Joe Hill

DESCRIPTION: The singer "dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you and me." He points out that Hill is dead. Hill replies, "I never died." The singer describes the details of Hill's death; Hill answers, "What they forgot to kill Went on to organize."
AUTHOR: Words: Alfred Hayes/Music: Earl Robinson
EARLIEST DATE: 1938 (music copyright; the words are older)
KEYWORDS: death dream labor-movement lastwill
1879-1915 - Life of Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, known as "Joe Hillstrom" or "Joe Hill."
1902 - Hill emigrates to the United States
Jan 10, 1914 - The Salt Lake City robbery/murder for which Joe Hill was arrested
Nov 19, 1915 - Execution of Joe Hill for the murder
FOUND IN: Britain(England) US
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Arnett, p. 175, "Joe Hill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burt, p. 95, "(Joe Hill)" (1 fragment)
Fireside, p. 48, "Joe Hill" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Sam Richards, "The Joe Hill Legend in Britain," essay in Archie Green, editor, _Songs about Work: Essays in Occupational Culture for Richard A. Reuss_, Folklore Institute, Indiana University, 1993, pp. 316-331 (1 full text plus excerpts and fragments, 1 tune0
Gibbs M. Smith, _Joe Hill_, 1969 (I use the 1984 Peregrine Smith Books edition), pp. 194-195, "(no title)" (1 text)

Pete Seeger, "Joe Hill" (on PeteSeeger39) (on PeteSeeger48)
NOTES [4569 words]: Lori Elaine Taylor wrote an essay, "Joe Hill Incorporated: We Own Our Past," which appeared in Green. It details the history of this song. According to p. 26,
* Alfred Hayes's poem was first published in New Masses and then in a Communist anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States.
* Hayes gave a copy of the poem to Earl Robinson in 1936. Robinson set it to music to supply a song for a "Joe Hill campfire" that evening.
* The song spread across the country that summer.
* Reportedly Alfred Hayes "avoided association with the song throughout his life," but Robinson was proud of it; he recorded it in 1941, and had earlier played piano on Michael Loring's recording. The song became even more popular after Paul Robeson recorded it.
Earl Robinson, shortly before his death, counted translations of the song in twelve languages.
Not all parts of the song are accurate, even if one believes Hill was falsely convicted. The line "the copper bosses killed you, Joe," for instance, is said to refer to the mine owners who opposed a Western Federation of Miners strike in Bingham, Utah in 1912. But Hill and the I.W..W. had little to do with this, and the mine owners had little reason to care about Hill (Smith, p. 117).
Taylor suggests, on p. 33 of Green, that it is this song more than anything else that accounts for the Joe Hill legend. Another part of the legend is due to Big Bill Haywood. Hill, according to Taylor, wrote to Haywood, "Don't waste any time mourning -- organize!" Haywood shortened this to the memorable "Don't Mourn -- Organize!" -- which proved a brilliant slogan.
Green's book also contains the Sam Richards essay "The Joe Hill Legend in Britain" mentioned as an "Additional" entry above. It supplies evidence that this piece has actually gone into oral tradition -- and notes on p. 320 that this song about Hill is more popular than any of Hill's own songs except perhaps "The Preacher and the Slave." Richards in fact believes (p. 326) that this may be the most popular labor song in Britain today.
Richards mentions on pp. 320-321 that Paul Robeson premiered his version of the song in 1947 in Salt Lake City itself. That must have been something to see....
The innocence of Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, "Joe Hill," is such an article of faith in the folk community that it was stated as fact in the earlier editions of this index. The I.W.W. regarded it as a frame-up from the first (Smith, p. 122). This even though the sources containing this song knew so little about the case that different sources gave different dates for Hill's execution.
An honest assessment has to admit uncertainty. Facts are sadly few -- indeed, little is known of Hill's dozen years of freedom in the United States; even before his death, he was legendary enough that he is said to have been part of far more labor actions than any man could possibly have participated in. Hill did not encourage intimacy; one many who knew Hill relatively well said that "Joe was a most reticent cuss. To drag anything biographical out of Joe was a man size job; the guy just wasn't a fluent talker" (Smith, p. 43). Nor was he universally regarded as honest; "Haywire Mac" McClintock called him a "plain crook" and thought him willing to shoot a company man (Smith, p. 54).
