‘Death’s Door’ & ‘The Seeberville Murders’
Review by A Covell
This year, 2014, saw the 30th anniversary of the year long 1984-85 miners strike. The strike was extremely hard for all striking miners and their families, but Christmas was bleaker than any other point throughout the strike. It marked mid winter, with no sign of things getting better. Most miners looked at the scabs who were sneaking back to work with the disgust and contempt they deserved, and the majority of striking miners stayed strong, refusing to join the flood of betrayal. Christmas is the hardest point in any strike, because the strikers see the pain their families are enduring. As Christmas 2014 approaches I remember Christmas 1984 and the kindness and generosity of other trade unionists who gave so that our kids could enjoy Christmas. At Christmas I also think back to a story about the struggle of the Michigan copper miners, told to me by my good friend Al Covell of Tucson, Arizona and the Michigan UP.
Michigan author Steve Lehto has produced two books about a strike as hard and controversial as our own 1984-85 strike, but this strike took place 70 years earlier, in the copper country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the USA. Although these events are so far removed from our own circumstances that it would at first glance appear to be of no relation, there are many similarities. Honest miners were victimised by the government, the law and the mine owners. A trained militia was brought in to antagonise and bully the miners, who stood firm against their tyranny throughout the strike. The media supported the mine owners, who paid them to spread their lies and propaganda, and the government changed old laws and brought in new ones in an effort to make the strike and the miners actions illegal.
However, even the arrogance of the Met and the lies and thuggery of the other British ‘police’ forces pale into insignificance when compared with the outright brutality which was dealt to the copper miners and their families on Christmas Eve 1913. Over seventy people, most of them miners’ children, were crushed to death in a stairway, after someone yelled ‘FIRE!’ at a party attended by the miners and their families. To this day the exact number of casualties is disputed, as is the cause of the tragedy. Lehto, a writer, attorney and professor of history who resides in southeast Michigan has been studying the case of the Italian Hall Disaster for many years. Using his research skills gained as a lawyer he has managed to piece together facts and witness accounts of the strike and the methods used by the mine owners to break it, even to the point of murder.
In ‘Death’s Door, The Truth Behind Michigan’s largest Mass Murder’ (2006) Lehto starts with a description of Calumet, in Michigan’s Northern Peninsula, in an area known as Keweenaw County. He then describes the events leading up to ‘The Italian Hall’ disaster, which he says is marked in Calumet by a simple sandstone arch, all that remains of the Italian Hall.
He says that on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1913 more than seven hundred people, mainly Finnish and Croatian miners and their families, and consisting of between 5 to 6 hundred children were packed in the local meeting hall, known as the Italian Hall. The party was being held on the upper floor of the two storey building, with many of the adults visiting the saloon which was on the lower floor. As with our own strike at Christmas 1984, charitable folks had donated simple gifts so that miners’ children would know the joy of receiving at least one present on what was supposed to be a joyous occasion for all. The inexpensive gifts of candy and suchlike were being handed out to the children in a tumultuous noise of happiness and celebration.
At some point in the afternoon a stranger entered the building and yelled ‘FIRE!’ Witnesses say they saw a man wearing a dark coat, with his hat pulled down to hide his face. However, most of the witnesses remember seeing a pin on his coat which bore red letters, reading ‘CITIZENS ALLIANCE’. After motioning and urging people for their attention, he then ran down the stairs and into the street.
At 4.45pm the fire alarm sounded and the fire brigade from one block away arrived at the scene. They entered the building using ladders and began moving people from the stairs. Many, mostly children, had already suffocated before this time. It took hours to remove the dead from the stairway. The children were laid on the tables where they had earlier been celebrating Christmas. Others were laid on the sidewalk outside the building. Miraculously, some were still alive, despite being buried in the crush, and they survived to give their accounts of the disaster for many years. At the end of that day over 62 children and 11 adults were dead.
