Joe Hill Was Killed for Singing Labor’s Song

One hundred seven years ago today, the labor troubadour Joe Hill was executed by a Utah firing squad for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit. His real crime: singing and agitating on behalf of the working class.

Joe Hill (1879-1915). (Utah Division of Archives and Records Service via Wikimedia Commons)

At 7:00 a.m. on November 19, 1915, they shot Joe Hill, strapped to a chair, a target placed on his heart. Five sheriff’s deputies armed with rifles, four with live ammunition, one with blanks, stood ready.

“Aim” said the sheriff.

“Yes, aim,” said Hill.

Then it was over. Joe Hill — the Wobbly composer of revolutionary songs, the writer of revolutionary poems, an organizer on the docks of San Pedro, just thirty-six years old — was gone.

Joe Hill to some, Joe Hillstrom to others, was murdered that morning in Salt Lake City, a victim of Utah’s authorities — or was it the copper bosses?

The movement to spare Joe Hill had been massive. Millions of workers spoke out demanding that he not be killed. Few, save the bosses themselves, could believe that Hill had shot the grocer John G. Morrison and his son Arling. Even the American Federation of Labor appealed on Hill’s behalf at its 1915 convention in San Francisco. Its president, Samuel Gompers, intensely hostile to the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), wired President Woodrow Wilson urging him to intervene; Wilson in turn appealed to William Spry, the governor of Utah. To no effect — the copper bosses would have their way.

1919 cartoon by Joe Hill of a worker helping themselves to food off a capitalist’s plate. (Starving Amidst Too Much & Other IWW Writings on the Food Industry via Wikimedia Commons)

Joe Hill’s remains were viewed by thousands in Salt Lake, then shipped back to Chicago. There, the Thanksgiving Day outpouring of grief and solidarity was like nothing seen before. In a packed West Side hall, there were speakers and singing. Bill Haywood, with his huge frame and one blazing eye, stood alone beside the casket and spoke for the IWW: “Goodbye Joe, you will live long in the hearts of the working class. Your songs will be sung wherever workers toil, urging them to organize.”

Ralph Chaplin, another Wobbly poet, composer of the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever,” reviewed the unimaginable day:

Slowly and impressively the vast throng moved through the west side streets. Windows flew open at its approach and were filled with peering faces. Porches and even roofs were blackened with people, and some of the more daring were lined up over signboards and on telephone and arc-light poles. The flower-bearers, with their bright colored floral pieces and wreaths tied with crimson ribbons, formed a walking garden almost a block in length. Thousands in the procession wore IWW pennants on their sleeves or red ribbons worded, “Joe Hill, murdered by the authorities of the state of Utah, November the 19th, 1915,” or, “Joe Hill, IWW martyr to a great cause,” “Don’t mourn — organize. Joe Hill,” and many others.

The Deseret Evening News struggled, it seems, for just what to say. “What kind of man,” it asked, “is this whose death is celebrated with songs of revolt and who has at his bier more mourners than any prince or potentate?”

From Working-Class Sweden to International Fame

Hill was born as Joel Hägglund on October 7, 1878, in Old Gavle, a working-class district in south central Sweden, to an impoverished family of six. His father was killed at work when Hill was eight, and his mother died in 1901. The children scattered; in 1902 he and brother Paul shipped out to the United States, as had tens of thousands of Swedes before them (more than a million in the 1890s and 1900s) to New York, Cleveland, and Chicago.

He worked his way across the country, living the life of the itinerant. He ended up in a shack in San Pedro, California, working on the docks, a “common Pacific coast wharf rat” in his own words. Along the way he had been a copper miner, a sailor, worked in the wheat fields, and ridden the rails as a hobo: “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.”

Hill’s life then as a worker was not so different from that of others. He was despised by the upper classes, and ferociously exploited by employers: “Give me Swedes, snuff and whisky and I’ll build a railway to hell,” boasted the railroad baron, James J. Hill. Joe Hill saw things differently, as did the IWW and its celebrated leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

These workers, she wrote,

are driven from pillar to post, as the seasons must come and go, they must also come and go. They are homeless, no family ties, no opportunities for anything other than labor, yet they are young and strong. They want good homes and food and clothes. They want the good things in life as much as any other member of the human race and they are organizing in the IWW to get them.

