The Michigan Copper Strike of 1913

Article excerpt

Take a trip with me into 1913 To Calumet, Michigan, in the Copper Country. I'll take you to a place called the Italian Hall Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball. (Woody Guthrie)

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1913, strikers and their families began arriving at the Italian Hall, a two-storey brick building, just over a block from Calumet's fire station. At one end of the building a single set of double doors opened onto a straight flight of stairs to the social rooms on the upper floor. By two o'clock, over 175 adults and 500 children had crowded inside to seek relief from the stresses of the five-month-old miners' strike against the owners of the Calumet & Hecla (C & H) copper mine. They sang carols and the children queued to see Santa Claus, who had modest gifts for each of them. Then, around half past four as the party began to disperse, there was a cry of `Fire!' and the panic-striken families ran desperately for the stairs.

A few escaped, but once one fell, a wall of human bodies dammed the staircase as the terrified people continued to pour down the stairs. Those at the bottom died first, crushed to death by the weight of their brothers, sisters, friends and union comrades. When rescuers arrived, the corpses were so tightly packed that they had to lift them like rubble from the top. A temporary morgue was set up in the village hall and, having been stripped for the coroner's examination, the seventy-four bodies, sixty of them aged between two and sixteen, were laid out, as if sleeping.

By noon the next day, the shell-shocked communities of the Keewenaw peninsula had raised $25,000 for the families, with many opponents of the strike donating to the relief fund. But there was anger as well as grief on the striking miners' side. The president of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), Charles Moyer, declared that the union would bury its own dead and take no aid from people who so recently had denounced the strikers as `undesirables'. Fifty of the victims were Finns and the local socialist Finnish language paper, Tyomies (`The Worker'), blamed the catastrophe on an unidentified intruder from a company-sponsored vigilante group, the Citizens' Alliance, who had played a cruel hoax but had got out before the crush began. A few union members even suggested that other Alliance men had held the doors, ensuring the lethal crush on the stairs. In the desperate hours immediately after the tragedy, the awful accident was re-interpreted as cold-blooded mass murder.

The reaction of the Citizens' Alliance was direct. An official delegation of five men went to Moyer's hotel room in Hancock that same day. They subsequently claimed that Moyer, with some reservations, agreed to accept Alliance donations to the relief funds and to dampen down the rumours surrounding the recent tragedy. Shortly thereafter, an `unofficial' mob ran the union leader out of town. With a gunshot flesh-wound in his back, Moyer was bundled onto a Chicago-bound train and told firmly that, if he set foot in the region again, he would be lynched. In the short term, the mob's action proved a mistake since it drew national attention to the dispute at a time when the Italian Hall disaster evoked sympathy for the strikers. Cinemas across America showed newsreel footage of the children's mass funerals with captions spreading the rumour that a man wearing a Citizens' Alliance button had triggered the stampede.

Stories about other dramatic incidents within the strike gained circulation. At the head of the funeral cortege in the newsreel had been the striking figure of Annie Clemenc carrying the American flag. Known locally as `Big Annie', Mrs Clemenc was the American-born wife of a Croatian copper miner who worked at the C & H mine. When her husband went on strike in July 1913, Annie joined him on marches as a flag-bearer. Confronted by company-hired `deputies' and cavalry from the Michigan National Guard, `Big Annie' had led the strikers forward. …