1913 Massacre
December 21, 2005 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Take a trip with me to 1913.
To Calumet, Michigan, in the Copper Country.
I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas Ball.
This time of year, Woody Guthrie's haunting ballad "1913 Massacre" brings to mind one of the most tragic incidents in American labor history. At the midpoint of the bitter and violent miners' strike of 1913-14, miners and their families gathered for a Christmas party given by their union. An unidentified "stupid person" gave the shout of "fire", causing a panicked rush to escape. Unable to get out the door, more than 70 people, mostly children, were smothered to death. A forthcoming documentary (main link) explores the legacy of the event, using Guthrie's song as its starting point.
posted by Miko (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've loved this song for years. Exploring the historical background of the song for this post has been a fascinating exercise. The story is one that takes in so many of America's great struggles: it's a story of immigration, of labor history, of technological history, of women's history, of folk tradition and musical composition, of the activity of memory and the nature of class strife. The more I learned, the more interesting the story became. Some other good links that I didn't work into the post:

Keweenaw National Historical Park
Ella Reeve Bloor, labor organizer whose 1940 biography motivated Guthrie to write the song.
"Big Annie" Clemenc, organizer of the Calumet Miners' Women's Alliance. Annie was likely one of the Christmas party organizers.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on December 21, 2005

Great post Miko. Ed Sanders has a great bit about this in his recent America: A History in Verse, but I don't have it near me now to quote it.
posted by elykcooks at 10:01 AM on December 21, 2005

Back before unions were just a gravy train
posted by HTuttle at 10:05 AM on December 21, 2005

Commence snarky labor comment countdo...

posted by joe lisboa at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2005

(Also: great post.)
posted by joe lisboa at 10:17 AM on December 21, 2005

I always liked Ramblin' Jack Elliott's version of the song.
posted by y2karl at 10:43 AM on December 21, 2005

A while back I was talking with a homeless gentleman while waiting for a bus, and he asked me if I had ever heard of Woody Guthrie. After I told him I had not, he was absolutely astonished, and he recounted the story of how Dylan traveled across the country to be with Guthrie while the latter was on his deathbed. I had forgotten about that episode until reading this post. I think I will see about getting some of Guthrie's music.

Great post.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:28 AM on December 21, 2005

I'm from Calumet and did a big project on the Italian Hall massacre my senior year in high school. It's amazing how large the event still looms in the community, and it's probably responsible to a great extent for my strongly pro-labor views today.

(Also, I was told as a child that because of the Italian Hall massacre, all public buildings must have doors that open outward, though I don't know if that's true or not.)
posted by aaronetc at 12:21 PM on December 21, 2005

aaronetc: I had seen that factoid about the doors mentioned too, and also one that mandated a 2nd egress for large-capacity buildings, but I couldn't substantiate either one. Then again, I didn't look too hard.

I'd love to hear more about the scope of your project...
posted by Miko at 12:34 PM on December 21, 2005

Interesting well done post, excellent !
posted by elpapacito at 12:35 PM on December 21, 2005

(Also, I was told as a child that because of the Italian Hall massacre, all public buildings must have doors that open outward, though I don't know if that's true or not.)

I had heard that that was because of the Triangle Factory Fire, but I don't know if that's true either.
posted by unreason at 12:40 PM on December 21, 2005

Miko: I don't remember too much of the specifics -- this was 12 years ago, now -- but I basically set about to make and present a really amateurish (edited-in-camera amateurish) documentary about the event, talking to local historians and old folks who had been around during some labor disputes (though not this one in particular). Also some stuff about basic 1913-era lifestyle in Calumet -- nobody was going to get helicoptered to Marquette for emergency medical care, for instance, and the mass media of the time was a much different beast than what we have now. I should see if my mom still has a copy, now that I think about it.
posted by aaronetc at 12:49 PM on December 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I saw the remains of the Italian Hall in Calumet this past Labor Day weekend (fittingly enough), while visiting my mom who lives in the area.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2005

P.S. All that's left is a single brick arch. The hall was torn down in the '80s by local authorities, who apparently thought it was of no lasting historical importance.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:25 PM on December 21, 2005

I think it was actually the Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 that prompted outward-opening doors to be required for new theaters, if not all public buildings.
posted by Scram at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2005

Check out this list of historic fires. There are really so many (not to mention other crowd-related disasters) that I would suggest there were probably no definitive points at which one fire prompted every legislative body to enact new codes. It's hard to state which fires resulted in which legislation. Also, since fire codes are created and monitored at the local and state level as well as at the federal level, it would take some serious research to discover who enacted what legislation where, and then when and how it caught on and spread to other communities. I looked around for some kind of fire code timeline online and haven't yet found anything. It's an interesting topic, though -- watching legislation close a lot of barn doors after a lot of horses had already run out.
posted by Miko at 1:45 PM on December 21, 2005

Artifice_Eternity: Yeah, and that happened while the local authorities were also lobbying hard to get the Keweenaw National Historical Park created. It eventually was created, and has been used primarily as a way to boondoggle construction, deconstruction and reconstruction projects for the friends of local government. The people running Calumet Township are about as venal as small-town officials come.
posted by aaronetc at 3:02 PM on December 21, 2005

Nice post, Miko. You sucked me in on folk music, local history and mining. Makes me wish I was having a pasty for dinner.
posted by QIbHom at 3:10 PM on December 21, 2005

this song is beautiful. and i guess especially for me because the first time i heard it was around a campfire on an EF! blockade with a bunch of people i'd never met before. it was below zero, my first winter camping experience and just before Christmas, with no real idea of when the blockade would end. this one guy from the Twin Cities had a guitar, and knew a lot of Guthrie songs. i was new to the North then, so everything about it seemed to sink into my bones then, and all the history i learned seemed to be all about learning my way around my new home. since then, the song always has had this taste of deep, teeth-achin' cold and northern lights and stars and big whooshy pine trees. (so even though Italian Hall was in town, i always somehow see it in another place entirely, despite myself.)

and so, coincidentally, i've spent the last two weeks with the version Ramblin' Jack Elliott sang on Til We Outnumber 'Em. in my MP3 rotation.

one summer a few years later i drove around all the Great Lakes, and our second night was staying with friends in Houghton-Hancock. we spent a few hours walking through the mineralogical museum (which is a m a z i n g! huuuge chunks of copper, in all their natural glory...meteorites... just way cool) and then drove all around the peninsula, cramming our faces full of shortbush blueberries every time we saw 'em from the road.

now, i am a fan of industrial decay. i find it lovely in a sad, romantic Dickensian sort of way, and i love to take pictures of it. but i remember being astounded at the ruins left behind by the copper industry on the Keweenaw. the desolation of towns abandoned by corporate money--the obviousness of the hardscrabble many natives there have had to go through trying to transform their economy.

it's a sad, beautiful place. the song holds all of that. thanks.
posted by RedEmma at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2005

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