Shouting “Fire” in a Crowded Theater

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If there is one thing that can be as dangerous as a fire, it is the panic that sets in when people believe there is a fire. Our natural survival instinct kicks in rapidly when humans sense danger. This fight-or-flight response (a term first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon), is the result of our minds kicking our nervous system into gear when faced with danger. This surge of adrenalin allows us to escape dangerous situations, but it can also cause mass panic.

(According to Harvard’s Dr. Srini Pillay, the emotions that cause mass hysteria can be contagious, so when surrounded by panic our brain often cannot separate reality from fear.)

One of the tragically perfect examples of this phenomenon was the 1913 Italian Hall Disaster. It was Christmas Eve, and a group of striking copper miners and their families gathered for a party at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Mich. 100th AnniversaryAccording to most accounts, an unknown person burst into the main hall and yelled, “Fire!”

As we now know, there was no actual fire, but just the thought sent the crowd into an uncontrollable panic. As often occurs, the aforementioned fight-or-flight response kicked in; and men, women, and children surged toward the exits. Unfortunately, according to initial reports, the doors opened inwards, so the partygoers trampled each other, causing 73 deaths, 60 of which were children, making this one of the most horrific events of the early 20th century. If the story ended there, it would be tragic enough; unfortunately, it only gets more murky and controversial.

Recently, in his book Death’s Door, author and lawyer Steve Lehto claims that this was no accident but, in fact, a case of premeditated mass murder. According to Lehto, the mine owners hired the man whose cry of “fire” set off the tragedy. As well, he posits that the doors actually opened outward, but there were more hired thugs holding the doors closed so the striking workers and their families could not escape.

If it is possible, the world remembers the final, if tangential, twist of the story more than the tragedy itself. Six years after the Italian Hall Disaster, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used the example of “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic” in his majority decision in the unrelated case of Schenck v. United States. Though the case was actually about freedom of speech, many believe the events of the Italian Hall Disaster, inspired Holmes’ example.

The Italian Hall Disaster is a piece of American history that none of us should ever forget as we celebrate the holiday season with our friends and families.

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