Born Joel Hagglund in 1879 in Sweden, he was a violinist from the age of eight. He lost his father in that year, leaving the family very poor. Hill seems to have been obsessed with music (Adler, p. 101), but was irreverent from an early age; his worst school subjects were religious (Adler, p. 102). When his mother died in 1902, the family sold the house, with some children staying in Sweden and some departing. Joel and a brother migrated to America, where Joel worked as a common laborer (Adler, pp. 29-30). Although his first stop in the New World was New York, he soon headed west (Adler, p. 31).
Interestingly, although skilled on violin, guitar, and piano, and with some skill on organ and accordion (Smith, p. 44), songwriting does not seem to have been easy for Hill (Adler, pp. 206-207), perhaps because he was working in a foreign language. Smith, pp. 38-39, prints several of his non-Union songs (one of which may have been sold commercially); they frankly are not very good. Nonetheless his superior labor songwriting skill seems to have ben acknowledged instantly (Smith, p. 19).
Once in America, Hill rambled -- but probably not as much as the tales imply (Lefebvre, pp. 57-58). Presumably he worked at least some of the time, but records of this are few. All that is really certain is that he early on joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist union), and became their best and most important songwriter. The I.W.W. song "The Preacher and the Slave" appeared in the Little Red Songbook in 1911 (Smith, p. 20), although it did not have Hill's name attached at that time.
If Hill's history is mysterious, the story of his trial and execution is frankly troubling.
What is known is that Hill was in Utah starting in 1913, supporting a strike against the Utah Construction Co. (Foner, pp. 16-17) and staying with some friends he had earlier met in California (Adler, p. 209, etc.). He apparently worked for a while upon arrival, but lost his job due to illness (Smith, p. 63). The Utah government reacted strongly to the UCC strike, attacking the strikers and limiting their right to speak and demonstrate (Foner, pp. 17-18). Little wonder that Hill wanted to play a part! -- although Smith, p. 63, and Lefebvre, p. 60, say that he was just passing through on his way to Chicago; Adler, p. 27, believes that, having just gotten out of prison in Los Angeles, he wanted a new start somewhere else.
On the evening of January 10, 1914, perhaps a little before 10:00 p.m. (Foner, p. 18; Lefebvre, pp. 59-60), a murder took place at a grocery store in Salt Lake City. John G. Morrison and his son Arling were slain. Arling, according to Morrison's surviving son Merlin (the only witness), appeared to have shot one of the attackers. The killers left without actually taking anything.
The police thought the case was a revenge killing -- Morrison, who had briefly been a police officer (Adler, p. 44), had fought off robbers twice in the previous dozen years (Foner, p. 19; Adler, p. 47). And Merlin Morrison reported that the killers had shouted "We've got you now" upon entering the store (Adler, p. 53).
Hill later turned up at a doctor's with a bullet hole in his chest (Lefebvre, p. 60). It was a clean injury; the bullet had entered the chest cavity and passed through (meaning that it could not be placed in evidence when the trial came -- although its absence was possibly significant). Hill offered no real explanation, saying that the fault was as much his as the other man's (Foner, p. 34). The doctor, Frank McHugh, treated and released him. Later, McHugh said that Hill had told him that he had been shot by a friend who believed Hill had insulted his wife (Smith, p. 64).
(It is fascinating to note that Dr. McHugh much later said Hill confessed to the crimes -- Adler, p. 76; Smith, p. 75, notes several inconsistencies in the revised tale -- but McHugh did not testify to this in court, only in a letter written decades later.)
Hill did throw away a gun at this time; he would never explain why (Foner, p. 21). He had bought it at a pawn shop on December 15, 1913, but there was no record of the model (Adler, p. 259), so Hill could not prove that the gun was not the murder weapon.
The doctor's practice was at least two miles from the crime scene, and possibly as much as five or six; the contemporary reports of the distance varied (Foner, p. 20n; Adler, p. 70, says five miles but cites no sources; Smith, p. 78, says 4.9 miles while saying that the streets have been renumbered, which perhaps explains the disagreement). This is significant, because a man in Hill's condition after he was shot probably could not have walked five miles to seek help (Foner, p. 41). Also, Hill did not seek treatment until about an hour and a half after the robbery (Foner, p. 20) -- a long wait for someone with a chest wound!
