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The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill

by richard myers Thursday, Jul. 07, 2011 at 8:09 AM

Joe Hill — labor organizer, musician, song writer, revolutionary — was executed in 1915 by the state of Utah for a crime that many believe he did not commit. Now there's proof.

July 5, 2011

Review, The Man Who Never Died:  The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler

Review by Richard Myers

Big Bill Haywood used to call revolutionary industrial unionism, the organizing philosophy of the Industrial Workers of the World, “socialism with its working clothes on.” Writing for the International Socialist Review from his prison cell, Joe Hill offered an example of such hands-on belief. Hill had recently arrived in Utah from the docks of California where many of the jobs were temporary. Therefore it was “to the interest of the workers ‘to make the job last’ as long as possible,” Hill wrote in his article, “How to Make Work for the Unemployed.”

Joe continued,

The writer and three others got orders to load up five box cars with shingles. When we commenced the work we found, to our surprise, that every shingle bundle had been cut open. That is, the little strip of sheet iron that holds the shingles tightly together in a bundle, had been cut with a knife or a pair of shears, on every bundle in the pile—about three thousand bundles in all.

When the boss came around we notified him about the accident and, after exhausting his supply of profanity, he ordered us to get the shingle press and re-bundle the whole batch. It took the four of us ten whole days to put that shingle pile into shape again. And our wages for that time, at the rate of 32c per hour, amounted to 4.00. By adding the loss on account of delay in shipment, the “holding money” for the five box cars, etc., we found that the company’s profit for that day had been reduced about 0.

So there you are. In less than half an hour time somebody had created ten days’ work for four men who would have been otherwise unemployed, and at the same time cut a big chunk off the boss’s profit. No lives were lost, no property was destroyed, there were no law suits, nothing that would drain the resources of the organized workers. But there WERE results. That’s all.

Joe Hill didn’t mention how the “accident” occurred, nor who the “somebody” was that created all of this extra work. He simply observed that it was a practical means of redistributing capitalist profit among workers, and thereby recommended such circumstances to others. It is little wonder that capitalist interests in Utah saw merit in executing Hill when they had the opportunity.

Joe Hill was a writer, a musician, a song writer, and a cartoonist. His wit was sharp, his intelligence keen, and his working class life, if typical of his time, was also exemplary. Yet in some circles, Joe Hill’s legacy has been shadowed by some level of doubt. The popular union activist – arguably the best known union icon of all time – was, after all, convicted of murder, and was subsequently executed by the state of Utah in 1915.

Biographers researching Joe Hill list numerous ways in which his trial was flawed: the judge short-circuited the jury selection process, assigning hand-picked jurors to the case in spite of defense objections. Jury instructions delivered by the judge mis-characterized Utah’s laws of evidence. Any attempt to introduce evidence that might have exonerated Joe Hill was routinely ruled out of order. Evidence that didn’t fit the facts was made to fit by prosecution attorneys given leeway to lead witnesses.

Angered that his trial had become a farce, Hill fired his first set of attorneys. The judge essentially countermanded Hill’s decision, ordering those same attorneys to remain on the case. The inability to manage his own defense caused Joe Hill a considerable amount of consternation throughout the trial, which ultimately resulted in a guilty verdict.

Hill likewise faced a stacked deck on appeal. The appeals court judges made up the pardons board as well, in essence reviewing their own decisions. Irritated by widespread criticism of the trial (including two inquiries from the president of the United States), the pardons board itself became a source of “malicious and deceitful” falsehoods about the condemned prisoner.

William M. Adler’s excellent new book, The Man Who Never Died, recounts considerable new information about the life and legacy of Joe Hill. Adler spent five years walking the ground, poking into dark places, discovering long-hidden truths. He traveled to Sweden to meet Joe’s family and research his childhood. Adler then followed Joe to America, to California and Canada, through his brief role in the Mexican Revolution, and subsequently, to the bitter end in Utah.

Like much of North America at the time, Utah was experiencing labor discontent. The Industrial Workers of the World had won a strike by railroad construction workers in the summer of 1913, and business leaders vowed that it wouldn’t happen again. Joe Hill arrived a short time later, and within a year, the popular Wobbly troubadour would be condemned to death.

Joe Hill was convicted largely on the basis of a gunshot wound he sustained the same night that a Salt Lake City grocer and his son were murdered in their store. Joe’s off-the-record explanation attributed the gunshot to a dispute over a woman.

