Christmas Stampedes: Then and Now

If not for the simple, somber song lyrics of folk singer Woody Guthrie, the tragic deaths that occurred exactly ninety-five years ago on Christmas Eve in Calumet, Michigan might have faded into historical oblivion. On that fateful day, striking copper miners gathered with their families on the second floor of the Italian Hall in the small town of Red Jacket for a Christmas party sponsored by the Western Federation of Miners, when someone yelled, “fire, fire, fire!” into the crowd. A chaotic stampede ensued where seventy-three people tragically died trying to file out of the sole staircase that lead to the exit doors of the first floor. Of those who lost their lives being suffocated and trampled on, sixty-two of which were children. There was no fire.

Prior to the mayhem wrought upon the holiday gathering of families at Italian Hall, copper miners in Michigan had been seeking the right to an eight-hour day, living wages and union recognition. Organized by the WFM, miners authorized a strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company in the summer of 1913 to achieve necessary improvements in their daily working conditions. During the duration of their months long strike an organization known as the Citizens’ Alliance came into existence in the month before the massacre. As historian Phillip S. Foner noted in his history of the labor movement in the United States, the Alliance was comprised of pro-copper boss merchants who desired to see Calumet rid of unionism. Many miners on strike at the time viewed the Christmas Eve disaster at Italian Hall as a principle means to that end.

Of course, the identity of the criminally culpable person who sent the hall crowded with hundreds of people into a panic might never be known by history, thanks in part to the lackadaisical investigative efforts of the authorities. The anti-strike, anti-union Citizens’ Alliance was publicly implicated, however, by WFM leader Charles Moyer as well as by the editors of the Finnish language newspaper Tyomies (The Worker) In this case, the authorities acted much more judiciously in arresting the staffers of the paper and effectively shut down its operations for its proclamation. Moyer, for his part, was reportedly beaten, shot, and forced out of town in retaliation though no one was ever held responsible for that assault either.

Despite the assailant of Italian Hall escaping justice, Woody Guthrie, in an effort to ensure that the history of the miners and their families would live on, penned the song “1913 Massacre,” in 1941. In capturing the scene of the somber mass funeral for the victims, Guthrie sang “The piano played a slow funeral tune /And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon /The parents they cried and the miners they moaned / “See what your greed for money has done.” When the news of what had happened at Italian Hall reached the nation, sympathy increased for the miners on strike, as did contributions. However, the devastation of the massacre proved to be a fatal blow to the strike and a subsequent lack of funds from supporting unions spelled the end of the efforts of copper miners struggle to attain union recognition.

It wouldn’t be until 1943 when the Calumet and Hecla Mines finally recognized the unionism of their workers. However, another Christmas stampede this year illustrates how the struggles for workplace rights continue into the 21st century. On November 28th, known as “Black Friday,” when people seek sales on what is regarded as the first day of the Christmas shopping season, a temporary Wal-Mart employee, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death in the early morning hours by frenzied shoppers. A crowd had gathered for hours outside the store’s Green Acres Mall location in Long Island, New York, when the doors shattered open under the pressure of the mass of people before the scheduled 5 a.m. opening. Damour fell under the weight of the crowd and died of asphyxiation. According to medical examinations, it was confirmed that, at 6’5″ 270 pounds, he was stepped on by hundreds of people too hurried to care. For this Christmas stampede, no one had to yell “fire!” The enticement of the sale was sufficient.

Aside from the obvious and disturbing statement on consumer culture in the U.S., the fatal “Black Friday” incident also calls Wal-Mart into question. Indeed the family of Damour has already filed a wrongful lawsuit against the mega-corporation. Lawyers representing them say that his death was entirely preventable and that the retail giant should have provided more security. The suit goes on to argue that Wal-Mart created, through their advertising campaigns, the atmosphere that led to the frenzy of the crowds gathered outside its doors. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500, of New York, has joined in the criticism of the corporation as well and has called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the stampede.

Also agreeing that Damour’s death was needless were labor activists who demonstrated this past Sunday outside the Long Island store where he lost his life nearly a month ago. Those on hand, including members of New York’s Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, argued that the corporation, whose retail sales topple 250 billion dollars annually, could have averted the tragedy by properly training employees like Damour. Of course, Wal-Mart has achieved profit ascendancy, in part, by deterring the unionization efforts of its workers much like the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company nearly one hundred years ago. Woody Guthrie’s guitar ensured that the history of the Italian Hall Massacre would not be completely consigned into the collective historical amnesia of the U.S. This Christmas, who will pen the song of Jdimytai Damour?

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