On the other hand, the Dr. McHugh whom Hill visited was a known socialist (Adler, p. 217), so Hill might have felt that he would be more sympathetic. And Adler believes that McHugh did not report on Hill's injury until a reward had been announced in the Morrison case (Adler, p. 216).
Hill's injury meant that, when the police looked for a killer, they found Hill with an injury that fit the description, and he had no alibi. As Smith says on p. 78, "In short, the entire police case seems to have been hased on the fact that Joe Hill received a gunshot wound on the same night as the murder." And Hill did have a police record in California, although the only charge resulting in a conviction was "vagrancy," i.e. being unemployed and a socialist.
Thus arresting Hill was certainly not unreasonable; how many guys were there in 1914 Salt Lake City (the city of the conservative, law-abiding Mormons) with bullet wounds in their chests? Perhaps only one other: "Frank Z. Wilson," who is Adler's candidate for the real criminal (Adler, p. 23). Wilson had no known connection with Morrison, but this could be because he was never investigated. He was in the right place, according to Adler, p. 57 -- and he even resembled Hill (Adler, p. 69).
Hill was taken into custody three days after the murder (Foner, p. 21), having been drugged by the doctor (Adler, p. 70). The problem wasn't really the arrest (although Hill was shot in the hand in the process, and later claimed police brutality; Foner, p. 22; Adler, p. 87, notes that he was still feeling the effects of his wounds when arraigned a week later); it was what followed.
Hill was charged with first degree murder in the case of John Morrison (Foner, p. 24); the murder of Arling Morrison was attributed to an unknown accomplice (Adler, p. 4). Unfortunately, the transcript of this preliminary hearing is missing (Adler, p. 225); we can only reconstruct it from news stories (Smith, p. 79). But the only witness to the crime, Merlin Morrison, could not identify Hill (Foner, p. 23), and there were no other witnesses in position to testify (Foner, p. 30). It appears that Hill did not object to having the witnesses hear each others' testimony (Adler, p. 225), which of course allowed their testimony to influence each other.
Nonetheless, a Mrs. Phoebe Seeley eventually convinced herself that she had seen Hill near the murder scene (Foner, p. 31). Such eyewitness testimony is generally quite weak, and Hill's lawyers eventually got her to concede that she wasn't entirely sure (Smith, p. 88), but it would be important in this case.
The trial began on June 10, 1914 (according to Foner, p. 28) or June 17, 1928 (according Smith, p. 83, and Lefebvre). Hill claimed throughout that the trial was fixed, and certainly he was guilty in the eyes of the public (Foner, p. 27).
Hill was at first defended, pro bono, by an out-of-state attorney, E. C. MacDougall (Foner, p. 24; Adler, p. 228, says that he appeared at the jail and volunteered his services). But Hill dramatically and angrily fired his defense part-way through the trial (Adler p. 238; Smith, pp. 85-86, quotes the court record). It was an obvious mistake (Foner, p. 36). Hill felt that the lawyers had been too gentle to teenage Merlin Morrison, the key witness against Hill. Their argument, which sounds entirely reasonable to me, is that they did not want Morrison to break down, which would surely influence the jury (Adler, pp. 237-238). But their gentle questioning concealed what appear to have been significant inconsistencies in Merlin's testimony.
Foner, p. 28, offers significant exculpatory evidence. First, no bullet could be found at the site of the robbery which could have caused Hill's injury (significant, since the bullet had passed through Hill's body; wherever Hill was shot, the bullet should have been there) and the fact that there was no blood found where Hill was alleged to have been shot. Which, of course, still leaves the question of where Hill had been on the night of the robbery.
Things went downhill fast once Hill got rid of his lawyers -- in part because the judge was clearly prejudiced against him and allowed the prosecution undue liberties (Lefebvre, p. 61). Hill, a non-lawyer, didn't know when to protest -- and when his lawyers (who had been retained by the judge to advise him) tried to help out, Hill continued to attack them (Adler, p. 242). No evidence could be presented to directly connect Hill with the murder. The whole case consisted of Merlin Morrison's testimony about the robbery, including a statement that one of the attackers was shot; Mrs. Seeley's testimony that she thought she had seen him there, and a trail of blood that could not even be shown to be human or contemporary with the shooting.
