Joe Hill 1879-1915
(Joe Hillstrom - Joel Haaglund)
by Richard E. Noble
“Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat,
They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky; (Way up high)
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die, (That’s no lie)”
Once upon a time - November 19, 1915 to be exact, in a land far, far away - Utah, to be specific - a young man of just thirty-one years was strapped into a chair. He sat facing five men with rifles.
“Aim!” commanded the sheriff.
“Yes, aim,” the young man cried out. “Let her go. FIRE!’
“Fire!” commanded the sheriff
A target had been placed over the young man’s heart. Four of the assassins’ bullets pierced the bull’s-eye. The man was killed. Some say executed; others say murdered. Nevertheless at 7:42 a.m. on November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was dead.
MY LAST WILL
My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan –
“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.”
My body? - Oh - if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
and let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.
Joe’s body was held in a small chapel in Utah - no proprietor in Utah would rent the caretakers of his body a hall - thousands of sympathizers dropped a red rose onto his casket, before it was shipped to Chicago.
Joe had wired his good friend, Big Bill Haywood - IWW union boss and leader, in Chicago ... “Goodbye Bill. I will die like a blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning - Organize ... It is only a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”
There was a death watch that stayed with the body, day and night, at the Florence Undertaking Chapel. The funeral was at the West Side Auditorium. Three thousand people crowded inside to pay their respects while over thirty thousand crowded the adjacent streets waiting to get in. A banner placed above the coffin, read; “In Memoriam, Joe Hill. We never forget. Murdered by the authorities of the State of Utah, Nov. 19, 1915.”
After Joe was cremated, envelopes with tiny portions of his ashes were handed out to people from all parts of this country and all over the world.
Joe hoped that his ashes might spark new life into a dying flower. They say that Joe’s ashes have been sprinkled in every state of the United States of America - except Utah.
I know that we must have had some of those ashes sprinkled in my hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
I’d like to think that some of them may have somehow gotten into my Grandmother’s little sidewalk garden. Maybe I got some on my fingertips while helping my Grandmother dig out a spot for some of her potted flowers, for I know, there is a lot of Joe Hill in my soul.
His poems, his spirit, his cause, his life, his goals and dreams, his hobo nature and vagabond love - I have felt it all, every day of my life. I have never understood how all these things got inside of me. They have no reason to be there. I have often felt awkward, not being able to understand my own feelings - why I care about so many abandoned notions and people - even when, more than often, they don’t seem to even care about themselves.
I was educated in a school named after St. Rita - the patron saint of lost causes. The Sisters of Notre Dame probably took one look at the town of Lawrence and immediately thought that this would be just the place for a lady like St. Rita.
Like most of you, I had never heard of Joe Hill. I had never belonged to a labor union. For the greater portion of my life, I had never known that we ever had a serious labor problem in this country. I now realize that it was the Great Debate of the twentieth century; of the ninetieth century also - and possibly of all human history. And, I have been ignorant of it all.
If any of it was explained to me in my classrooms in those hometown school houses, I never heard it. But I must give credit where credit is due - I was never a good student.
I have always been too busy trying to make my own living, never mind taking time to worry about how others were making theirs or how others had made theirs in the past. I always thought that I had made my own road - unlike Robert Frost - I didn’t choose any road - even the one that had been less traveled.
It never occurred to me that people had actually died trying to earn me the right to be “middle class”.
In an attempt to maintain the promise of the banner above that casket in that Chicago funeral parlor, I would like to relate the story of Joe Hill.
Unfortunately, despite the words on that banner, I think that Joe Hill has been all but forgotten, except by a very precious few and it is too bad. It should not happen.
“I die with a clear conscience; I die fighting, not like a coward. But mark my word, the day of my vindication is coming,” said Joe Hill on the way to his execution.
