Editor: Joan Baez’s song about labor icon Joe Hill is in my head, after reading this article from the NY Times. The Wobbly hero, wrongfully executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915, is having his reputation exhumed by a modern author, William M Adler, who has found evidence that demonstrates Hill’s innocence of a murder he was convicted of. Joe Hill came to San Diego a century ago in the midst of the Wobblie’s “Free Speech Fight”, so we can claim a small part of his history too.
By Steven Greenhouse / New York Times / Originally published August 26, 2011
At Woodstock, Joan Baez sang a famous folk ballad celebrating Joe Hill, the itinerant miner, songwriter and union activist who was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. “I never died, said he” is the song’s refrain.
Hill’s status as a labor icon and the debate about his conviction certainly never died. And now a new biography makes the strongest case yet that Hill was wrongfully convicted of murdering a local grocer, the charge that led to his execution at age 36.
The book’s author, William M. 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.
A Salt Lake City jury convicted Hill largely because of one piece of circumstantial evidence: he had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest on the same night — Jan. 10, 1914 — that the grocer and his son were killed. At the trial, prosecutors argued that he had been shot by the grocer’s son, and Hill refused to offer any alternative explanation.
Mr. Adler uncovered a long-forgotten letter from Hill’s sweetheart that said that he had been shot by a rival for her affections, undermining the prosecution’s key assertion. The book, “The Man Who Never Died,” also offers extensive evidence suggesting that an early suspect in the case, a violent career criminal, was the murderer.
Hill, who bounced around the West as a miner, longshoreman and union organizer, was the leading songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, a prominent union that was widely feared and deplored for its militant tactics. He penned dozens of songs that excoriated bosses and capitalism and wrote the well-known lyric “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
His conviction was so controversial that President Woodrow Wilson twice wrote to Utah’s governor to urge him to spare Hill’s life, and unions as far away as Australia protested on his behalf.
After his death, Hill was immortalized in poetry and song, including the 1936 ballad embraced by Ms. Baez, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and others: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”
In the letter found by Mr. Adler, Hill’s sweetheart, Hilda Erickson, wrote that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiancé, Otto Appelquist — someone she had broken off with a week earlier and who had asked her “if I liked Joe better than him.” In her letter, she added, “I heard Joe tease Otto once that he was going to take me away from him.”
Historians say the letter is groundbreaking because it is apparently the first time anyone has stepped forward to explain exactly how and why Hill was shot. Neither Hill nor Ms. Erickson testified at his trial, although Hill did tell the doctor who treated his wound that a rival suitor had shot him.
The prosecution maintained that Hill had been shot by the grocer’s son, even though the police never found any bullet cartridges or traces of blood, other than the victims’, at the murder scene. Prosecutors used Hill’s silence to persuade jurors that he must have murdered the grocer.
Ms. Erickson wrote the letter in 1949 to Aubrey Haan, a professor who was researching a book on Hill. The book was never published, and Mr. Adler found the letter in papers stored in the professor’s daughter’s attic.
“When I first read the letter, it was a ‘holy cow’ moment because all these years people wondered about what happened that night,” Mr. Adler said in an interview.
In his book, which Bloomsbury will publish on Tuesday, Mr. Adler also lays out what historians say is highly incriminating new information about the person police originally suspected of the two murders, Frank Z. Wilson.
The police arrested Mr. Wilson the night of the murders after they found him walking without an overcoat near the grocery. They also found a bloody handkerchief on him.
Mr. Adler said Mr. Wilson had lied repeatedly to the authorities after they arrested him, but they soon released him for reasons that remain unclear. Mr. Adler also discovered that Mr. Wilson had used at least 16 aliases during his many arrests and convictions, several for robbing trains. He was later involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, with a getaway car registered under an alias he often used.
“His research is just incredible — it expands what we know in really dramatic ways,” said John R. Sillito, co-author of a new book on radicalism in Utah and a retired archivist at Weber State University in Ogden. “It builds a strong case that Wilson should have been the prime suspect.”
Hill declined to testify at his trial, standing 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.
Mr. Adler’s book suggests that Hill also did not testify partly because he wanted to safeguard Ms. Erickson’s privacy. She was in her early 20s at the time, the niece of the two Swedish brothers he was boarding with.
Rolf Hagglund, a grandnephew of Hill’s who lives in Stockholm, has read galleys of the new book and welcomed its findings.
“From the start, people knew he was set up,” Mr. Hagglund said in a telephone interview. “This book presents the strongest case so far that there was an alternative shooter and how Joe was shot and why he was shot.” (Hill immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1902, changing his name from the original, Joel Hagglund.)
But John Arling Morrison, a grandson of the murdered grocer, put little stock in Mr. Adler’s findings. “Joe Hill was the one who murdered our grandfather and destroyed the economy of our family,” said Mr. Morrison.
Mr. Adler, a Denver resident, decided to write about Hill after reading Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” which argued that the Hill case was a miscarriage of justice.
“Initially I saw the book as a murder mystery, and I saw myself in the role of gumshoe,” Mr. Adler said. “I also wanted to explore how Hill went from being an anonymous worker to finding his voice as a songwriter to becoming a working-class hero to becoming, ultimately, a martyr.”
Like many historians, Gibbs M. Smith, author of a Hill biography, said the trial was unfair. “Under today’s laws of evidence, he never would have been convicted and executed,” Mr. Smith said. Historians have observed that the judge unjustifiably ruled against Hill on evidentiary questions and that the prosecution coached witnesses to say they saw Hill near the grocery that night.
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.”
Joe Hill’s last will reads:
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 falling flower then
Would come to life and bloom again
This is my Last and Final Will
Good Luck to All of you — Joe Hill