Joe Hill's Story

At sunrise on November 19, 1915 a firing squad took aim in the yard of the Utah State Penitentiary in Salt Lake City and put an end to the life of convicted murderer Joseph Hillstrom.

More than eight decades later, the death of the Swedish immigrant at the hands of state authorities is one of the few certainties involving one of the most controversial and fiercely debated lives in the history of American labor.

His name, his age, his importance to the movement he championed. His criminal guilt and even his legacy are all subject to endless argument and competing sentiment long after his death.

Any statement of certainty about the life of labor organizer/songwriter Joe Hill produces an instant sea of angry rebuttal.

"We'll Scrape Gold Off the Streets!"

Paul and Joel Haggland were a drop in the sea of European immigration making its way to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Arriving at Ellis Island with virtually nothing in their pockets, the young men soon discovered that stories of easy wealth in a new country had been greatly exaggerated. Despite having a passable command of the English language from lessons in his hometown Y.M.C.A. in Sweden, Joel Haggland was forced to clean bar spittoons in the roughest sections of New York for only pennies a day.

Soon after his arrival, Joel Haggland abandoned the teeming slums of New York City and hit the road. He and his brother split up and went separate ways into the heartland of America. Very little is known, and virtually nothing is verifiable, about the next eight years of Joel's life. In 1905 he sent a Christmas card to a relative in Sweden bearing a Cleveland, Ohio postmark. In 1906 he sent a lengthy, journalistic letter to his hometown newspaper in Sweden describing the devastation in San Francisco, California in the aftermath of that city's calamitous earthquake. He may have worked on board merchant ships steaming between Hawaii and the West Coast. He may have worked as a longshoreman, or a miner, or a logger, or a fruit picker. . .or all of them in different settings throughout the West.

Somewhere in these years of drifting from job-to-job, Joel Haggland apparently ran into trouble and decided he had to vanish--at least in name. Years later, friends in the labor movement would say he had to disappear because of his determined advocacy of worker rights in different locations, and the angry response of powerful companies. Still others maintain that Joel turned frequently to petty crime during these years to support his vagrant lifestyle, and he had to assume a different identity to keep one step ahead of the law. In either case, at a point between 1906 and 1910 the name Joel Emmanuel Haggland disappeared, to be replaced by the moniker Joseph Hillstrom.

Joe Hill Christmas Card (c.) 1913
Courtesy: The Library of Congress

Joe Hill was a frequent correspondent to people he met during his travels in the West, particularly those who shared his affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World. This Christmas card was painted by Hill and sent to a group of friends living in California.

One Big Union

The years of drifting through America, working a series of low-paying, thankless jobs, and encountering thousands of immigrants just like himself had a powerful effect on the now thirty-year-old Hillstrom. He apparently grew hard and cynical toward the nation he had adopted, viewing it as a sea of suffering, poor families held captive at the feet of a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals.

In 1910, as he apparently worked for a period of time on the docks of San Pedro, California, Hillstrom was exposed to the heated rhetoric of a small band of determined labor activists who claimed they had a new vision for the future, and a new method for knocking the mighty off their high horse. The group called themselves the Industrial Workers of the World - and were known by the nickname of "Wobblies."

The Wobblies were part of an era of social, economic and political uncertainty in the United States and the world. The I.W.W. was a more radical extention of movements challenging the existing order, including Socialists, Progressives and Populists.

The I.W.W. had come to life in Chicago just a few years before Hillstrom's introduction to the cause. The Wobbly founders were fed-up with marginal, inconsistent success in the nation's labor movement, and offered a dream for the total transformation of the American economic system, predicated on every man, woman and child joining "One Big Union" to take profits away from the wealthy and place them in the hands of the people who did the actual work.

Hillstrom embraced the ideology of the I.W.W., and soon joined the union and began to recruit members and support fellow Wobblies wherever conflict might surface. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the I.W.W. newspaper, Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the Portland, Oregon I.W.W. local. The letter denounced the tactics of local police in attacking Wobblies and other workers in the area. In the first documented use of a name that would eventually become known around the world, the letter was signed "Joe Hill."