Philip Foner, the prolific labor historian, says in his book, “The Case of Joe Hill”, that that day of vindication is long overdue “… a statue of Joe Hill should be erected in Salt Lake City. On it should be inscribed the words; In Memoriam, Joe Hill. We never forget. Murdered by the authorities of the State of Utah, November 19, 1915.”
Two men burst into a grocery store at 778 South West Temple Street in Salt Lake City. The store was owned by John G. Morrison. His two sons were helping him in the store - Arling, age 17, and Merlin, age 14. There were no customers. According to the only witness, 14 year old Merlin, the two men rushed toward Mr. Morrison and shouted; “We’ve got you now.” One of the men then started shooting. Merlin’s older brother grabbed his father’s revolver that was kept behind the counter and fired at the two fleeing men. The young boy thought one of the men had been hit. The men then turned and fired at the young boy’s brother three times. The older boy was killed and the father died that evening in the hospital. The bandits fled. They took nothing.
The Morrison grocery store had been robbed twice in the past, once in 1903 and once in 1913. Mr. Morrison, an ex-policeman for the Salt Lake City police force, had chased the previous bandits away “amid a hail of bullets”.
Around 11:30 p.m. on the night of the shooting Joe Hill showed up at Dr. Frank McHugh’s office with a bullet hole through his chest. The bullet entered just bellow his heart, went through his lung and exited through his back. Joe told the Doctor that he didn’t want to report the shooting because it involved an affair with a married woman, and it was his fault, and he didn’t want to get anybody in any trouble.
Hill also admitted to having a gun which he threw away on the trip home with a Dr. Bird who had passed by Dr. McHugh’s office. Hill later claimed that his gun was a .32-caliber Luger and not a .38-caliber auto-matic pistol, probably a Colt, which was suspected to be the type of the murder weapon.
Three days after the crime and learning of a five hundred dollar reward, Dr. McHugh, called the police. Dr. McHugh gave Hill a shot of morphine so that the police would have no problem in apprehending Hill. Nevertheless, when the police broke into Hill’s room, one of the officers shot Hill through the knuckles of his right hand, crippling him for life. The bullet had passed over his chest as he lay on his bed - he should have been killed.
Hill was taken to a hospital where his condition grew worse over the next three days. He nearly died but somehow pulled through.
Philip Foner suggests in his book about the Joe Hill case that testimonies were changed and that official records had disappeared. A Mrs. Phoebe Seeley and her husband, passersby on the street the evening of the crime, did not identify Hill as one of the men whom they saw fleeing the grocery store. Merlin Morrison could not claim Hill as one of men, but claimed that Hill was about the same height and build as one of the men. Mr. Seeley was not asked to testify, claims Foner, because his remembrances did not corroborate his wife wavering statements.
Two neighbors of the Morrison grocery store, Mrs. Nettie Mahan and Mrs. Vera Hanson, were also unable to identify Hill as one of the murderers.
Hill had no money and was at this point acting as his own defense. E. E. McDougall and an associate Frank B. Scott came forward a few days after the hearing and volunteered to defend Hill at no charge. As it turned out - you only get what you pay for.
Hill was confident that the State had no case against him and that he needed no great attorneys to offer a defense. He felt strongly in the American notion that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Hill did not think that he had to prove himself innocent, but that the State had to prove him guilty. He was wrong.
Halfway through his trial, he leaped from his seat and fired both of his attorneys; “I don’t need two prosecutors!” he exclaimed. He then told his defense attorneys to get out of the building. Judge Ritchie recognized Hill’s right to fire his attorneys, but ordered the attorneys to remain as aids to the court. Hill refused to participate any further in the trial. This situation was one of the incidents considered to be key in future requests for a retrial.
