Michigan’s Forgotten Christmas Eve Massacre

On Christmas Eve in 1913, a pitched battle between organized labor and the mining barons of northern Michigan climaxed in the gruesome deaths of over 70 union supporters and their children. The 1913 Massacre struck a debilitating blow to the region’s labor movement and changed the Upper Peninsula forever. But it’s been largely forgotten in popular consciousness.

Children of Copper County miners marching in support of the strike in Calumet, Michigan, 1913. (Wystan / Flickr)

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Finnish immigrants whose descendants still make up the plurality of its inhabitants aren’t the first things that come to mind when thinking about American labor history – or anything else, for that matter.

The “UP” occupies a marginal position in the national imagination. Sandwiched between three different Great Lakes, it covers one-third of the state’s landmass but boasts only 3 percent of its population. Its largest city, Marquette, has just twenty thousand residents. Cartographers sometimes mistakenly depict the peninsula as part of Wisconsin — or leave it off the map entirely.

One of the rustier segments of the Rust Belt, the Upper Peninsula has struggled to provide its residents with decent jobs ever since mining and manufacturing dwindled after World War II. Its main industries are now tourism and lumber, and the lure of more opportunities “downstate” prompts many young people to leave the region. Mirroring most of rural America, the UP also tends to be solidly Republican — fourteen of its fifteen counties went for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

It wasn’t always this way. A hundred years ago, the UP was home to a vibrant left rooted in the immigrant communities that made up the bulk of its working class. Particularly around the mines of Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula known as Copper Country, organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America published newspapers, ran cooperative stores and meeting halls, and fought tirelessly against the powerful interests who did their utmost to maintain control over the mines and the people working in them.

Long forgotten beyond narrow circles of labor historians, the decline of socialism in the Upper Peninsula was inextricably tied to one harrowing episode later immortalized in Woody Guthrie’s ballad, “1913 Massacre“: the so-called “Italian Hall disaster” of 1913, when a Christmas Eve celebration held for striking workers and their families in Calumet, Michigan ended in a deadly stampede.

Historians Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings once described the event as a “macabre exclamation point on an especially violent time in American labor history” — one that deserves to be remembered for both the brutality bosses displayed in breaking the labor movement, and the bravery of the working men and women who fought until the end.

The Company Towns of Copper Country

The flowering of a mass socialist movement in this isolated part of the country is inseparable from the region’s mining industry, which took root soon after the largest pure copper deposits in the world were discovered on the Keweenaw in 1841. Reports of the metal literally lying on the ground sparked a mining rush, and by the late 1840s Michigan was the country’s biggest producer of copper — in high demand as electricity swept into American businesses and households.

Map of the Keewenaw Peninsula. (Wikimedia Commons)

There was a lot of money to be made for the capitalists who bought land in the UP, but only if they could get the metal out of the ground. This was easier said than done, for the Copper Country had neither a settled population nor any infrastructure to speak of. It was not yet accessible by train, and winters, which could last up to six months, brought frigid temperatures and severe snowstorms that left residents trapped for days.

To bridge the gap, big mining conglomerates like the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company dispatched recruiters to hire European immigrants who were unfamiliar with the harsh conditions in the UP and willing to work for less than their native-born counterparts. The first wave consisted of skilled miners from the Cornish diaspora, who left England as the local mining industry declined and jobs grew scarce. They were followed by Germans, Italians, Finns, and “Austrians” — Croatians and Slovenians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The UP’s population more than doubled every decade from 1850 to 1900, as this multiethnic working class turned the Copper Country’s scattered, ramshackle settlements into a well-connected network of small cities stretching sixty miles from Copper Harbor in the north to South Range and Chassell in the south.

Believing that married men made for more reliable workers, the mining companies built single-family houses, hospitals, libraries, theaters, schools, and all kinds of company-owned stores to attract families to the area. Communities like Hancock, Ahmeek, and Calumet were classic company towns, owned and operated by the capitalists that built them. Local government, press, and police were also in the pocket of the mining companies.

Management depicted this as a mutually beneficial arrangement, but for workers it meant that most of their wages went back to the company in the form of rent and groceries. Company towns also gave capital a decisive advantage in the class struggle, as workers who made trouble could be evicted from their homes and placed on industry blacklists.

Ethnic Solidarity and Industrial Unionism

Mining has always been a tough job, and the Copper Country was no exception. Workers went underground for eleven or twelve hours for little more than two dollars per day, while mine operators like Calumet and Hecla’s James MacNaughton pulled down an annual salary of a hundred twenty thousand dollars (the equivalent of over three million dollars today). Cave-ins were rare, as the mineshafts were dug into solid rock, but getting crushed by a thousand-pound boulder was a fairly common occurrence, as was being electrocuted or mangled by tramway wagons.