After revealing the horror of the disaster to his readers, Lehto then delves into the events leading up to the disaster and discusses witness accounts of that tragic day. He tells us about the history of the Keweenaw region and that copper nuggets were discovered in the area by settlers in the mid 1800s. A new copper town called Red Jacket was formed, 10 miles from the city of Hancock. (Red Jacket was the name of a famous Native American.) A group of investors created the ‘Calumet Mining Company’ in Red Jacket and other investors came to the area to open another private mine in Hecla. Eventually the two companies became a single entity and were henceforth referred to as C&H. (Calumet & Hecla). Miners from all over the world, including British, Canadians, Italians, Austrians, Finns and Croats poured into the new town looking for work.
In 1901, James McNaughton was made Manager of C&H. He had worked for C&H from the age of 11 and later attended the University of Michigan. He was widely regarded as a blaggard and an embellisher, but was better known for his anti union stance. Under his management C&H had a policy of not hiring miners with union history. Lehto tells us that McNaughton hired spies and was prejudiced against the Finns, whom he referred to as ‘socialists’.
In 1903 the Italian Hall was built by the Italian Benevolent Society. C&H bought up all the surrounding land to provide miners with rented homes, while many other miners bought land from C&H to build their own homes. However, the leases were written in such long winded jargon that the non English speaking miners couldn’t understand that they gave C&H the rights to claim back any land and property for any reason they chose.
The private mine owners had little regard for safety and it was estimated that 5 out of every thousand miners lost their lives, whilst many more were seriously maimed or injured, so it was inevitable that by 1909 The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) established their presence in Calumet.
To counter the WFM union a group calling themselves, ‘The Citizens Alliance’, formed from local business men, was set up. Lehto tells us that in 1913 the first ballot was held by the WFM, at the same time as the Citizens Alliance were paying local newspapers to print positive reports concerning C&H. The ballot resulted in a ‘yes’ vote for strike action, so C&H hired James Waddell to create a private security / strike breaker force. State law at that time allowed Waddell to draft ‘deputy lawmen’. McNaughton requested state troopers, while Waddell pressurised the local sheriff to provide militia. McNaughton claimed that the union was using professional gunmen and that was his reason for arming his deputies. Throughout the strike the local papers, funded by C&H, described marches and parades held by striking miners’ as ‘violent’ and described miners as being violent and dangerous. When miners’ wives became involved in parades and demonstrations McNaughton called for scab labour to be recruited to operate the mines. The scabs were encamped on mine property, along with armed troops.
As tensions grew, first blood was spilled by the armed militia when four miners were shot and a baby was injured during a raid on a miner’s home. Waddel’s men had been sent to threaten the miners about using a shortcut which crossed mine property, but bullets were shot into the house, killing and injuring the unarmed miners’ families. Lehto’s second book on this subject ‘Shortcut, the Seeberville Murders’ (2011), goes into greater detail about this murder and the lies and covering up which took place afterward.
Waddel’s militia began the persecution of striking miners and many were arrested for shouting ‘Scab’ or even for pulling faces, while the local press continued their campaign of misinformation. On one occasion they claimed that a crowd of gunmen had fired upon a 14 year old girl, even though they were actually all unarmed.
In September 1913 an injunction was issued to make any sort of picketing illegal. The same judge, Judge O’Brien rescinded the order nine days later, but McNaughton used the mine itself as a plaintiff to appeal to the Michigan State Court and the order was reinstated, with an allowance for miners to attend peaceful meetings and parades. During the court proceedings it was revealed that only 4,000 miners had scabbed from the total of 14,500 miners in the region.
Steve Lehto tells us that Wadell began to import foreign workers who were unaware of the miners’ dispute. When they arrived at the mines they were kept there at gunpoint and treated like prisoners or slaves.
In October the mine owners began evicting striking miners from their homes, including the house occupied by the families of the Seeberville victims. Eventually a court order was made which prevented such action from being continued.
On December 6th, Judge O’Brien handed out suspended sentences to arrested miners, which infuriated the mine owners. That same night a hut full of non union Cornish miners were killed by high powered rifles. A local prosecutor said it was suspicious that those murdered were killed by the same type of weapons as those used by Waddell’s men.
