It took nearly a hundred years to prove that Joe Hill was innocent.
On Nov. 19, 1915, they strapped him to a chair and sat him in front of a wall in the Utah State Prison facing a firing squad. Bullets riddled a paper target pinned to his chest.
A jury had convicted him of killing a store-owner and his son.
They were wrong.
That’s what biographer William M. Adler concluded in his book “The Man Who Never Died,” after he found an old letter from Joe’s girlfriend.
Joe’s real name was Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, born in Gävle, Sweden in 1879. He was also known as Joseph Hillström. He was one of nine children born of Katarina and Olaf Hägglund, a railroad conductor.
They were a religious family, and the parents taught the children to sing and play the family organ which Olaf built. Young Joel also learned to play the violin, guitar, accordion and piano.
In 1887, the father died from a job injury and the children were forced to quit school to support themselves. Then their mother died following an operation on her back.
With both of their parents dead, Joel and his brother Paul immigrated to America in 1902, hoping to get rich mining gold. They soon found out life in America wouldn’t be easy.
He was an itinerant worker, who in those days would be called a tramp.
After working at odd jobs in New York, Joel moved to Chicago and found work in a machine job. Immigrants were not well treated, and Joe started rabble-rousing the workers. That got him fired and blacklisted.
To start again, he changed his name to Joe Hill and traveled the country.
He saw what he considered rampant injustice by the wealthy who left the masses with few resources, powerless and without hope. He decided to do something about it.
By 1910, he was in San Pedro, Calif., where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — also known as the “Wobblies.”
That was the same militant union that battled mine owners in Idaho’s Silver Valley in the 1890s and implicated in the assassination of former governor Frank Steunenberg in Caldwell in 1905.
William “Big Bill” Haywood, the union leader was accused of plotting the murder and hiring a thug named Harry Orchard. They and others were brought to trial in Boise. Big Bill was defended by famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow — drawing headlines around the nation.
Haywood was acquitted and Orchard life in prison.
Joe Hill was right in his element with the Wobblies. He didn’t promote violence however, but encouraged “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency,” which one report described as “rather a sprinkle of sand in the workings of machinery.”
With his musical background, he pumped up the union workers by writing inspirational songs like “The Preacher and the Slave” as a weapon in class warfare —
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 in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
Joe Hill’s line “pie in the sky” would thereafter become part of the American lexicon.
In 1914, Joe and a fellow Swede were vying for the same girl. A battle erupted and Joe’s rival shot him. Joe Hill went to physician Frank M. McHugh’s home-office with a bullet wound in his chest.
That same day — Jan. 10 — John G. Morrison and two of his sons were closing the family’s grocery store in a small brick building at 778 S. West Temple in Salt Lake City.
Suddenly, two men entered the store and killed John and his 17-year-old son Arling, and then fled without robbing the cash register.
A younger son Merlin was in the back of the store and saw the attackers.
Authorities had ten suspects, and settled on indicting Joe Hill — despite having no motive, and Merlin stating that Joe Hill was not one of the killers. Later, he changed his mind.
Authorities needed a scapegoat.
Joe’s jury trial lasted 10 days. Evidence was scanty; no motive was proved and no murder weapon found. Grandson Michael Morrison believes Hill was one of the killers, but said, “I realize it was circumstantial evidence and had the trial been held today, he probably wouldn’t have been convicted.”
The Morrison family is still wracked by the memories.
Joe didn’t help himself either. He was surly, fired his lawyers, and refused to tell the name of the man that shot him, nor reveal the name of the woman who caused the rage that triggered the shooting.
One account said he refused to rat on a fellow Swede, and didn’t want to harm the reputation of the woman by exposing their relationship — even though it might have saved his life.
Her letter found by biographer Adler said the Swede was Otto Appelquist, and the girl 20-year old Hilda Erickson — all living in the same house.
Joe was found guilty and sentenced to face a firing squad.
The story went viral. The public sensed injustice. Even President Woodrow Wilson and blind and deaf author and lecturer Helen Keller, Swedes and countless other supporters appealed to Utah’s governor — all to no avail.
Awaiting execution, Hill wrote to his old friend, union boss Big Bill Haywood:
“Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning — organize!”