All this could make these workers hard — tough from felling trees, laying track, digging copper, and fighting on the waterfront’s mean streets, where strikes could be brutal affairs. The 1916 West Coast dockers strike lasted 127 days. The waterfront in Seattle was a battleground. Union longshoremen beat up scabs on docks and ships. There were fistfights, knife fights, dock bombings, pier fires, shooting duels, and murders. Gunfire strafed both the Waterfront Employers Union office and the International Longshoremen’s Association hall. Hill carried a gun.

He changed (Americanized) his name and became an organizer. But he was always first and foremost a musician and a poet. As he travelled, he wrote songs about workers and poems about working-class life.

It was in San Pedro, probably 1910, that Hill joined the IWW, becoming increasingly active in the next years. He became increasingly well-known, too, as his songs became more political and more widely sung. He was an artist of sorts as well; his cartoonlike figures depicted workers defying and often humiliating employers in various settings.

Hill’s portrait of Sam Murray, a “friend and fellow worker,” as a Mexican revolutionary. Hill met Murray while organizing with Wobblies in Baja. (Industrial Pioneer, December 1923, via The Letters of Joe Hill (Haymarket Books, 2015))

Hill participated in the Fresno and San Diego free-speech fights and was for a spell an agitator-organizer in Portland. It seems he and other Wobblies flirted with joining the Mexican revolutionaries in Baja California; though he didn’t follow through, the revolution probably further radicalized him. Learning of voting machines, he suggested “that workers may find out that the only machine worthwhile is the one the capitalists turn on us when we ask for more bread . . . the one that works with a trigger.”

Hill continued to write songs that inspired men and women on picket lines, around soapboxes in union halls and jail cells. It was those songs, not whatever he thought about violence, that built his reputation. And those songs in many ways made the IWW distinct.

“Wherever in the West there is an IWW local,” wrote the journalist John Reed, “you will find an intellectual center — a place where men read philosophy, economics, the latest plays, where art and poetry are discussed, and international politics.”

Hill flourished in this world, as did his work, which became foundational in IWW literature, above all in The Little Red Songbook. Hill’s work also enabled a rather obscure southern California activist like himself to become a revered figure, known and loved by workers virtually everywhere.

Songs for the Working Class

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn visited Hill in jail, and wrote this appeal:

Joe Hill, inimitable songster and poet of the IWW. Let others write their stately, Whitmanesque verse and lengthy, rhythmic narrative. He writes songs that sing, that lilt and laugh and sparkle, that kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit and quicken the desire for a fuller life in the most humble slave. He has put into words the inarticulate craving of “the sailor, the tailor and the lumberjack for freedom,” nor does he forget “the pretty girl that’s making curls.” He has expressed the manifold phases of our propaganda from the gay of Mr. Block and Casey Jones to the grave of “Should a gun I ever shoulder, ’tis to crush the tyrants might.” He has crystalized into imperishable form songs of the people.

“Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” was written for strikers on the Southern Pacific Line:

The Workers on the S. P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn’t strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.

Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S. P. line.

The workers said to Casey: “Won’t you help us win this strike?”
But Casey said: “Let me alone, you’d better take a hike.”
Then someone put a bunch of railroad ties across the track,
And Casey hit the river bottom with an awful crack.

Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blessed spine;
Casey Jones was an Angelino,
He took a trip to heaven on the S. P. line.

When Casey Jones got up to heaven, to the Pearly Gate,
He said: “I’m Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S. P. freight.”
“You’re just the man,” said Peter, “our musicians went on strike;
You can get a job a-scabbing any time you like.”

Casey Jones got up to heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers of the S. P. line.

They got together, and they said it wasn’t fair,
For Casey Jones to go around a-scabbing everywhere.
The Angels’ Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stairs.

Casey Jones went to Hell a-flying;
“Casey Jones,” the Devil said, “Oh fine:
Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulphur;
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S. P. Line.”

“The Preacher and the Slave,” from 1911, was perhaps Hill’s best-known, in many ways an anthem of the IWW:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the starvation army they play,
And they sing and they clap and they pray,
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:


Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout
“Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
“He will cure all diseases today.”


