Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
The name "Joe Hill" garners nearly two million hits on the Google search engine. By this crude measure, Joe Hill is more popular than William Howard Taft, the U.S. president when Hill was engaged in union organizing and free speech fights along the western coast of the United States. My first awareness of Joe Hill's ubiquity was occasioned by graffiti at a college, noted briefly more than twenty-five years ago, yet seared into memory: Who was Joe Hill? If you don't know, ask. If you know, teach.
It wasn't simply the question of Joe Hill's identity that piqued my interest. In a hierarchical, supremely credentials-conscious institution, this silent agitation conveys a peculiarly proletarian notion: that Joe Hill doesn't simply belong to the history books, he somehow belongs to all of us. I later came across Joe Hill while continuing my research into a massacre of Colorado's union coal miners in 1927. Five hundred strikers were fired upon at the Columbine Mine, thirty or more were wounded, and six died. In the face of company machine guns and the call-up of the notorious Colorado National Guard, miners were talking about returning from their homes with deer rifles and the .30-30 Winchesters that had seen them through the "Ten Days War," aftermath of Colorado's Ludlow Massacre just thirteen years earlier. IWW organizers counseled the miners with Joe Hill's words: Don't Mourn, Organize.
Decades later, by chance, a packet of Joe Hill's ashes was discovered in the National Archives. In a 1989 ceremony, as three hundred of us looked on, fellow worker Carlos Cortez scattered a portion of those ashes on the graves of five union miners murdered by corporate greed sixty-two years before. Publicity for that commemoration – a remembrance of the first Columbine Massacre – resulted in news stories from coast to coast, in Mexico and around the world. The plight of unarmed working folk gunned down with impunity by the state while fighting for a living wage ought to have carried the media's attention that day. But it was Joe Hill that brought the network news cameras to that quiet cemetery in Lafayette, Colorado. Somehow, it seems, the media cannot get enough of Joe Hill.
Ubiquitous and appealing though he may be, Joe Hill has yet remained an enigma.
Not quite a decade ago the late Franklin Rosemont published a cerebral study of Joe Hill and the IWW called Joe Hill, The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture. Rosemont observed that the Wobbly bard "is one of the most admired, best hated, and least known figures in U.S. History – the story of his life is largely lost in mist and shadow." Rosemont noted that Joe Hill "entered mass consciousness as a 'real' historic figure, but even more as a folk hero and ... a multi-faceted symbol of the downtrodden rising in revolt." Rosemont's study of Hill draws upon a resource largely unmatched in other biographies – comments and reminiscences by Hill's fellow workers and friends. The volume examines "Hill's attitude toward race, gender, law, crime, religion, the arts, and nature." It is an analysis not just of Joe Hill the union man, but also of what Joe Hill meant to the union, and what Joe Hill means to society. Rosemont's book reminds us that a symbol is as useful to the spirit as a tool is to the hand.
From Archie Green, the late labor lore folklorist, we learn that in spite of esoteric history, with key puzzle pieces absent or misinterpreted, Joe Hill has been the subject of more media accolades than any other labor hero, from novels to videos, from post cards to bumper stickers. Writing in Laborlore Explorations, Green offers the cultural Joe Hill, recounting poets, novelists, and playwrights who developed protagonists based upon Hill's perceived character. The martyr extraordinaire inspires well beyond the industrial unionists of the radical union to which he belonged. Green remarks that Hill has even been embraced by "enemies" of the IWW, past and present. For example, he traces a Communist Party attempt at appropriation of Hill's symbolism, and acknowledges occasional Wobbly irritation that orthodox unionism dares to adopt the Wobbly icon without conveying the radical context that was necessarily part of Joe Hill's life.
Wallace Stegner penned a controversial book of fiction about Hill, portraying the revolutionary song writer as a flawed hero. Stegner's fictional Joe Hill was rough and tumble, opportunistic, sporadically violent, and probably guilty. The real opportunistic party was doubtless Stegner himself; with so few facts known about Joe Hill's life, the author saw him as a blank slate upon which to create a fictitious anti-hero with an already built-in reputation, presumably conducive to selling novels. Artistic and ethical questions aside, controversy ensued, with the Industrial Workers of the World picketing the New York office of The New Republic, which had published an article Stegner wrote about his fictitious Joe Hill. Much later, Stegner regretted having used a "person with living relatives who can be hurt" as his model.
For nearly a century, the man executed by the state of Utah in 1915 has remained "shrouded in legends concocted by worshipful admirers and venomous detractors" [Rosemont]. We know well what Joe Hill represents to us. What of Joe Hill, the man?
