The Calumet Tragedy

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The Christmas party was held in the Italian Hall, a large, two-story wooden building a block away from the fire station. Its lower floor housed an Atlantic and Pacific grocery store and a saloon, but upstairs, at the top of an eight-foot-wide stairway, was a ballroom, complete with a balcony, a stage, and a small kitchen.

People began arriving shortly after noon on December 24. By two o’clock more than five hundred had crowded into the hall, most pressed around the stage where Big Annie and several other ladies were helping Santa Claus distribute sacks of candy to the children.

Someone yelled, “Fire!”

But there was no fire.

Of the seventy witnesses who testified at the official inquest, eighteen said they heard someone shout. “Fire!” Of those, nine said they actually saw the man who sounded the alarm. And six of the nine testified that he was wearing a white button believed to be the insignia of the pro-company Citizens Alliance.

Mary Coscalla from Wolverine was one of the most reliable witnesses. She had come to the party with her twelve-year-old daughter and her brother-in-law’s three children. Mrs. Coscalla’s husband wasn’t a union member and she was not a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the strike, but her daughter wanted to go to the party that day. So, using a union card borrowed from her brother-in-law, she made her way into the packed hall. She was visiting with neighbors, standing in front of the stage and facing the door that led into the ballroom from the stairway.

 

“The way it started,” she told the inquest jury, “a man came to the door and he hollered fire and everyone started to rush.” She described him as a “dark man with dark mustache. A broad fellow dressed up neat.” He wore a cap, and the high collar on his dark overcoat was turned up. He also was wearing a button. “It was a white button but I can’t swear what button it was. He was not near enough to read it.”

The man hollered, “Fire,” Mrs. Coscalla said, and then, “Rush,” spreading open his arms in a gesture to run. She wasn’t sure what happened to him in the confusion that followed.

There was instant panic. The crowd surged toward the stairwell.

Mrs. Coscalla grabbed her daughter to keep her from being swept up in the rush for the exit. She was unable to stop a neighbor woman. “I told her not to go and she went and she died in there.”

Another witness was John Burcar, the thirteen-year-old son of a striker from the nearby village of Kearsage. The boy had a headache and was making his way from the stage to a side window for a breath of fresh air. He almost bumped into the man in the long overcoat.

“What attracted your attention to him?” asked the coroner, William Fisher.

“The Citizens Alliance pin he had on,” replied the young witness.

“What did he say?”

“He hollered, ‘Fire.’ ”

Mrs. Theresa Kaisor was standing at the edge of the stage, helping Big Annie Clemenec distribute gifts, when the false alarm was shouted. Mrs. Kaisor said she jumped down and ran up to the man, shaking him by the shoulders.

“What are you saying? There is no fire.”

“Go out. There is a fire,” the man replied.

Unable to turn back the crowd, Mrs. Kaiser inched her way back toward the stage, twisting through the press of people. As she pulled herself up on the stage, she heard screams and sobs and shouts from the stairway. She sat down at the piano and began to play, hoping to calm the crowd.

At the bottom of the stairs, rescuers found bodies piled five feet high.

John Auno, a miner from Tamarack, was standing at the top of the landing, visiting with several other striking union members, when he heard a man’s voice shout, “Fire!” from inside the hall. He turned to look and was immediately caught up in the rush. “They all started to come out,” he said. “Some of them went rolling down and some were running down over them. I fell myself.” Auno was pushed all the way down to the bottom of the stairs and knocked unconscious.

Also on the stairway was John Antilla, another striker, who tried to stop the stampede. “But it was impossible. The way the women and children and a good many of the men were screaming it was almost impossible to make your voice heard. It was just a moving mass down the stairs.”