On a cold January evening in 1914, two men in masks robbed a Salt Lake City shopkeeper and his son at gunpoint, killing both. This morning, songwriter and union organizer Joe Hill is executed by firing squad for those murders despite scant evidence of his involvement. Indeed, the only firm thing the state could seem to tell the jury was that Hill definitely belonged to Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor movement.
“The angel Moroni moved the hearts of the Mormons to decide it was Joe shot a grocer named Morrison,” novelist John Dos Passos writes afterwards. “The Swedish consul and President Wilson tried to get him a new trial but the angel Moroni moved the hearts of the supreme court of the State of Utah to sustain the verdict of guilty. He was in jail a year, great on making up songs.” In his last letter to socialist union leader Bill Haywood, Hill wrote “I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!” By then, he had indeed penned some new songs, seemingly preferring a martyr’s death to his former life as an unknown itinerant worker.
Perhaps he was not wrong, for Joe Hill is the reason we speak of dodgy, grandiose promises as ‘pie in the sky.’
At trial, Joe Hill claimed that he had been shot in the lung by a jealous man over a woman’s heart, but steadfastly refused to name her. In his biography The Man Who Never Died, author William M. Adler presents evidence that she was 20 year-old Hilda Erickson, and that Hill’s shooter was another Swedish immigrant named Otto Appelquist. The two men boarded in the Erickson home and became rivals for her affection — a classic love triangle — and Hill’s refusal to risk her dishonor by involving her in the trial might best be seen as a gallant move from the Old World.
Hill showed up at a physician’s home less than two hours after the deadly robbery, and his case was reported to the police due to that unusual timing as well as his incomplete explanation. Because John Morrison was a former police officer himself, Salt Lake City investigators gave the matter high priority, eventually interviewing more than a dozen suspects before settling on Hill. The prosecution relied on dubious identifications that would never pass muster in a modern trial, but it was enough to win a conviction.
Hill’s last will and testament is a lyric, a stoic refusal to mourn, a cry to Organize!
My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone”
My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you
Secured to a chair in front of witnesses, Hill shouts an encouragement to hurry up the proceedings. Rifles crack in unison. Pronounced dead, Joe Hill is then carried to an infirmary for autopsy, then sent to Chicago for cremation. His ashes are to be shared with socialists around the world and scattered to the winds in a grand gesture of solidarity.
To be sure, Joe Hill was a radical. He took part in the abortive 1911 Magonista rebellion, an uprising against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz that was first organized by the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Liberal Party of Mexico) but which eventually attracted a number of ideological revolutionaries from the United States. Ranging as far north as British Columbia, where he took part in a railroad builders’ strike, Hill was seen protesting closed streets in San Diego by 1912. But his first arrest only came in 1913, during the San Pedro dockworkers’ strike, when Hill served 30 days for vagrancy because the police chief found him “a little too active.” None of this would make him memorable a century later.
The only reason we remember Joe Hill a century later is that he chose to die so that his songs would live. He also dies at the very moment in which recording technology is creating ‘popular music‘ and allowing his messages of free speech, class struggle, and equality to echo down the ages.