BIFF 2013 #13 1913 Massacre (US 2011)


BIFF19logoOn Christmas Eve 1913 in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan a group of miners and their wives and children were having a party in the Italian Hall when somebody shouted “Fire!”. In the ensuing panic, 74 people lost their lives, 59 of them children crushed and asphyxiated as they tumbled down the stairs. This happened during a strike at the copper mine. Ever since there has been controversy surrounding who started the rush for the doors and why so many died. In 1941 Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the events and called it ‘1913 Massacre’. In the documentary discussed here Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie plays the song in the town’s impressive theatre. A little later he visits the memorial for those who died which comprises a plaque at the sight of the last surviving brick arch of the Italian Hall (demolished in 1984). At the site of this memorial he tells us that he’s learned a great deal about American history over the years – not in a classroom or from a book, but from songs. The film turns out to be about the song, about the memories and about the narration of  history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day. Directors Ken Ross and Louis Galieri have put together eye-witness (or family memory) testimonies with home movies (what looks like 8mm and video footage), archive footage from the early twentieth century and even a corporate film from the mining company with Arlo Guthrie’s presentations to camera, his performances of the song and various statements by local historians. The filmmakers have worked on the film for many years, shooting hundreds of hours of interviews. Ken Ross is the filmmaker who has also taught film and Louis Galieri was first a university teacher of history and literature before moving into film production. The background to the filming of 1913 Massacre is covered on the detailed film project website.

I think I knew the name ‘Calumet’ but I certainly didn’t know the story and the film has resonated with me in many ways. Some years ago I remember being told about a similar incident in a Yorkshire coal-mining district during roughly the same period when 16 children died in a crush trying to leave a film showing in a public hall in 1908. This Wikipedia page also refers to an even worse disaster in Sunderland in 1883 when 183 children were killed in a crush at the Victoria Hall during a children’s variety show. Each of these three disasters took place in working-class communities in urban areas where the first mass entertainment venues were being developed. What was lacking was what we would now know as ‘risk assessment’ and specifically the development of ’emergency exits’ with doors opening outwards to allow crowds to ‘spill out’ in the event of fire or other emergencies. The direction in which the doors opened was a key issue in the Italian Hall disaster and discussion of this is supremely important in the film.

The filmmakers have found photographic evidence to show that the doors at the Italian Hall opened outwards, refuting what many of the townspeople have been told over the decades. Responses to the question “which way did the doors open?” are edited together with everyone saying “inwards”. It is then pointed out that it is suspicious when everyone trots out the same line. So, did someone block the doorway and then spread the rumour that the doors opened the ‘wrong way’? The film’s audience realises that the ‘disaster’ became a political issue.

Calumet was part of an extraordinary community in Northern Michigan in the 1910s. One of the biggest copper-mining regions in the world attracted migrant workers from Italy, Poland, Finland and many other parts of Europe. In 1913 workers began a major strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company – which didn’t want to see a unionised workforce and which persuaded the local authorities to send 2,000 armed National Guards to police the workers’ demonstrations. This was the context for the Italian Hall ‘massacre’ which the workers believed was started by a scab and exacerbated by deliberate police inaction/obstruction. The filmmakers present this material fairly dispassionately but in a key scene they record a group of supporters of the company who are then challenged by a previously ‘neutral’ speaker. In this way, the apologists are exposed. I wish I knew more about US labour history, but I’ve always thought that it was the brutality of the US capitalists and their hired thugs, especially towards migrant workers in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that prevented the development of democratic socialism in the US becoming part of mainstream political life and paved the way for the greedy materialist Amerika of the rest of the twentieth century. Imagine what a democratic socialist America might have done with all its wealth and the goodwill and hard work of its workers. Woody Guthrie had the imagination to promote that vision. “This land is our land” – for all Americans, not just the rich. That’s why he could see that the Italian Hall massacre was an important political-historical event.

Here’s the trailer:

and a short clip of the responses to the film after it was screened in Calumet:

The DVD of the film is available via the website. Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.


  1. des1967

    Also worth a look is Harlan County USA. I remember organising a showing for miners at the Aberdeen Trades Council up in Aberdeen on picket duty as they were trying to bring in scab coal via Fraserburgh. You can find the whole video here:

    There are a number of videos on “Rosie the Riveter”, a campaign to attract women into the defence industry factories in the USA during WW2. This Library of Congress has an interesting semiotic deconstruction of a famous Saturday Evening Post front page by Norman Rockwell.

    Arlo Guthrie doesn’t look all that different from when he was in Alice’s Restaurant all those years ago!


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