Swedish-born American labor activist Joe Hill (1879–1915) was one of the leading radical voices of the early 1900s as an organizer and songwriter for the International Workers of the World. Also known as the “Wobblies,” this far-left group sought to draw unskilled workers of all stripes to join in a revolution against capitalism. Convicted and executed in a hotly disputed murder case in 1915, Hill became a martyr for the radical movement, his actions inspiring discussion and admiration for generations to come.
Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, on October 7, 1879, Joe Hill was one of nine children born to Margareta Katarina and Olof Hägglund, a deeply religious couple. Hill's father was a railroad conductor by trade, as well as an enthusiastic amateur musician who built an organ for the family to use during its regular household sing-alongs. He also gifted his young son with a violin, and Hill proved to be a talented musician. Even in early childhood, he took to practicing on not just the organ and violin, but also the accordion and guitar.
Music provided a bright spot in an otherwise grim existence. Hill's father died from work-related injuries, leaving his wife to support Hill and his five surviving siblings. Times were hard and the family did not always have enough money for basic necessities such as food. Hill left school as a child to work in a rope factory. During his late teens, a bout with tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that could prove fatal if not treated, forced him to seek treatment in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. He underwent a series of procedures that left him with lifelong scars, but eventually he managed to overcome the disease. Hill returned to Gävle in 1900, but his stay was not long. Two years later, his mother died and the Hägglund siblings decided to sell the family home and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Hill and a brother, Paul, immigrated to the United States.
Over the next several years, Hill seems to have taken work all around the United States, moving west from his landing point in New York City to eventually reach the far distant California coast. He was present in San Francisco during the city's devastating 1906 earthquake, and by 1910 was living in San Pedro, a busy Los Angeles-area shipping port. There, he became a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW). Also known as the “Wobblies,” the IWW was a radical, far-left labor organization that sought to organize workers of all kinds, not just the skilled laborers unionized by mainstream unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At that time, the labor movement as a whole was opposed by business owners, whose interests were often backed by the power of state and federal government. The Marxist Wobblies used especially controversial tactics, including general strikes, to protest working conditions and aimed to turn over control of the means of production to workers rather than owners.
Hill's life took a fateful turn in January of 1914. While working his way eastward from California, he stopped in Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit friends and became linked with the murder of a local man and his son. John G. Morrison was a Salt Lake City grocer. Some years before, he had worked briefly as a police officer, and he reportedly worried that his previous career had left him in danger of retaliation. Although contemporary accounts do not provide evidence that Morrison's work had generated such a response, certainly the man had been the victim of violence. In 1913, for example, he was the subject of an armed robbery attempt and, although he managed to defend himself with a firearm, the assailants escaped. Police later identified the likely assailants as a group of teenagers who had robbed other shopkeepers in the area, but Morrison, who had poor night vision due to an earlier accident, was unable to confirm their suspicion. In fact, he seems to have rejected the police theory entirely, preferring to believe that the robbery attempt had truly been a murder attempt by someone with a personal vendetta against him. In any event, Morrison was unquestionably fearful for his own safety.
On the evening of Saturday, January 10, 1914, those fears were realized. Two masked men entered Morrison's grocery store as he and his sons Arling and Merlin were preparing to close up for the night. The intruders fired several shots before fleeing the scene, killing Arling Morrison and fatally wounding his father. A distraught Merlin Morrison telephoned the police. By the time they arrived, two neighbors had reached the store and attempted to ask the dying Morrison about his attackers, without result. Several people in the area had also heard the gunshots and observed the masked men leaving the store; witnesses agreed that one of the assailants had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest. Police concluded that Arling Morrison, who was found near a gun, had managed to retrieve a weapon and fire before being killed. A widespread police search for possible suspects soon ensued.
