Biography of U.S. Labor Leader Joe Hill Part 3

About the United States labor leader and songwriter Joe Hill, biography and history of the man.


JOE HILL (1879-1915). Labor leader and songwriter.

The state's biased case wasn't the only factor working against Hill. What gave his accusers added credibility was Hill's attitude, specifically his consistent refusal to reveal where he was the night of the murders. A number of explanations were possible. Perhaps there really was a quarrel over a woman and Hill was protecting her reputation. (Although he never married, Hill apparently was considered attractive by women, and thus he may have become involved in an explosive situation.) Or perhaps he was guilty and decided to become a martyr. Whatever the explanation, he made other mistakes that hurt his case. During the trial, for example, he stood up one day and attempted to fire the two defense attorneys. Hill thought that they were not aggressive enough in cross-examining the prosecution witnesses and in pointing out the discrepancies between their testimony at the preliminary hearing and their current statements. He contended in court: "I have three prosecuting attorneys here [the district attorney plus his own lawyers] and I intend to get rid of two of them." A compromise was ultimately reached whereby his attorneys remained in the courtroom and questioned witnesses, but Hill conducted some of his own defense. Overall, the jury was not impressed with Hill's behavior.

Despite the unfortunate bickering, Hill might still have been found innocent if the judge hadn't offered a definition of circumstantial evidence that worked against the defense. The judge told the jury that the weakness of individual links in the prosecution's case was not fatal if the general weight of evidence pointed to a guilty verdict. The jury conscientiously followed the judge's instructions, and on June 27, 1914, it found Hill guilty of murder. Two weeks later he was sentenced to death. When the judge gave Joe Hill the option of hanging or facing a firing squad, Hill replied, "I'll take shooting. I'm used to that. I've been shot a few times in the past and I guess I can stand it again."

The appeal process, ultimately unsuccessful, took a year. In that time Hill became a cause celebre. The IWW, not surprisingly, had been involved in the case since early 1914, picturing their songwriter as an innocent victim of capitalist oppression. As Hill's execution day approached, hundreds of letters and telegrams poured into the governor's office. Since Hill was still a Swedish citizen, the Swedish ambassador became involved. He prevailed upon President Woodrow Wilson to write the governor of Utah, an action that won Hill a temporary reprieve. Before the execution, people as diverse as Helen Keller and American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers entered the fray. But Hill's stubborn refusal to reveal how he was wounded doomed him. On Nov. 19, 1915, he was shot by a firing squad.

His legend became a source of inspiration to radical labor movements around the world, and a message he wired to IWW founder "Big Bill" Haywood the night before his execution became a famous slogan. It read: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize!"

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