Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, November 19, 2015


On November 19, 1915, thirty-six-year-old Joe Hill was shot dead by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison, on a site in what is now Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City.
A troubadour of the robber-baron age, Hill was born Joel
Hägglund. He left his native Sweden in 1902 for the US, working his away across the country to California, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies.” He became active in organizing workers and served as strike secretary for the IWW in San Pedro. He rose to prominence writing satirical songs for the Wobblies, such as “Casey Jones the Union Scab,” “The Rebel Girl,” inspired by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and “The Preacher and the Slave,” whose refrain is still remembered today:

You will eat bye and bye in that glorious land in the sky
Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Working on the California docks, he befriended Otto Appelquist, also a Swedish immigrant. In the summer of 1913, he followed Appelquist to his adopted home of Salt Lake City, where he found work at the Silver King Mine in Park City.
The following winter, on January 14, 1914, the Salt Lake City police arrested Joe Hill for the murder of a grocer and former policeman and his teenage son. Four nights earlier, two men masked in red bandanas had entered the store of John G. Morrison and shot him and his son Arling dead. Hill had been treated that night for a gunshot wound, one of five such injuries in the city. He claimed that it had been received in an altercation over a woman, but he refused to say any more or identify the parties. Police found a red bandana in Hill's room. Thirteen-year-old Merlin Morrison, witness to the murder of his father and brother, said that Hill resembled one of the killers. The prosecution was not able to suggest a motive or place Hill at the crime scene, but rested their case solely on circumstantial evidence. In his instructions to the jury, Judge Morris Ritchie called circumstantial evidence “the proof of such facts and circumstances connected with or surrounding the...crime,...and if these facts and circumstances, when considered all together, are sufficient to satisfy the...jury of the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, then such evidence is sufficient to authorize a conviction.”
Hill's own behavior was not helpful to his case. He fired his attorney and argued with the judge over his right to represent himself. His prominence with the IWW was a liability, and the two major powers in Salt Lake City at the time, Kennecott Copper and the LDS Church, wanted to see him convicted. After what can only be seen in hindsight as an unfair trial, Hill was found guilty.
For nearly a century, the question of Hill's guilt has been an open one. In his 2011 biography, “The Man Who Never Died,” William M. Adler further weakened the prosecution's best evidence with documents pointing to Otto Appelquist and his former fianc
ée Hilda Erickson as Hill's mystery shooter and the object of the dispute, respectively. Adler also produced evidence that the Morrisons were killed by career criminal Magnus Olson, alias Frank Z. Wilson, whom police had arrested earlier in the case, but transferred to Nevada authorities to face a lesser charge.


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