That last sentence became the union battle cry.
Lyrics from another union song he wrote called “There is Power in a Union” said:
Would you have freedom from wage slavery,
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,
Then come, do your share, like a man.
There is pow’r…in a band of working men…
At sunrise on Nov. 19, 1915, Joe Hill was taken from his cell and strapped to a chair in front of a wall and blindfolded. Off to the side on his right stood a crowd of witnesses, with prison guards, a physician and attendant on his left.
Six executioners were lined up in front of him — hidden behind a cloth wall with slots cut into it erected in front of a blacksmith’s shed. One rifle was loaded with a blank, but no one knew which one.
Before being brought before them, Joe sent a telegram to Big Bill Haywood, asking, “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.”
With rifles pointing through the slots, a prison deputy named Shettler intoned “Ready, aim…” and before he could finish, Joe shouted “Fire — go on and fire!”
Joe’s funeral in Chicago was attended by more than 30,000.
According to the New York Times, “His ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and according to Wobbly folklore, sent around the world and released to the winds on May Day 1916. However, it was not until the first anniversary of his death (Nov. 19, 1916) that delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes.”
In his book “Joe Hill,” author Gibbs M. Smith wrote, “Hill’s ashes were placed in envelopes and distributed to IWW locals in every state but Utah. Envelopes were also sent to South America, Europe, Asia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.”
Joe was not forgotten in Sweden either. His family home in Gävle is now a museum and a venue for cultural events. Some of the ashes are interred in the wall of a union office (now a city library) in Landskrona, 17 miles across the sea from Copenhagen.
The rest of his ashes were “scattered to the winds,” as he requested.
In a final letter to his fellow union organizer friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe wrote, “I have lived like a rebel and I die like a rebel.”
Joe Hill’s beloved Wobblies union is no more; his ashes long gone, but thanks to researchers, writers, and music greats Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Scott Walker, Bruce Springsteen and others, Joe Hill’s legend, songs and his “Pie in the Sky” live on.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Not everyone agrees and exactly what happened to Joe Hill’s cremated remains.
“The ashes of Joe Hill themselves are shrouded in myth,” labor historian Jarad Davidson writes. “Prevailing accounts of what happened to Hill’s body upon cremation are riddled with factual errors and embellishment. For example, the date of the distribution of Hill’s ashes — believed for so long to be May Day 1916 — is wrong.
“Actual examples of ceremonies involving Hill’s ashes are also few and far between, and due to massive state censorship and suppression of the IWW any documentation of other ceremonies has been lost or destroyed.”
Joe Hill’s Last Will & Testament…
“My will is easy to decide for there is nothing to divide,” his will began, then asking that he be cremated and his ashes scattered on the “merry breezes,” to help the flowers “come to life and bloom again.”
He ended the will with, “Good luck to all of you.”
Joe Hill song “Where the Fraser River Flows”…
Song written by Joe Hill for Canadian union members.
Fellow workers pay attention to what I’m going to mention,
For it is the fixed intention of the Workers of the World.
And I hope you’ll all be ready, true-hearted, brave and steady,
To gather ‘round our standard when the red flag is unfurled.
Where the Fraser river flows, each fellow worker knows,
They have bullied and oppressed us, but still our union grows.
And we’re going to find a way, boys, for shorter hours and better pay, boys
And we’re going to win the day, boys, where the river Fraser flows.
“The Morrison grandchildren have few doubts about Hill’s guilt. But their family’s story has been eclipsed by persistent skepticism — a debate heightened by a recent book that proposes a violent criminal as the more likely murderer.
“And that raises this question: Could a century of bitterness at the tributes for Hill, which has intensified the pain of losing John and Arling, have been needless?
“If Hill was executed for a crime he did not commit, (granddaughter Marilyn) Ryan-Morrison said, ‘I would cry. It would just tear me apart.’”
— Tom Harvey, Sheila McCann, Jeremy Harmon, “A Century of Pain,” The Salt Lake Tribune
John G. Morrison served as a policeman before opening his store in Salt Lake City. Because his killers did not rob the till, it suggests that the murders were simply revenge by some criminal or criminals whom he had arrested — and not committed by Joe Hill.