As is the case today, with the Joe Hill legal proceedings, we first had “trial by media”. He was attacked viciously in the establishment, Mormon press. His main crime being that he was a well known I.W.W. agitator. Hill was an organizer and well known songwriter for the infamous, militant labor group. The I.W.W. had caused the Mormon Church, its bankers and several of its key business interests, considerable trouble. “The main thing that the state has against Hill is that he is an I.W.W., and therefore must be guilty. Hill tried to keep the I.W.W. out of it and denied it, but the (news) papers fastened it on him,” claimed Scott and McDougall, Hill’s lawyers.
The authorities from San Pedro, California, notified the Salt Lake City police that Hill was an “undesirable citizen, an alien in this country without warrant of law, and that he was a dangerous character”.
Significant to note, that even the Desert Evening News, the local Mormon newspaper, initially emphasized that the slaying of Morrison and his son was the “culmination of a Series of Bold Crimes,” and noted that the Salt Lake citizens were growing apprehensive over the failure of the police to track down the perpetrators of the crimes that were plaguing the city.
The police department and the press had found Joe Hill guilty long before any trial ever began, claimed author and labor historian Philip Finer.
Joe Hill’s trial began on June 10, 1914. Much of the initial transcript has disappeared.
Judge M. L. Ritchie was extremely biased against Hill. He even defeated a challenge to a jury member whose father had been killed “by the same means” as Mr. Morrison. The defense claimed that, “His own experience would always rise up and persuade him to resolve every circumstance against the defendant.”
Judge Ritchie claimed to see no logic in their argument.
The state’s case was clearly a railroading job. Their basic notion was that since Hill had been shot that evening, he must be the guilty party.
The first problem with that accusation was that it was never established that anyone was ever shot that evening at the crime scene, nor had anyone established any motive for the happening. There was no robbery - only, what seemed to be, an assassination.
The bullet that hit Hill had passed through his body and was considered to be steel; the Morrison weapon shot lead bullets. The only bullets or casings found were in Mr. Morrison and his son, or laying in the area of the Morrisons in the front of the store - and they were steel. No lead bullet was ever found in any wall or elsewhere in the building. It could not even be verified that the Morrison gun actually had been fired.
There was no blood found, other than the Morrisons’, inside the store or immediately outside the store. There was blood found down the sidewalk area. But even the state’s expert would not testify that it was human blood. He would only say that it was “mammalian blood” - which could have been from an injured dog.
The defense claimed that there were others who were under suspicion who were not being sought out. In point of fact, there were two other shootings that evening, with two additional wounded men - aside from the fact that the prosecution could not prove that anybody had been shot that evening at the Morrison grocery store, in the first place.
Dr. McHugh, who saw Hill’s gun, had stated that it was not the type that was capable of firing the kind of bullets found at the scene.
The Judge denied the introduction of relevant evidence relating to the possibility of others being involved in the murder - even to the point of refusing to hear the testimony of Hardy Downing, a newspaper reporter, who said, under oath, that Morrison had told him that the previous holdup in his store “was not to rob him but kill him” and that he feared that the men would return. Morrison, as an ex-policeman, had made many enemies and had expressed his fear of reprisal to several other individuals.
Other persons had even been arrested in connection with the crime and released - including one who was stained with fresh blood.
Strangely enough there was another interesting problem. The bullet holes in Hill’s clothing did not match up with his wounds. The Bullet holes in his jacket - front and back, for example - were four inches lower than the entrance and exit wounds in his body. It was concluded by the expert medical witness, a Dr. M. F. Beer, that Hill must have been holding is arms above his head at the time of his injury.
Hill claimed to have bought a Luger at a local gun shop, not a Colt which was the type of weapon decided as used in the incident. The shop was contacted and the clerk who had sold the gun to Hill remembered the sale distinctly. He was, at the time of being contacted, living in another town, but agreed to come and testify. He was never asked by police to do so.
The criminals involved in the shooting were supposed to have been hiding their faces beneath red bandannas. A red bandanna was found in Hill’s apartment. Of course, red bandannas were very common and abundant in the area, and even the fact that Hill’s landlady had testified that the bandanna was hers and that she had given it to Hill only after he had returned to his apartment with his wound that evening, was not considered sufficient to lesson or eliminate the implied accusation. Basically the landlady was simply assumed to be a liar.
