Joe Hill: songwriter to the working class

Eighty-five years ago, on 19 November 1915, Joe Hill, a rootless, unassuming migratory worker and member of the IWW, was executed by a five-man firing squad in the prison yard of Utah State Penitentiary for the alleged murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son in January 1914. Though the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence was used to convict Hill, his guilt still remains a matter of controversy and should not really concern us here.

The facts themselves are pretty much straightforward. On the night of 10 January 1914 one John Morrison, a former policeman, and his two sons, Aveling and Merlin, were closing their store when two men wearing red bandannas forced their way in shouting “we’ve got you now.” The commotion that followed resulted in the deaths of Morrison and his son Aveling and the wounding of one of the intruders, shot by Aveling.

Five miles away and two hours later, Joe Hill turned up at the office of Dr F N McHugh bleeding from a bullet wound in the chest. Hill informed the doctor before being treated and driven to the Eselius household (known IWW activists) that he had sustained the injury in an argument over a woman. McHugh then informed the police of the visit and agreed to take part in Hill’s capture. Three days later, McHugh turned up at the Eselius household to check on Hill’s wound, drugging him in the process. Once Hill was drowsy, the police burst in, shot him in the hand and arrested him.

Although Hill’s trial was a long way off, the police and press had already found him guilty of the murders. Only 10 days after his arrest, the Mormon-controlled press began a series of articles vilifying Hill, lambasting his songs as “inflammatory” and “sacrilegious” and mounting a panic campaign about the IWW menace to Salt Lake City, a campaign that would continue right up to the trial date five months later and right on through it.

From the offset, the trial itself made a mockery of the US judicial system. None of the witnesses, including Merlin Morrison, only yards away when the incident took place, identified Hill as the assassin. No evidence suggested Hill had ever met Morrison or had a grievance against him. The gun McHugh claimed to have seen at his surgery was never recovered and the bullet that allegedly passed through Hill’s body whilst in the store was never found.

Hill had maintained that he had been shot whilst his hands were raised above his head and this seemed to fit with the evidence presented to the court that the hole in his coat was four inches lower than the bullet hole in his back. As no money had been stolen during the incident, no motive could be established and no concern was given to the fact that 12 other men had been arrested before Hill in relation to the crime or to the report that that same evening another four men had suffered bullet wounds in Salt Lake City.

Hill’s obstinacy and refusal to answer questions during the trial did not help his case. Feeling under no obligation to explain his injury in detail, other than maintaining it was the result of a feud over a woman, he insisted upon the principle that he was innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, Hill fired his defence team, citing their incompetence in cross-examining witnesses and failing to object to leading questions from the District Attorney. Only days before the jury found Hill guilty did a leading labour lawyer, O N Hilton step in, but to little avail. The death sentence was passed.

During his 22 months in prison, Hill kept himself busy writing articles, poems and the songs that had already made him a popular figure. Outside, the campaign to free Hill involved workers the world over, attracted tens of thousands of letters, petitions and resolutions. And whilst the IWW were only too happy to fully back the campaign, Hill objected to his lawyer: “I cannot expect my friends to starve themselves in order to save my life”.

The labour movement was not alone in backing the Hill campaign, for it went on to involve the Committee of Californian Women, Virginia Snow Stephen, the daughter of the president of the Mormons (who was later thrown out of university for her pains) and the Swedish ambassador to the US. The acting US Secretary of State urged a reprieve and twice President Wilson asked Governor William Spry of Utah to reconsider the case.

Spry was having none of it, the stay of executions and appeals to the parole board were to no avail. Spry was himself a leading Mormon and had vowed at the time his political clique ousted the right-wing anti-Mormon American Party in 1913 “to sweep out lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen or IWW agitators”. The same Spry had broken a strike by Western Federation of Mineworkers and allowed the Utah Copper Company to import strike-breakers and to hire an army of gunmen to guard them.

Spry was all too aware that it was the IWW that had upset Utah’s ruling elite by organising workers in the employ of the Utah Construction Company in which the Mormon community had hefty financial interests. In June 1913, the IWW had organised a strike among 1500 workers on the UTC’s Denver Rio Grande railroad. The company hired scab labour but railwaymen helped keep them at bay by demanding IWW membership. Eventually the company was forced to yield, prompting one official to retort that “before the end of the year, every single IWW will be run out of the state”. With police co-operation, gunmen were deputised, IWW meetings violently broken up and their speakers arrested and jailed on charges of “inciting to riot”.

Len De Caux, in The Living Spirit of the Wobblies (1978), summed up the mood of the times in Utah, describing how “an employer-based clerical-rightist regime dominated politics, press and courts. It blamed the IWW both for stirring up workers against bosses and for its radical irreverence towards established convention”. Hill’s lawyer commented: “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”.

Hill was never a leader or an organiser as such for the IWW. He was largely uneducated, never drank or smoked and was not known to the police prior to his arrest. He was however an activist and the author of many a song that the community he lived in at the time of his arrest would have found nauseating. In his three years as an activist for the IWW he had taken part in the 1910 San Pedro dock workers’ strike, the San Diego Free Speech campaign, the abortive “revolution” in Tia Juana intended to make California into a commune and fought alongside the rebels in the Mexican Revolution of 1911. This was enough to ensure his guilt, regardless of the evidence presented at his trial.

Despite the death sentence hanging over him, Hill remained cheerful and calm until the end, embarrassed by the campaign to save him. Just before his death he wrote a brief letter to leading IWW organiser Big Bill Haywood: “Goodbye, Bill, I die a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organise!” As was customary in Utah, condemned prisoners were given a chance to choose their method of execution. Hill chose the firing squad. Legend has it that strapped into his chair, Hill even denied his executioners the chance of giving the order to fire, shouting the command himself.

Thirty thousand people attended his funeral in Chicago, after which his ashes were placed into small envelopes and scattered to the winds in every state of the union and all over the world on May Day 1916. Of his funeral, the Desert Evening News reported: “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”. A reporter on the same paper 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?”

The answer was simple. There was nothing “great” about Hill. He was a man of simple tastes, a member of the working class with an ingrained hatred of the system that impoverished the lives of his fellows, but with a unique ability to condense the arguments against injustice into songs which changed the words of well-known Christian tunes. Moreover, he stood as a symbol of the lengths the master class would go to silence those bent on helping win the world for the workers.

For 85 years workers the world over have song the songs of Hill, whether it be Casey Jones the Union Scab, The Preacher and the Slave or Dump the Bosses off Your Back. As the ballyhoo of the US presidential election reaches its peak it is as well to remember that workers in America too have made a contribution to the movement to bury the profit system for ever.


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