Joe Hill - Murderer or Martyr? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Joe Hill - Murderer or Martyr?

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Joe Hill in a mugshot
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 a rolling stone.'
My body? Ah, 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 - Joe Hill.
- Joe Hill, 18 November, 1915; the day before he was executed.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Says I, 'But Joe, you're ten years dead.'
'I never died,' says he.

'Joe Hill ain't dead,'he says to me.
'Joe Hill ain't never died,
Where workingmen are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side!'
- Alfred Hayes, 1925

Joe Hill

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born in Gefle, Sweden on 7 October, 18791. He was the ninth child of Olof Hägglund, a railroad worker, and his wife, Margareta. When Olof died, shortly after Joel's eighth birthday, Joel and his five surviving siblings went to work to help support the family. When Margareta died in January, 1902, Joel and his brother, Paul, emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York City in October 1902.

The only work Joel could find at first was cleaning spittoons in one of the poorer neighbourhoods in New York City. He soon travelled west, working as a farmhand, construction worker, longshoreman and logger.

Sometime between 1906 and 1910, Joel Hägglund changed his name to Joseph Hillström. The exact timing is uncertain, as this was not a legal name change. Exactly why he changed his name is also unclear. Some people say that he had to change his name so, throughout the United States, he could avoid the consequences of his strong advocacy of workers' rights. Others say that he had turned to petty crime to support himself and changed his name to keep ahead of the law.

Some time in 1910, Joe Hillström joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In fact, he may have joined twice. Some reports state that he joined while working on the docks of San Pedro, California. Others state that he joined after hearing Eugene Debs speak in Portland, Oregon. It's possible that he found Debs's speech so inspiring that he joined a second time in Portland, having already signed up in San Pedro.

In any event, Joe Hillström wrote a letter to the IWW newspaper, Industrial Worker, late in 1910, in which he identified himself as a member of the Portland IWW. He signed that letter 'Joe Hill'. This is the first documented use of that name.

Joe Hill spent the years 1911 to 1913 working with the IWW. Although he wasn't a front-line organiser, he had a remarkable talent for writing poetry and songs. In fact, he first coined the phrase 'pie in the sky' in his 1911 song, 'The Preacher and The Slave'. Music was one of the primary tools used by the IWW to get their message to the public; Joe Hill produced an enormous number of songs. In fact, the 1973 edition of the IWW songbook includes 13 songs written by Joe Hill, out of a total of 53 songs.


Just before 10pm on the night of 10 January, 1914, John Morrison, a Salt Lake City, Utah, grocer and a former policeman, was closing his store with his two sons, Arling and Merlin. Two men wearing red bandannas forced their way into the store. One of the intruders shouted 'we've got you now', levelled a handgun and shot Morrison. Arling Morrison grabbed his father's old service revolver and fired two shots at the masked men, who returned fire and fled the scene. Merlin, the younger child, stayed hidden in the back of the store.

Arling was dead before Merlin reached him. John died within minutes. When the police arrived, Merlin described what had happened, gave a vague description of the gunmen, and stated that one of them had very clearly said the words 'we've got you now'.

John had left the police force specifically because he feared that some of the people he had arrested would seek revenge when they were released from prison. He had recently stated that this was still something he feared. That fact, combined with the shouted 'we've got you now' and the presence of the day's receipts in the cash register, caused the police department to initially conclude that this was a revenge killing. The police department also concluded that at least one of Arling's bullets had found its mark. There was no blood in the store other than John and Arling Morrison's, but witnesses said that one of the gunmen leaving the store appeared to have been wounded. Drops of blood were found in the snow just one block from John Morrison's store.

A Wounded Man

At about 11.30 that night, Joe Hillström went to the home of Dr Frank McHugh. Hill had a bullet wound in his chest. Hillström explained the wound by saying that he had been shot by a man while arguing over a woman. The bullet had passed through Hillström's body without hitting any vital organs, so McHugh just cleaned and bandaged the wound and arranged for a friend to drive Hillström home. During the examination, a gun dropped from Hillström's clothing. At that time and in that place, this was not unusual enough to cause McHugh any alarm. The friend of McHugh who gave Hillström the ride home later reported that, on the way, Hillström had him stop at a vacant field. McHugh's friend reported that Hillström stepped outside the glare of the headlights and threw an object into the field.

The next morning, when McHugh read about the double murder and the police request for help in identifying anyone who had a gunshot wound, he informed them of Hillström's visit.


Three days later, McHugh visited Hillström to check the wound and give him some painkillers. When the medication had obviously started making Hillström drowsy, police officers entered the room. They aimed their weapons at Hillström, who was in bed, and ordered him not to move. Hillström started reaching across his bed. An officer, suspecting that Hillström was reaching for a weapon, fired and shattered bones in Hillström's hand. Hillström had been reaching for his pants.

Hillström's roommate, Otto Applequist, who was suspected as the second gunman, left town on the night of the murders and was never located.

Shortly after his arrest, a Salt Lake City newspaper learned that Hillström was the IWW poet/songwriter, Joe Hill.



