Meet Joe Hill
“You’ve got to get down here right away. They’re tearing down the Morrison grocery building.”
“And the significance of that is …”
“Geez. You don’t know the story of the Wobblies and Joe Hill?”
I didn’t, but I would. I was working as a reporter in Salt Lake City, and soon I would be fascinated by the Joe Hill arrest and execution. Like many people my age, I was woefully under-informed about the history of the radical labor movement in this country.
Joe Hill (actually Hillström) was an organizer for the very independent union known as the Wobblies. The Wobblies were organizing in the dangerous mines in Utah in 1914. Hill was known as the Wobbly troubadour, and he penned many songs that delighted followers and infuriated mine owners.
A grocer named Morrison was killed when shots were fired during a holdup. Two men were seen running from the store. And two men were arrested while fleeing at a nearby rail yard; one was wounded. Both were wanted in Arizona on a robbery charge.
At the same time, Hill got shot (many now believe it was by a jealous husband), and he was turned in by a doctor.
Guess who was charged with the murder. Purely circumstantial evidence somehow led to his conviction. A storm of protest ensued, and even President Woodrow Wilson’s request for clemency or a new trial was denied.
Hill was resigned to the fact that he would be put to death by a firing squad. He asked that his body be taken out of state, saying, “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” And his last message: “Don’t mourn—organize.”
Hill and other strong characters in the Wobblies make for a fascinating and sad history lesson. Many Wobblies were killed by mobs and vigilantes, and many others were beaten and thrown in jail.
But perhaps more interesting than their history is the Wobblies’ resurgence in our area (see “Here come the Wobblies!”), with an unlikely group of new members.