In the aftermath of the two murders, Utah authorities arrested a hard-bitten criminal, a consummate con artist and thug known to have been engaged in a notorious and violent crime wave throughout the region. Magnus Olson did time in Folsom State Prison in California, the Nevada State Penitentiary, and at least seven other lockups during his fifty year crime spree. While the Salt Lake City police took Olson into custody on suspicion related to the grocery store shootings, they were thrown off by his artful lying and his routine use of pseudonyms. In spite of some incriminating evidence, they failed to identify Olson as the notorious wanted criminal, and they let him go.

Ironically, when they arrested Joe Hill (who resembled Olson) for the crime, Utah authorities suspected that Olson (under a different name) was the murderer. For a time they even believed Hill and Olson to be the same man. Having failed to sort out the real identities of their detainees, Utah authorities eventually settled on the union agitator as their trophy prisoner. After all, Hill’s gunshot wound seemed persuasive enough for a conviction, and they tailored their case to that one, unalterable fact.

Was the real Olson a more likely perpetrator of the grocery store murders than Joe Hill? Adler notes that during a career of some five decades, Olson “burglarized homes, retail stores, and boxcars; he blew safes, robbed banks, stole cars, committed assault and arson, and in all likelihood, had committed murder.” Adler’s painstaking research places Olson in the Salt Lake City area at the time of the murders, and most probably, in the very neighborhood where the murders occurred. The murdered grocer – a former police officer – had been attacked before, and believed that he was being targeted. Olson had a reputation for violent revenge against his adversaries, a probable motive which nicely dovetailed with the crime for which Joe Hill would die. Joe Hill was newly arrived in Utah, and no motive was established for Hill as perpetrator. In spite of uncertainty whether either of two assailants at the grocery store had been fired upon, let alone wounded, Hill’s gunshot injury was all the evidence necessary to convict him, in the view of prosecutors.

But what of Joe Hill’s alibi that he’d been shot over a woman, a person whose identity was never officially revealed to the court? Adler identifies Hilda Erickson, of Hill’s host family in Utah, as his secret love interest. Joe’s unofficial – yet far from unnoticed – sweetheart, Hilda must have been much on the minds of onlookers throughout Joe Hill’s trial. She visited Joe through the prison bars every Sunday, yet at Joe’s direction, they were careful to prevent anyone from overhearing their conversations. When Hill, facing death, was allowed a private meeting with associates, Hilda was among the few people he saw. Hilda later stood vigil at the prison when Joe was executed, and she was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.

Moving Joe Hill’s secret romantic saga from conjecture to historical record, Adler’s book includes a sensational discovery, a letter penned by Hilda Erickson describing what had happened many years before, and her account confirms Joe Hill’s ostensible alibi. She had been the sweetheart of Joe’s friend and fellow Swedish immigrant, Otto Appelquist (who had arrived in Utah before Joe). Hilda broke off that engagement after Joe arrived, leaving Otto and Joe to become rivals for her attention. One day Erickson returned to her family’s home (where the two men were boarding) to discover that Joe had a bullet wound, while Otto was making excuses for leaving – for good, as it turned out. Otto Appelquist had shot Joe in a fit of jealousy, then regretted the deed, immediately carrying Joe to a doctor. Perhaps fearful of arrest for the shooting and uncertain whether Joe would survive, Otto left at two in the morning (to find work, he had declared), and never returned. The doctor would later turn Joe in after hearing of the grocery store murders – and a sizeable reward.

Why didn’t Hilda voluntarily step forward when her testimony might have saved Joe Hill? She was just twenty years old, and there is some indication that Joe Hill advised her not to. He probably sought to shield her from publicity – an instinctive reaction for the Swede with roots in his family’s experiences in their homeland. Ever the idealist, Joe Hill may also have sought to avoid testimony that might endanger his friend, countryman, and fellow worker, Otto.

At first, Joe was convinced that Utah couldn’t convict him because he was innocent. Utah society had sought to throw off its reputation for frontier justice, and it was almost possible to believe that the rule of law meant something. Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Hill accepted implicitly the legal principle that a defendant would not be considered guilty for not testifying, and he overvalued the judicial aphorism of innocent until proven guilty.

Utah courts routinely disregarded both of these principles in the Joe Hill case. Throughout the trial it became increasingly apparent that the Utah system of justice concerned itself more with expunging a perceived evil than with justice. A prominent union man had been accused of a heinous crime, and evidence to the contrary simply wasn’t to be considered. Joe Hill realized too late the danger he was in.

