Joe Hill and Labor Unions
To what extent did Joe Hill’s involvement in labor unions and his status in labor unions influence the perception of his trial?
Why was there such an outpouring of support and opposition surround Joe Hill's trial?
“Workers of the world, awaken! Break your chains. Demand your rights.
All the wealth you make is taken by exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission, From your cradles to your graves?
Is the height of your ambition, To be good and willing slaves?
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Fight for your own emancipation;
Arise, ye slaves of every nation, In One Union grand.”
In the late 1800s the western United States, including Utah, became a center of mining, smelting, and railroad activity, attracting workers from around the world. Like other western states, Utah’s population grew. Although a few people made fortunes extracting coal, silver, copper, or gold from the ground, the majority of miners did not become wealthy. Instead they labored under dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Miners used risky and unpredictable explosives, which would sometimes lead to catastrophic accidents, like the Scofield Mine Disaster that claimed 200 lives. Rock falls or small cave-ins were more common accidents that could injure or kill miners. Not only were the mines unstable, but many had poor ventilation. Dust and fumes could plague workers with lung diseases that were often fatal.
Like miners, workers in other industries experienced poor working conditions, and began to take action. Individual workers were not very persuasive when they demanded changes from their bosses. But large groups of workers who organized into labor unions could be more influential. Labor unions demanded reforms like higher wages, safer working conditions, and shorter hours. They used strikes to shut down mines and factories in order to pressure owners to meet their demands. The United States government and state governments as well as the majority of average Americans opposed the labor unions’ tactics. This was particularly true in Utah.
The culture of the immigrants who arrived in Utah to mine often clashed with the farming culture of the earlier settlers. The labor unions they formed were often opposed by the more conservative leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, who made up a majority of Utahns. Conflict developed between mine owners and mine laborers in Utah and throughout the West.
One of the most radical labor unions was the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW or Wobblies. Like other unions, the IWW fought for better working conditions for miners and laborers. However Wobblies’ goals and tactics were more extreme than many other unions. Their violent tactics and demands for radical changes like socialism and anarchy gained them many enemies in government, business, other unions, and among most Americans.
One of the most well known members of the IWW was Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom. Living in Chicago where the IWW was created, Hill became active in the union community.
After moving to California, Hill’s leadership role grew. A talented musician, Hill began writing folk-songs about labor reform, encouraging people everywhere to organize by joining the IWW. His tunes used inspiring lyrics to unite workers against what he called the injustice of corrupt and greedy business owners. After some minor trouble with the law in California, Hill moved to Utah, where labor unions were opposed by government officials and by most residents. Hill was bound to face opposition.
On the night of January 10, 1914, John Morrison and his two young sons, 13-year-old Merlin and 17-year-old Arling, were preparing to close their grocery store in Salt Lake City, Utah. Merlin had just stepped into the back of the store when two men entered the front with their faces covered with red handkerchiefs. Within a few seconds, the intruders shot and killed John and Arling. Merlin witnessed the crime as he hid behind a counter. He reported that before his brother lost consciousness, Arling managed to shoot at one of the assailants. This claim was never confirmed, as a bullet or bloodstains were never found in the store.
On the same night and about the same time, Joe Hill, the union leader and then resident of Salt Lake City, visited Dr. Frank McHugh a few streets away from the murders. He needed treatment for a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He claimed that he had been injured in a dispute over a woman. He refused to give more details about his alibi, withholding the woman’s name. Dr. McHugh claimed that he saw Hill carrying a gun that night. Using Hill’s wounded shoulder and his unsubstantiated alibi as evidence, Hill was arrested and charged with murder.
Before and during Hill’s trial, an outpouring of public support for him came from around the world, especially from fellow Wobblies. The trial became controversial in part because of Joe Hill’s status as a leader in this radical international labor union. Many demanded that he be released. Some wrote letters that threatened Utah government officials’ lives. After Hill’s conviction, Utah’s governor, William Spry, received hundreds of letters calling for a stay of execution for Hill. Among the many that wrote in Hill’s defense were President Woodrow Wilson, the Swedish Minister, Hellen Keller, and labor union leaders Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers. But not everyone agreed. Many letter-writers encouraged Governor Spry to carry out the court’s verdict and execute Hill. Hill demanded a new trial, but his unwillingness to provide more information about his alibi convinced court officials that his trial had been fair.
In spite of the public support for Hill, he was found guilty of the murder of John and Arling Morrison. Petitions for a new trial were denied. The governor honored a request from the Swedish Prime Minister to delay the execution for a short time. But on November 19, 1915, Hill was executed. He was cremated and his ashes were delivered to Wobbly headquarters all around the world to be released in a global ceremony. His death was used by union activists to unite the working class against oppression.
The events surrounding Hill’s trial and execution remain controversial today. The debate continues about whether he received a fair trial or whether his involvement in the IWW influenced the trial’s integrity. Members of labor unions still view Hill as an innocent martyr, unfairly tried and convicted by conspiring business owners, government officials, and religious leaders who opposed unions. Others argue that Hill’s unwillingness to provide details about his alibi leave little doubt about his guilt. Some contend that Hill, a gifted song-writer, could never have committed such a heinous crime. Others, who focus on Hill’s criminal past and his connections to anarchists and violent union activity, stand by the court’s decision. Was it possible for such a controversial character to receive a fair trial?
Alexander, Thomas G. "Utah, the right place, rev. ed." Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith (2003).
Harmon, Jeremy. “The Making of a Martyr.” Who was Joe Hill? The Salt Lake Tribune . Accessed January 9, 2023. https://local.sltrib.com/charts/joehill/hill.html.