PETER FROST tells a tragic story from Christmas Eve 1913, a hundred years ago.
Search a modern map of Michigan and you won’t find either Copper Island or the town of Red Jacket.
You should find the Keweenaw peninsular, part of Michigan that juts out into the mighty waters of Lake Superior.
This is the only place on earth where volcanic activity laid down large scale deposits of 97% pure copper. Once you could dig almost pure nuggets of the valuable metal straight out of the ground.
The most important town in the area today is called Calumet. This was originally Red Jacket – the name came from the distinctive dress of a chief of the Seneca tribe – until it legally changed its name in 1929.
By 1900, Red Jacket had a population of five thousand and the surrounding nearby mining towns had attracted over 25 thousand immigrant workers mostly from Finland and Poland but also from Ireland, Scandinavia and many other parts of Europe. Many of the most expert and experienced miners came from Cornwall.
This was at a time in US history when unskilled, and mostly immigrant labour workers all over America were fighting for the right to form unions, and the bosses were fighting back.
They battled in the sewing rooms of New York; in the textile mills of New England; in the coalfields of Pennsylvania; in steel works; in shipyards; in lumber camps and in every mine and mill.
Workers were not protected by law and strikers were more likely to be sacked, beaten or shot than to be invited to a bargaining table.
In the summer of 1913, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had built a membership in the Michigan mines that allowed them to consider calling a strike for better conditions, a pay increase and the right to organise.
From the summer of 1913 the mines fell silent, the miners were out on strike. The dispute would last nearly ten months.
The vicious mine owners – the notorious copper bosses – bought in scabs, strike-breakers and stoolpigeons to try to smash the workers but throughout the Fall and as the cold Great Lakes winter started to set in the strikers and their families remained solid in their support for the strike.
The copper bosses demanded that the state government send in the National Guard. They also organised their own army of strike breaking thugs.
When it became clear that the striking miners threatened no violence, Michigan’s governor ordered the National Guard to withdraw.
The bosses upped the ante and their armed strike-breakers shot and killed two striking miners in broad daylight.
The strikers and WFM sent out calls for help.
Labour leaders like Mother Jones one of the founders of the International Workers of the World (IWW) the famous ‘wobblies’ came to their aid.
Progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow who would make his name in the famous Tennessee ‘Monkey Trial’ against teaching evolution, also lent his support.
Ella Reeve Bloor – Mother Bloor – who would go on to be a founder of the Communist Party of the USA also came north to help the strikers.
The copper bosses reckoned they could starve the strikers back to work with the assistance of their army of scabs, private detectives and just plain thugs, along with the harsh winter weather on the Great Lakes.
Clearly strikers’ morale would be an important part in winning the dispute and that is why Anna “Big Annie” Clemenc president of the local Women’s Auxiliary of the WMF called her women comrades together and organised a huge Christmas Party for the strikers and their families in the biggest building in Red Jacket, the Italian Hall.
The hall was on the first floor above a tea shop and a saloon. More than 600 people climbed the single staircase to pack the building for the Christmas Eve party.
A local band played on the small stage, a piano, a couple of Swedish fiddlers, a long necked banjo, a bathtub bass and a washboard hammered out the Schottisches and Polka’s that transported the many recent immigrant miners and their families, if only for a moment, back to the land of their birth.
Every now and again, to give the musicians a break, someone would get up on stage do their party piece.
A couple from Ireland were particularly popular. She, with a voice so sweet, sang a gentle love song. He with the gravelly accent of Galway thundered out his ‘Bold Fenian Men’.
A young girl in her Sunday best apron shyly recited James Oppenhiem’s recent socialist poem ‘Bread and Roses’, and it sparked many a conversation among the audience about another strike and another victory in the textile mills of Massachusetts earlier in the year.
A school class sang a selection of pretty carols in Finnish and the huge decorated fir tree glistened in the corner while outside as evening fell, snow started to dust the street sparkling white.
It was the perfect picture of a peaceful Christmas Eve. Silent Night, Holy Night indeed.
The only discordant note was the tiny knot of strangers at the back of the hall.
There were always strangers arriving in Red Jacket, many rode the boxcars, avoiding the railway guards, but whether they were honest unemployed workers here to find a job in the mines; IWW activists come to support the strike; or strike-breakers keen to make a fast buck, it was never easy to guess.
The children lined up to receive the gifts that mums and dads had been secretly working so hard to make over the last few weeks. One miner, disguised as Grandfather Frost carried in a huge sack.
The atmosphere buzzed with excitement. For a brief moment the hardships and privations of winter and the long strike were forgotten.
Then, one of the strangers stepped forward cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted “Fire!”
The badge on his lapel marked him out as a member of the Citizens’ Alliance, an anti-trades union organisation that supported and assisted the bosses’ efforts to break the strike.
The hall fell silent, but for only a second, and then the predictable panic started.
People rushed towards the only way out of the building, the steep staircase that led to the street. Screams filled the air.
Someone tripped, then another on top of them. All too soon a pile of tangled and twisted bodies filled the stairwell. The doors at the bottom appeared to be blocked.
There was no fire, there never had been, the shout was a cynical ploy, a tactic to cause just such a panic.
73 people died on the crush on the stairs, 60 of them were children. Many more were injured, some badly.
When the local leader of the WFM, Charles Moyer, sent urgent telegrams around the country demanding an investigation the local sheriff stood guard while the bosses’ thugs beat him up, shot and injured him and ran him out of town.
The local press were quick to praise the sheriff and the thugs.
Mourning strikers buried their dead. Simultaneous services were held in several churches. The long procession filed into the streets and walked to the cemetery on the edge of town.
Even as the tiny white childrens’ coffins were carried through the snowy streets the local coroner convened an inquest to start the official cover-up.
His job was to let the copper bosses and their strike-breakers off the hook and he did it well.
Witnesses who spoke only foreign languages were questioned in English and answers demanded in English. Evidence was accepted from paid informers who were not at the Hall and hadn’t seen what happened.
The official verdict was predictable. No one knew what happened at the Hall. No one knew who it was that had shouted “Fire!”
But, of course we do, those 73 people, those sixty children were murdered by the copper bosses, their paid lackeys and their unmitigated greed.
The very same copper bosses would frame Joe Hill on a murder charge and shoot him dead just two years later in Salt Lake City.
By April the strike was over. Of their three demands, the strikers earned their eight-hour workday and a three-dollar-a-day wage increase, but the mining company insisted on keeping the dangerous one-man-drills.
It would take many more years before mines of the Copper Country were totally unionised.
The WFM grew in strength and became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW-CIO). It took thirty years before it finally gained union recognition in the Calumet and Hecla mines in 1943.
Ironically Calumet & Hecla finally closed its mines in 1969 after failing to reach an agreement with striking miners.
The last mine in Copper Island closed in 1995. Today demand for copper from China has reawakened interest in the Michigan’s metal deposits. British company Rio Tinto is planning a new mine.
Exactly a hundred years later as we celebrate our own Christmas we need to take a moment to remember those children, women and men martyrs who lost their lives in the Italian Hall Massacre of Christmas Eve 1913.
They laid down their lives in the fight for trades union rights not just in the USA but in the whole world.
…and that fight still goes on today.
Communist balladeer Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the 1913 Italian Hall Massacre. Many others have recorded the song including Alex Campbell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, and Enoch Kent.
Bob Dylan so admired Guthrie and the song that he used Woody’s tune for the ‘Song to Woody’ he penned and recorded as a tribute to Guthrie himself.
This article was published in the Morning Star on Christmas Eve 2013.