In 1911, sixty miners died on the job — more than one per week.

Sanitary conditions were medieval. Lighting and ventilation was poor to nonexistent, and only the cleanest mines provided workers with a bucket to defecate in. Once, when a federal inspector inquired about the sanitary conditions in the Copper Range Company mines, a company official responded, “There are no sanitary regulations beyond requiring levels to be cleaned up from time to time.”

Miners riding on a tramway wagon in a Copper Country mine, early 1990s. (Up North Memories / Flickr)

The combination of geographic isolation and company intimidation may have placed organized labor at a disadvantage in the Copper Country, but class struggle was never far from northern Michigan’s mining ranges. One of the first labor disturbances occurred in 1872, reportedly instigated by organizers from the International Workingmen’s Association. A major strike broke out on the Marquette Iron Range east of Copper Country in the summer of 1895, shutting down production for over two months.

Mine owners eventually granted shorter working days and higher pay to end the strike, but refused to recognize the union — a sticking point that would spark conflict after conflict in the years to come.

Without a union pension to fall back on, most Copper County workers resorted to mutual aid societies based on shared language and ethnicity. These organizations organized financial support for unemployed workers and widows, and offered cash-strapped families a place to socialize and enjoy what little free time they had with dances, lectures, and other events. Set adrift in a new country with no welfare state and a weak labor movement, for many immigrants these associations were the only thing they could count on in the harsh reality of American working-class life.

German and Swedish immigrants had established the first such societies in the early 1860s. Immigrants from Southern Europe followed suit several decades later, founding organizations like the Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, which rented space in its headquarters, Calumet’s Italian Hall, to the local chapter of the South Slav Socialist Federation and its weekly paper, Hrvatski Radnik. Particularly noteworthy was the Työmies Publishing Company in Hancock, ten miles south of Calumet, which published the Finnish-language daily Työmies alongside the English-language Wage Slave.

Finns migrated to the UP in droves beginning in the 1880s and constituted its largest immigrant group by the early 1900s. According to historians, no immigrant group in early twentieth-century America counted as many socialists among its ranks as the Finns, who were derided by the UP’s right-wing newspapers as “Red Finns” and “jack pine savages.” Their cooperative stores and meeting halls, such as Kansankoti Hall in Hancock, where the Työmies Publishing Company had its headquarters, served as organizing hubs for workers of all ethnicities.

While new immigrants performed the bulk of the labor in the mines, skilled positions and management roles were allocated almost exclusively to men of German and Cornish ancestry. Management used this hierarchy to its advantage, pitting second- and third-generation immigrants against their newly arrived counterparts and blaming labor unrest on impressionable “foreigners” duped by nefarious union organizers.

Anna Clemenc, “America’s Joan of Arc.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Copper Country socialists sought to overcome these divisions by organizing in a number of languages and bringing workers together at union events despite linguistic and cultural differences. A meeting of the Calumet Miners’ Union in June 1913, for example, was attended by over two thousand workers and included speeches in “English, Italian, Finnish, Croatian and Hungarian.”

When the Western Federation of Miners began moving into the Upper Peninsula in 1908, its group of crack organizers included a number of Finns like John Välimäki and Helmer Mikko, but also incorporated people like Teofilo Petriella, who edited an Italian-language socialist newspaper in Calumet called La Sentinella, or Anna Clemenc, president of the Slovene National Benefit Society and known among local union supporters as “America’s Joan of Arc.”

Talking Union

Founded in 1893, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had cut its teeth on a series of hard-fought battles for union recognition in the mining ranges of Colorado, Montana, and Utah. These fights were part of a broader intensification of class struggle across the United States, which no doubt also influenced workers in the Copper Country, where the Finnish Socialist Federation and other left-wing organizations were significant players in working-class life. Though the mines were still union-free, workers in other Copper Country industries were increasingly launching organizing drives — and winning.

Buoyed by its success in the West and confident that the miners of Copper Country would be drawn to the prospect of a unified, coordinated strike, WFM organizers began preparing the ground in 1912. They identified four key grievances: low wages, unsafe working conditions, the introduction of a new one-man drill that risked miners’ lives and eliminated jobs, and — most importantly — the employers’ refusal to recognize the union.

Labor parades and rallies took place throughout the spring of 1913. Työmies reported on a rally of three thousand “wage slaves” from the Calumet and Hecla mines on June 10. Only two days prior, thousands of workers had marched through downtown in a mass rally organized by the Calumet Miners’ Union.

