Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 994

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 994


This is the grave of William Spry.

Born in Windsor, Berkshire, England in 1864, Spry came to the United States in 1871. See, his family had converted to Mormonism and they wanted to live in the Mormon paradise of Utah. So they did. In 1885, Spry served his mission time, working in the South. He was super into it. In fact, after serving his mission from 1885-88, he stayed on and headed the Mormon southern mission effort for another three years.

Upon returning to Utah, Spry entered politics. He certainly had his Mormon card checked for the voters. He became the county collector for Tooele County in 1894. He turned that into a spot in the state legislature in 1902. That only lasted three years, as he became a member of the Utah state board of land commissioners and then became a U.S. Marshall.

In 1909, Spry became governor of Utah. Generally, he was a conservative though not completely hostile to some part of the Progressive movement of the time. There are really two things to remember him for, one minor and one very major. The minor one is that despite his religion, he was a strident opponent of prohibition. This seems to have been an ideological issue rather than a personal one. I don’t think he drank. But he evidently thought it was a terrible idea to legislate something like this. Can’t say I disagree. The Utah state legislature was all about banning alcohol. So Spry vetoed two bills that would have implemented this.

The major thing is that Spry is who murdered Joe Hill. The IWW radical was executed purportedly for murder but really for being a lefty. There is almost zero chance that he murdered the guy who he was convicted of killing. The issue was that he was fucking someone else’s girl and the dude shot him on the same night, meaning he was in the hospital covered in blood and not wanting to talk about it on the same night the store keeper was killed. We long suspected it but we now know it from recently discovered evidence. He was a man who believed in propriety when it came to women. So he was willing to die rather than tell on the woman and get her name in the papers. The case against Hill was extremely dicey. But Spry didn’t care. Even Woodrow Wilson tried to intervene and get Hill off. And we know that Wilson was no friend of the IWW, as his White House would go all in to suppress those radicals during World War I. But Spry completely blew off Wilson. He wanted Hill dead. And so he had him killed in 1915. Spry was pretty blatant that this was about sending a message to radicals, as if the message they were going to get was anything other than capitalism is a corrupt system that needs to be overthrown. Absolutely gross actions by Spry. This was a state murder of the most egregious sort.

None of this hurt Spry in the Republican Party, which of course was basically fine with killing Wobblies. He served his two terms as governor. Then Warren Harding named him Commissioner of the General Land Office. This was a plumb position, especially for a westerner. Spry held on to it until he died in 1929. He was 65 years old. Among the things he did as GLO commissioner was discriminate against Black clerks. See, this was the era where both Republican and Democratic presidents were now openly discriminating against Black people in federal employment. Despite the general public sense that this was Wilson’s doing, he was only part of it. It started with McKinley and continued through Hoover. Harding was very much included in this. So when Black clerks in the Land Office complained about discrimination, Spry basically said they were race agitators and needed to shut up, firing some of them. Nice guy.

William Spry is buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery, Salt Lake City, Utah.

If you would like this series to visit other early 20th century governors responsible for killing labor radicals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Peabody is in Canon City, Colorado and Elias Ammons is in Denver. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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