Christmas Eve marked the anniversary of one of the darkest moments in United States labour history:
On that day in 1913, 73 people (mostly children) died in a stampede following a false cry of “Fire!” at the Italian Hall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The incident occurred during the Copper Strike of 1913. Most of the copper mines were situated in a line on the north side of the peninsula: The mines were shut down completely. The mine owners called for the National Guard to be sent and also hired hundreds of strike breaker thugs.
The mine owners were flush with cash though, and convinced they could starve the workers into ending their strike.
Many of the strikers were recent immigrants from Finland. More than 500 people attended the Christmas event at the Italian Hall, in a little town now known as Calumet.
Then, a stranger stepped into the main hall and yelled “Fire!” There was no fire, but extreme panic spread through the building.
In the mayhem that followed as people tried to escape body piled up on top of body, the children stood no chance Witnesses would later say they could identify the man who had raised the false alarm and much of the evidence pointed to his occupation:
He was a strikebreaker.
The enquiry held after the Disaster was a farce. Witnesses who spoke foreign languages were asked questions in English and required to answer in English. Many witnesses were called who were not even at the Hall or who had not seen what happened.
In the end, the official verdict was that no one knew what had happened at the Hall.
One lasting legacy of this event is the famous quote from Schenck v US, where Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
To this day most believe it was a calculated act of sabotage by the Mining companies resulting in the murder of 60 young children.