Law and Theater: Joe Hill (Part I)



My next “Law and Theater” project is a double-header: an analysis of two plays dealing with the same subject. The plays are “The Man Who Never Died” by Barrie Stavis (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1972) and “Salt Lake City Skyline” by Thomas Babe (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1980). The version of “The Man Who Never Died” in my library is the manuscript from Dramatists Play Service’s archives, and dates from 1959.


Both of these plays deal with the life, trial, and execution of early I.W.W. labor activist Joe Hill. Hill was executed on November 19, 1915 at the old Utah State Prison, also known as the Sugar House Prison. The prison was, by some strange coincidence, located in the Sugar House district of Salt Lake City. It was torn down in 1951, and the site was converted into Sugar House Park and the campus of Highland High School. Highland’s school colors, by the way, are black and white, perhaps a nod to the traditional stripes worn by prisoners. The site is also just a few blocks from my home, but that has nothing to do with this discussion.

 As with my previous discussion of “A Case of Libel,” (here and here, for those interested), I will start with a discussion of the background facts of the case. Next week, I will examine the two plays, and how well they portray the events.


Joe Hill’s Biography


Joe Hill (a.k.a. Joel Emmanuel Hägglund and Joseph Hillström) (1879-1915) is something of an enigma. An activist for the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), he penned numerous songs for the I.W.W.’s “little red songbook.” Executed by the State of Utah for a double murder in Salt Lake City, he quickly became a martyr for the cause of organized labor. His songs and letters, as well as tributes to him, galvanized striking workers throughout the 20th Century. As his legend grew, he was associated with almost every labor protest in the United States between 1910 and 1912.


All of this notoriety, however, has made the real Joe Hill rather hard to locate. As Ken Verdoia of KUED TV states:


His name. . .his age. . .his importance to the movement he championed. . .his criminal guilt and even his legacy are all subject to endless argument and competing sentiment long after his death.

Any statement of certainty about the life of labor organizer/songwriter Joe Hill produces an instant sea of angry rebuttal.


Hill was born in the town of Gävle, a city in the province of Gästrikland, Sweden, the third of nine children born to Olof and Margareta Catharina Hägglund. Olof died when Joel was eight years old. His mother kept the family together until her death in 1902. At that point, Joel and his brother Paul set off for New York City to make their fortunes.


As with most of the immigrants flocking to the United States at the time, the Hägglund brothers quickly found out that the streets were: (1) not paved with gold; (2) in many cases, not paved at all; and (3) the new immigrants were expected to do the paving. Joel worked in several of New York’s bars and saloons cleaning spittoons.


Eventually, Joel and Paul split up, and Joel began working his way west. The documentary evidence of his travels is sketchy at best, but he did stop in Cleveland, Ohio, and was in San Francisco either during or immediately after the 1906 earthquake. Some folks have speculated that he worked on ships traveling between the West Coast and Hawaii.


It is also during this period that Joel Hägglund became Joseph Hillstrom. It is unknown whether this was a response to his growing notoriety as an advocate for workers’ rights or because he had to supplement his vagrant lifestyle with extra-legal activities.


By 1910, Hillstrom was in San Pedro, California. It was here that he first became involved with the I.W.W. In October 1910, he wrote a letter to the I.W.W. Newspaper The Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the Portland, Oregon local. This letter was signed “Joe Hill,” the first documented use of this name.


Although Hill’s specific actions with the I.W.W. are hard to pinpoint with any accuracy, his major contribution to the I.W.W. is easily identified. Hill wrote numerous songs, poems and speeches. Many of his songs were reprinted in the I.W.W.’s “Little Red Songbook.” Some of his most famous songs include “Rebel Girl,” “The Preacher and the Slave,” “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” “The Tramp,” and “There Is Power In A Union.”


By early 1914, Hill had migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah. There is some evidence that he worked for a brief period of time in the Silver King Mine in Park City, but he was forced to leave the mine due to illness. He was staying in the home of Ed, John and Frank Eselius in Murray, Utah, acquaintances he had met in his days in San Pedro.


