Utah wants your help in preserving the historical records around the 1915 execution of labor icon Joe Hill

The radical folk singer was put to death in a controversial trial, which documents held by the state could help illuminate.

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Joseph Hillstrom, known to most by his Industrial Workers of the World pen name, Joe Hill, was arrested and convicted of the murder of John G. Morrison. Prosecutors contended Hill and an accomplice, believed to be Otto Applequist, entered the Morrisons’ grocery store in downtown Salt Lake City on Jan. 10, 1914, near closing time. The elder Morrison was shot in the back. His teenage son Arling, the state argued, shot Hill. Arling was shot three times by the accomplice and died instantly. John Morrison died at a nearby hospital. Hill was convicted and eventually executed. Applequist was never found.

Most people who’ve heard the name Joe Hill know how his life ended.

On Nov. 19, 1915, the songwriter and anti-capitalist labor organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was executed by firing squad at the Utah State Prison in Sugar House after being convicted of murder.

Whether Hill actually committed the crime he was charged with was hotly debated in the year leading up to his death. Petitions flooded in from around the world, urging Utah Gov. William Spry to commute Hill’s sentence, and both the king of Sweden — where Hill was born — and President Woodrow Wilson pressured Spry on the case.

Historians have since all but cleared Hill’s name, but a number of factors, including a hard-headed judge, a bungled legal defense and Hill’s own stubborn refusal to provide an alibi — magnified by widespread anti-union sentiment at the time — contributed to his ultimate execution.

Over the last century, left-wing songwriters from Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie to Billy Bragg and IWW troubadour Utah Phillips have been inspired by Hill’s humorous, radical lyrics that were used to build support for the One Big Union that the Wobblies — as IWW members call themselves — used to agitate for better working conditions with the ultimate goal of overturning the wage labor system entirely.

Despite all the attention, the details of Hill’s trial remain only partially understood. Now the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service is hoping to shed more light on this infamous piece of Utah history, and they’re asking for the public’s help.

The division recently announced it is crowdsourcing the indexing and transcription of 3,800 documents in its Joe Hill collection that were archived during Spry’s administration and inherited from the Utah Historical Society 52 years ago.

“There’s so much drama to the story,” said Jim Kichas, the division’s assistant director. “The [collection] does give a window into this really important era of Utah history, this early labor movement. … [But for decades] the only people who really ever accessed the records were hardcore researchers who were writing books on Joe Hill.”

For the 100th anniversary of Hill’s death in 2015, Kichas partnered with Jeremy Harmon, former photo director for The Salt Lake Tribune, to create digital scans of the records, which are available on the state’s website and were featured in a package in The Tribune.

(Courtesy of the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service) A 1915 letter to Utah Gov. William Spry supporting the execution of labor icon Joe Hill. The state is requesting the public help transcribe records like this one in its extensive Joe Hill collection.

But the documents — which include newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, a funeral oration for Hill and radical essays from labor leaders — are difficult to search, Kichas said, adding that the correspondence records from Spry’s office provide details into the government’s perspective on the trial.

“There is a personal handwritten letter from [IWW co-founder and five-time presidential candidate for Socialist Party of America] Eugene Debs, who was a major figure in the workers’ movement and workers’ rights in the early 20th century,” Kichas continued. “Now people can interact directly with these documents in a way that is fun and exciting.”

Members of the public can create a free account with the transcription software FromThePage, and begin transcribing a record or check others’ work.

“I think the advantage of putting this onto a transcribing crowdsourced program is that more people will actually be able to look through each letter, and then once it’s transcribed, it’ll be much easier to research,” said Lauren Katz, outreach and advocacy manager for the Utah Division of Archives. “It’ll all be typed up because it is very difficult sometimes to read 19th and 20th century handwriting.”

The crowdsourced method has been used by the division twice before with documents related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 and probate files from the estate of Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We opened up with those projects and they were completed very quickly,” Katz said.

With the crowdsource model, the prospect of transcribing thousands of pages of records is no longer a “pie-in-the-sky” dream, to borrow a phrase Hill coined, but a feasible and interactive historical project.

— To view or help transcribe records in the state’s Joe Hill collection, visit archivesnews.utah.gov.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.