This Day in Labor History: November 19, 1915

On November 19, 1915, the state of Utah executed I.W.W. organizer Joe Hill for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. But he was an Wobbly and dispensable to society, especially in Utah, a starkly conservative western state outraged by the sheer existence of these radicals.

In 1914, a grocer named John Morrison was shot and killed in a Salt Lake robbery. The same night, Joe Hill went to the hospital with a gunshot wound. He refused to explain anything about why he was shot. Figuring they could easily dispose of both cases, the police pinned Morrison’s death on Hill and charged him with murder. It now seems that Hill was shot by a rival for a woman named Hilda Erickson who was a member of the family who rented Hill a room. Erickson confirmed her relationship with both men in a recently discovered letter. Out of honor, he refused to reveal anything about his injuries, even at the point of death.

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden, immigrating to the United States in 1902 at the age of 23. This was a common fate for many young Scandinavian men during these years. Hill went to the West Coast. Like most committed Wobblies in the West, Hill drifted from job to job. We first know he was a member of the IWW when he wrote a letter to the Industrial Worker in 1910, identifying himself as working in Portland. By 1912, Hill was in San Diego where he participated in that city’s free speech fight. He flirted with the idea of going to Mexico to fight in the Mexican Revolution, but never did. He bemoaned the introduction of voting machines in California as a hopelessly bourgeoisie reform that would never change anything. In 1913, he moved to Utah, where he worked in copper mining and construction, agitating for revolution among his fellow workers and probably participating in two IWW strikes in Salt Lake that year. During these years, he composed many of the songs that became part of the IWW songbooks used to build solidarity among members and against the horrible conditions they faced in their lives.

By the time Hill was arrested in 1914, the Western forces of order saw the IWW as Enemy Number 1. The West was the Wobbly bread and butter. They had organized heavily in the region’s mining, timber, and agricultural camps and had engaged in free speech fights in cities across the West. Because they organized the region’s most despised workers with no apologies and no compromise, the forces of order–police, courts, politicians, newspapers, and business operators–saw them as scum to be eradicated. The sheer fact that Joe Hill was a Wobbly was enough to charge him with murder.

The Wobblies were excellent propagandists. Because they organized desperate workers with a flair for public attention and because those stories appealed to people interested in labor to the present, we remember certain highlights–Lawrence, Paterson, Joe Hill. But in my research in IWW newspapers, what I’ve seen is very little coverage of many of those events at the time. Lawrence was a small-fry thing in Wobbly news organs until the cops started beating women. Similarly, although we remember Joe Hill as the ultimate Wobbly today, it took awhile for the story of his arrest and trial to get the organization’s attention. There was little interest in his plight during the trial. The local press trumped up the charges, the trial was a farce in which Hill lacked legal counsel, police never found a gun. None of this mattered. Hill was convicted on June 26, 1914 and given the death sentence on July 8.

It was only at this point that Hill’s case came to the attention of the IWW. But when the Wobbly propagandists got their teeth into something, they did not let go. Very quickly the case became a national and international phenomenon. Not only did he become the latest class martyr for the IWW, but progressives and reformers saw his trial as a farce of justice. The Swedish Ambassador got involved in the case and asked President Woodrow Wilson to intercede. Wilson appealed to Utah Governor William Spry for clemency. Spry was not as rock-ribbed conservative as one might assume. Although a Mormon, he was a strong opponent of prohibition. But he would do nothing for Hill.

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