The circumstances of Joe Hill’s trial in Utah – a union man accused of murder, and fighting for his life – may be put into perspective by briefly examining another murder which occurred during, and as a direct result of the trial. Inveighing against injustice, twenty-five year old Ray Horton – president of Salt Lake City’s IWW branch – publicly cursed the imperative that causes some men to wear a badge. For his vocal audacity, Horton was abruptly shot by an onlooker, and then received two more bullets in the back as he staggered away. The killer, a retired lawman, was initially jailed for first degree murder, but was held for only one day. Upon his release, the killer was hailed as a hero at the Salt Lake City Elks Club, with a luncheon in his honor. Newspapers editorialized that this cold blooded murder was justified because Horton – a union man exercising free speech – was asking for it.

That a union man in Utah may be killed with impunity for his attitude seemed to likewise play a role in Hill’s pardons board hearing. One cannot say that Joe Hill had no chance whatsoever to save his own life. His pride and his contempt for a flawed process played a significant role in his fate. As implacable as Utah justice seemed for a union man, one has the sense from the recorded pardons board discussion that even at that late date, Joe Hill might have derailed his imminent execution if he threw himself upon the mercy of the court, explaining at long last how he had been wounded by a gunshot. The board dangled a pardon or a commutation before him, but Hill insisted that wasn’t good enough, calling such a possibility “humiliating.” In response to entreaties to testify, Hill promised the pardons board that he would offer them the full story, if he was granted a new trial. The pardons board declared it had no authority to order a new trial. Having embraced the slogan “New Trial or Bust” before his many supporters, Hill told the pardons board, “If I can’t have a new trial, I don’t want anything.”

Equally stubborn in its own way, the pardons board determined that Hill would either “eat crow” (as Hill described it) in the manner that they demanded – tell all with contrition before the pardons board, with no guarantees that it would make any difference – or die.

Adler explains why Joe Hill may have seen martyrdom as a noble and worthwhile cause. Joe Hill was too idealistic, too stubborn, too proud to give them the satisfaction of breaking him. Joe Hill told the pardons board, “Gentlemen, the cause I stand for, that of a fair and honest trial, is worth more than human life – much more than mine.” In his estimation they hadn’t proved him guilty; why should he be required to prove himself innocent?

The Joe Hill that shines through this work is idealistic, unselfish, proud, impulsive, principled, protective, stubborn, and at times, a little naïve in the face of implacable authority. That the governments and courts of Salt Lake City and the state of Utah should prove themselves as intransigent and unprincipled as the captains of industry about whom he’d so often sloganeered, may have caught Joe by surprise. Having discovered the truth of the matter, he dedicated his very being to the principle that justice must prevail, that sacrifice for such a cause was a worthwhile endeavor. In spite of incarceration and a capital sentence, Joe Hill managed to the very end to exercise some measure of control over his own life. And, to the extent he was able, over his death.

Adler’s prose is first rate, his analysis of history impeccable. He draws conclusions where appropriate, and presents an honest account, yet allows the reader to put together the final pieces of the puzzle.

At the end, do we know for certain who committed the grocery store murders? No. But we have a narrative which clearly demonstrates: Joe Hill never fit the profile of a cold blooded killer, while another man detained momentarily for the same crime did fit such a profile, in spades. The other man was released to continue his life of crime. Olsen later became a henchman of the notorious Al Capone in Chicago, while Joe Hill, the union man who left a rich legacy in song and wrote articles for socialist publications, was sent to his death. Hill’s funeral in that same city, attended by some thirty thousand, would help to launch the legend that is Joe Hill.

As Joe told his supporters at the last, they weren’t to mourn in his name. They were to organize.

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William M. Adler has written for many national and regional magazines, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the Texas Observer. In addition to The Man Who Never Died, he has authored two other books of narrative nonfiction: Land of Opportunity (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995), an intimate look at the rise and fall of a crack cocaine empire, and Mollie’s Job (Scribner, 2000), which follows the flight of a single factory job from the U.S. to Mexico over the course of fifty years. His work explores the intersection of individual lives and the larger forces of their times, and it describes the gap between American ideals and American realities. Adler lives with his wife and son in Denver, Colorado.

Richard Myers is a writer, author, and union activist in Denver, Colorado.


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