Foner, pp. 37-38, sums up Hill's defense under six heads:
* That many others fit the vague description of the murderer
* That Hill was shot with a steel bullet, and Arling Morrison's weapon fired lead bullets (a strong point if true, but the evidence is weak; according to Adler, p. 257, it was based on the testimony of one doctor long after the shooting. The judge did not allow the testimony; Smith, p. 95)
* That it was not possible that Hill had been shot by Arling Morrison because of the nature and location of the wound
* That if Morrison had shot anyone (a point for which the only evidence was Merlin Morrison's testimony), the bullet must still be in the man's body (since it was never found; Smith, p. 97, says that six bullets were located in the investigation and none matched Morrison's gun), and the bullet used to shoot Hill had exited his body
* That the gun Hill carried could not have inflicted the wounds found on the Morrisons (a weak point, since Hill had thrown away the gun)
* That the police had tried to influence the witnesses against Hill
There was also the point that, while there was an empty chamber in Morrison's gun, the police expert who claimed it had recently been fired could not in fact have known, because it was smokeless powder; also, the Salt Lake police practice was to leave one chamber empty, so Morrison might have done the same (Adler, p. 249).
The defense also raised the point that Hill had no motive for murder (Adler, p. 250).
The first point is strong. The rest of the points are convincing if true -- but all look like attacks on the witnesses or the police, which would make them less likely to be accepted in a law-and-order state. Plus the judge suppressed some of the supporting evidence for these claims -- at least in the view of Foner (pp. 38-39). And, again, this is Utah, and Hill was a radical outsider. In the circumstances, is it any surprise that Hill was convicted and sentenced to die?
It took the jury parts of two days to reach a verdict of first degree murder (Foner, p. 45). The verdict was announced on June 27, 1914. On July 8, Judge Ritchie sentenced him to death. Offered the choice of hanging or a firing squad, Hill chose to be shot (Foner, p. 49). The judge ordered the execution for September 4 -- but then granted a stay pending a hearing on a new trial.
The decision caused a series of labor protests (Foner, p. 52), although I suspect they just made the citizens of Utah more determined. On September 1, Judge Ritchie denied the request for a new trial (Foner, p. 55), leaving few options but an appeal to Utah's Supreme Court. This failed to gain Hill any relief (Foner, p. 57; Adler, pp. 282-283; both charge the court with many errors of fact). The decision came down on July 3, 1915 (Adler, p. 282); Hill's delayed execution was rescheduled for October 1, 1915 (Foner, p. 62).
Hill's friends discussed an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court, but there was no money for such an appeal (Foner, p. 62). I doubt there was much point anyway; Edward Douglas White's court had recently shown its conservative leanings in the Leo Frank case (see the notes to "Mary Phagan" [Laws F20]. The Frank case was actually mentioned in Hill's appeal for clemency, according to Foner, pp. 66-67, but not on legal grounds).
If anything, the court would have become more conservative in the months since the Frank case as the pro-business, anti-minority, anti-defendants rights Judge James Clark McReynolds (appointed 1914) strengthened the conservative alignment that eventually became "the four horsemen" (Hall, pp. 542-543). Hill's lawyer also suggested that there was no basis for the Federal court to intervene (Adler, p. 285). Hill didn't want to make the effort in any case, so his supporters instead turned to the Utah Board of Pardons.
One of those convinced that Hill should die was the governor of Utah, who was one of five members of the Board of Pardons (the others being the state attorney general and the justices of the Supreme Court who had already condemned Hill; Adler, p. 286). So the various calls for clemency and a new trial (including one from the Swedish embassy; Foner, p. 69) were denied. Even an appeal from President Wilson brought only a brief stay (Foner, p. 78); a later appeal by Wilson earned the president a harsh rejoinder from Governor Spry. The local newspapers were firm in their rejection of Wilson's request (it is perhaps worth noting that Utah was one of only two states to have cast its electoral votes for Taft in the three-way election of 1912).
