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Past & Present: 'Fake News' In History

Jimmy Emerson / Creative Commons

On Christmas Eve, 1913, striking families in Calumet, Michigan, gathered at the Italian Diner Hall for a party sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners. 

Nine thousand of the nearly 15,000 copper miners in northwest Michigan had been on strike since July 23, and after five months on the picket line, it must have seemed like a bit of relief to gather for some holiday cheer. However by the end of the evening, 73 people, including 59 children, would be dead, in a baffling incident of mass panic and confusion after someone yelled a false warning of “Fire!”

While a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee investigated the incident, rumors and false information and conspiracy theories affected the narrative and memory of the largest mass murder in Michigan. Workers blamed the copper company. The Western Federation of Miners accused the Citizens’ Alliance, a known anti-union organization, based on inconclusive evidence, even as the Citizens’ Alliance collected $25,000 for the families affected by the disaster.

However, the most persistent rumors focused on the Italian Hall, itself. Initial reports claimed the building had only a single, narrow staircase and no fire escapes. But it was the claim that the doors opened inward, not outward, trapping the crowd inside, that endured longest. And yet, none of this is true. Coroners’ reports, architectural plans, newspaper articles, and photographs show an ample, main staircase, two fire escapes, and, most importantly, that the doors leading outside opened outwardly. This piece of false information has been disproved several times over the intervening century, including by several historians. In our era of fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories, it is important to know that these, too, have a history.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.