Nearly 108 years after Joe Hill’s execution, a new historical marker about the famous labor organizer has been dedicated in Sugar House Park. An unveiling ceremony was held Saturday, hosted by the Central Utah Federation of Labor/AFL-CIO.
The marker “will stand as a symbol of his enduring spirit and will serve as a reminder of the power of collective action,” its organizers say. But who was he? What led to his arrest and execution? What is his legacy?
Who was Joe Hill?
Born in Sweden in 1879 as Joel Hägglund, Hill moved to America with his brother after the death of his mother in 1902. Taking the name Joseph Hillstrom, he worked around the West as a laborer and a longshoreman, as a mechanic and as a miner. In 1910, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union known as the Wobblies. Made up largely of immigrants and led by influential left-wing radicals, its stated goal was to break people free from the exploitation of capitalism and build a new society, where workers owned the factories, mills and mines.
It also was a singing union. Hillstrom, a musician, was soon writing “rebel songs” under the name “Joe Hill” — music that became labor anthems, such as “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There is Power in a Union.” He also wrote “Where the Fraser River Flows” for the striking railroad construction workers in British Columbia. The chorus ended with the lines, “And we’re going to find a way, boys. Shorter hours and better pay, boys. We’re going to win the day, boys, where the Fraser River flows.”
After being arrested in 1913 in San Pedro, California, and spending 30 days in jail on a vagrancy charge (which Hill believed was politically motivated), he moved to Utah, where fellow IWW members had just led a strike against the Utah Construction Company. Hill worked for a short time at Park City’s Silver King Mine.
The Salt Lake City murders of Jan. 10, 1914
On the night of Jan. 10, 1914, two men wearing red bandanas over their faces burst into Morrison family grocery store on 778 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City. The only people in the store were 17-year-old Arling Morrison, his 13-year-old brother Merlin and their father John, all closing up for the night. One of the masked men cried, “We’ve got you now!” Merlin initially said he saw the taller of the two men shoot his father and he saw his father fall. Arling grabbed his father’s Colt .38 from its hiding place. Prosecutors would later say he was able to shoot one of the assailants before being shot three times and dying. The shooters made no attempt to take any money before leaving.
That same night, Joe Hill went to the home office of physician Frank McHugh in Murray with a gunshot wound in his chest. “Where or why I got that wound,” he would later insist, “is nobody’s business but my own.” [Read more: Why didn’t Joe Hill save himself?] He told the doctor that night that he had been shot by a friend in a quarrel over a woman and asked him to keep it quiet. However, the doctor told police and Hill was arrested.
Joe Hill’s trial and conviction
Hill was charged only with the murder of John Morrison. Police suspected the other man — who was never arrested — was the one who had shot Arling. The evidence against Hill was circumstantial; eyewitnesses, including Merlin Morrison, said Hill had the same build as the killer and he had been shot the same night as the murders. At one point, Hill tried to fire his defense attorneys, believing they weren’t pinning witnesses down about their changing testimonies.
On June 27, 1914, Hill was convicted of the murder of John Morrison. During his July 8 sentencing hearing, Hill chose death by firing squad, saying, “I have been shot a few times in the past and I guess I can stand it again.”
Joe Hill’s execution
Once Hill’s conviction was final and his execution set, the IWW, other labor unions and supporters worldwide began a letter-writing campaign to oppose it. [Read some of the letters here.] Utah Gov. William Spry received death threats demanding Hill’s release. While Hill awaited his execution date, he kept writing, including the song “Rebel Girl.”
In a telegram to IWW leader William Haywood, he wrote the words that, shortened, would become a mantra for his supporters: “Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.” Despite appeal attempts and the calls for the commutation of his sentence, Hill was executed by firing squad in Sugar House Park — then the site of the Utah State Prison — on Nov. 19, 1915.
Was Joe Hill’s trial and conviction fair?
In the decades since Hill’s execution, critics have pointed out that Hill had no motive for the killings, the prosecution was based nearly solely on him being shot the same night as the killings, there was no reliable eyewitness identification and, they argue, his lawyers were incompetent. Criticism stretches from jury selection to rulings throughout the trial to jury instructions; popular theories have Hill framed by Mormons — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by copper barons or by powerful opponents of unions like the Wobblies.
What is the legacy of Joe Hill?
Hill still inspires artists and galvanizes activists around the world. His critiques of capitalism and the “greedy master class” echoed in Occupy Wall Street. The influence of his protest music can be traced from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen, to Rage Against the Machine to Public Enemy, to Brother Ali and Allison Russell. “Don’t mourn — organize” remains a rallying call today.
And the debate continues: Did Utah execute an innocent man on Nov. 19, 1915?
To read reporting and documents about Hill’s life, listen to Utah artists perform his music, and learn how descendants of the grieving Morrison family eventually found peace, please visit The Salt Lake Tribune’s extensive website.