Aside from the fact that Hill was prominent in the I.W.W., the whole of the prosecution’s case against him was that he had been shot that evening and would offer no explanation other than it was a personal matter.
Hill claimed that he had been seeing a married woman and was confronted that evening by her husband who then shot him. Since he considered himself to be the moral culprit in the affair he had no desire to involve his lover or her revengeful spouse. It was also Hill’s stated opinion that the burden was on the state to prove him guilty and that he had no obligation, under this country’s law, to prove himself innocent of anything. Clearly, he felt that the state had no case against him that could stand up in an open court here in the United States of America. Unfortunately this proved to be an extremely naive point of view on his part.
It was universal, except to the Utah court, that Joe Hill should have received a retrial. His advocates came from all over the world. Thousands and thousands of requests were sent to the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson - and twice the president petitioned the Utah court and Governor, requesting a retrial for Joe Hill. But Governor Spry continually denied all requests, even those coming from the president of the United States. He finally did authorize a delay because of the pressure and attention being brought to the case primarily from Joe’s native country of Sweden.
Labor unions from all over the world sent petitions, Helen Gurley Flynn, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs and even the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson could not change Governor Spry’s mind. He considered the President’s request to be political meddling
The Minister of Sweden contacted W.A.F. Ekengren, the Swedish Minister to the United States, to petition for a retrial or at least a commutation of the proscribed death penalty. But even after fourteen months of worldwide petitioning and campaigning, Joe Hill was still executed.
Joe Hill’s case has been compared to every outrage in history - even to the outrageous circumstance surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Although there are many today who still casts aspersions on the character and the causes espoused by Joe Hill and his “kind”, there are none who do not admit that Joe Hill did not receive a fair trial and that some sort of commutation or retrial should have been granted.
Joe Hill was shot to death by the state of Utah because of his membership and alleged activities in the I.W.W., a troublesome labor organization of the times. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed on the suspicion of having committed a crime. It was, in reality, a political assassination or execution; a government orchestrated conspiracy - something that most Americans don’t believe ever happened in their country.
Governor Spry’s last words on the issue were: “We did our duty with Joe Hillstrom, and we expect to do it with his lawless colleagues ... We are infested with a veritable horde of law breakers. This city is filled with them.”
Judge Hilton, who finally ended up defending Joe Hill, was barred from practicing law in the courts of Utah on July 1, 1916. This is claimed as the first time any lawyer in the United States of America was barred from practicing law because of his defense of an accused criminal.
“I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel,” said Joe Hill, “ ... If my life will help some other working man to a fair trial, I am ready to give it ... If by giving my life I can aid others to the fairness denied me, I have not lived in vain. I die with a clear conscience; I die fighting, not like a coward. But mark my word the day of my vindication is coming.”
I don’t know Joe. I don’t see any such thing happening. Today almost one hundred years have passed, and your life and death are for the most part forgotten. I rarely even see your name mentioned in history books. There are a few still around who know who you were - but very few. I would guess that most of the American workers and middle class who have lived comfortable lives enjoying the benefits from your struggle and eventual death are not even aware that you or any like you ever existed. I see no vindication for your life or death and at the moment, I feel fairly safe in stating that, unfortunately, you lived and died in vain.
But thanks anyway and I for one sincerely hope that you are now enjoying a big piece of the forever promised and perpetually advertised “pie in the sky” that you so poetically immortalized.
1“The Case of Joe Hill” by Philip Foner, International Publishers, New York.
2 “The Case of Joe Hill”, Philip Foner, International Publishers. Books used in this essay include: “The Rebel Girl”, by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. “Roughneck” - The life and Times of Big Bill Haywood - by Peter Carlson. “The Case of Joe Hill” by Philip Foner.