The northernmost part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is known as the Copper Country, after its thriving copper mines which led the world in production at the turn into the 20th century. While the mines wallowed in profits, workers mostly recent immigrants made a few dollars a day and had few rights. The Western Federation of Miners organized and gained enough membership to call a strike in the summer of 1913. They struck when the mines refused to collectively bargain and the mines shut down when the miners walked off the job.

The mines refused to negotiate. Outside forces tried to get the parties to settle but mine management held the position that talking with the union meant recognizing it. To shore up their position, the mines brought in strike breakers. These men worked for agencies that specialized in busting heads and breaking up pickets and soon there was violence in the region.

A boardinghouse in a town called Seeberville was shot up in broad daylight by some of these strike breakers and two strikers were killed. The victims were unarmed and the shooting was unprovoked. Although the gunmen would face prosecution later, the sheriff helped them evade justice by spiriting them out of the county and putting them in a safe house. Such was the way justice worked in the Copper Country in 1913.

By Christmas, the strike had dragged for months with no end in sight. Union benefits were sparse at best and the season promised little by way of cheer. The women's auxiliary of the WFM decided to throw a party on Christmas Eve for the children of the strikers. It would be held in a well-known union gathering place, the Italian Hall.

The Italian Hall was a two-story building with a saloon and general store on the first floor and a large gathering place with a stage on the second. To reach the top floor, visitors had to climb a tall, single flight of stairs which covered a rise of 14 feet. Parents and their children began arriving the afternoon of Christmas Eve and soon the upper floor was crowded. Perhaps 700 people were in the hall at the peak of the party. Songs were sung and presents were given to the children by Santa who sat on stage next to a meager Christmas tree.

Then, a man entered the building, climbed the stairs and stepped into the main room. He yelled "Fire!" twice, at the top of his lungs twice, in English. He then turned and as panic set in behind him, he ran away. There was no fire but there was an instant panic. Masses swarmed toward the exit at the top of the stairs, pushing and shoving to escape the onrush of people from the hall. Someone tripped and fell on the stairs and more people pushed from behind. More people fell. Soon, there was a pile on the stairs of a hundred or more people, mostly children.

The number of deaths overwhelmed the community. The victims were taken to a temporary morgue and soon plans needed to be made for a massive number of burials. Undertakers ran out of caskets and had to appeal to nearby communities for more, particularly children's caskets.

The union president sent a telegram to the governor, asking for an official investigation into the tragedy. When word got out that he had done that, a group of men - probably working with the sheriff - beat, shot and kidnapped him.

But who was at fault? Rumors swirled that the man who had raised the cry had been a strike breaker and had been wearing a button which identified him as an ally of the mines. The sheriff the same one who helped the Seeberville murderers hide after their crime half-heartedly investigated and then decided to let the coroner take over. This was an interesting decision because the coroner's only job was to assign a cause of death. Everyone knew how the victims died. It would have made more sense to arrest the man who cried Fire and put him on trial.

The coroner went through the motions of investigating but there is no question he was not trying to solve anything. He brought in witnesses who were not in the building, and called witnesses who spoke little English without providing interpreters. After three days, he and his hand-picked jury concluded that the victims had died after a false cry of Fire and the cry had been raised inside the Hall. Which, of course, everyone knew. And a grand jury also hand-picked by mine management refused to indict anyone for the Italian Hall (although, comically, they indicted the president of the union for his union activities while refusing to indict them men who shot and kidnapped him.)

When it happened, the Italian Hall disaster was big news. It was on the front page of the New York Times. Just a few years later, Oliver Wendell Holmes conjured the image of falsely crying Fire in a theater and was most likely referring to the Italian Hall .


Remember Italian Hall: Where 73 Died On Christmas Eve