on the second floor of the Calumet Italian Hall. One reached the second floor by way of a steep stairway. There was a poorly marked fire escape on one side of the building which could only be reached by climbing through a window to get to the ladders leading to the ground below. There were about 400 people attending the party when someone yelled “Fire”. There was immediate panic as people headed for the one stairway. In all, 73 people were killed, 59 of them children, as they tried to escape the building. It was not on fire.

There were several investigations of the disaster. At the coroner’s inquest, witnesses who did not speak English were questioned and had to answer only in English and there were no interpreters available. Most witnesses were not asked any follow-up questions. Many of the people who were called in had not seen what had happened. After three days, the coroner issued a ruled that did not give a cause of death. In early 1914, the US House of Representatives came and took sworn testimony from witnesses. They used a full day and 20 witnesses testified under oath and had interpreters available. Eight witnesses swore the man who yelled fire was unknown but had been wearing a Citizens’ Alliance (an anti-union organization) button on his coat.

There have been many stories told about the doors opening inward and trapping the people attempting to flee. At the time, in both the December 1913 inquest and the 1914 subcommittee hearing, no mention of the doors opening inward was made. Blueprints of the building showed the location and configurations of the doors, the staircase, and the landings. There may have been two sets of doors with the inner doors being bifold doors and the outer doors opening outward. There has never been a certain identity of the man who yelled “fire” but it is nearly certain there was no fire at all. The fire department records list the event as being “no fire”. The building was torn down in 1984 leaving only an archway. There is a state historical marker in what is now a park area.

All the dark, malevolent Passions of the Soul are roused and exerted; its mild and amiable affections are suppressed; and with them, virtuous Principles are laid prostrate. – Charles Inglis

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. – Albert Einstein

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. – Mahatma Gandhi

All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating, and mediocrity is easy. Stay away from easy. – Scott Alexander

Also on this day: The South Shall Rise Again – In 1865 six men began the KKK, then a simple social club.
Christmas – In 1777, James Cook discovered an uninhabited island in the Pacific.
Shhhhhh! – In 1818, Silent Night was written.
Eggnog Riot – In 1826, a riot broke out at West Point.

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