By January, 1911 Hill was on the border between California and Mexico, ready to join a brigade of Wobblies determined to aid the forces fighting for the overthrow of the Mexican government. As the revolution wore on south of the border, Hill was reportedly in the border town of Tijuana. Denouncing the role of capitalists in opposing the peasant uprising, Hill urged other Americans to join the fray.

Even with the occasional letter or postcard sending a time stamp on his whereabouts, Hill's years with the Wobblies are shrouded in contradictory reports, legends and tall tales. Years later he would be reported on the front lines of virtually every major job action involving the I.W.W. between 1909 and 1912. Legend would often have Hill fighting for the Wobblies in a dozen different locations at the same time.

One thing is certain. If Hill was not on the lines in person, he was there in the form of song.

Drawing on his lifelong love of music, fashioned around self-taught abilities on the piano, guitar and violin, Hill authored a stream of songs aimed a firing up the poorest workers in America. His songs decried "bosses" and "scabs" and extolled the virtues of workers organizing in One Big Union to fight for their rights. His songs soon became a fixture in the I.W.W.'s Little Red Songbook.

Hill almost certainly had brushes with the law during this time. Virtually nothing exists on paper to document what, if any, crimes were committed under his name. Wobblies report that Hill was severely beaten by police in Fresno during a labor disturbance. Hill himself would acknowledge doing thirty days in the local San Pedro jail on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy, which he claimed was a masquerade for powerful interests trying to silence him during a longshoreman's strike. Years later the San Pedro police would paint a different picture when they reported that Hill was actually the prime suspect in the armed robbery of a streetcar, but could not be prosecuted because the assailant wore a mask and could not be positively identified.

"I Don't Want to Be Caught Dead in Utah"

Of all the uncertainties surrounding the life of Joe Hill, one of the most perplexing is his decision in 1913 to travel to Utah.

In 1913 Utah had been a state for less than twenty years. Institutions in the state were uneasy in light of the lingering suspicions that existed among some federal authorities to the powerful role of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Better known to non-members as "Mormons," the church had struggled with federal authority for nearly fifty years over the controversial practice of plural marriage by members. It had been a pitched battle that was not fully settled until 1904, when church leadership issued a strict order prohibiting members from engaging in plural marriage.

Utah had modestly active mining and smelting industries, controlled largely by non-Mormon owners. Church leaders, however, had voiced strong anti-union sentiments throughout recent attempts to organize sectors of the labor force. When it came to the role of the Industrial Workers of the World in Utah, religious differences melted away. Social, economic, political and religious forces voiced opposition to the actions and aims of the Wobblies, and vowed to fight the radicals at every turn.

Some acquaintances claim Joe Hill was merely trying to get through Utah to travel to I.W.W. headquarters in Chicago and meet with Wobbly leader "Big Bill" Haywood to plan a more active role in the Wobblies' national efforts. Regardless of his intent, Hill arrived in Salt Lake City during the summer of 1913.

He would never leave the state alive.

Until January, 1914 Hill's time in Utah is undocumented. He may have worked briefly in the silver mines of Park City. One report indicates he did not last long, falling victim to pneumonia and ending up in the hospital. He apparently befriended many in the small Swedish communities in the smelter towns around Salt Lake City. He took a room with the Eselius family in Murray, Utah., having met brothers Ed, John and Frank Eselius during his West Coast odyssey a few years earlier.

The Morrison Murders

On the night of January 10, 1914 two men entered the small grocery store operated by John Morrison near downtown Salt Lake City shortly before 10:00 p.m. Morrison and his son, Arling, were sweeping up and preparing to close the store for the night. At the back of the store, Morrison's younger son, Merlin, waited for the lights to be turned out so the family could go home.

Two gunmen dashed into the store wearing hats and handkerchiefs pulled up to cover their faces. One spotted John Morrison behind the counter, shouted something, and began firing a handgun at the storeowner. Almost immediately, Arling grabbed the family's revolver and fired at the intruders. In response the masked gunman leveled his weapon at Arling Morrison and fired at least two shots. The invading gunmen then fled the store.