During the course of the trial, the prosecution built a reasonably strong circumstantial case against Hill. They produced a dozen eyewitnesses who testified that the killer looked more or less like Hill. Although young Merlin Morrison said 'that's not him at all', when he was first shown Joe Hill, he later retracted that statement and identified Hill as the gunman who had killed his father and brother. One witness testified that the gunman had scars on his face similar to those on Hill's face as a result of a childhood illness.

The original theory of a revenge killing was disregarded as the prosecution presented a case for a simple robbery gone bad. The question of why a robber would yell 'we've got you now' on entering the establishment to be robbed was ignored.

No evidence was presented to suggest that Hill had ever met Morrison or had any grudge against him. The gun the Dr McHugh reported having seen on the night he treated Hill was never recovered. None of Joe Hill's blood was found inside the store. A bullet that had passed through his body caused Hill's wound. That bullet was never found inside the store.


Two young attorneys in Salt Lake City, hoping to build their reputations and advance their careers, volunteered to defend Hill free of charge. To his subsequent regret, Hill accepted their offer. Partway through the prosecution's case, Hill fired the attorneys for incompetence, citing their weak cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and their failure to object to leading questions from the District Attorney. In his statement on firing them, he said that he believed they were acting in partnership with the District Attorney to convict him (Hill) of a crime he had not committed. Judge Morris Ritchie refused to excuse the attorneys. Hill then refused to have any active participation in the trial.

The case for the defence included the fact that, since the money in the cash register had not been stolen, no motive could be ascribed to Hill. Additionally, 12 other men had been arrested in connection with the crime before Hill and four other men in Salt Lake City had been treated for bullet wounds on the night of the murders.

Hill, who never testified in his own defence, had stated that he was shot in a fight over a woman and that his hands were raised over his head when he was wounded. The fact that the bullet hole in the back of Hill's coat was four inches lower than the bullet wound in his back seemed to support Hill's version of how he had been shot.

Hill never explained his decision not to testify to his attorneys, or anyone else. Speculation as to his motives for this refusal fell into three camps. One group considered Hill a man of honour who was unwilling to tarnish the reputation of a married woman and that a jealous husband had shot him. Another group held that IWW legal advisors had told him not to testify, as the prosecution had not proven their case. The third group said that Hill knew that his alibi wouldn't hold up if he were cross-examined by the prosecution.


After just a few hours, the jury found Joe Hill guilty of murder. Utah law gave him a choice. He could either be executed by a firing squad or hanged. Presented with these options, Hill said, 'I'll take the shooting. I've been shot a couple of times before and I think I can take it'.

Public Reaction

Hill spent 22 months in prison while his case went through the appeals process. Literally tens of thousands of letters, petitions and resolutions became part of the campaign to save Joe Hill. Virginia Snow Stephen, the daughter of the president of the Mormon Church and a faculty member at the University of Utah, wrote letters to national leaders on Hill's behalf.2 The Swedish Ambassador to the United States sent President Woodrow Wilson a telegram, stating his opinion that Hill had not received a fair trial. This telegram, combined with the urging of the acting United States Secretary of State, resulted in President Wilson writing to Utah Governor William Spry to request that Hill's execution be delayed, pending a full investigation.

The IWW started a campaign to stop the execution. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn visited Hill in prison and worked with the IWW in their campaign. The 30,000 members of the Australian IWW sent a resolution calling on Governor Spry to release Hill. Trade unions in Britain and other European countries echoed that resolution.

Helen Keller, who was nationally known for overcoming multiple disabilities, sent the following telegram to President Wilson.


Your Excellency: I believe that Joseph Hillström has not had a fair trial and the sentence passed upon him is unjust. I appeal to you as official father of all the people to use your great power and influence to save one of the nation's helpless sons, the stay of execution will give time to investigate new trial will give the man justice to which the laws of the land entitle him.

Helen Keller.

Governor Spry

Governor Spry first responded to the protest by the Swedish Ambassador by offering Hill and the ambassador the opportunity to present any 'compelling evidence' that might change the verdict. The Ambassador, of course, had no such evidence. Hill, maintaining that the prosecution had not proven his guilt, and that it was not his responsibility to prove his innocence, still refused to speak in his own defence.

Spry had been elected to office based, in part, on his promise 'to sweep out lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen or IWW agitators'. He had broken a Western Federation of Mineworkers strike and supported the Utah Copper Company when they brought in strike-breakers and hired an army of gunmen to guard them.

The IWW was unpopular with Utah's ruling elite. They (The IWW) had organised workers in the Utah Construction Company. In 1913, they had organised a strike among 1500 workers at the Denver Rio Grande Railroad in Utah. One official publicly stated that 'before the end of the year, every single IWW will be run out of the state'. The lawyer who represented Joe Hill during his appeal commented that 'the main thing the state had on Hill was that he was an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty. Hill tried to keep the IWW out of it [the trial]... but the press fastened it upon him'.

Governor Spry's reaction to the intervention from President Wilson was to write the following words to the President.