In a similar manner to the British media during the miners’ strike of 1984, the Citizens Alliance began to produce a paper aimed at strikers who were ‘wavering’, urging them to return to work. All printing costs were met by McNaughton and C&H. A scab rally, organised and paid for by the same parties was held on December 10th. The WFA offices were ransacked and property stolen by rioting members of a Citizens Alliance meeting.
In 1984 a supposed newspaper referred to British striking miners as ‘scum of the earth’, for which reason many ex miners still refuse to purchase such rags. At a rally funded by the Citizens Alliance the WFA striking miners were described as ‘poisonous slime’ by one of the speakers.
In the 1984 strike, complaints against the police were investigated by other sections of the police force, which is why none were ever found in favour of the miners. In a startlingly similar way, a ‘Grand Jury’ was set up in December 1913 to investigate strike related crimes. The Citizens Alliance Grand jury included at least nine members of the Citizens Alliance, though some say it could have been as many as a dozen. County officials complained later that evidence which implicated Waddell’s men was excluded by the jury. Lehto says, ‘The Grand Jury should go down in history as one of the most twisted and misguided legal entities to sit in such a position. It did the bidding of the mines and attacked the strikers - regardless of whose side the law was on.’
Lehto describes how, on December 14th, the day after the tragic loss of lives at the Italian Hall, the local papers defended McNaughton’s men and blamed the miners themselves for the deaths. They changed the facts and misreported the events leading up to and after the tragedy. One point of contention, still argued about even today, was the way in which the doors at the bottom stairs opened. The papers said that the doors opened inwards and it was the people inside pressing against the doors which prevented them from opening. Photographs taken after the disaster clearly show this isn't the case, and that the doors were hinged to open outwards and into the streets. Witnesses said deputies outside the hall were armed with Billy clubs and prevented anyone from going near the doors to help the suffocating children. The newspapers sang their praises as heroes and for the following days they continually attacked the WMF and defended the mine owners.
Throughout the strike McNaughton had been in constant contact with his bosses in Boston. However, after the Italian Hall disaster all correspondence between McNaughton and his bosses from 18th – 24th December went missing.
Lehto goes into great detail in uncovering the deceit and corruption used against the miners of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His book ‘Death’s Door’ goes on to include witness statements, photographs of victims and strikers, the doors at the bottom of the stairs, and plans showing the layout of the Italian Hall, as well as newspaper clippings from the time of the tragedy. He discusses the lies made by authorities to lay the blame for the disaster at the feet of the miners themselves and the injustices suffered by them and their families afterward. Even today, there are many who argue the facts which Steve Lehto uncovers and lays bare for all to see. British miners will see this is a similarity to the way in which we, who were victims of police brutality in ’84, are told the ‘facts’ about our strike from people who weren’t there and who don’t have a clue.
In his second book ‘Shortcut, the Seeberville Murders’ (2011), Lehto expands on the evidence he uncovered regarding the Italian Hall Disaster and responds to questions and criticisms received from his first book, ‘Death’s Door’, whilst delving deeper into the truth about the murders in Seeberville and who should be held ultimately responsible.
The Italian Hall Disaster is a tragedy whose anniversary of 101 years falls in the same year as our own 30th anniversary. We will never forget the persecution we endured during the 1984-85 strike, when we were beaten into submission by our own government, who used our own police force as a political army. We will never forget the kindness of others, who saw the injustice of the treatment being handed out to miners and their families. Nor will we ever forget those who lost their lives during the strike.
The Michigan copper miners' strike may have happened over a century ago and over 3,000 miles away, but it is a reminder of how far unfettered government controlled thugs will go to appease their masters, and how cowardly and afraid they are when workers stand together in defiance.
Lehto S. (2006) Death’s Door, Troy Michigan, Momentum Books
Lehto S. (2011) The Seeberville Murders and the Dark Side of the American Dream, Charleston SC,
See more information and photographs on Wikipedia: The Italian Hall Disaster