Thursday, October 3, 2013

An interview with Steve Lehto, author of "Death's Door"

Yesterday, I wrote about the Italian Hall tragedy, which took the lives of 73 people during a contentious copper mining strike in 1913 ("The tragedy at Italian Hall"). Today's post features an interview with attorney and author Steve Lehto, whose book, "Death's Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913," explores the incident, as well as the labor strife that led up to it. The book is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. (UPDATE: "Death's Door" is now in its second edition, which includes the text of the first edition, as well as text from one of Lehto's previous books, "Shortcut: The Seeberville Murders and the Dark Side of the American Dream." Both "Shortcut" and the first edition of "Death's Door" are out of print, but you can find their content in the second edition of "Death's Door," which I've linked to above.) 

Here's what Lehto had to say about "Death's Door," the tragedy, and the strong emotions his work elicits from readers.

Steve Lehto

What piqued your interest in the Italian Hall disaster? Why did you decide to write about it?
"The Italian Hall disaster had 73 known victims. Of those, 59 were Finnish. My family is Finnish and in the Finnish community, this event is well-known. I liken it to being our 'Titanic.' Everyone knows about it and it is revered. I had always heard about it growing up but did not know much more than the thumbnail sketch of it. After I got a degree in history and my law degree, I decided to research it and see what we could figure out today after looking at the evidence."

As you conducted your research, what did you find that historians were saying about the incident? Did that differ from what you discovered during your own research process?
"Many historians had embraced the 'newspaper' version of the event without taking into account that the local papers were biased heavily in favor of the mines and mine management. As a result, their narratives were essentially, 'This was an unsolvable accident, for which no one was to blame.' It was not the truth. Several of the best-known histories of the event have whole sections of endnotes which are nothing but references to newspapers with names like 'The Daily Mining Gazette.' Guess whose side they were on?
"I went back and looked at primary sources and found a lot of legal documentation. Much of it had not been seen before and what had been seen had been misunderstood. People without legal training can miss things. For example, I found a good copy of the coroner’s inquest transcript. I immediately noticed that they did not provide translators for any of the witnesses and made them answer questions in English---even when they spoke little English! (And other inquests from this time used them.) This kind of thing is hugely important but was overlooked by everyone.
"Strangely, there are historians who still embrace the 'newspaper' version of events. I’m not sure why they do it. I guess the research is really easy, since all you have to do is read the old newspapers. I admit I find it fun to read old newspapers, but I think historians should recognize that newspapers are often horribly unreliable and biased."

What were some of the most interesting or significant things you learned while researching the book?
"That many of the stories being told about the hall were fictional. People often said the tragedy was caused by doors that opened 'the wrong way.' This was even put on the historical marker at the site. I found photos that proved the doors opened correctly. Even so, it took over five years to get the marker changed. (It was changed this past June, using language I drafted.)
"I was surprised by how the government was run by big business back then. The people who ran the mines ran the government and could get almost anything done that they wanted. When crimes were committed, they could assure that no one would be prosecuted---most of the time---and they were the ones who saw to it that no one was ever prosecuted for the Italian Hall disaster. This was corruption pure and simple. I know that corruption has always existed, but it was just at such a level that I found it startling."
How did the Italian Hall disaster affect the community of Calumet, both in the short and long term?
"The Italian Hall disaster happened in the middle of a very divisive strike. The disaster caused the divide to be even more pronounced, and that divide remains today, almost 100 years later. I still meet people who are so inclined toward one side or the other they don’t even want to examine the evidence."

When your book was published, what types of responses did you get from readers, especially those in Calumet?
"I met a lot of people who were happy the story had been written, but also heard from people who were upset by it. I have even gotten death threats from people who say that I should have left the story alone. I was surprised, to say the least, by the overreaction. There are also a couple of people in the UP who show up at my talks and yell at me. Literally yell at me. One of them had to be hauled out by security. I had to threaten another with a restraining order. This event can apparently still generate some strong emotions in people."

What’s next for you?
"I am consulting on a documentary which will air [nationally] on PBS in December (the 17th at 8:00 p.m.) about the Italian Hall. It is called 'Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913.' I am hopeful it will bring the story to a broader audience. This story is not known as well outside of Michigan just yet. I am also writing a few books, including one on Preston Tucker, which should come out next year. [Ed. Note: Preston Tucker was a Michigan native who designed and engineered many well-known cars, including the 1948 Tucker Sedan, during the mid-20th century.]

In keeping with this blog’s “Michigan” theme, I always ask this question: What is your favorite thing to do, or favorite place to go, in Michigan?
"I have several but I guess if you had to pick one based on how often I find myself drawn there, it is the top of Brockway Mountain Drive, just outside of Copper Harbor. I go there several times each year."
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For more information:
Lehto has written several other books, including several Michigan-themed titles. Check out his Amazon author page to see what else he's written.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913 last night on tpt (Minneapolis/St. Paul) public television -- and was amazed that even growing up in the midwest (NW IN) had never heard of this event and the Italian Hall disaster. Thank you for your work.