On Christmas Eve, 1913, members of the Upper Peninsula mining community of Calumet Michigan gathered in the upstairs of an Italian Hall for a party. The gatheringÂ was supposed to be one of few happy times for the town, which was ravaged by a bitter strike between miners and owners.
Popular history has it that someone ran into the party and yelled â€œfire,â€ causing a stampede down the stairs into doors that opened inward and resulting in a deadly pile-up. Some claim the incident was plotted by local copper bosses.
So was it murder or an accident? Author and lawyer Steve Lehto goes back to find the answer in his new book, â€œDeath’s Door: the Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder.â€
Lehto deftly uses his skills as a lawyer to investigate the deaths of 74 people, mostly children. His research has led him to the conclusion that the doors opened out and were purposely held closed, resulting in the murder of the party-goers. Claims that the tragedy was an accident, Lehto believes, were the result of carefully placed stories in the mine-controlled newspapers.
In â€œDeath’s Doorâ€ he details how newspapers were bribed by mine owners to write favorable accounts of the ongoing strike and the disaster. At one time, he says, the entire staff of the Finnish newspaper was arrested after it printed a story on the Italian Hall incident.
The author, who has the eye for detail of a homicide investigator and a historian, was first attracted to the famous tragedy during visits to the U.P. as a youth and young man.
â€œMy parents were born and raised in the area, and as a kid we would go up north to visit relatives,â€ he says. â€œWhenever discussion turned to the ‘Italian Hall,’ the talk became hushed and they would always speak in Finnish.â€
On one of his trips to the area, Lehto went on a tour of the Quincy Mine and bought a copy of the 1943 book â€œBoom Copper,â€ which details copper mining in the U.P. The book glosses over the disaster, he says, and mostly claims that -the deaths were an accident. It was this book and another, â€œRebels on the Range,â€ which relied mostly on newspaper accounts of the tragedy, that inspired Lehto to write his own version of the story.
Lehto spent more than a year and a half researching and writing the book. During his investigation, he poured over transcripts, historical records and newspaper accounts printed in a time he writes, â€œwhen it was good business to bring in thugs to beat up strikers.â€
His book, which was chosen as one of Michigan’s Notable Books for 2007, has gone into additional printings.Â The book also has been a boon for Lehto’s publishing career leading to a connection with Jay Leno and book deal for “The Chrysler Turbine” which won Lehto a third Michigan Notable Book Award. Read more about how Jay Leno discovered Lehto here.
Lehto says he has been shocked by the response, especially in the U.P.
â€œAt an event in Hancock, more than 500 people turned out for my talk,â€ he says. â€œThere was standing room only.â€
Lehto could not find any evidence showing that the doors opened inward. Rather, he found photographs showing them opening out and articles about the hall’s construction detailing that they would open outward.
At some point, Lehto says, popular culture accepted that the doors opened in, and even the state’s historical marker made the same claim.
But popular culture also takes issue with this account, Lehto says, as a long-standing rumor claims the murderer confessed on his deathbed.Â Woody Guthrie even wrote a song, â€œ1913 Massacre,â€ about the event. The 1946 song was later recorded by his son, Arlo, and Bob Dylan.
Lehto says the debate still rages. Someone recently called his publisher to complain about the word â€œmurderâ€ on the cover. Lehto says the intent may not have been to murder the revelers, but the outcome was the same.
â€œI guess you can judge a book by its cover in this case,â€ he says.
One reason Lehto thinks the book is so well received in the U.P. is that it treats the â€œvictims as victims.â€