The railroading of Joe Hill
On the morning after the killings, Salt Lake City awoke to sensational headlines. “Father and Son Slain by Masked Murderers,” the Herald-Republican bannered across its front page. The father, a 47-year-old grocer named John G. Morrison, and his son Arling, 17, had been shot to death on the night of Jan. 10, 1914.
Within hours, the police had detained a prime suspect for the father’s death: Frank Z. Wilson, an alias of one Magnus Olson, an ex-convict who had done time in the Utah state penitentiary. Evidence that I uncovered — in court files, clippings buried in newspaper morgues, correspondence and photographs in prison archives — shows his rampaging criminal itinerary in the days and weeks before the killings, and his startlingly violent 50-year criminal career (including a later stint as a henchman for Al Capone). Wilson was in the vicinity of the crime scene at about the time the killings happened. He not only could have killed Morrison, he also fit the profile of a potential murderer.
The circumstantial evidence also suggests something else: The case made against the man who ultimately was executed — the labor hero Joe Hill — was nowhere near as convincing as the one that could and should have been made against Wilson.
Hill had no criminal history. He did, however, have a fresh gunshot wound that he was assumed to have received during the commission of the crime. He had the added misfortune of looking like Frank Wilson. And police found one bit of unimpeachable evidence that made a case against Hill, although it wasn’t a murder case: a red card in his pocket indicating membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical labor union whose members were known as Wobblies.
Hill had an artist’s compulsion to create and a propagandist’s need to incite. Those two urges famously and fatefully collided in his music: He was the chief songwriter for the IWW. In its heyday — between its founding in 1905 and 1917, when the U.S. suppressed the revolutionary, antiwar union following America’s entry into World War I — the IWW was known to politicians and plutocrats as “America’s most damnable enemy.” But to many in the working class, it was seen as their best hope to survive the raw and brutal dawn of modern industrial capitalism.
The Wobblies built their union on Hill’s songs. They used music both as a weapon of social protest and as a tool for organizing workers of disparate backgrounds and tongues. “Songs to fan the flames of discontent,” the IWW put it in its famous “Little Red Songbook.” Hill’s lyrics were scathing critiques of capitalism, equal parts angry and funny. Workers sang them in hobo encampments and jails, in logging and mining camps, at street meetings and on picket lines.
Only five months before his arrest, Hill had been living in a tar-paper shack on the docks of the Los Angeles harbor. Born in Sweden in 1879, he had emigrated in 1902. He made his way west and joined the IWW in Portland, Ore., probably in 1908. In San Pedro, he wrote what is his best-known song, “The Preacher and the Slave.” In it he disparages “longhaired preachers” who promise starving workers an eternal reward: “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.”
That biting line of the chorus endures in the American vernacular, along with an abiding controversy over Hill’s execution by firing squad. Did he do it, and if not, who did? Hill went to his death claiming his innocence. And the evidence I turned up almost a century later supports his claim.
Although Hill refused to testify about how he got the gunshot wound that police used against him, I found a letter that describes in detail who shot him and why. All Hill would ever say was that an unnamed friend shot him during a row over an unnamed woman. Without corroboration, however, that story didn’t prevail over the prosecution’s version: He was wounded while murdering John G. Morrison. (Police pinned Arling Morrison’s death on an accomplice, but no one was prosecuted.)
Now, though, Hill’s unnamed woman has taken a figurative step forward. Her name was Hilda Erickson, and in the form of a handwritten letter newly discovered in a Michigan attic among the papers of a university professor, her testimony is clear. The letter, written in 1949, names names and unequivocally corroborates Hill’s story. She wrote that within days of breaking off her engagement to Hill’s close friend and fellow Swede, Otto Appelquist, Appelquist shot Hill in “a fit of anger.” Apparently Hill’s taunts that Erickson preferred him were as biting as the lyrics he wrote to fuel the labor revolution.
Hill was almost certainly railroaded to his death by the powers that be in Utah, which saw him as a prized prisoner of the class war. Now, with inequality of income and concentration of wealth at least as pronounced as in Hill’s day, and with unions once again portrayed as a scapegoat for America’s economic ills, we can hear an echo of “pie in the sky,” “bye and bye” and the rumblings of renewed class conflict.
“Don’t mourn, organize,” Joe Hill counseled his supporters on the last night of his life. It’s a call that is resonating anew.
William M. Adler is the author of “The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon.”
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