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"This is the history I knew." Fred Herrmann reviews the book Death's Door by Steve Lehto for Detroit Lawyer magazine

August 13, 2018

Kerr Russell's Fred Herrmann (litigation, antitrust, dispute resolution) reviews the book Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder in the July/August 2018 issue of Detroit Lawyer magazine, a publication of the Detroit Bar Association.

Take a trip with me in nineteen thirteen
To Calumet, Michigan in the copper country…

— Woody Guthrie

On Christmas Eve 1913, seventy-three people—mostly children—perished at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan. Mine workers and their families had gathered on the upper floor for a Christmas celebration. When someone yelled “Fire,” many rushed down the stairway but could not get through the exit to the street, and were crushed or suffocated at the base of the stairwell under a pile of bodies some described as six feet deep. There was no fire.

Set within a swirling miner-management dispute during the infancy of the labor movement in the United States (the Department of Labor having been created only months earlier in March, 1913), the tragedy became a rallying cry for oppressed workers. The popular assumption was that thugs hired by mine management had falsely cried “fire” and then held the exit doors closed so the panicked revelers could not get out of the building. Woody Guthrie memorialized this view of the events decades later in his famous lament, 1913 Massacre:

The copper boss thugs stuck their heads in the door

One of them yelled and he screamed “There’s a fire”

. . .

A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down

But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

This is the history I knew. As a crusader for workers’ rights and many other social issues, Woody Guthrie was a master at evoking action through his music. His song took hold of me at an early age, and the Italian Hall tragedy was burned into my psyche. But then I read Michigan attorney Steve Lehto’s meticulously- researched analysis of the tragedy, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder (Momentum Books, 213 pp, 2006). Not only does the book provide a rich backdrop for the tragedy through its exploration of the mining industry in the Upper Peninsula and the labor, social, and racial tensions of the day, but it exposes flaws in the popular history that required me to push through the emotional curtain and re-think my view of the events. While the book is a remarkable analysis of Michigan history from the early part of the last century, its ultimate lesson has critical contemporary importance: don’t judge a book (or in this case, a song) by its cover. Same goes for tweets and Facebook posts. Do the work. Learn the facts.

Motivated by a desire to fill gaps in the story he learned as a child vacationing in the U.P., Lehto assembles an A-to-Z account of the tragedy by relentlessly scouring available records. He explores the beginnings of the local mining industry, daily life in the mines and the technological advancements that shaped it, the immigration history of the region and the ensuing racial tensions between English and non-English speaking residents, the free speech imbalance between the management-controlled press and the various local ethnic news outlets, and the aftermath of the tragedy including its indelible impact on the town, the State, and the nation. The book is a fascinating—and eminently readable—time machine.

As for the events of Christmas Eve 1913, Lehto views them through multiple lenses and with integrity, separating fact from what will likely forever remain mere speculation. Who was the mysterious man, reportedly wearing an anti-union button, who had yelled “Fire”? Were “thugs” really hired by management to intimidate the miners? Did they really pursue that mission by disrupting a party for children on Christmas eve? And of course the ultimate questions: How could an exit be purposefully blocked if its doors swing inward? Did they? While wrestling with these issues I felt like a juror during the murder trial that never took place. After all, the perpetrator(s) of the Italian Hall tragedy were never identified or held to account. The case remains open. And that highlights perhaps the saddest aspect of the entire history: did a “company town” quash fundamental justice?

The Italian Hall is gone. In its place stands only the archway of the original building on which the infamous exit doors swung, and a simple plaque briefly describing the tragedy. What would those seventy-three lost souls tell us if they had a voice? Perhaps more importantly, what should we be doing on a daily basis in our professional and personal lives to perpetuate fact-based inquiry, rather than re-tweeting emotionally-charged rallying cries? Fortunately, in Death’s Door we have something far more enduring than brick and mortar to guide us on these questions.

Fred K. Herrmann maintains a diverse litigation and alternative dispute resolution practice across a wide range of industries. He has substantial experience in class action defense, multidistrict litigation, antitrust, patent and other intellectual property litigation, attorney and other professional liability defense, and contract disputes, as well as supply chain and other disputes implicating the Uniform Commercial Code.  Fred has tried cases in state and federal courts, has filed briefs and argued cases in state and federal appellate courts, and has mediated resolutions for complex disputes on behalf of his clients. Fred is also available to serve as a neutral mediator.

Fred is the immediate past Chair of the Representative Assembly, the final policymaking body of the State Bar of Michigan.  He has also served on the Board of Commissioners of the State Bar of Michigan, and is a Fellow of the Michigan State Bar Foundation.

In the federal arena, Fred is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan Chapter, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

Fred is listed in Best Lawyers in America© by Woodward/White, Inc. for Antitrust Law.  He was named a Michigan “Super Lawyer” in Commercial Litigation, and a “Top Lawyer” in dbusiness Magazine. He was named a 2018 "Leader in the Law" by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. Download his Q&A here.

Prior to practicing law, and following graduation from the United States Naval Academy, Fred served as a logistics officer in the United States Marine Corps, where he deployed overseas with Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, and then served on the logistics staff of the First Marine Division. He subsequently served as a reservist with Detroit’s own First Battalion, Twenty-fourth Marines, as a logistics officer and H&S Company Commander.

Click here for "Of Interest" profile of Fred written by his Kerr Russell colleague Joanne Swanson for the State Bar of Michigan magazine.

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