Hill meanwhile was proving stubborn. "New trial or bust," he declared (Adler, p. 287). And so the days passed until his execution. Governor Spry received death threats and privately hired Pinkertons as guards, but publicly declared that he would not give in (Adler, p. 299). Clearly he felt no qualms about the death penalty!
Hill's last messages of course became famous -- the "Last Will" that began "My will is easy to decide" (supposedly handed to a guard at 10:00 p.m. the night before his death; Smith, p. 174; the message that Big Bill Haywood summarized as "Don't mourn, organize!"; the farewell to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn that ended "I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel" (Foner, p. 96). Little wonder that he became a legend.
He did put up a brief resistance when the guards came to take him before the firing squad, but stopped when reminded that he had said he would die like a man (Smith, pp. 175-177).
Hill was executed on November 19, 1915. He did not wish to have a minister present (Adler, p. 323). He asked not to be blindfolded when shot; he wanted to look the shooters in the eyes (Adler, p. 324). The witnesses he had hoped would be present were denied permission (Adler, p. 331; Smith, p. 177). Rather than let the executioner give the order, Hill shouted "fire!" himself (Adler, p. 333).
He had written that he didn't "want to be caught dead in Utah" (the line was in a letter to Bill Haywood that also had the quote about not mourning but organizing; Smith, p. 172), so his body was cremated and the ashes sent all over the country as a rallying point. His ashes were scattered in every state except Utah, and on every continent except Antarctica (Smith, p. 188).
We might note that, although Hill never ceased to maintain that he had been shot in a fight over a woman, neither the woman nor the shooter ever came forward, not even in a testimonial while dying or after death -- at least publicly. As we shall see, Adler thinks there is a private account. And the same prejudicial incompetence that let the court convict Hill based on insufficient evidence also leaves those who seek to prove his innocence with very little to work with.
Lefebvre, p. 62, sums up the whole case pretty well: "Whether Hill was guilty of murder or not, he clearly did not receive a fair trial, one that might have credibly determined the truth."
It does seem that few people actually want the truth. Smith's is the only account I read that seemed to have an open mind. I visited in trying to find good additional sources to allow further research. The reader reviews were absolutely useless -- clearly most of them had already decided their opinions, and they reviewed the books positively or negatively based on what *they* think happened.
A mild example of this occurs in Sing Out! magazine, volume 27, number 5 (1979), p. 39, which mentions the attempt, on the hundredth anniversary of Hill's birth, to win him a pardon. It mentions the holdup, and it mention's Hill's bullet wound. It does not mention the eyewitness testimony that one of the robbers was injured, nor does it describe how feeble Hill's alibi was, nor does it describe his feeble attempts to represent himself. Thus, while it never quite says that Hill was innocent, it makes the case against him appear much weaker than it actually was.
Foner, it seems to me, is equally one-sided. He gives very few details about the robbery, attacks the prosecution's case in the trial without ever explaining Hill's wound, never considers the evidence against him, and spends most of his book detailing the relatively unimportant course of the appeals. He doesn't want the truth; he wants Hill's conviction set aside. His last paragraph (p. 108) says that Salt Lake City should erect a statue to Hill and declares "We never forget" -- hardly the statement of an unbiased reporter. As a result, while he does a good job of showing that Hill's trial was unfair, I do not think he proves Hill to be innocent.
I will admit to having a lot of trouble with Hill's defenders. They tend to be so passionately pro-Hill as to seem unreliable. Of course, that is not actual proof of anything....
The Richards essay cited above lists several books about Hill's life and trials. Richards himself thinks that Hill's conviction was on "very slender circumstantial evidence." (We should note that circumstantial evidence is now known to be generally more reliable than eyewitness evidence. The weak point in the evidence, if anything, is the eyewitness testimony to what went on during the fatal robbery.) Ralph Chaplin published an account that was largely hearsay. Wallace Stegner felt Hill to be guilty (although he admitted that Utah did not prove its case; Smith, p. 200). Foner of course was certain Hill never had a fair trial.
