Friday, January 10, 2014


On this date in 1914, Utah grocer John G. Morrison, 47, and his son, Arling, 17, were shot to death in their Salt Lake City, Utah store. The police arrested Joe Hill, a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the “Wobblies”). Hill, had become a popular song writer and cartoonist for the radical union, writing about the hard life of itinerant workers and the need for improved conditions for working people.

Hill’s was arrested and quickly convicted, accused of trying to rob the store. Despite appeals, the conviction stood, even though the bullets were not from Hill’s revolver and no one had identified him as the murderer. The only evidence against him was that he himself had been shot in the chest on the same evening as the Morrison murders. He refused to explain the circumstances – it had to do with a woman, he said.

Hill's love relationship, though frequently speculated upon, remained mostly conjecture for nearly a century. Apparently, though, Hill and his friend and countryman, Otto Appelquist, were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. The two men quarreled and Hill was shot. Tragically, though, this alibi was never presented at his trial.

Following Hill’s death sentence, the governor of Utah turned down thousands of demands for clemency and a request from President Woodrow Wilson for a stay of execution. Hill, who had chosen to be shot rather than hanged, reportedly refused a blindfold. After declaring his innocence, he shouted to the squad of five men poised with their guns, “Fire – go on and fire!” And they did.

After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry, including a 1930 poem by Alfred Hayes called "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", sometimes referred to simply as "Joe Hill".

* Hayes's lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson. Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger often performed this song and are associated with it, along with Irish folk group The Dubliners. Joan Baez's Woodstock performance of "Joe Hill" in 1969 is one of the best-known recordings.

* Phil Ochs wrote and recorded a different, original song called "Joe Hill", which tells a much more detailed story of Joe Hill's life and death, and Chumbawamba did a song aboul Hill called “By and By” in 2005, using the first stanza of Alfred Hayes’ poem.

* Wallace Stegner published a fictional biography called Joe Hill in 1950.

* Authors Stephen and Tabitha King named their second child Joseph Hillstrom King, after Joe Hill and he later adopted the pseudonym when he published his first novel, “Heart-Shaped Box.”

* Gibbs M. Smith wrote a biography Joe Hill, which was later turned into the 1971 movie Joe Hill (also known as The Ballad of Joe Hill) directed by Bo Widerberg.

* In 1980 Posten AB, the Swedish postal service, issued a Joe Hill postage stamp. Red on a white background with the lyrics in English "We'll have freedom, love and health/When the grand red flag is flying, In the Workers' Commonwealth."

Hill’s unjust death made him a labor legend and a martyr to the cause. But he was game to the end. Just prior to his execution, Hill wrote to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, and said, "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah."

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