The Murders


Shortly before 10:00 p.m. on the evening of January 10, 1914, two armed men wearing dark hats and red bandanas over their faces entered the grocery store of John Morrison near 800 South and West Temple in Salt Lake City. Morrison and his son Arling were sweeping up the store prior to closing. Morrison’s 13-year-old son Merlin was waiting at the back of the store. According to Merlin, one of the men said “We have got you now!” and the two men opened fire on Morrison. Arling then took a pistol out of a produce bin and, according to Merlin, fired at the two men. The two men returned fire, killing Arling. They then fled out of the store. Witnesses reported that one of the men fleeing the scene appeared to be injured.


Morrison was a former police officer, and was afraid that enemies he had made during his time on the force would come seeking revenge. He told people that he knew of one such enemy that was living in the neighborhood of the store at the time of the attack, but he never named the individual. There had been two robbery attempts at the store prior to the murders, and Morrison had exchanged shots with one of the robbers.


The police apprehended a number of suspects in the vicinity of the store in the aftermath of the attack. Police officials initially told reporters from Salt Lake’s three major newspapers that the killings were an act of revenge.


Shortly after 11:30 p.m. on the same evening, Hill showed up at the home and office of Dr. Frank McHugh in Murray. Hill had a gunshot wound in the chest. He told McHugh that he had been shot in an argument with a man over a woman. While Dr. McHugh treated Hill’s injuries, Dr. A. A. Bird, noticing the lights on in McHugh’s office, stopped by to visit. McHugh asked Bird to drive Hill home, as it was on his way.


During the examination, a pistol in a holster fell out of Hill’s jacket. On the drive home, Hill asked Dr. Hill to stop by a vacant field. Hill threw the gun into the field. When they approached the Eselius home, Hill asked Dr. Hill to turn off his headlights. He then gave two whistles before approaching the house.


When Dr. McHugh later read about the Morrison murders, he contacted the police. The police then raided the Eselius home, finding Hill in bed. After they came in to the bedroom, Hill reached for his pants. The police, thinking he was reaching for a weapon, shot him in the hand.


Trial and Execution


Hill was represented by two relatively young and inexperienced attorneys, who apparently took the case to advance their careers. Midway through the prosecution’s case, Hill rose in the courtroom and announced that he wanted to fire his lawyers. The judge did not allow this, but did grant Hill permission to take a more active role in his defense.


Hill did not testify, nor did he give an adequate alibi for his whereabouts on the night of the murders. There was speculation that he was in bed with a married woman at the time, and he refused to name the woman for fear of damaging her reputation. The bullet wound to the chest was a result of the woman’s husband finding the two of them together. No “mystery woman” or her husband ever came forward, either during the trial or subsequently.


On June 27, 1915, Joe Hill was found guilty of the murders of the Morrisons, and was sentenced to death. The conviction and sentence was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court and the Utah Board of Pardons. Despite a flurry of letters from I.W.W. supporters, the Swedish Minister to the United States, and even President Woodrow Wilson, Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915.


Discussions of the Case


The Hill case has been full of controversy and debate since the beginning. For some, Hill was clearly a martyr for the union cause, railroaded by the mine owners and the leadership of the LDS Church for his organizing activities. Others have argued that, based on an examination of all the evidence, it seems likely that Hill was guilty of the crimes for which he was charged. I don’t know whether Hill did it or not, but it does seem that the defense should have been able to create at least some reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s circumstantial case.


For more detailed examinations of the case, please check out the following links:


  • Joe Hill’s Wikipedia entry gives a pretty good overview of Hill’s life and the case.
  • The KUED website about the documentary “Joe Hill” has lots of good information, especially producer Ken Verdoia’s examination of the arguments for and against Hill’s guilt and his extended interview with local defense attorney Ron Yengich.
  • The Joe Hill Project, a website maintained by Ron Yengich, and based on the class he teaches at the University of Utah on Trial Rights of the Accused.



The Old Sugar House Prison. Any resemblance to a high school is purely coincidental....


About W. Lewis Black

W. Lewis Black is an associate attorney at Dunn & Dunn, P.C., located in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice focuses on personal injury, employment law, workers compensation, and Social Security Disability claims. He is a past member of the Ensemble at Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale, Utah. He can be contacted at
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One Response to Law and Theater: Joe Hill (Part I)

  1. Pingback: The Case of Joe Hill (Part II: The Plays) | Black's Blawg

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