Young Merlin Morrison was the first on the scene. His brother was already dead from multiple gunshot wounds. His father groaned nearby. John Morrison would cling to life for a few minutes, but would die before medical attention could be arranged.

Merlin told police who arrived at the scene that he had been able to glimpse portions of the shootout from the back of the store. He provided vague descriptions of the two men, reported that Arling had shot back, and stated that the lead gunman has clearly shouted "We've got you now!" before firing at John Morrison. Police checked the cash register and found the day's receipts in place in the till.

The police knew John Morrison. He had been a member of the police force for a brief period before turning to what he hoped would be the more bucolic life of grocery store owner. Morrison had complained on several occasions that his time on the force had made him too many enemies who carried a grudge. He feared he would be the victim of a payback when criminals were released from jail. Additionally, police knew that Morrison had already had at least one shootout with armed bandits at his store, seriously wounding one invader in the process. It was Morrision's old service revolver that his son, Arling, had pulled from the produce bin when the shooting started.

The police quickly reached some preliminary conclusions, and passed them on to reporters who had gathered at the scene from Salt Lake City's three major daily newspapers. First, they announced that the attack was indeed a payback by someone who knew and disliked Morrison. They pointed to the full cash register as proof that it was not a robbery attempt. They also cited Merlin Morrison's version of the gunman's words as proof that the bandits knew Morrison before the attack. The second conclusion reached by police was that Arling Morrison's single gunshot had found its mark. Although there was no bullet retrieved or blood in the store, apart from the Morrison's, police said eyewitnesses were convinced that one of the gunmen leaving the store was acting injured. Police also reported that drops of blood were found in the snow approximately one block from the Morrison store.

The next morning, Salt Lake City's newspapers announced the search for two gunmen who had killed a father and son in a wanton "act of revenge."

The Unknown Woman

Just after 11:30 p.m. on the same night as the Morrison murders, Dr. Frank McHugh was awakened by pounding on the door of his home in Murray, Utah. Walking from his bedroom through the examination room that served his medical practice, McHugh opened the door to find Joe Hill clutching his chest. McHugh vaguely knew Hill from treating one of the Eselius brothers for a recent illness, and the doctor led Hill into the examining room.

Hill told McHugh he had been shot by a man in an argument over a woman. McHugh found that the bullet had passed through Hill's chest, missed vital organs, and exited just beneath his shoulder blade in back. McHugh cleaned and bandaged the wound, told Hill to rest in bed, and arranged for a friend to drive Hill home.

During the examination, a gun dropped from Hill's clothing. The doctor would later report that he did not get a clear look at the type of gun, since it was held in a holster. As Hill was being driven home by McHugh's friend, Hill reportedly told the man to stop near a vacant field. Just outside the range of headlights, Hill apparently threw the gun into the field. The driver would later report that due to darkness, he could not exactly recall where Hill had thrown the weapon.

The next morning, Dr. McHugh read about the Morrison murders in the newspaper. Of special interest was the police plea for community help in identifying anyone with suspicious gunshot wounds as potential suspects. McHugh called the police department in Murray and reported his treatment of Joe Hill the night before.

Murray police units rushed to the Eselius house, stormed up the stairs, and kicked in the door on Joe Hill's room. Finding him in bed, the police ordered Hill at gunpoint not to move. When he made a reaching motion across the bed, an officer fired. The bullet passed through Hill's hand, shattering bones. Hill had not been reaching for a weapon, as suspected, but was instead reaching for his pants.

The Trial of Joe Hill

Police did not know they had arrested a significant figure in a radical labor movement. Newspaper coverage of the arrest demonstrated no interest in Joseph Hillstrom's association with the Industrial Workers of the World. In fact, there was no public connection of the murder suspect to the Wobblies until the eve of his trial. Only then was it noted in local papers that Hillstrom was, in fact, Joe Hill, a radical who had something of a following due to his songs and poetry.

