Italian Hall Fire
December 24, 1913
Calumet, Houghton Co Michigan


Calumet, MI (Italian Hall) (1913) Contributed by Paul Petosky

Calumet, MI (Waiting horses - Funeral Italian Hall Fire Disaster) (1913)
Contributed by Paul Petosky


Funeral procession of the 74 victims that lost their lives during a fire at the Italian Hall,
Calumet, MI on December 24, 1913 - Contributed by Paul Petosky


One of the recurring themes immediately following the Italian Hall disaster was the notion that everyone should just leave it alone and forget about it. Here, the subcommittee from Washington notes that they wanted to limit their inquiry and have no investigation " because we can not, of course, restore the loss or be of any service to those bereaved and unfortunate people." Luckily, the attorneys for the union demanded a further investigation (and got one).

The "Chairman" -- I probably should say that the committee have not yet officially or even among ourselves privately decided whether we would investigate the Calumet catastrophe or not. I repeat that we were in hopes that so far as it has any bearing upon any Question that may be proper for us to investigate, that the facts might be very briefly put into the record, and let it go at that, because we can not, of course, restore the loss or be of any service to those bereaved and unfortunate people. But in view of the fact that Judge Hilton now withdraws his offer of stipulation as to what the facts are, and demands an investigation of it by the committee, and I presume renews his former demand that we investigate it as an incident, or one of the causes leading up to one of the matters that will be investigated, the committee will hold the matter under consideration for the present time and take such action as seems best within the near future. What line of testimony do you expect to take up this morning, Judge?



Funeral procession of the 74 victims that lost their lives during a fire at the Italian Hall,
Calumet, MI on December 24, 1913 - Contributed by Paul Petosky




Calumet, MI (Funeral of the Italian Hall Distaster) (1913) #3 - Contributed by Paul Petosky


On Christmas Eve many of the striking miners and their families had gathered for a Christmas party sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners. The party was held in the second floor of Calumet's Italian Hall. A steep stairway was the only way to the second floor, although there was a poorly-marked fire escape on one side of the building and ladders down the back of the building which could only be reached by climbing through the windows.

The tragedy began when there were over four hundred people in the room and someone yelled "Fire!"; there was none. However, people panicked and rushed for the stairs. In the ensuing melee, seventy-three people (including fifty-nine children) were killed. To date there has been much debate about who cried "fire" and why. It is conjectured[by whom?] that "fire" was called out by an anti-union ally of mine management in order to disrupt the party.

There were several investigations into the disaster. In the coroner's inquest, witnesses who did not speak English were forced to answer questions in English, and most witnesses were not asked follow-up questions. It appears that many persons called to testify had not seen what happened. After three days, the coroner issued a ruling that did not give a cause of death. Early in 1914, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives came to the Copper Country to investigate the strike, and took sworn testimony from witnesses for a full day on March 7, 1914. Twenty witnesses testified under oath and were offered interpreters. Eight witnesses swore that the man who first raised the cry of "fire" was wearing a Citizens' Alliance button on his coat.[9]

A common story regarding the fire states that the doors at the bottom of the Italian Hall's stairs opened inward. According to the story, when the fleeing party goers reached the bottom of the stairs, they pressed up against the doors which only opened inward, causing many people to be crushed. All photos of the doors suggest a double set of doors with both sets opening outward. The book Death's Door: the Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder pointed out that the doors were not mentioned as a contributing factor at the December 1913 coroner's inquest, the 1914 subcommittee hearing, or in any of the newspaper stories of the time. That book also included blueprints of the building drawn by an architect, showing the locations and configurations of the doors, the staircase, and the landings. A recent book by Alison K. Hoagland, Mine Towns (declared to be a Michigan Notable Book 2010, alleges that there were two sets of doors opening onto a vestibule, and that the outer doors opened outward; and there may have been a set of inner bifold doors. In support of this, Hoagland notes, among other things, that "A newspaper article at the time of its dedication mentioned safety doors such as 'the ample main stairway', two fire escapes, and 'All doors open outward.'" She notes that the club had previously been cited—for the predecessor building—for having doors that opened inward. Further, she opines that the foreshortened stereopticon photo was "impossible" and misleading; and further notes that according to the "pro Company" Daily Mining Gazette they opened out. The issue of the Italian Hall being built in 1908 with "outward swinging doors," was also published previously in Death's Door which was also named a Michigan Notable book by the Library of Michigan in 2007.

AFTERMATH

After the first wave of grief had passed following the tragedy, while there was bitterness against the company, it was considerably greater against an organization known as the Citizens' Alliance. The Alliance was funded by mine management and actively opposed the union and the strike. Knowing what poor condition the strikers were in, the Alliance took steps that purported to help the families. It offered money to the union, telling union leaders to spend it as they wished.

The Alliance's offer was not unconditional. Rather, it insisted that Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners, publicly exonerate the Alliance of all fault in the tragedy. Moyer refused. Rather than provide such an exoneration, Moyer announced that the Alliance was responsible for the catastrophe, claiming that an Alliance agent yelled the word “fire”. Members of The Alliance subsequently assaulted Moyer in nearby Hancock, then shot and kidnapped him. They placed him on a train with instructions to leave the state and never return. After getting medical attention in Chicago (and holding a press conference where he displayed his gunshot wound) he returned to Michigan to continue the work of the WFM.

The Italian Hall has since been demolished, and only the archway remains from that day, although a state historical marker was erected in 1987. The site is a park maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The marker incorrectly states that the tragedy was partially caused by inward opening doors. The Michigan Department of History Arts and Libraries has indicated that it will replace the marker to correct that error.

Ella Reeve Bloor was present at the disaster, and puts forth her own version in her autobiography. Her telling is problematic. She claims she was near the stage when the panic occurred but no witnesses ever testified to her presence. Critics have noted that Bloor's version of events in Calumet in 1913 are untrustworthy. For example, she claimed that Big Annie Clemens led the funeral procession for the victims carrying a "red flag," even though all other accounts say that it was an American flag.

The event was memorialized by Woody Guthrie in the song "1913 Massacre", which claims that the doors were held shut on the outside by thugs.

The disaster has generated a fair amount of scholarly debate. Historian Arthur Thurner's Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners' Strike of 1913–1914[23] raises the possibility that there actually might have been a fire in another part of the hall, perhaps in the chimney of the building. Perhaps the strongest argument against an actual fire is that none of the investigations found any witnesses who would claim there was a fire. The fire log of the Red Jacket Fire Department (the local fire department that responded to the fire call) also specifically states, "no fire." Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder, by Steve Lehto, concludes that the culprit was most likely an ally of mine management. Lehto does not identify the specific person who yelled "fire" but does exhaustively examine news reports, transcripts of interviews with the survivors, the coroner's reports, and other documentation in an attempt to answer the question of whether this was a calculated act by the mine management or a tragic error. In a later book, Lehto identifies who he believes was the man who cried "fire," going so far as to give the man's name, occupation, and evidence to support the claim.
Source: Wikipedia



Calumet, MI (Funeral of the Italian Hall Fire Disaster) (1913) - Contributed by Paul Petosky




Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives
Abram and Betty Niemela died in the fire - parents of Reino "Ray" Niemela who survived

   
Left: Christmas Eve at the Morgue -- Middle - Abram & Betty Niemela -- Right - Ray Niemela
Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives