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Joe Hill Never Dies

75 years ago a remarkable Swede was shot after a Salt Lake City mistrial. Today his much-loved songs and memory live on and wait for his exoneration.

On November 19 there will be a candle light vigil at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City, exactly at the spot where Joe Hill was executed for a double murder most believe he never committed.
"Were honouring Joe Hill, the man: organizer, poet and songwriter, and his contributions to the human race and workers of his time", says the organizing committee. But who was Joe Hill really and why is it so hard to lay his memory to rest?

Joel Hägglund was born on October 7, 1879, in the city of Gdvle, about a hundred miles north of Stockholm. When his father died and the family house (now a Joe Hill museum) was sold, Joel and his elder brother emigrated to America in 1902. Joel changed his name to Joe Hill.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Joe Hill went job-hunting over the American continent. He experienced firsthand the hard conditions for the immigrants and saw how the capitalists exploited the poor. He served as a farmer's helper, worked in mines, factories and harbors and experienced first hand the plight of the working class. Later on, as a fire fighter during the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Hoe Hill demonstrated exceptional organizátional skills.

At this time the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) had started to organize what they hoped would become One Big Union. IWW wanted to overthrow the capitalists, but their rhetoric was much more violent then their practice. "They welcomed blacks, Jews, Orientals, Catho-lics and women as equals and they dabbled in poetry and song". Joe Hill joined the IWW and soon became one of its best known speakers and organizers and above all its most popular singer and songwriter.

Joe Hill's songs were spread in the "Little Red Songbooks" of the IWW or the Wobblies as they were also called.

His "To Fan the Flames of Discontent", "The Rebel Girl" and "Casey Jones - The Union Scab" are still popular and sung by Pete Seger and many other artists. The songs contain "verses of suffering and need, of fighting for victory, of love and comradeship, of hate against injustices and of the lust to live and work".

It was when IWW led a massive mill strike in Lawrence, Massachussets, that employers as well as the authorities first started feeling threatened. As an itinerent worker and organizer, Joe Hill was beaten several times by both corporation thugs and the police. In June 1913 he was arrested by police in San Pedro, California, as a suspect in a street car robbery. He was later released when no-one could identify him as the holdup man.

Later that summer, Joe Hill left California for Chicago, stopping in Utah to earn money for the trip. He worked for the Park City Mines, but lost his job when he was hospitalized for two weeks. He was staying with Swedish friends in suburban Nurray Hill when he was arrested on January 13 for a double murder in the city. Two masked men had entered the Morrisson Grocery store and shot the owner and his son. Before the assailants had got away, one of them had been wounded by a shot.

The only witness to the robbery was Merlin Morrison, the 13 year old son of the grocer. He testified that Joe Hill was of the same height and build as one of the killers, but was unable to conclusively identify Hill as one of the killers.

Joe Hill stubbornly refused to disclose where he had been on the evening of the murder and he would not give any details of a chest gun wound, other than that it had been the result of a fight over a woman. Even though a defendant's refusal to testify is no presumption of guilt, the prosecutor was allowed to tell the jury so. The judges own instruc-tions to the jury ignored Utah Supreme Court rulings that'circumstanti al evidence must be considered as a chain, no stronger than it's weakest link.

"There's always going to be questions whether he was guilty, but not on whether he got a fair trial" says Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City lawyer and member of the Joe Hill Committee who felt that the many serious errors warranted a reversal or at least a new trial. "Inexplicably, Hill's attorneys failed to raise the issue in their unsuccessful May 28, 1915 appeal".

The 35-year old Joe Hill was killed by four bullets in his heart. Thousands of protest letters and President Wilson's, Helen Keller's and the Swedish Ambassador's pleas for mercy did not move the Governor of Utah. In the end the Wobblies were at least able to fulfill Joe Hill's last wish. "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 the IWW did better still. Thousands of sympathizers followed him to the funeral in Chicago. He was cremated and his ashes mailed in envelopes to IWW locals and sympathisers in every state and around the world. On May Day in 1916 the ashes were released to the winds (except in Sweden where they were placed in a commemoratiuve urn in the wall' of the Landskrona Folkets Hus - most likely against Joe Hills intentions).

"I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning - organize!" said Joe Hill. The IWW achieved a membership of 100,000 in 1923. The . membership has now declined to around 1,000. (The AFL-CIO that sprung out from the early IWW movement, has more than 15 million members).

Twenty years ago, Bo Widerberg's film "Joe Hill" failed to move an opinion that could press the State of Utah to exonerate Joe Hill (as had the "Sacco and Vanzetti" film done in a very similar case). Today the only hope seems to be the Joe Hill Organizing Committee. Or Folke Geary Anderson, a Swede from Anacortes, WA, who for decades has corresponded with the authorities imploring them to, once and for all, clear Joe Hill's name.
Stag Prison, August 15, 1915.

A letter from Joe Hill in “Death Row”

Editor Telegram, Salt Lake City, Utah:
Sir - I have noticed that there have been some articles in your paper ;wherein the reason why I discharged my attorneys F. B. Scott and E. D McDougall, was discussed -pro and con. If you will kindly allow me a little space, I think. I might be able to throw a little light on the question.

There were several reasons why I discharged, or tried to discharge, these attorneys. The main reason, however, was because they never attempted to cross examine the witnesses for the state, and failed utterly to deliver., the points of the defense.

When I asked them why they did not use the records of the preliminary hearing and pin the witnesses down to their former statements, they blandly informed me that the preliminary hearing had nothing to do with the district court hearing and that under the law they had no right to use said records.

I picked.,up a record myself and tried to look at it, but Mr. Scott took it away from me, stating that "it would have a bad effect on the jury," I then came to the conclusion that, Scott and McDougall were,not there for.the purpose of defending me, and I did just what any other man would have done -- I stood up and showed them the door. But, to my great surprise, I discovered that the presiding judge had the power to compel me to have these attorneys, in spite of all my protests.
The main and only fact worth considering, however, is this:. I never killed Morrison and do not know a thing about it.

He was, as the records plainly show, killed by some enemy for the sake of revenge, and I have not been in this city long enough to make an enemy. Shortly before my arrest I came down from Park City, where I was working in the mines. Owing to the prominence of Mr. Morrison, there had to be a "goat," and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and, worst of all,, an I.W.W., had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be “the goat".

There were men sitting on my jury, the foreman being one of them, who were never subpoenaed for the case. There are errors and perjury that are screaming to high heaven for mercy, and I know that I, according to the laws of the land, am entitled to a new trial; and the fact that the., supreme court does not grant it to me, only proves that the beautiful term, "equality before the law," is merely an empty phrase in Salt Lake City.

Here is what Judge Hilton of Denver, one of the greatest authorities on law, has to say about it:
“The decision of the supreme court surprised me greatly; but the reason why the verdict was affirmed is, I think, on account of the rotten records made by the lower court”

This statement shows plainly why the motion for a new trial was denied and, there is no explanation necessary. In conclusion I wish to state that my records are not quite as black as they have been painted.

In spite of all the hideous pictures and all the bad things said and printed about me, I had only been arrested once before in my life, and that was in San Pedro, Cal. At the time of the stevedores’ and dock workers strike I was secretary of the strike committee, and suppose I was a little too active to suit the chief of that burg, so he arrested me and gave me thirty days in the city jail for ‘vagrancy’ -- and there you have the full extent of my “criminal record."

I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music. Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without - giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squad's - I am ready for you.

I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist.
Respectfully yours, JOSEPH HILLSTROM.

© and all rights reserved from Swedish Press February 1990