Pleading poverty, Hill acted as his own attorney during a preliminary hearing. Hill offered little resistance as the prosecution produced a dozen witnesses who testified to the circumstantial case against Hill. The prosecution had discarded all of the early police theories about motive for the crimes. Rather than argue revenge against Morrison, the prosecution decided to forego motive almost entirely. Instead they spoke in vague terms of a robbery gone bad. Hill was bound over for trial, held without bail, and informed that the state would seek the death penalty against him.

For his trial, Hill accepted the offer of two young Salt Lake City attorneys to represent him free of charge. Long before a public defenders office existed to provide legal representation for the poor, young attorneys often volunteered to defend the poor in high-profile cases in the hopes of advancing their careers. In the case of Joseph Hillstrom, the defendant and his attorneys soon turned into courtroom combatants.

Midway through the prosecution's case, Hill dramatically announced he was firing his attorneys because of his belief that they were, in fact, partners with the District Attorney in railroading him for a crime he did not commit. Judge Morris Ritchie refused to excuse the two young attorneys, allowing Hill to take a more active role in his defense. The split was never reconciled, and Hill virtually refused to have anything to do with the trial.

The prosecution's case boiled down to a series of witnesses, including Merlin Morrison, who testified that Hill bore varying degrees of similarity to one of the gunmen seen entering the Morrison store on January 10, 1914. At least one witness identified the scars on Hill's face as similar to scars on one of the gunmen. In addition, the testimony of Dr. McHugh challenged the jury to conclude that Hill's gunshot wound was more than mere coincidence.

Throughout the trial, it had been assumed that Hill would take the stand in his own defense, describe the circumstances of his gunshot wound, and perhaps even name the woman he claimed was the reason for his injury. Even the prosecution stated that Hill had to seize the opportunity afforded in the trial to prove his innocence.

In the face of all the expectations, Hill refused to testify.

Some speculated that his was the action of a man of honor who would not dare harm the reputation of a reportedly married woman caught in an embarrassing tryst that led to the shooting. Others speculated that Hill was advised by I.W.W. legal advisors not to testify. The prosecution said Hill did not testify because his alibi would not hold up under scrutiny. The defense attorneys only knew that Hill wouldn't talk in court.

Rather than open the door to acquittal, the move sealed Hill's fate. The jury deliberated only a few hours before returning a guilty verdict. Under Utah law Hill was given the option of either being shot to death, or hung at the gallows for his crime.

I'll take the shooting," Hill told the judge. "I've been shot a couple times before, and I think I can take it.

Public Outcry

With the death sentence, Hill was transferred to the Utah State Penitentiary to await execution.

Almost immediately his case became a cause celebre for the Industrial Workers of the World. "Big Bill" Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke at rallies throughout the nation, claiming Hill's conviction was orchestrated by Big Business. I.W.W. newspapers championed Hill's case, calling on "fellow workers" to send letters to the authorities demanding a release of Joe Hill. In response, hundreds of letters, telegrams and petitions flowed to the desks of Utah Governor William Spry and President Woodrow Wilson.

When the Swedish ambassador telegraphed Wilson with his conviction that Hill had not received a fair trial, the President asked Spry to delay the execution pending a full review of the case. Seething at the unusual presidential intervention, Spry offered Hill and the ambassador opportunities to produce any compelling evidence that might change the guilty verdict. The ambassador had nothing to offer, and Hill refused to speak. In one message Hill maintained that he had been denied a fair trial, and that in a fair trial he would not have been proven guilty. He maintained that it was not his duty to prove his innocence.

Despite the calls for additional presidential intervention, including a heartfelt pleading from Helen Keller, Wilson was reluctant to do more than he already had. It was only when the convention of the American Federation of Labor telegraphed a demand for action that Wilson, facing a re-election campaign in 1916, again sought to convince Governor Spry to delay the execution. This time Spry, a Republican, adamantly refused to listen to Wilson, a Democrat.

Don't waste time mourning. Organize!
~Joe Hill's final letter to 'Big Bill' Haywood

In one of his last messages from his death row cell, Joe Hill sent a telegram to fellow Wobbly "Big Bill" Haywood. The message would emerge as a rallying cry for workers and protestors for generations to come.

Joe Hill was shot to death by a firing squad on the morning of November 19, 1915.