There matters stood as of 2010. In 2011, the situation changed, as several folkies note below: - RBW
A new biography, William Adler's "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill" (Bloomsbury, 2011), reaches the conclusion that Hill was probably innocent; the author has unearthed a letter written by Hill's girlfriend Hilda Erickson, saying that Hill told her he'd been shot by the girlfriend's former fiancee. Adler concludes that the probable killer of the grocer and his son was a career criminal named Magnus Olson (who physically resembled Hill). - PJS
Stephen Reynolds reports further on this book:
"For anyone who may not yet have seen the publicity, a new book, The Man Who Never Died, by William Adler, just published by Bloomsbury, offers at last an explanation of Joe Hill's wound, the only real evidence against him. Mr Adler discovered a letter written in 1949 by Hilda Erickson, who as a young woman in 1914 had just recently broken her engagement to one Otto Appelquist because she had become enamored of Joe Hill. According to her, Appelquist had shot Joe in retaliation. And why did Joe Hill not testify when he had a good explanation for his wound? Adler suggests that he wanted to protect Hilda Erickson from scandal. It was a different age a century ago, and her prospects would certainly have been dimmed by association with the lurid publicity surrounding the trial, no matter how little her responsibility for any of the violent events.
"Who then did commit the murders? Adler believes that it was a notorious armed robber, Frank Z. Wilson, who was arrested on the night of the murders in the neighborhood where they occurred, walking outside without an overcoat (in January) and carrying a bloody handkerchief. Wilson repeatedly lied to the police when interrogated, and was the original suspect, but was soon released for reasons never explained. (He was later implicated in the Valentine's Day Massacre.)"
The Appelquist/Hill incident is fascinating, because they were living in the same house -- indeed, sharing the same cot -- as well as courting the same woman. Hilda Erickson was only 20 at the time of the fight between Hill and Appelquist (Adler, p. 74). Somehow, until the quarrel, Appelquist and Hill had stayed on decent terms (indeed, the police thought Appelquist was the other man at Morrison's grocery; Adler, pp. 82-83); afterward, when the doctor brought Hill home, they necessarily expelled Appelquist from his cot, and he soon stormed out "to look for work" in the middle of the night (Adler, p. 75).
It should be kept in mind that Erickson did not witness the shooting of Hill; she reported what Hill told her had happened. But it is noteworthy that she was one of Hill's pallbearers, and that she visited him frequently in the county jail. Why, then, did she not testify on his behalf if she had something to say? There was actually press speculation that she could provide an alibi (Smith, p. 89).
Adler, having found Hill's alibi (which would at minimum have saved his life; Adler, p. 23), asks a follow-up question: Why did Hill insist on dying? Even during the trial, Hill's own lawyers found his refusal to really defend himself strange (Smith, p. 93(. Adler's answer (pp. 23-24) is in effect that Hill wanted to be a martyr, to strengthen the IWW. He perhaps half-succeeded: he became a martyr to the left -- but hardly to society as a whole, or even to today's unions. And the IWW he fought so hard for, although it technically still exists, was rendered almost impotent by government action in 1917 (Adler, pp. 342-347). Could Hill have done better had he lived? Who can say?
(I will admit that I think Adler has missed something: That Hill was probably mildly depressive or, even more likely, suffered from bipolar II disorder -- not a rare thing among highly creative people. This would make him less willing to fight with all his ability, and would explain some of his fatalism -- and his desire to die with his eyes open. Indeed, I strongly suspect that Hill was mildly autistic -- this would explain the depression, the stubbornness, and the substantial talents that he never really managed to harness.)
The one caution in all this is Adler's attitude. He is clearly very pro-labor and pro-Hill. This does not make his evidence wrong. But his analysis will be less than perfectly balanced. The data really needs to be examined by other scholars before we permit him the final word.
The bottom line question: Was Hill guilty? It's surprisingly hard to tell. Reading Lefebvre's version of accounts made me think there was strong reason to think him the murderer. Foner, since he refused to take on the issue, did nothing to alleviate those suspicions. Having read Adler, I now strongly incline to think Hill was innocent. But I am not certain, and Smith's balanced book did little to resolve the matter either way. Adler's data really needs to be sifted -- and, even then, there is likely to be a slight doubt, simply because the crime investigation and the trial, which should have discovered the truth, instead did their best to conceal it from posterity. - RBW
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