America’s Worst Unsolved Crime: The 1913 Italian Hall Disaster

Jul 1, 2013 - by David Robb - 0 Comments

Italian Hall, December 1913

by David Robb

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is cold in the winter, with temperatures often dipping below zero, but Christmas Eve 1913 was particularly cold. The region’s 9,000 unionized copper miners – mostly immigrants from Italy, Poland and Croatia – had been on strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company for nearly six months. Times were tough, but they were about to turn tragic.

The strike had been bloody and violent from the beginning. Strikers attacked and intimidated strike-breakers, and local deputies attacked and intimidated the strikers. The National Guard had been called in to keep the peace, but most of them were recalled in August. Mother Jones, the famous labor and community organizer, had joined the picket lines, but the day she left, two strikers were gunned down and killed by local deputies. As the strike dragged on, more and more of the strikers’ wives and children took to the picket lines to keep the company’s guards from beating their husbands and fathers. It didn’t help. During one melee, a 12-year-old girl was shot and nearly killed.

In good times, the little copper-mining town of Calumet was a company town. Now it was like a company prison. Armed thugs hired by the company patrolled the streets, along with members of the Citizen’s Alliance – a vigilante group funded by the company to break the strike.

Fire!

Christmas Eve 1913 promised a brief respite from the daily battles. The union – the Western Federation of Miners – announced that it would hold a Christmas party that evening for the strikers’ children at the Italian Hall in Calumet. They’d decorated a huge Christmas tree and wrapped presents for all of the kids. On the night of the party, 700 people – including more than 400 children – jammed the hall’s large upstairs auditorium for the festivities.

Therese Sizer, the wife of one of the striking miners, was standing on a table near the front of the stage trying to restrain the rush of children toward the giant Christmas tree, when she heard someone yell “Fire!” The room was noisy, but the shout rose loud and clear above the din. She turned instantly and saw who shouted “Fire!” – a man with a mustache, medium height and wearing dark clothes. She’d never seen him before. He wasn’t one of the strikers.

She leapt from the table, ran to the man and seized him by the shoulders.

“Man, man, what are you doing?” she exclaimed, panic rising in her voice.

“There is a fire,” he replied nonchalantly.

“No! No!” she cried, trying to push him down into a chair.

But by this time, the cry of “Fire!” was being repeated excitedly throughout the hall, and in a mad surge, hundreds of people rushed to get out.

The main exit was a narrow stairway at the back of the hall, leading down to the doors at the street. In the scramble, a child fell in the stairway and others fell over her. Within seconds, the narrow stairway became clogged with bodies as people crawled over one another, filling the stairway to the ceiling.

 

The stairway

There was no fire, but in the resulting stampede, 73 people – including 59 children and 13 women – were killed.    

The scene on Christmas Day, the day after the stampede

The next day, Charles Moyer, president of the miners’ union, charged that the Citizens Alliance had sent one of their men into the hall to yell “Fire!” in order to disrupt the festivities. A few days later, Moyer was beaten up, shot, dragged through the streets of Calumet and thrown onto a train bound for Chicago.   

The local coroner held an inquest and several witnesses testified that the man who shouted “Fire!” that fatal Christmas Eve wore a white badge on his coat signifying that he was a member of the Citizens Alliance vigilante group.

John Burcar, a 15-year-old boy whose 12-year-old sister Victoria died in the stampede, told a coroner’s inquest that he saw the man who did it.

“He hollered ‘Fire!’ and then ran out,” the boy said. “I ran out too. He had an Alliance button on his coat.”

Frank Schaltz, another boy who’d been in the hall that night, said he also saw the man who shouted “Fire!” and recalled having seen him in town a few weeks before the panic, carrying a club.

Mrs. John Koski said she saw the man too. He was wearing a blue coat and a white badge. “It looked like an Alliance button,” she said, “but I was too far away to read it.”

Eric Erickson testified that he saw two men in the doorway wearing Citizens Alliance insignia shortly after the call of fire.

Many years later, folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the tragedy called “1913 Massacre,” in which he laid the blame squarely at the feet of strike-breaking thugs.

     The copper boss thugs stuck their heads in the door,

     One of them yelled and he screamed, "There's a fire!"

     A lady she hollered, "There's no such a thing;

     Keep on with your party, there's no such a thing."

     A few people rushed and there's only a few,

     "It's just the thugs and the scabs fooling you."

     A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down,

     But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

     And then others followed, about a hundred or more,

     But most everybody remained on the floor.

     The gun thugs, they laughed at their murderous joke,

     And the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.

The strike was broken; no one was charged and there was never a trial, and to this day the Italian Hall Disaster remains the most deadly stampede in American history, and the nation’s worst unsolved mass murder.

This Christmas Eve of 2013 will mark its 100th anniversary.

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