You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

Joe Hill Biography
Joe Hill Biography

For this Labor Day, WC offers a re-post of an August 2011 blog post. A book review of a biography of Joe Hill, a martyr of the early days of the labor movement.
The first song WC learned to play on the harmonica was “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” the labor organizing anthem popularized by Joan Baez. It’s an easy, simple tune, as a labor anthem should be. But there was nothing simple or easy about the death of Joe Hill. There’s an excellent new biography of Joe Hill out, The Man Who Never Died, by William M. Adler (Amazon Link), that examines the life, times and wrongful death of Joe Hill. It’s a remarkable book and worth a read.

Joe Hill was a labor organizer, political gadfly, and a Wobblie – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He was convicted of murdering a grocery store owner and his son and executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915. He was almost certainly innocent. The only evidence against him was a bullet wound to his chest, which Hill refused to explain at trial. Labor unions from all over the world – as well as Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson – had asked the governor of Utah to spare Joe Hill.

What Adler discovered in researching his book was a letter Hill’s sweetheart, Hilda Erickson, wrote saying that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiancé, Otto Appelquist. The only explanation Hill ever gave for being shot was to the doctor who treated him, who said Hill told him he has been “shot by a rival suitor.” In Hill’s silence at trial, there was no corroboration. The Hilda Erickson letter closes that open circle.

The police had the man who was likely the real killer. Frank Z. Wilson was arrested near the grocery store. He had a bloody handkerchief. He also had a history of violent crimes – he later was involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Wilson lied repeatedly to the Utah police but then, inexplicably, he was released. The chance to take down Joe Hill was too useful to someone, WC supposes.

To some extent, Joe Hill was a victim of his own high principles, refusing to drag his sweetheart into a high profile case. And Hill was a victim of the class warfare of the day. As one contemporary noted, “Joe was found guilty of being a Wobblie.”

Hill himself wrote,

Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a ‘goat’ [scapegoat] and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be ‘the goat’.

Notably, Chief Justice Daniel Straup of the Utah Supreme Court, after hearing Joe Hill’s appeal, wrote  that Hill’s unexplained wound was “a distinguishing mark,” and that “the defendant may not avoid the natural and reasonable inferences of remaining silent.” So much for the Fifth Amendment and the constitutional right to remain silent.

Joe Hill, as a martyr for labor, accomplished far more than Joe Hill, the labor organizer and songwriter, ever could have. “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill,” a poem by Alfred Hayes set to music by Earl Robinson in 1936, immortalized Joe Hill, far more than Hill’s own songwriting efforts – pieces like the title of this post – ever did. Although there’s a lot of irony when you hold Joe Hill’s martyrdom up against the title of his song.

A little bit of fresh light, in the form of a biography well told, should remind us all that freedom and opportunity and equality sometimes come despite unbridled capitalism, not because of it. The Man Who Never Died is part history, part detective story and a very good read. Highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

  1. I’m not really partial to the whole “hero” cult but still, I’d take someone like Joe Hill as my model for a hero over vets or consultants who served in Abu Ghraib any day. “Little” men and women with big principles are the true “heroes”, if any such exist so thanks to another man of principle, WC, for celebrating this.

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  2. Pingback: FYI September 05, 2022 – Instagatrix

  3. Karl Marlantes’s book Deep River has Joe Hill in a small but significant appearance. The book, a real doorstop of a tome, is well worth the read even though its story is located on the Wet Side of the Cascades.



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