- Historic Sites
The Calumet Tragedy
When copper-country miners went on strike, the owners brought thugs from the slums of New York to northern Michigan. The struggle led to an event that killed a city.
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Dozens of telegrams began arriving in the state capital, mostly from members of the pro-company Copper Country Commercial Club. It was an obviouslyorchestrated campaign, but in an age when distance made accurate and complete communication difficult, it was also effective. In one telegram, J. W. Black, a leading Calumet businessman, said that the region was in the hands of a mob of five hundred men and pleaded for state help. The telegram from Houghton County’s sheriff, James Cruse, was even more urgent: “Situation here has become desperate … ,” he wired the day after the strike began. “Immediate action on your part is the only thing that will prevent greater destruction of property and loss of life.”
The National Guard arrived first, and then came the hired guns from New York.
At that point the damage consisted of a couple of flooded mine shafts and some broken windows, and the only injuries were bruised ribs and some cuts and abrasions. But Woodbridge Ferris, Michigan’s governor, believed the worst, and he reacted immediately with the most powerful tool at his disposal. He mobilized the entire twenty-five-hundred-man Michigan National Guard and ordered it to the copper country. The militia set up tents everywhere, in front of the mines, on Calumet street corners, in parks, and on church lawns.
The Guard was to help maintain order and protect property, not to take sides. Governor Ferris made it clear: The soldiers were not to act as a police force. For that, Sheriff Cruse brought in some other outsiders. Although the sheriff had deputized a part-time force of one hundred and fifty local citizens, he relied primarily on the talents of a New York detective agency. The Waddell-Mahon Company, which specialized in supplying strikebreakers in labor disputes, had actually been hired two weeks before the strike began.
Sheriff Cruse, sensing the coming trouble, received secret authorization from his county board of commissioners—James MacNaughton among them—to import fifty-two agents from the firm. The Waddell men, recruited from the tenements of New York, were dubbed “secret service” operatives by the sheriff; they were given carte blanche authority and openly carried guns.
Their presence in Calumet immediately hardened the strikers. The union described the Waddell agents as “strong arm men, thugs and murderers.” They were easy to spot, said the federation’s strike newspaper: “They are tall, muscular men of the prize fighter variety.” Walter Palmer, sent to investigate the situation for the U.S. Labor Department, was more to the point. “These Waddell men I have seen are about the toughest looking lot 1 ever saw,” he reported. Governor Ferris, who didn’t learn of their involvement until the strike was well under way, wasn’t happy with the strike-breaking firm either. “I don’t like the presence of the Waddell men in the strike region,” he wrote the sheriff on August 13. “In my judgement, there is the prospect of serious trouble because of the importation of strike breakers or hired police.” But Sheriff Cruse kept them there.
The Waddell men stopped miners at random and beat them. They invaded homes without warrants in the middle of the night, terrorizing entire families. Every day dozens of strikers were hauled off to jail, charged with intimidation, trespassing, and assault. In all, more than five hundred people were arrested, almost all of them striking miners.
On August 15 two deputies and four Waddell agents visited a boardinghouse in Painesdale, just outside Calumet. They were there ostensibly to arrest a pair of strikers who, in defiance of a deputy’s order, had earlier walked across mine property on their way home. The men, as later investigation revealed, had not trespassed with any criminal intent; they were simply taking their customary shortcut home.
In front of the ramshackle wooden building, the Waddell men encountered the two strikers. A struggle ensued and the strikers fled inside. The Waddell men and the deputies surrounded the house and began firing indiscriminately through the door and windows. When the shooting died down, two men had been killed, another wounded, and a baby in her mother’s arms had been grazed. The strikers called the killings murder, and the local prosecutor, Anthony Lucas, agreed. Warrants were issued for the six law officers, but Sheriff Cruse allowed the men to escape to an adjoining county. Four of the six were eventually tried and found guilty of manslaughter, but that did not happen until the next year, and then only after the sheriff used more obstruction and defiance to keep them from coming to justice.