Man Who Never Died the New Standard on Joe Hill

The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, By William Adler. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. 349 pp. + sources, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-59691-696-8

In the annals of labor history, the 1915 execution of troubadour Joe Hill ranks with cases such as those of the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs (1887) and the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927) as among the great legal injustices of all time. Hill is equally vital in music history, both for the songs he wrote in support of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), and for songs written in his honor by luminaries such as Ralph Chaplin, Phil Ochs, Steve Earle and, of course, Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson (“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”). William Adler’s new book is the most through treatment of Hill to date, and is destined to displace Gibbs Smith’s 1969 biography as the definitive work on the subject.

In the usual telling, Hill–born in Sweden as Joel Emanuel Hägglund and also known as Joseph Hillström–emigrated to America around 1902, and struggled in obscurity for several years before joining the IWW around 1909, where he quickly gained renown for his sharp wit and songwriting skills. In 1914, however, he was arrested for the murder of John Morrison, a Salt Lake City grocer, was found guilty and sentenced to die by a kangaroo court more intent on looking at Hill’s radical beliefs than the evidence. Adler agrees that Hill’s judgment was unjust, but he goes much further than most other researchers; he fingers the man he thinks to be the real culprit: a career criminal who known as Frank Z. Wilson, who was actually a Norwegian immigrant who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hill and bore a grudge toward Morrison. The main piece of evidence against Hill was a bullet wound for which was treated the night of Morrison’s murder. Adler also names the man who shot Hill the same night, traveling partner Otto Appelquist, and exposes the woman over whom they quarreled, Hilda Erickson.  

Adler’s best sleuthing is the depth he gives to Hill’s sketchy pre-1909 biography. He provides rich details of Hägglund’s/Hill’s life in Sweden, a plausible reconstruction of his life between 1902 and 1909, and a rare telling of Hill’s participation in the IWW’s raid on Baja, California during the Mexican Revolution. (The latter event earned the enmity of rabid IWW foe Harrison Gray Otis, who owned land in Baja, edited the Los Angeles Times, and spearheaded the anti-clemency movement.) Adler is equally vivid in taking us inside the mind, struggles, and character of West Coast Wobblies–their lumber camps and dockside shapeups, their free speech battles, the hard knocks of itinerancy, and the vitriol of capital/labor strife.

Does Adler solve the Hill case? As a labor historian, I have looked at a lot of the same evidence as Adler. I’m simply not convinced that Hill was the innocent of legend. Hill’s willingness to don the martyr’s mantle seems abrupt, and there’s not much past evidence of a Victorian temperament that would accept death rather than besmirch a lady’s reputation. (And why would Erickson, who was present throughout the drama, remain silent as her lover went before the firing squad?) West Coast Wobblies were a rough-and-tumble lot with no love for capitalists. Put bluntly, I think it’s quite possible that Hill and Appelquist, who absconded, actually did kill Morrison. Having said that, the standard of American justice is supposed to beyond a reasonable doubt, not possibility. By that criterion, Hill’s execution is indeed the stain upon American jurisprudence that Adler insists that is. Bottom line: even if you don’t buy into the Hill-as-martyr image, Adler’s is still the best book ever written on Joe Hill. 

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