Numerous writers have sought to distill the non-fictional Joe Hill, weighing evidence and testimony, searching documents for clues, arguing Joe Hill's presumed character. Yet through uncertainty or obfuscation, all existing accounts of Hill's life and death have failed to adequately address the question, was Joe Hill guilty of murder? They tend instead to answer in the negative the much easier question, did Joe Hill receive a fair trial? Rosemont noted liberal biographers in particular who split the difference, acquiescing that in the fog of history Joe Hill may have been guilty, balancing their equivocation with what has long been beyond refutation – that his trial was flawed.
This is an easy conclusion: the judge short-circuited the jury selection process, assigning hand-picked jurors to the case in spite of defense objections. Jury instructions delivered by the judge mis-characterized Utah's laws of evidence. Any attempt to introduce evidence that might have exonerated Joe Hill was routinely ruled out of order. Evidence that didn't fit the facts was made to fit by prosecution attorneys given leeway to lead witnesses. When Joe Hill, angered at the travesty that had become his trial, fired his first set of attorneys in court, the judge basically overruled him, ordering those same attorneys to remain on the case.
The appeals process was likewise inexcusable. Three judges who sat on an appeals court made up the pardons board as well, in essence reviewing their own decisions. Stung by widespread criticism of the trial (including two inquiries from the president of the United States), the pardons board itself became a source of "malicious and deceitful" falsehoods about the condemned prisoner.
Even considering that Hill was railroaded to his execution, what of the fact that Hill received a gunshot wound on the very night of the murders? Joe's off-the-record explanation attributed the gunshot to a dispute over a woman. That story never came out in court, and to the extent it has been explored in subsequent published accounts, it has generated far more muddled speculation that insight.
Biographer Gibbs Smith provides a wealth of Joe Hill detail, conveying many original documents related to Hill's trial, yet leaves the reader wondering about that unexplained gunshot wound, and culpability for a capital crime (forgive the double meaning). In his 1969 book Joe Hill, published in Utah, Gibbs asserted that "the question of Joe Hill's guilt or innocence is no more certain today than it was in 1915". Gibbs concludes, "Hill may have been a guilty man seeking to create for himself a martyr image, or [he may have been] an idealistic and unusually stubborn man..."
On the other side, many of Hill's supporters portrayed the prosecution of Hill as an attack on the union from the outset. Articles, books, and songs have attributed Joe Hill's persecution to Governor Spry, the Mormon Church, or the Copper Bosses. Marxist biographer Philip Foner's most significant contribution may be a clarification of this assertion. Foner writes, "In establishing the frame-up of Joe Hill, it is not necessary to subscribe to the theory advanced by many writers, especially those associated with the I.W.W., that he was arrested and charged with the murder of [grocer] J. G. Morrison ... in a plot to get rid of a militant union organizer." Foner concludes that although Hill may not have been initially targeted by Utah authorities for his union activities, the locomotive bound for execution left the station after they realized who they had. Unfortunately, Foner's 1965 publication of The Case of Joe Hill is marred by accusations of extensive plagiarism from an unpublished master's thesis written by James O. Morris.
Joe Hill we have in plenitude, as working class symbol and literary icon. Yet none of Hill's earlier biographers deal convincingly, nor to biographical satisfaction with the question of innocence or guilt. Now comes a book – the product of five years of intensive research – in which new, intimate secrets of Joe Hill's life are revealed. William M. Adler's excellent work, The Man Who Never Died, provides significant, previously unpublished information. Adler walked the ground, poked into the dark places, and discovered long-hidden truths. He traveled to Sweden to meet Joe's family, to explore the work of Swedish biographers, and to research Hill's childhood. Adler then followed Joe to America, to California and Canada, through his brief role in the Mexican Revolution, and subsequently, to the bitter end in Utah.
Like much of North America at the time, Utah was experiencing labor discontent. Railroad construction workers carrying the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World won a strike in the summer of 1913, and business leaders vowed that it wouldn't happen again. Joe Hill arrived a short time later, and within a year, the popular Wobbly troubadour would be condemned to death.
In the aftermath of two murders at a grocery store, Utah authorities let slip from their grasp a real criminal, a thug now known to have been engaged in a notorious and violent crime wave throughout the region. Magnus Olson did time in Folsom State Prison in California, the Nevada State Penitentiary, and at least seven other lockups during his fifty year crime spree. While the Salt Lake City police took Olson into custody on suspicion related to the grocery store shootings, they were thrown off by his artful lying and his routine use of pseudonyms. In spite of some incriminating evidence, they failed to identify Olson as the notorious wanted criminal, and they let him go.
