Old letter sheds light on labor union hero's execution

By Steven Greenhouse

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, Aug. 26 2011 11:25 p.m. MDT

At Woodstock, Joan Baez sang a famous folk ballad celebrating Joe Hill, the itinerant miner, songwriter and union activist who was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. "I never died, said he" is the song's refrain.

Hill's status as a labor icon and the debate about his conviction certainly never died. And now a new biography makes the strongest case yet that Hill was wrongfully convicted of murdering a local grocer, the charge that led to his execution at age 36.

The book's author, William M. Adler, argues that Hill was a victim of authorities and a jury eager to deal a blow to his radical labor union, as well as his own desire to protect the identity of the young woman who was his sweetheart.

A Salt Lake City jury convicted Hill largely because of one piece of circumstantial evidence: He had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest on the same night — Jan. 10, 1914 — that the grocer and his son were killed. At the trial, prosecutors argued that he had been shot by the grocer's son, and Hill refused to offer any alternative explanation.

Adler uncovered a long-forgotten letter from Hill's sweetheart that said he had been shot by a rival for her affections, undermining the prosecution's key assertion. The book, "The Man Who Never Died," also offers extensive evidence suggesting that an early suspect in the case, a violent career criminal, was the murderer.

Hill, who bounced around the West as a miner, longshoreman and union organizer, was the leading songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, a prominent union that was widely feared and deplored for its militant tactics. He penned dozens of songs that excoriated bosses and capitalism and wrote the well-known lyric, "You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

His conviction was so controversial that President Woodrow Wilson twice wrote to Utah's governor to urge him to spare Hill's life, and unions as far away as Australia protested on his behalf.

After his death, Hill was immortalized in poetry and song, including the 1936 ballad embraced by Baez, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and others: "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night."

In the letter found by Adler, Hill's sweetheart, Hilda Erickson, wrote that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiance, Otto Appelquist — someone she had broken off with a week earlier and who had asked her "if I liked Joe better than him." In her letter, she added, "I heard Joe tease Otto once that he was going to take me away from him."

Historians say the letter is groundbreaking because it is apparently the first time anyone has stepped forward to explain exactly how and why Hill was shot. Neither Hill nor Erickson testified at his trial, although Hill did tell the doctor who treated his wound that a rival suitor had shot him.

The prosecution maintained that Hill had been shot by the grocer's son, even though the police never found any bullet cartridges or traces of blood, other than the victims', at the murder scene. Prosecutors used Hill's silence to persuade jurors that he must have murdered the grocer.

Erickson wrote the letter in 1949 to Aubrey Haan, a professor who was researching a book on Hill. The book was never published, and Adler discovered the letter when he persuaded the professor's daughter to let him examine a box of her father's papers stored in her attic.

"When I first read the letter, it was a 'holy cow' moment because all these years people wondered about what happened that night," Adler said in an interview.

In his book, which Bloomsbury will publish on Tuesday, Adler also lays out what historians say is highly incriminating new information about the person police originally suspected of the two murders, Frank Z. Wilson.

The police arrested Wilson the night of the murders after they found him walking without an overcoat near the grocery. They also found a bloody handkerchief on him.

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