It was captured in brilliant and harrowing fashion by Woody Guthrie in his classic “1913 Massacre” (see below), but few may know the story of the actual tragedy, which took place on Christmas Eve of that year, at a party for striking miners and their families in Calumet, Michigan. Seventy-three died, including fifty-nine children.
I don’t often link to Wikipedia but there’s a quite full rundown here. It’s been the subject of several academic studies and much debate in recent years, so I suggest you read the full account. Mother Bloor was reportedly present, but some even dispute that.
The basic outline: someone shouted “Fire!” at the crowded party in the Italian Hall. There was a rather inaccessible fire escape and the only real exit was down a narrow, steep flight of stairs, and dozens of kids got trampled to death. In Woody’s version, and many others, the “Fire!” shouter was sent by the copper mine bosses to create just such an event. Woody added the twist (not claimed by others) that “thugs” held the doors to the street shut from outside.
But despite official inquiries it’s stlll not known for certain (1) who shouted fire or (2) if the doors opened inward or outward. One academic even claims there was a small fire. Another writer, Steve Lehto in his book, says he has IDed the “Fire!’ shouter. In any case, a historic, tragic event in labor history.
There’s a new documentary about the incident, and at the site one of the creators links it to current anti-labor moves in Michigan. And an even newer doc aired on some PBS stations this month, titled Red Metal, with Steve Earle singing the Woody song. And then there's the classic Steve Earle song, "Christmas Time in Washington," with its refrain, "Come back Woody Guthrie."
Here’s Woody (his melody borrowed by Dylan for “Song to Woody” on his first album).
Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books on politics, history, nuclear issues, capital punishment, WikiLeaks, Beethoven, Hiroshima and media.