Facebook Twitter

‘Celebration’ planned for Joe Hill: Was he a murderer or martyr?

SHARE ‘Celebration’ planned for Joe Hill: Was he a murderer or martyr?
Utah Sugarhouse Prison in 1915.

Utah Sugarhouse Prison in 1915.

Courtesy Joe Hill book, Courtesy “Joe Hill” book

SALT LAKE CITY — It may come as a surprise to many Utahns, but around the world this year events are being held to honor a man who was executed by firing squad for a double murder in Utah.

This is Joe Hill's centennial year: On Nov. 19, 1915, the labor organizer and songwriter was shot by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison, which was then located on a plot of ground that later became Sugarhouse Park.

Centennial concerts and memorials have already been conducted in other places. In Utah a small nucleus of Hill's admirers is organizing events as well, including a concert featuring Grammy-winning singer Judy Collins.

"I mean, he's a martyr," Collins said in a dressing-room interview during her annual visit to the Egyptian Theater in Park City.

"He was always working for our rights and our bargaining positions with management," Collins said, noting that she has been a union member since she was 19 years old. "I have been protected by unions throughout my professional career."

The facts of Hill's criminal case — the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son — have remained murky for a century. His supporters believe Hill's trial was a miscarriage of justice at a time when powerful business interests dominated the political environment.

Many singers still perform songs written by Hill. In the years leading up to his execution, he was something of a traveling troubadour for the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW — whose members were widely known as the "Wobblies" — was an aggressive labor union that often clashed with factory and mine owners as well as police.

"Work and pray, live on hay," sang folk singer Duncan Phillips as he performed for a recent Joe Hill centennial fundraiser at Ken Sanders Rare Books.

"You'll get pie in the sky when you die," he sang. "Well, that's a lie," responded the audience, singing the lyrics of Hill's best-known musical composition.

The songs of Hill, as well as his life and his untimely death, have been inspiring union organizers and musicians for 100 years. A video available on YouTube features Bruce Springsteen singing, "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night."

Joan Baez performed that same song about Hill at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969. "Says I, 'But Joe, you're 10 years dead,'" Baez sang. "'I never died,' said he."

In her dressing room interview, Collins sang a few bars of the song and then said, "That song has really kind of stuck with everybody."

Hill's story has been told in countless books, pamphlets and posters over the years and in a rarely seen Swedish film called "The Ballad of Joe Hill," which had a theatrical release in 1971. It told the story of Hill's arrival in America as a Swedish immigrant — he was also known as Joe Hillstrom — and his musical journey through the labor turmoil of the early 20th century.

"He knew that the way to organize was through song," Phillips said as he and musician Kate MacLeod prepared to sing.

"The way that he would gather people together and inspire them," said MacLeod, "to me is what his life was all about."

While Hill was in Utah to organize mine workers, Salt Lake grocery store owner John G. Morrison and his son Arling were killed in what appeared to be a holdup and shootout.

Someone also shot Hill himself that same night. He sought medical treatment for his wounds, claiming he'd been shot by a jealous romantic rival while courting a woman he refused to name. In the 1971 movie, the Joe Hill character said to the doctor, "Don't want to ruin her reputation, you know."

In spite of — or because of — that unsupported alibi, Hill was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for the grocery store murders.

As he awaited the firing squad in the Sugar House prison, Hill's supporters around the world pleaded with Utah officials to stop the execution. Even such notables as Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson asked Utah's governor for clemency, all to no avail. Hill went to his death without ever revealing the name of his alleged romantic partner.

"They didn't have much proof," Collins said. "And probably he wanted to protect the lady who was involved. So he was honorable."

That view was the point of the song Baez performed at the famous Woodstock Festival. "The copper bosses killed you, Joe." Baez sang. "They shot you, Joe, says I."

"I believe he was innocent, but don't dwell on that," said MacLeod at the bookstore fundraiser, saying she prefers to focus on Hill's life, not his death. "He was fighting for fairness of people, for the health of people's lives basically. I think the entire idea behind that is worth celebrating."

A recently published legal study by University of Utah Law School graduate Adam Pritchard and lawyer Kenneth Lougee lends some support to the claim that Hill might have been innocent. Lougee, who also wrote a book on the case called "Pie In The Sky," said in an interview, "The justice system did not work for Joe Hill, and that's really the bottom line."

Lougee and Pritchard believe there was evidence that was not allowed into the trial and it might have bolstered an alternate theory. Morrison, the grocer, had also been employed as a policeman and some believe he might have been killed by a career criminal seeking revenge. Reportedly, Morrison had told friends he was worried about a revenge attack — testimony that was not allowed at Hill's trial.

"We are not saying he (Hill) was factually innocent," Pritchard said. "What we're saying is that there was not enough evidence — or there was evidence that could rebut the evidence showing that he was guilty."

Hill's supporters plan a daylong celebration in Sugarhouse Park. It will take place Labor Day weekend on Saturday, Sept. 5, with Judy Collins as the headline performer.

"It's a matter of principle," Collins said. "That's what kind of rings through the history, is someone who knew that he had a vision and who did something about it and will always be remembered because of that."

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com