Ironically, when they arrested Joe Hill (who resembled Olson) for the crime, Utah authorities suspected that Olson (under a different name) was the murderer. For a time they even believed Hill and Olson to be the same man. Having failed to sort out the real identities of their detainees, Utah authorities eventually settled on the union agitator as their trophy prisoner. After all, Hill's gunshot wound seemed persuasive enough for a conviction, and they tailored their case to that one, unalterable fact.
Was the real Olson a more likely perpetrator of the grocery store murders than Joe Hill? Adler notes that during a career of some five decades, Olson "burglarized homes, retail stores, and boxcars; he blew safes, robbed banks, stole cars, committed assault and arson, and in all likelihood, had committed murder." Adler's painstaking research places Olson in the Salt Lake City area at the time of the murders, and most probably, in the very neighborhood where the murders occurred. The murdered grocer – a former police officer – had been attacked before, and believed that he was being targeted. Olson had a reputation for violent revenge against his adversaries, a probable motive which nicely dovetailed with the crime for which Joe Hill would die. Joe Hill was newly arrived in Utah, and no motive was established for Hill as perpetrator. In spite of uncertainty whether either of the two assailants at the grocery store had been fired upon, let alone wounded, Hill's gunshot injury was all the evidence necessary.
But what of Joe Hill's alibi that he'd been shot over a woman, a person whose identity was never officially revealed to the court? Adler identifies Hilda Erickson, of Hill's host family in Utah, as his secret love interest. Joe's unofficial – yet far from unnoticed – sweetheart, Hilda must have been much on the minds of onlookers throughout Joe Hill's trial. She visited Joe through the prison bars every Sunday, yet at Joe's direction, they were careful to prevent anyone from overhearing their conversations. When Hill, facing death, was allowed a private meeting with associates, Hilda was among the few people he saw. Hilda later stood vigil at the prison when Joe was executed, and she was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.
Moving Joe Hill's secret romantic saga from conjecture to historical record, Adler's book includes a sensational discovery, a letter penned by Hilda Erickson describing what had happened many years before, and her account confirms Joe Hill's ostensible alibi. She had been the sweetheart of Joe Hill's friend and fellow Swedish immigrant, Otto Appelquist (who had arrived in Utah before Joe). Hilda broke off that engagement after Joe arrived, leaving Otto and Joe to become rivals for her attention. One day Erickson returned to her family's home (where the two men were boarding) to discover that Joe had a bullet wound, while Otto was making excuses for leaving – for good, as it turned out. Otto Appelquist had shot Joe in a fit of jealousy, then regretted the deed, immediately carrying Joe to a doctor. Perhaps fearful of arrest for the shooting and uncertain whether Joe would survive, Otto left (to find work, he had declared) at two in the morning, and never returned. The doctor would later turn Joe in after hearing of the grocery store murders – and a sizable reward.
Why didn't Hilda voluntarily step forward when her testimony might have saved Joe Hill? She was just twenty years old, and there is some indication that Joe Hill advised her not to. He probably sought to shield her from publicity, an instinctive reaction for the Swede with roots in his family's experiences in their homeland. Ever the idealist, Joe Hill may also have sought to avoid testimony that might endanger his friend, countryman, and fellow worker, Otto.
At first, Joe was convinced that Utah couldn't convict him because he was innocent. Utah society had sought to throw off its reputation for frontier justice, and it was almost possible to believe that the rule of law meant something. Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Hill accepted implicitly the legal principle that a defendant would not be considered guilty for not testifying, and he overvalued the judicial aphorism of innocent until proven guilty.
Utah courts routinely disregarded both of these principles in the Joe Hill case. Throughout the trial it became increasingly apparent that the Utah system of justice intended to claim its pound of flesh. A prominent union man had been accused of a heinous crime, and evidence to the contrary simply wasn't to be considered. Joe Hill's full appreciation of the danger of his predicament came too late, his course had already been set.
The circumstances of Joe Hill's trial in Utah – a union man accused of murder, and fighting for his life – may be profitably compared with another murder which occurred during, and as a direct result of the trial. Inveighing against injustice, twenty-five year old Ray Horton – president of Salt Lake City's IWW branch – publicly cursed the imperative that causes some men to wear a badge. For his vocal audacity, Horton was abruptly shot by an onlooker, and then received two more bullets in the back as he staggered away. The killer, a retired lawman, was initially jailed for first degree murder, but was held for only one day. Upon his release, the killer was hailed as a hero at the Salt Lake City Elks Club, with a luncheon in his honor. Newspapers editorialized that this cold blooded murder was justified because Horton – a union man exercising free speech – was asking for it.