Miners and their families pose in front of union headquarters in Calumet. (Wystan / Flickr)

Charles Lawton, general manager of the nearby Quincy Mine, wrote on June 18 that “Many of our best men have joined the Western Federation, and at times are brought into joining with and listening to the socialists.” Two weeks later, things had grown critical: “I am again very much concerned over the present labor situation.… The temper of the Finnish employees today is unprecedented in all of my experience, and is almost unbearable.” His colleague MacNaughton is alleged to have sworn that “grass will grow in the streets before C&H recognizes the union.”

Later that month the WFM submitted its final ultimatum: recognize the union and open negotiations over its demands, or face an indefinite labor stoppage. Lawton allegedly returned his letter unopened, and on July 23 the Western Federation of Miners called for a strike across Copper Country. Government reports from the time describe hundreds of strikers, armed with sticks, stones, and metal bars threatening workers who tried to enter the mines. By the end of the month Työmies reported that 18,460 miners were on strike — more than twice the number of union members in the area.

Miners on parade in Calumet during the strike. (Wystan / Flickr)

The initial weeks of the strike were by most accounts an uplifting affair for the miners of Copper Country. Workers marched through town on a near-daily basis to drum up support and boost morale. Local chapters of the Socialist Party held picnics and rallies to raise money for the strike fund, while solidarity messages and donations poured in from unions across the country.

Leading lights of the American labor movement visited to express their support. Mother Jones, the “miner’s angel,” spoke at a mass rally in Calumet in early August and beseeched strikers to “be men, my sons, then you will make the mine bosses humble.” WFM president Charles Moyer also came to the Copper Country, as did famed labor activist Ella Reeve Bloor, whose account of the massacre on Christmas Eve would later inspire Woody Guthrie’s ballad.

The optimism these men and women must have felt was captured in a song, “The Federation Call,” penned for the occasion by a local worker named John Sullivan and published in the pro-union newspaper, Miners Bulletin:

The Copper Country union men are out upon a strike,

Resisting corporation rule which robs us of our rights.

The victory is all but won in this noble fight

For recognition of the union.


Hurrah, hurrah for the Copper Country strike

Hurrah, hurrah our cause is just and right.

Freedom from oppression is our motto in this fight

For recognition of the union.

The Massacre

Contrary to the miners’ hopes, victory was far from “won” in the summer of 1913. The companies adopted a two-fold strategy of intimidating the strikers with violence and waiting for the harsh Keweenaw winter to break their will. Within weeks, mine owners convinced the state government to send in the National Guard.

Though ostensibly there to keep the peace, these “Michigan Cossacks,” as the Finnish press described them, broke up strike meetings and harassed picketers. When that was not enough, the bosses recruited “gun hounds” from union-busting firms like the Berghoff and Waddell detective agency to spy on workers and, as the strike dragged on, raid union offices and attack or even kill strikers.

Yet if capital had the army and hired guns from Chicago and New York, labor had an equally powerful weapon in community solidarity. Anna Clemenc founded a Calumet chapter of the WFM Women’s Auxiliary in September 1913, marching at the head of parades and organizing groups of women to harass scabs as they entered the mines. Clemenc herself was arrested three times over the course of the strike, along with dozens of other women in the so-called “Broom Brigade” who regularly attacked strikebreakers and police with brooms and other household items.

Miners on parade in Calumet during the strike, October 12, 1913. (Wystan / Flickr)

Nevertheless, as winter approached, strike funds began to dwindle and enthusiasm among the strikers was flagging. The WFM responded by setting up a series of “Union Stores” selling basic staples on a coupon system, and began organizing dances and other indoor entertainment. Fronts were hardening on both sides: the union refused to back down, and the mine owners grew increasingly aggressive in their tactics, arming local merchants’ union opponents into a “Citizen’s Alliance” whose anti-labor rallies and publications struck increasingly violent tones.

It was in this atmosphere that the Women’s Auxiliary decided to organize a Christmas party on December 24, 1913 for striking families and their children. Presents had been donated by organizations around the country and were to be distributed at a celebration in the Italian Hall, the center of the socialist movement in Calumet and long a target of the Citizens’ Alliance’s ire.

After five grueling months on strike, the party was a brief but welcome respite from a labor struggle that many still thought they could win. Instead, it would mark the beginning of their long defeat.

The Italian Hall in Calumet. (Wystan / Flickr)

The party was quite the affair, with contemporary reports suggesting over five hundred residents in attendance. Anna Clemenc was one of the main organizers and told stories to the children on the main stage. Some parents dropped their kids off and went for a drink in the bar on the ground floor, while others joined the Christmas festivities.