Your interference in this case may have elevated it to an undue importance and the receipt of thousands of threatening letters demanding the release of Hillström, regardless of his guilt or innocence, may attach a peculiar importance to it.

In Prison

In prison, Joe Hill continued writing the poems and songs that had made him famous, or infamous, depending on one's point of view. He also wrote letters. Some excerpts are provided below.

I have always tried to make this earth a little better for the great producing class, and I can pass off into the great unknown with the pleasure of knowing that I never in my life double-crossed a man, woman or child. - letter to Ben Williams, dated 9 October, 1915.
In spite of all the hideous pictures and all the bad things printed about me, I had only been arrested once before in my life, and that was in San Pedro, California. At the time of the stevedores' and dock workers' strike. I was secretary of the strike committee, and I suppose I was a little too active to suit the chief of that burg, so he arrested me and gave me 30 days in the city jail for vagrancy and there you have the full extent of my 'criminal record'3.
The main and only fact worth considering, however, is this: I never killed Morrison and do not know a thing about it. He was, as the records plainly show, killed by some enemy for the sake of revenge, and I have not been in the city long enough to make an enemy.
Shortly before my arrest I came down from Park City; where I was working in the mines. Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a 'goat' and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be 'the goat'.
I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and in my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music.
Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squads - I am ready for you. I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist'.
- From an article Joe Hill wrote for the socialist journal Appeal to Reason on 15 August, 1915.
Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah.
- Telegram to 'Big Bill' Haywood, shortly before Hill's execution


On 19 November, 1915, Joe Hill was executed by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison. Legend has it that Hill, having heard the 'Ready... Aim' orders, shouted 'Fire'! himself.


Joe Hill's body was transported to Chicago, where the IWW held his funeral. About 30,000 mourners attended that funeral. At the funeral itself, according to the Desert Evening News, 'No creed or religion found a place at the service. There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices singing songs written by Hill'. One reporter for that newspaper asked: 'What kind of man is this, whose death is celebrated with songs of revolt and who has at his bier more mourners than any prince or potentate?'

Ralph Chaplin described Joe Hill's funeral, which was held in Chicago's West Side Auditorium, in an article written for International Socialist Review in December 1915. He described the casket's placement on a 'flower-laden, black and red-draped stage, above which was hanging a handwoven IWW Label'. The funeral opened with the singing of Joe Hill's song 'Workers of the World, Awaken' by the entire crowd. After that, there were solo performances, one of which was of the Joe Hill song, 'Rebel Girl'. Other songs were performed in Swedish and Italian.

Thousands of members of the funeral procession, which shut down traffic in a sizable portion of Chicago, wore IWW pennants on their sleeves or red ribbons bearing the words 'Joe Hill, murdered by the authorities of the state of Utah, November the 19th, 1915', or 'Don't mourn - organize, Joe Hill'.

When the procession arrived at Graceland Cemetery, various IWW members spoke. Eulogies were given in English, Swedish, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish, Italian, German, Yiddish and Lithuanian.

Ralph Chaplin's description of the funeral closed with the words:

The state of Utah has shot our song-writer into everlasting immortality and has shot itself into everlasting shame. Thank goodness, neither Joe Hill nor the IWW will ever be found dead in Utah!

Disposition of the Remains

Joe Hill was cremated. Portions of his ashes were put into envelopes and mailed to IWW members in every state in the United States (except Utah, where he didn't want to be found dead) and across the world, with the following letter:

Fellow Worker:
In compliance with the last will of Joe Hill, his body was cremated at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 20, 1915.
It was his request, that his ashes be distributed.
This package has been confined [sic] to your care for the fullfilment [sic] of this last will.
You will kindly address a letter to Wm D Haywood, Room 307, 164 W Washington St, Chicago, Ill, telling the circumstances and where the ashes were distributed.

Impact of Joe Hill's Execution

By killing Joe Hill, the State of Utah created a martyr. Whether or not Hill was guilty of the murders for which he was executed, in the years after his death, his songs became more popular and were heard at nearly every labour strike or protest of any kind. His name and his story were given as proof that the government and 'big business' were conspiring against the working class.

Some historians believe that Joe Hill chose to become a martyr for his cause, knowing that he could accomplish more dead than he could alive. They hold his writings while in prison to be documentation backing that theory. It is true that he consistently treated his own individual case as insignificant and always emphasized carrying on the struggle for the 'One Big Union'.

Murderer or martyr, Joe Hill may have been executed on 19 November, 1915, but he did not die. If he had, Joan Baez would not have sung the words Alfred Hayes' 1925 poem at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, introducing his name to yet another generation.

Songs of Joe Hill

An index of Joe Hill's songs can be found here.

1Most historians agree on this date, although some put his birth in 1882.2Shortly after Hill was executed, she was fired from the University and moved to California.3The police department of San Pedro later stated that he was the main suspect in the armed robbery of a streetcar and that they had used the vagrancy charge to hold him while they investigated. Because the robbers had been masked, nobody ended up being charged with that robbery.

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