That a union man in Utah may be killed with impunity for his attitude seemed to likewise play a role in Hill's pardons board hearing. One cannot say that Joe Hill had no chance whatsoever to save his own life. His pride and his contempt for a flawed process played a significant role in his fate. As intransigent as Utah justice seemed for a union man, one has the sense from the recorded pardons board discussion that even at that late date, Joe Hill might have derailed his imminent execution if he threw himself upon the mercy of the court, explaining at long last how he had been wounded by a gunshot. The board dangled a pardon or a commutation before him, but Hill insisted that wasn't good enough, calling such a possibility "humiliating." In response to entreaties to explain the gunshot wound, Hill promised the pardons board that he would offer them the full story, if he was granted a new trial. The pardons board declared it had no authority to order a new trial. Having embraced the slogan "New Trial or Bust" before his many supporters, Hill told the pardons board, "If I can't have a new trial, I don't want anything."
Equally stubborn in its own way, the pardons board determined that Hill would either "eat crow" (as Hill described it) in the manner that they demanded – tell all with contrition before the pardons board, with no guarantees that it would make any difference – or die.
Adler explains why Joe Hill may have seen martyrdom as a noble and worthwhile cause. Joe Hill was too idealistic, too stubborn, too proud to give them the satisfaction of breaking him. Joe Hill effectively told the pardons board, "Gentlemen, the cause I stand for, that of a fair and honest trial, is worth more than human life – much more than mine." In his estimation they hadn't proved him guilty; why should he be required to prove himself innocent?
The Joe Hill that shines through Adler's work is idealistic, unselfish, proud, impulsive, principled, protective, stubborn, and at times, a little naïve in the face of implacable authority. That the governments and courts of Salt Lake City and the state of Utah should prove themselves as intransigent and unprincipled as the captains of industry about whom he'd so often sloganeered, may have caught Joe by surprise. Having discovered the truth of the matter, he dedicated his very being to the principle that justice must prevail, that sacrifice for such a cause was a worthwhile endeavor. In spite of incarceration and a capital sentence, Joe Hill managed to the very end to exercise some measure of control over his own life. And, to the extent he was able, over his death.
There are now two biographers of Joe Hill whose work stands above the rest. Franklin Rosemont's Joe Hill, the IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture speaks to the meaning of Hill's life – Joe Hill as folk hero and symbol of the downtrodden rising in revolt. But Rosemont's text isn't just about Joe Hill, it is a summation of the entire Industrial Workers of the World experience. Rosemont's Chicago base, and his close association with Charles H. Kerr Company frequently lend a sense of "inside baseball", allowing him to reveal details of the IWW's history found in no other account. His broad grasp of Marxist theory, as well as of the revolutionary industrial unionism philosophy of the Wobblies – what Rosemont describes as an "anti-authoritarian Marxism" – lends itself to comparison, with the IWW's "hobo philosophers" coming off rather well. Rosemont observes, "Socialists, Communists, and Trotskyists published papers for workers – some of them admittedly of high quality. The IWW, however, always published workers' papers: of and by as well as for."
William M. Adler largely skirts questions of theory, relying upon demographics to build a case for radical unionism. For example, of ninety million Americans at the time, he reports that ten million lived in poverty. Two-thirds of male workers earned less than the minimum considered necessary for a decent life. Adler nicely sets the scene in Utah, exploring the history of the Mormon Church and, with the appearance of the IWW, the conflict between a radical utopian materialist organization and an older, utopian-socialist theocratic order. Curiously, the Mormon Church had a historical tolerance of unions. But the tolerated economic organizations had always been comprised of believers.
The Man Who Never Died explores the deck stacked against itinerant workers – the wealth and power of union-despising Harrison Gray Otis, editor-owner of the Los Angeles Times, for example. It details Hill's participation in organizing campaigns, and the free speech fights in Fresno and San Diego.Adler also contributes a sympathetic chapter on the Morrisons, the other victims frequently ignored by previous historians.
Stylistically, Adler's book is a direct and pleasant read. Photos and illustrations relate closely to the history, and while adequate, they are not the main selling point of the book. Never before seen photos of Hilda Erickson, mugshots of the presumed villain, Magnus Olson, and family photos are the exception, with one Olson photo revealing a startling resemblance to Joe Hill. Rosemont's photos and illustrations in Joe Hill tend toward the curious, the delightful, and the rare; for example, a copy of the IWW Preamble written in Chinese. Rosemont's tendency to include esoteric information may be considered either a plus or a minus; some, but not all readers will be intrigued by speculation on printing technologies available to early IWW publications.
