I got an interesting email regarding my last post on the possible origins of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s image of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater. Steve Lehto is an attorney and a historian who has written three books on the Italian Hall tragedy that was discussed in that post. He’s got a fourth coming out this summer on the same topic. He’s taught history at the University of Detroit. According to Steve, the scholarship on the Italian Hall tragedy has moved considerably beyond the sources my co-author Ellen Schrecker and I consulted in writing about the tragedy and its role in Holmes’s jurisprudence. There is stronger evidence than we realized to suggest that the false shout of fire did indeed come from a management thug. I thought Steve’s email was worth sharing.
• • • • •
I read your “A Tale of Two Fires” with great interest as I have written several books and articles on the topic of the Italian Hall disaster and the Strike of 1913.
Historians can read transcripts from two different hearings where sworn testimony was taken—three if you count the full subcommittee hearings separately. We can read death certificates for the 73 official victims, and we can then wade into the oral histories, the news coverage and other objects which have survived until now. When this is done, I believe we can draw some firm conclusions, based upon evidence.
There was no fire. There was a cry of “Fire!” The man who raised the cry fled after raising the cry. Those three facts suggest he knew what he was doing and he was intending to break up the party. Put into the larger context of the Calumet strike—where strikebreakers and mines allies routinely harassed the union—the finger would naturally point to mine management. Couple that with the sworn testimony saying the man who raised the false cry was wearing a Citizens Alliance pin and you have a good case.
Interestingly, history gives up one very likely culprit. Early reports of the Italian Hall disaster—in the pro-management newspapers—tell us that a strikebreaker was pulled from the stairwell that night, tangled up with all the victims. His name was Edward Manley and he had been hired by the mines to “protect” their interests. All strike long, Manley and his cohorts had disrupted union activities, and his kind were not welcome at the pro-union Christmas party. The papers bent over backwards to give the man an excuse for being there but the amazing thing is that he was whisked away from the scene that night, and then from the area the next day. He was never mentioned again in the newspaper coverage and was never called as a witness at any of the hearings even though his testimony should have been highly useful to investigators. There is more, but that is the gist of it.
As for how Holmes may have heard of the story, it seems likely that he would have read about it like most Americans with access to newspapers: The Italian Hall tragedy was front page news across the US on Christmas morning, 1913. For example: It was on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold. The version that Woody Guthrie based his song upon was that of Ella Reeve Bloor, who wrote about the tragedy in her autobiography, We Are Many. While some may quibble with minor details of the Bloor and Guthrie accounts, they are far more factual than not.
This story has its share of legends, and legends sometimes have remarkable staying power. Nowadays, people will claim that the doors to the Hall opened “the wrong way,” that the man who cried Fire was a drunk or was playing a prank, the Christmas tree on stage may have actually been on fire, that there was no cry of “Fire”and so on. The problem with these legends is that none of them are supported by the known evidence. At the hearings, no one ever testified that someone had called for water in Finnish or Croatian, or that it was a “language” problem which led to the stampede. The testimony was clear: It was a cry of “Fire!” raised in English by a man who came into the Hall just to raise the cry. The vatra/vetta theories were floated decades later but are not supported by the evidence, just like many of the other stories which swirl around the story of the Hall. [Editorial note from Corey: The language issue of vatra/vetta was one of the possible hypotheses Ellen and I entertained in our piece].
As the 100th anniversary of the event approaches, I am hopeful that people will remember the Italian Hall and what it stands for.