Thursday, January 8, 2015

Death's Door

Steve Lehto, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913, (Detroit: Momentum Books, 1913) second edition, 397 pages

Steve Lehto first published Death’s Door in 2006. It includes a detailed account and review of evidence from a panic at a Christmas Eve party attended by children and parents of striking copper miners in Keweenaw, Michigan. The panic that took place on the second floor of Italian Hall in Calumet resulted in the death of 73, mostly children. The title Death’s Door derives from the pileup and suffocation of victims toward the bottom of the stairwell in front of the exit door. The book includes narrative history of the Keweenaw copper strike of 1913-14, which is necessary to understand the events at Italian Hall and the claims and charges in the aftermath.

The second edition published in 2013 added new material as the hundredth anniversary of the strike approached. It takes up old controversies that still remain and some new ones that recently surfaced in other books and accounts.

The discussion of the Christmas party comes as a brief version of events in the Introduction, then again in more detail in a chapter also titled Death’s Door, actually Chapter 7, although the book’s sixteen chapters are not numbered. The next chapter narrates several days after and the short chapter fifteen titled “What Actually Happened” provides further discussion and Lehto’s conclusions about the panic at Death’s Door.

The Western Federation of Miners strike in the copper mines of Keweenaw began July 22, 1913 and did not end until April 1914. Sketches of the local community, the mining companies and business groups, the union, and some biographical material of general managers, and other officials fill chapter 2. Chapter 3 narrates the strike from the beginning into mid August, a period that included picketing and parades, the governor mobilizing the National Guard, and the county sheriff deputizing hundreds of strike breakers and vigilantes. The rest of the events of the strike including Italian Hall are scattered in chapters four through ten.

Narrative in the first ten chapters takes several detours to examine specific events that occurred during the strike. For example, chapter four takes sixty pages to discuss the legal record in a brutal attack and shootings by private detectives and sheriffs deputies that occurred August 14 at a boardinghouse full of miners in Seeberville. Discussion of the Seeberville shootings and other violent events like the Italian Hall panic benefit from Lehto’s experience as a Michigan attorney. In each of several other episodes and the Italian Hall panic he reviews and evaluates the legal evidence with a microscope: arrest warrants, transcripts of testimony of preliminary examinations, coroner’s inquests, and trials.

After the hardships of nearly six months on strike miners planned a large Christmas Eve Party at Italian hall for union members and their families. After the party was well underway a man entered the hall, climbed the stairs and shouted “fire” into a room stuffed with 700 hundred people, which caused the panic and death already mentioned. Accounts of what happened varied dramatically depending on who told the story. Striking miners identified the man from a business group known as the Citizens Alliance; mining companies and the newspapers had other stories and supplied other explanations.

Chapter 8 has a thorough review of newspaper reports; chapter 9 covers the archival record of officials like the county sheriff, his deputies, the prosecutor and coroner; and chapter 10 reviews testimony at hearings of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee sent to Keweenaw to investigate the strike and Italian Hall. Transcripts of official proceedings, especially the coroner’s inquest remain, which allows an evaluation of established legal procedures with the record of events that took place in 1913.

Lehto concludes the misconduct of mine owners with their cozy relationships with law enforcement officers and government officials made them co-conspirators and accomplices to crimes. He writes a strikebreaker named Edward Manley entered Italian hall, cried “fire” and ran out. While it is likely that Manley only wanted to create a disturbance and disrupt miner solidarity, his intentional actions killed 73 people.

Lehto’s views in the first edition published in 2006 got more controversial as the 100th anniversary approached and other accounts and views were discussed and published. More recent explanations have cast the mine owners in a more benevolent light suggesting what occurred at Italian Hall was a tragic accident the cause of which cannot be solved. The remaining six chapters address these controversies as individual topics.

Chapter 11, entitled Lingering Controversies, challenges five of the revisionist views such as the suggestion the exit doors opened inward and that was a cause of the tragedy. Italian Hall was torn down in 1984 and the State of Michigan authorized an historical marker at the site dedicated in November 1989, which allowed these revisionist views, but there are other points in contention reviewed in this chapter.

In the next chapter readers find out about a 2012 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council to Michigan Technological University in Keweenaw to create an exhibit on the strike entitled, Tumult and Tragedy. The authors of Tumult and Tragedy also published a revisionist book about the strike and the Italian Hall panic entitled, Community in Conflict. In the book they specifically attack Lehto’s work and so he devoted a chapter to review their book and reply to these attacks.

A few more short chapters reiterate conclusions to finish the book. The book reads as a mixture of historical narrative, legal analysis and journalism. The writing flows along easily, but the material does not always follow an obvious line of organization and so it sometimes feels jumbled. One aside, Lehto started over a hundred sentences with the word, interestingly, which got to be an amusing bit of surplusage. An insert of 36 pages of pictures and drawings of the floor plans of the Italian Hall adds a significant benefit to the book. It does not have numbered footnotes but a list of unnumbered footnotes at the end organized only by chapter heading, which makes it harder to find citations. There is no index, a serious shortcoming in my view.

The period of 1910 to early 1920’s is a period of vicious and violent attacks on organized labor throughout the United States and especially the Western Federation of Miners. WFM president Charles Moyer had a long career as a labor organizer in the western United States when he arrived to help in the Keweenaw strike. Out west he was frequently attacked, beaten, kidnapped and once acquitted in a long murder trial in Idaho that resulted from perjured testimony.

He arrived in Calumet at the time of the Christmas Eve party. After the Citizens Alliance decided to donate funds to families of victims of Italian Hall, the families and union President Moyer refused the money as inappropriate given events of the strike. Alliance members were enraged and the county sheriff and several Alliance members confronted Moyer at his hotel room. When he again refused their money they threatened him. The sheriff left but within minutes twenty men bashed down his door and physically attacked him. During the beating a hand gun went off and the bullet hit Moyer in the shoulder. Wounded and bleeding the gang dragged him to the train station and forcibly deported him to Chicago; no one was ever prosecuted.

The Moyer shooting and kidnapping and other shootings during the strike were committed by men paid by the mine owners. All of those killed were strikers. These known and admitted facts in the case along with Lehto’s careful examination of the written evidence refute the revisionist views. The Keweenaw copper strike was like strikes all over the country where organized labor and the working class struggled in divided communities to cope with the bitter opposition of business and their supporters among the well-to-do and middle class. Be assured Death’s Door is the definitive source for the Keweenaw copper strike of 1913.

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