Joe Hill Trial: 1914
Joe Hill Trial: 1914
Defendant: Joe Hill
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Soren X. Christensen, Orrin N. Hilton, E.D. McDougall, and F.B. Scott
Chief Prosecutor: E.O. Leatherwood
Judge: Morris L. Ritchie
Place: Salt Lake City, Utah
Dates of Trial: June 17-28, 1914
Sentence: Execution by firing squad
SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of Joe Hill launched the legend of Joe Hill, a lyrical spokesman for the Industrial Workers of the World. His conviction and execution made him a martyr symbolizing, in the eyes of many union workers, all the injustice of American society.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, better known as the Wobblies), organized in 1905, sent its messages to laboring people through song. Its Little Red Song Book, which set new words to popular, often religious, tunes, enjoyed print runs of 50,000. Before World War I, the Wobblies directed or participated in 150 strikes, some as large as a 10-week holdout by 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Songs were an important element in Wobbly tactics, for they brought a sense of solidarity to heterogeneous groups of workers.
The song book's 1911 edition introduced a writer named Joe Hill and a song—"The Preacher and the Slave"—that became one of his most famous. To the tune of "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," it sang:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
Hill, a native of Sweden, was soon a popular hero. He meandered across the country, playing piano, banjo, guitar, and violin in hobo jungles, migrant workers' camps, and city slums. Each edition of the songbook introduced several of his new Joe Hill songs.
Hill was staying with friends in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday, January 10, 1914, when he went out for the evening. Toward midnight, he knocked at the door of Dr. Frank M. McHugh, who dressed a bullet wound that pierced Hill's chest. Hill told the doctor, "I got into a stew with a friend who thought I had insulted his wife."
The same night, police investigated a shooting at a grocery store. Proprietor John G. Morrison and his elder son were found dead. His younger son, Merlin, 13, reported seeing two men come in carrying pistols. They shouted, "We have got you now!" and fired, then ran.
Morrison was a former policeman who had lived in constant dread of those he had previously arrested. Twice he had shot and wounded men who attacked him.
Police found Morrison's pistol, discharged. A witness reported seeing two men run from the store, one holding his hands to his chest.
After Dr. McHugh dressed Hill's wound, he read of the murders and called the police. Since Hill had been wounded the same night as the murders and he would say only that his shooting occurred during a fight over a woman, he was arrested.
Circumstantial Evidence but no Motive
As the trial opened on June 17, 1914, prosecutor E.O. Leatherwood admitted that the state had only circumstantial evidence. Thirteen-year-old Merlin Morrison could not positively identify Hill as his father's murderer.
Press interest intensified as Wobbly lawyers Orrin Hilton and Soren Christensen took over the defense. They complained that Hill would rather face death than reveal his exact whereabouts and the identity of those he was with on the night of the murder. They challenged the prosecutor to prove a motive for his killing Morrison, or even for shouting "We have got you now!" before shooting. They tried to prove that Hill was wounded by a steel bullet, while Morrison's gun fired lead.
On June 28, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and Hill was sentenced to die. Attorney Hilton appealed, citing the prosecution's failure to identify Hill as the murderer, the lack of motive, the court's disallowing testimony on previous attempts on Morrison's life, errors in the admission of expert testimony (a newsman had been accepted as a gun expert), and several critical errors by the judge. The appeal was denied.
Hill's attorneys decided that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was useless because the case involved no federal considerations. While rallies were held and funds were raised nationwide, execution was set for October 1. Hill's attorneys asked the Utah Board of Pardons to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. Petitions, telegrams, and letters mounted. Hill refused an offer of freedom if he would reveal, with corroboration, where he was during the Morrison murder. The execution date was set repeatedly as the Swedish minister to the United States, American Federation Labor President Samuel Gompers, and the highly respected Helen Keller all appealed to President Woodrow Wilson, who in turn, appealed to Utah governor William Spry. But Spry refused clemency unless Hill satisfactorily explained how he was wounded.
Hours before his execution, Hill wired IWW General Secretary Bill Haywood, "I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning—organize."
At 10:00 p.m., Hill handed a guard his last poem, titled "My Last Will":
… 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
The next morning, November 19, a firing squad shot Joe Hill through the heart. Thousands attended his funeral in Salt Lake City, then another in Chicago. Cremation followed. Joe Hill's ashes, distributed in small packets, were scattered worldwide.
The song, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," soon appeared, with its verse,
The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
"They shot you, Joe," says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man,"
Says Joe, "I didn't die.
" Says Joe, "I didn't die."
In the years following, such noted authors as Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill, and Wallace Stegner, as well as folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and millions of workers, have all dreamed they saw Joe Hill last night.
The last of Joe Hill's ashes were scattered in Washington, D.C., in November 1988.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Smith, Gibbs M. Labor Martyr Joe Hill. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969.
Snow, Richard F. "American Characters: Joe Hill," American Heritage (October 1976): 79.
Stegner, Wallace. The Preacher and the Slave. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
"Wobbly," The New Yorker (December 19, 1988): 28.