Joe Hill was a labor activist, miner, longshoreman and songwriter who was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915 on charges of killing a local grocer and his son. Hill was the lead songwriter for the International Workers of the World, also known as the I.W.W. and the Wobblies. The group was controversial due to its militant tactics. Hill, who was born in Sweden as Joel Hagglund, is known as a labor hero for penning lyrics including “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” his songs include “The Preacher and the Slave,” “There is Power in a Union” and “The Rebel Girl.” He’s also remembered thanks to a folk ballad, “Joe Hill,” sung by Paul Robeson and Joan Baez and one of many songs I came upon years ago while thumbing through a copy of The Fireside Book of Folk Songs.
Controversy has always surrounded Hill’s conviction for murder: The only piece of circumstantial evidence was a gunshot wound that Hill had suffered on the same night, January 14, 1914, as the grocer and his son were killed. A new biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William Adler aims to set the record straight thanks to a letter written by Hill’s sweetheart, Hilda Erickson.
Adler found Erickson’s letter in the attic of the daughter of Aubrey Haan, a professor who was researching a book about Hill. Haan did not end up publishing a book, and the letter, written by Erickson to the professor in 1949, was forgotten until Adler found it in what was truly, as he says, a “holy cow” moment “because all these years people wondered about what happened that night,” says the New York Times. Adler’s book provides “highly incriminating evidence” implicating a career criminal, Frank Z. Wilson — who was found walking without an overcoat near the grocery on the night of the murders but released for unclear reasons — in the killings. Not only did Wilson repeatedly lie to police; he “used at least 16 aliases during his many arrests and convictions, several for robbing trains” and was involved in the St. Valentine’s Massacre in Chicago in 1929.
President Woodrow Wilson himself wrote twice to the governor of Utah to spare Hill’s life, to no avail; Helen Keller protested Hill’s conviction. Adler argues that Hill was a “victim of authorities and a jury eager to deal a blow to his radical labor union, as well as his own desire to protect the identity of his sweetheart.” He did not testify at his own trial, based on “the principle that he should not have to prove his innocence, especially when he believed that the prosecution could not possibly prove he was guilty with the limited evidence it had.”
Hill’s funeral was held on November 25, 1915, six days after his execution was attended by some 30,000. Hill went from being an “anonymous worker” to a labor hero to a martyr and icon of labor. As the New York Times says,
Some students of the case say one reason for Hill’s silence may have been a belief that he could do more for labor’s cause as a martyr than alive. At the time, the I.W.W. had fewer than 20,000 members, but it was detested by business leaders because it pushed miners, lumberjacks and railway workers to use strikes, slowdowns and sabotage to pressure employers to improve pay and conditions.
Shortly before his execution, Hill wrote supporters an emotional note, saying, “Don’t waste time mourning, organize,” which later became the union catchphrase, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.”
Hill himself was aware of the potential power of his words and melodies. As he wrote in a letter from jail:
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them…up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.
A selection of Hill’s music is here as is an excerpt from The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. The book has already received much acclaim for its powerful account of an American hero who — as now revealed in Adler’s book — died before his time, but left a powerful legacy of stirring words and music.
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Photo of Joe Hill from Wikimedia Commons