If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.


Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight:
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry;
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye

It remains unclear just how and why Joe Hill was convicted and executed. He was not in Salt Lake City on IWW assignment that January night in 1914, nor was he involved in an industrial dispute. And he was not at John Morrison’s grocery store.

Morrison and his son Arling were shot and killed by two masked intruders just as they were closing down for the day. Merlin, his youngest son, escaped by hiding in the rear of the store and became an important witness. The murders became something of a sensation in the city.

Joe Hill, as it happened, was also involved in a dispute that night. He was shot in the chest and staggered to the offices of a doctor he knew, who treated him but also reported the incident to the police several days later.

The Salt Lake City police found themselves with a murder to solve, and Joe Hill had fallen into their hands. Several other suspects were jailed, though all but Hill were released. The police knew about Hill, and surely the copper bosses would be happy to see him dead and buried.

The arrest, interrogations, the trial, and appeals would last for more than a year. There would be no witness placing Hill at the scene, no identifications, no weapons found, no evidence of robbery, and importantly, no motive. At the same time, there were suspects with real motives. They were not investigated.

Hill steadfastly insisted upon his innocence. The case against him was at best circumstantial. But for the Salt Lake authorities, it was sufficient, and for the copper bosses, the killing of the Morrisons was incidental. The real crime was “One Big Union,” wrote Reed. “If there were a way to kill [him], they would clearly do it,” as a year later they would kill IWW leader Frank Little.

A problem for the defense, however, may well have cost Hill his life: he would not reveal where he was the night the Morrisons were slain, and he would not reveal who shot him nor why. Still, the case against him was so substanceless that the Board of Pardons offered him freedom if he would explain his whereabouts and his wound. No — he carried this to his grave.

Much later, evidence was discovered that Hill and a countryman were rivals for the attention of a young woman, and that the friend shot Hill out of jealousy. Hill’s silence was meant to protect the “honor” of the young woman.

Don’t Mourn, Organize

Outside Utah and Western boardrooms, few would have agreed with the verdict. The world believed Joe Hill had been framed. However, in 1950 — at the height of anti-communist panic — the California writer Wallace Stegner reopened the case with his Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel, portraying Hill not just as the killer, but as a petty criminal as well.

On the eve of the execution, Stegner writes, Hill told an old friend,

Suppose I really was in Morrison’s store. . . . It didn’t have to be the way they said it happened. All those [cops] and lawyers were guessing. My own lawyers were guessing too, but they had a different guess. It didn’t have to be the way any of them said. Suppose it was. Suppose I was there with Otto, the way they said I was, and we were going to collect a contribution from Morrison. Suppose the boy grabbed in the icebox for the gun and I had to shoot in self-defense . . .

The academic Vernon H. Jensen simply sums up in his 1951 piece, “The Legend of Joe Hill,” claiming Hill as saying, “I wanted some money to get out of town.” Yet, there was no evidence of robbery, and Hill did not flee. Philip S. Foner’s 1965 book The Case of Joe Hill and William M. Adler’s 2011 book The Man Who Never Died also offer detailed accounts of the case.

On Hill’s last day, he made his farewells. To the delegation from the Defense Committee, he said, “Tell the fellow workers for me to waste no time in mourning, but to organize our class and march to victory.” He sent Haywood two telegrams: “Goodbye Bill, I will die like a blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize,” and “It is only a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. 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.”

And finally, to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “more than a fellow worker . . . Composed new song last week, dedicated to the Dove of Peace. It’s coming. And now goodbye, Gurley Flynn, dear, I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel.”

Joe Hill’s farewell letter to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, September 30, 1915. (Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)

Ralph Chaplin wrote an obituary for the IWW:

Joe Hill, dreamer, poet, artist, agitator, with four purple bullet holes in his chest as punishment for the crime of being “true blue” to his class and to himself . . . the murdering of martyrs has never yet made a tyrant’s place secure, and the death orgy held by that heartless bunch of Mormon murderers on the nineteenth of November . . . has done more to cement together the forces that are about to overthrow the ghoulish Capitalist system than anything that has happen in decades. The state of Utah has shot our songwriter into everlasting immortality and has shot itself into everlasting shame.