At first, police linked the fatal attack with the earlier attack on Morrison and investigated numerous suspects known to be in the area. Within a few days, however, they had arrested Hill and fixed all of their efforts on proving his guilt. The primary evidence against him was that he had suffered a gunshot wound on the night the murders occurred at the Morrison grocery store. Local doctor Frank M. McHugh treated Hill, who arrived at his home late Saturday evening bearing a fresh wound and carrying a gun. Another local doctor, A.A. Bird, stopped by McHugh's home during Hill's visit. Events then become somewhat muddled. McHugh later claimed that Hill confessed to the murders while McHugh tended to his wound. Other accounts state that Hill instead told the doctor he had been shot by an unnamed man in a dispute over a woman. Bird later drove Hill back to the friends’ house where he was staying, and believed him to be acting suspiciously. Later, one of the two doctors told police about Hill, and he was arrested the Tuesday following the murders.
Police charged Hill with the murders, and he went to court in June of 1914. The trial was a sensation. The prosecution rested on circumstantial evidence. McHugh testified that Hill had confessed to him, and much of the case hung on Hill's injury and his superficial resemblance—tall and thin—to one of the men seen fleeing the grocery store. The defense argued that the confession was groundless, that no real proof existed that one of Morrison's attackers had been shot, and that Hill had no reason to commit the crime. Hill refused to fully explain how he had come by his injury, asserting throughout that he had been shot in a dispute over a woman but refusing to share further details in an apparently chivalrous concern for her privacy.
Historians have pondered Hill's reasons for providing an incomplete defense. “Perhaps,” suggested biographer Gibbs Smith in Joe Hill, “It reflected certain attitudes acquired in his boyhood. Surely a just God … might be seen in an unguarded moment as One who would not permit the execution of an innocent man…. On the other hand, this protestation of innocence … is equally compatible with the picture of Hill as a guilty man, pretending innocence and seeking martyrdom to further the sacred cause of uniting the workers against the exploiting class.”
The court voted to convict, and the following appeal was unsuccessul. Outside observers, however, were much less certain of the strength of the case against Hill. Public figures such as Helen Keller, the famed blind and deaf author and a radical activist, campaigned on behalf of Hill. President Woodrow Wilson wrote to Utah's governor twice to urge him to issue a pardon. The state did not relent, however, and plans to execute Hill moved forward. Hill sent a telegram to IWW head “Big Bill” Haywood the night before his execution, accepting his fate and sharing his hopes for its aftermath. “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don't waste time in mourning. Organize.” A firing squad carried out Hill's death sentence on November 19, 1915.
Historians have long asserted that Hill believed his death was more valuable to the labor movement as a flashpoint for organization and outcry than his acquittal was to himself. Indeed, he became a lasting folk hero and martyr for the labor cause. As people across the United States mourned his death, his body was cremated and his ashes sent far and wide. The Wobblies used Hill's notoriety to fuel interest in their movement. After Hill's death, for example, they issued a new version of their songbook, dedicating it to Hill and featuring several of his songs.
The IWW did not long outlive Hill. Like several other far-left groups of the day, it strongly opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, and its leadership tried to limit the nation's industrial output in protest. Federal investigations and arrests ensued, weakening IWW leadership. Furthermore, public opinion turned sharply against leftist organizations in the early 1920s, and within a few years the radical labor movement was essentially over.
For decades afterward, however, Hill's death offered fodder for protest music. The poet Alfred Hayes wrote “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill” some years after the organizer's death, and this poem was adapted for song by the lyricist Earl Robinson. Singers from Paul Robeson to Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco have performed versions of this song. Bob Dylan drew inspiration from the folk song in his own 1967 release “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”
Hill's conviction remained a point of dispute and study well into the 21st century. In 2011, author William M. Adler offered fresh evidence for the man's innocence. As part of his research, Adler discovered a 1949 letter from a woman named Hilda Erickson to a person researching Hill's case in which she explained the damning gunshot wound; her recently jilted fiancé, Otto Appelquist, shot Hill after he gained her affections and taunted Appelquist with his loss. Adler also detailed evidence incriminating another man, Frank Z. Wilson, who was arrested early on during the police investigation but later released in favor of Hill. Historians widely accept Adler's research as posthumously clearing Hill of the charges against him.
Adler, William M., The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, Bloomsbury, 2011.
Smith, Gibbs M., Joe Hill, Gibbs Smith, 1969.
New York Times, August 26, 2011.
AFL-CIO website, http://www.aflcio.org/ (January 17, 2017), “Joe Hill.”❑