Joe Hill, a radical labor activist and songwriter who was executed by a firing squad nearly 96 years ago in Utah, is remembered not for a song he wrote, but for one written about him and popularized by Joan Baez:
"I never died" said (Joe),
"I never died" said he.
Now Hill is the subject of an intriguing biography titled "The Man Who Never Died" and written by William M. Adler, a connoisseur of both folk music and labor history. Five years in the making, the book is a fast-paced chronicle of a life that would have gone unsung if not for Hill's martyrdom in the wake of a mockery of a trial for the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son.
On the eve of his execution, Hill wired a compatriot, exhorting, "Don't waste any time in mourning — organize." Reduced to its essence, that message soon became the rallying cry of their union, the virulently anti-capitalist International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, a movement founded by anarchists and socialists in Chicago a decade earlier.
Hill's bullet-riddled body was brought to Chicago, where his funeral on Thanksgiving Day 1915 attracted, "a great singing swarm of humanity, tens of thousands of the city's dispossessed and disinherited." In ensuing weeks, "the merry breezes would blow the dust of Joe Hill over five continents and forty-seven of the lower forty-eight states — all except Utah," where Hill had said he wouldn't be caught dead.
Adler claims to have discovered new exculpatory evidence — touted on the flyleaf of the book as "extensive" — but the claim turns out to be disappointingly hollow. That isn't to say that the evidence of Hill's innocence isn't compelling. It is, but it always has been.
A jury convicted Hill solely on the circumstantial fact that he suffered a gunshot wound the very night that two gunmen burst into a Salt Lake City grocery store and killed the owner, John Morrison, and his 17-year-old son, Arling. A revolver owned by the elder Morrison was found beside Arling's body, giving rise to a theory that he had shot one of the assassins — presumably Hill.
An hour or two after the shooting, Hill showed up at a doctor's house five miles from the crime scene, seeking treatment for a gunshot wound that the doctor said was "spurting" blood. It made little sense that someone so seriously wounded had survived so long and traveled so far, but, more importantly, the bullet had gone through Hill's body, entering his chest and exiting his back. Had he been shot by Arling, the bullet should have been in the store, but it wasn't found.
In fact, it was never clearly established that the revolver had been fired. One chamber was empty, but perhaps only for safety reasons. The probative question was whether there was an expended shell in the cylinder. That issue, however, apparently wasn't raised at the trial — Hill represented himself — and Adler doesn't mention it. That's a glaring omission given that the absence of a spent casing would mean that the weapon hadn't been fired, in which case Hill unquestionably was innocent. (I tried to reach Adler to ask about this. After days of telephone tag, I sent him an email inquiry, to which he responded, "I'd prefer to let the book stand on its own.")
Hill did not testify and, thus, the jury heard no explanation of how he'd been wounded, although he told the doctor who treated him that "some son-of-a-gun shot me . . . in a quarrel over a woman." He named neither the son-of-a-gun nor the woman, but no doubt was referring to Otto Applequist, a close friend, and Hilda Erickson, a fair-haired girl of 20 who lived with her family in nearby Murray, Utah. Otto absconded to parts unknown before the trial. Hilda was there every day, but said nothing — even though her silence was tantamount to a death warrant for Hill.
The key piece of Adler's "new evidence" is a letter Hilda wrote in 1949, 34 years after the execution, to a professor working on a never-to-see-print novel about Hill. The letter related that she'd been engaged to Otto, but broke it off a week before the murders, which occurred when she was away visiting a friend. When she returned, Joe was on a cot in her grandmother's parlor. Asked "what was the matter," he replied "Nothing much," but when pressed he revealed that Otto had shot him in a fit of anger. Otto took Joe to the doctor and fled town, fearing that he'd be charged with the shooting.
It's a plausible story, if seriously belated, but it adds only minimally to the previously known evidence of Hill's innocence. To tout the letter as significant new evidence is a bit excessive, but, nonetheless, the book is quite a good read.
Rob Warden is the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
"The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon"
By William M. Adler
Bloomsbury, $30, 349 pages