What happened next will never be fully known, but according to the majority of eyewitnesses, a man wearing a Citizens’ Alliance button walked into the party in the early evening and shouted “Fire!” several times before slipping away. In the minutes that followed, hundreds of guests lunged for the narrow stairwell leading to the exit. According to some accounts, unidentified men laid objects on the stairs to obstruct the way. Others claimed that police and Citizens’ Alliance members stood outside the building and held the front doors shut.

Bodies began piling up on the stairwell as panicked partygoers tripped over each other, fell down, and added to the writhing, suffocating mass. After the dust settled and rescuers removed the bodies one by one, between seventy-two and seventy-five had died, including fifty-nine children. There was no fire.

The Aftermath

Though modern-day accounts of the massacre often characterize it as a “disaster” or “tragedy,” for the Left in Copper Country it was clearly an orchestrated assault designed to break the strike. This view is backed up by the sequence of events that followed.

WFM president Moyer sought to assert leadership in the situation, blaming the Citizens’ Alliance for the massacre and doing his best to rally the workers around the union. Almost as if part of a plan, while Moyer was negotiating with mining company lawyers two days later, an angry mob stormed into the room, shot and beat him to within an inch of his life, and “deported” him out of the Copper Country by throwing him onto a train headed for Chicago.

Työmies broke the story of what transpired in the Italian Hall with the headline “83 MURDERED!” on December 26. The Miners Bulletin and other pro-union publications echoed that sentiment over the coming days, publishing account after account that men from the Citizens’ Alliance, assisted by local police, had both caused the panic and prevented bystanders from intervening.

After printing sworn testimonies that named the specific individuals involved, the editor and several staff of Työmies were thrown in jail on charges of sedition on December 27. Rather than investigate the detective agencies and strikebreakers who were almost certainly behind the disaster, the authorities appeared keen to exploit the commotion to mop up the troublesome union whom they blamed for all of the trouble in town.

Mourners of the victims of the Italian Hall disaster gather before a mass grave, December 28, 1913. (Wystan / Flickr)

The official investigation into the disaster was a lackluster affair. Local prosecutors ignored the many eyewitness accounts that implicated the company and instead suggested that the disaster had been caused by the children themselves.

Though no one could deny that someone had shouted “Fire!”, it was speculated that it had been committed by a local drunk in the bar downstairs, rather than by a Citizens’ Alliance member. A federal investigation in early 1914 recorded a number of testimonies from union sympathizers, and the search for the man who shouted “Fire!” went on for months, but no arrests were ever made.

The End of an Era

The funeral procession held for the victims on December 28 was by all accounts a moving affair. Though the WFM-produced film of the day has unfortunately been lost to history, we know from surviving reports that 5,000 people marched and upwards of 20,000 attended, including hundreds of miners from across the UP.

The entire event was funded by the union, and the Citizens’ Alliance and other anti-labor organizations were explicitly barred from contributing. This somber event, sparked by a devastating tragedy, was likely also the largest gathering of organized labor in the Copper Country’s history.

The Copper County Strike limped on for several more months, but momentum was now on the employers’ side. Clemenc fell ill in January, and when she recovered she went on a national speaking tour with Ella Bloor, robbing the strike of two of its most talented agitators. Moyer had been threatened with death should he ever return to the Keweenaw, and also stayed away.

The funeral procession for the victims of the Italian Hall disaster, December 28, 1913. (Wystan / Flickr)

By January eight thousand men had already gone back to work, and as winter faded into spring it was clear that the strikers could not hold out much longer. The mining companies made overtures to the workers who were still hanging on, offering an eight-hour day and improved wages on the condition that they give up their WFM cards. Finally, on April 14, an overwhelming majority voted to return to work, thereby ending the strike without winning recognition for their union.

The trauma of Christmas Eve combined with such a bitter defeat was too much for many. No statistics on the ensuing exodus have survived, but hundreds of families left the area after 1914, seeking better wages and a less hostile climate in the manufacturing centers of the Midwest. The Työmies Publishing Company relocated to Superior, Wisconsin, and went on to become the Finnish section of the Communist Party USA. Anna Clemenc moved to Chicago, where she lived a quiet life away from labor organizing.

Back in the Copper Country, groups like the Citizens’ Alliance and the newly founded Anti-Socialist League consolidated their hold over local politics, while the events of that Christmas Eve were suppressed in public memory for decades.

The Italian Hall was torn down in 1984 — ostensibly because renovating it would have been too expensive, but some allege it was also a political move, an attempt to extinguish the memory of that particularly brutal episode in the town’s history.

Today, all that remains is the building’s doorway arch and a plaque donated by the AFL-CIO bearing the Mother Jones quote, “Mourn the dead, fight for the living.”