Rosemont writes with an affection for his subject that is apparent on page after page. Adler's style is a little more sober, providing carefully marshaled facts to detail the times, the circumstances, and the essence of Joe Hill's life. If Rosemont is the supremely knowledgeable champion of his subject matter, Adler is the dispassionate investigator, unveiling a narrative all the more credible for his careful scrutiny. For five years his singular focus has been on objectivity. Having become acquainted with William Adler and aware of his ongoing research for this book, I once invited him to a local performance of the Barry Stavis play about Joe Hill. He politely declined, explaining that while still assembling the historical account to the best of his ability, he dared not pollute his thoughts with the myth.
Yet the resulting historical account is not dry, nor lacking in innovative thought. For example, at one point Adler compares Hill's legacy to that of John Brown, the "mouldering abolitionist" whose own cause went marching on long after his death. Adler also distills much of the "personal" Hill; for example, the fact that, just before his execution, Hill might have delayed the date by affirming a fraudulent claim – a supposed alibi sent forth by an unknown supporter, perhaps in a misguided attempt to forestall the terrible end. Hill calmly chose the truth, and imminent execution, rather than embrace the lie.
Rosemont, in publishing his first edition of Joe Hill, The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture in 2002, provides one very important service to those interested in Joe Hill lore – an overview and critique of all previous such histories. It is a very significant and comprehensive contribution, valuable not only for what it tells us, but also for what is missing.
In the end, Adler provides something that Rosemont cannot – a very plausible narrative of Joe Hill's injury on the night in question. When educators, scholars, or future biographers inquire what really happened in Joe Hill's life and death, they will turn to Adler's work because of the essential new information that it provides.
While Rosemont offers a brief paragraph about the career criminal Magnus Olson (under one of his many pseudonyms, Frank Z. Wilson), Adler provides more than a chapter. Rosemont devoted a speculative chapter entitled "The Mystery Woman" to what are now known to be false leads. Like all other biographers, Rosemont failed to note Hilda Erickson despite her frequent but reticent visits throughout Hill's trial, incarceration, and execution. Adler not only identified Joe Hill's mystery woman, he provides Hill's explanation of the shooting as recorded in her own words. The Erickson letter describing what appeared, at least from the two suitors' purview, a love triangle amounts to a metaphorical smoking gun in this century old mystery.
With the back story of Hill's love relationship as an important touchstone, Adler traces how Joe Hill's plight, and the publicity generated by the campaign to set him free, gradually changed Hill's consciousness and, perhaps, his purpose in life. This, likewise, is a contribution which heretofore had remained unconvincing, for the simple reason that no other biographer had the facts as a foundation for such reflection.
Adler's prose is first rate, his analysis of history impeccable. He draws conclusions where appropriate, and presents an honest account, yet acknowledges there is much that we still do not know. Why did Hill choose death, when he might have chanced a different course? Why did he protect Hilda to the end, when she might have held the sole key to his ultimate vindication? Was his protective nature grounded in the travails of his family so many years before? Adler acknowledges the questions and offers some thoughts, yet allows the reader to put together the final pieces of the puzzle.
At the end, do we know for certain who committed the grocery store murders? No. But we have a narrative which clearly demonstrates: Joe Hill never fit the profile of a killer, while another man detained momentarily for the same crime definitively fit such a profile. The other man was released to continue his life of crime, while Joe Hill, the union man, was sent to his death.
If by some alchemy Utah society in 1915 had been privy to the research collected in this book, with its powerful evidence that a lovers' triangle was behind the mysterious gunshot wound, the yellow journals of the period may have come alive with sensational gossip. Yet I believe the circumstantial evidence is persuasive enough that Joe Hill would have gone free. Instead, he sacrificed his life to become the man who never died, the Joe Hill that we all have come to know.
So who, then, was Joe Hill? If you know, teach.
The Man Who Never Died by William Adler will be available August 30, 2011, for $30. For tour dates, music samples, and a photo gallery, please see themanwhoneverdied.com.
William M. Adler has written for many national and regional magazines, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the Texas Observer. In addition to The Man Who Never Died, he has authored two other books of narrative nonfiction: Land of Opportunity (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995), an intimate look at the rise and fall of a crack cocaine empire, and Mollie’s Job (Scribner, 2000), which follows the flight of a single factory job from the U.S. to Mexico over the course of fifty years. His work explores the intersection of individual lives and the larger forces of their times, and it describes the gap between American ideals and American realities. Adler lives with his wife and son in Denver, Colorado.
Richard Myers is a writer, author, and union activist in Denver, Colorado.
[An abbreviated version of this review has appeared elsewhere.]
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