It’s likely the best account of Joe Hill’s life that has been put together so far. Through interviews with descendants, poring through old media and government records, or filtering through old interviews with friends and family members, journalist William Adler has written “The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon” (Bloomsbury, $30).
Adler’s superb book will be honored on Friday at Utah State University’s David B. Haight Alumni Center in Logan with the 2011 Evans Biography Award.
“For my own part, this was one of those rare books that had me up reading late into the night,” said Evelyn Funda, a member of the jury that awarded the honor. “As a whole, we on the Evans Jury found Adler’s biography of Joe Hill elegantly written, rich in detail, and meticulously researched.”
Adler, who lives in Denver, provides readers with a glimpse at what life was like 100 years ago, as big industry — whether rails, mining, construction, etc. — established itself. He narrates a time where contempt for a common laborer was enabled by labor unions, chambers of commerce, newspapers, law enforcement, job agencies and even fellow labor unions.
The story of Joe Hill — one of Utah’s most famous capital punishment cases — has gained a level of fame that is both iconic and ironic. There’s Joe Hill, stoic labor organizer, assigned a death sentence by kangaroo courts and appeal boards whose deadly animus was directed toward what Hill represented, rather than the flimsy “evidence” that doomed him.
Yet Hill went obstinately to his death, refusing to easily produce a witness who would have likely saved him from the executioners’ bullets. His last words, memorably paraphrased with time, were “Don’t mourn, organize.”
In death, Hill cemented himself as an icon, a labor leader, whose Industrial Workers of the World “Wobblie” songs are today sung by liberal entertainers. Hill’s mythic qualities, all part of the iconic legacy, are what largely defines him. Those who praise him today most likely know nothing of his life.
Adler details well the horrendous conditions that industry foisted on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. He writes of job services that routinely took a man’s daily pay and sent him far away to fake jobs. He tells of bombastic newspapers, and their bombastic editors, such as the Los Angeles Times’ Harrison Gray Otis, who cheerfully called for murder of common laborers who organized or struck for better wages, or Main Street small business owners, who would join lynch mobs designed to kill leaders of radical unions such as Hill’s Wobblies.
The making of a legend
Hill grew up in a working-class existence in Sweden, migrated to America as a young man and stepped into the nomadic existence of a day laborer who moved through the Rocky Mountains and Pacific coast regions of the early 20th century. Adler traces the last years of Hill’s life as a radical laborer, twisting through the Pacific Northwest, battling crooked jobs services, striking for basic dignities and decent pay in the harbors of Los Angeles, and even joining a failed Marxist revolution in Baja California.
In Utah, he was arrested and charged with the murder of John G. Morrison, and his 17-year-old son, Arling. Hill had been shot that same night by his friend in what he claimed was a quarrel over a woman. Hill and his friend, the elusive Otto Applequist, both had designs on Hilda Erickson, a young lady in Murray. The fact that Hill was wounded the same night as the Morrison murders was enough for law enforcement to arrest him, convict him and eventually end his life.
Hill was a talented musician and songwriter, skills he loaned in abundance to his union, the IWW. The songs are recounted in Adler’s book, and they provide a history of the IWW that is also related in “The Man Who Never Died.” The Wobblies were an uncompromising union, anti-capitalistic and seeking a world defined by the teachings of Karl Marx. That doomed them of any respectability or even alliances with labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor. Yet, as Adler recounts, the aggressive organizing efforts of the IWW garnered results for workers. In strikes in communities as diverse as Massachusetts mill towns or agricultural centers such as Fresno, the IWW was in the forefront of successful strikes that improved laborers’ lives. The Wobblies produced newspapers that provided the nomadic laborers with tips on which cities and camps were good and bad for workers. Hill’s songs defined the stark priorities of labor and capital.
“For a decade or so between its founding in 1905 and World War I, the IWW was embraced by many workers as a legitimate and humane detour around the inequities of unfettered industrial capitalism. That it engendered such devotion among those who had been marginalized and oppressed by the new economy — unskilled immigrant laborers and minorities, in the main — is the reason it also was perceived by capitalists and their allies in government as a genuine threat to the status quo,” Adler said in an interview.
Hill was a hardened labor organizer, a man who believed the world would have to get worse before it could get better. Adler’s account provides evidence that Hill was aware his death would have more impact on the struggle than his life. He was correct. He became a labor icon even while alive. Utah’s governor was forced to ignore the wishes of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in order to carry out his execution. With Hill’s death, Utah gained another black mark in U.S. public opinion as it joined the stain of polygamy.
Utah’s Gov. William Spry, as well as the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, were haters of labor unions, eager to continue the Mormon state’s recent embrace of capitalism.
“I think the individuals ... (such as Gov. Spry) as well as the press — especially the press — lit the match and fanned the flames of ‘institutional anger,’ ” Adler said. “I also think they were genuinely fearful of seeing the IWW replicate gains, however fleeting, it had made elsewhere in the West. ... clearly by the 1910s the state had fully warmed to capitalism and wished fervently to be known, as Gov. Spry proclaimed, as ‘patriotic, progressive, God-fearing, and intelligent.’ ”
The Wobblie legacy
While Hill the icon would “never die,” the IWW would peak and then largely disappear. Its refusal to take sides in World War I doomed it. The union barely exists today. Supporters can take solace that many of the labor rights it fought for in Hill’s time are now assumed, and even well improved upon.
“I wouldn’t say the IWW collapsed so much as the federal government crushed it in response, yes, to the union’s militant antiwar program,” Adler said. “The government shuttered every one of the union’s offices and union halls, and it arrested and imprisoned hundreds of its key members. And while the union did — and does to this day — continue to agitate and organize, the systematic raids of September 1917 marked the end of the IWW’s heyday.
“The IWW advocated for workplace dignity and security during a period of economic transition. It stood for a right to a living wage, a safe workplace, affordable health care and housing. They fought for the right to freely organize unions, for freedom of assembly and speech, and for the right to due process for all — even radicals,” Adler said.
In most accounts of his life, whether Hill actually committed the murder is a subject of debate. Wallace Stegner, author of the biographical novel, “Joe Hill,” believes he probably did it. Adler disagrees, and through some research and reporting, believes he has uncovered a smoking gun that finally vindicates Hill. He has found a 1949 handwritten letter from the woman, Hilda Erickson, in which she verifies Hill’s claim that she was the root of the dispute that caused Applequist to shoot Hill.
It’s interesting to wonder where the IWW, as it existed 100 years ago, would be in the political spectrum today. Adler assumes no real changes.
“They would be where they were a century ago: on the far left,” he said. “I think they would have applauded and been on the front lines of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They would point out that the catastrophic decline in union membership over the past half-century has paralleled — and precipitated — a dramatic rise in income inequality. They would be calling for an end to the use of concentrated corporate power to leverage political power, and they would be organizing against the race to the bottom that pits low-wage states, countries and workers against one another.”
Joe Hill provides diversity to those who study his life and impact on history. Adler’s book, while perhaps most valuable because it blends Hill’s account with an excellent history of U.S. labor, won’t be the final word on the most famous Wobblie. The labor icon can always surprise us.
“Prior to working on the book, my impression of Hill was limited to what I knew of him from the eponymous folk song popularized by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and others. In other words, I had no idea where the myth ended and the man started,” Adler said. “What surprised me most was just how complicit he was in his own death. If he was innocent of murder, as I came to believe he was, he could have avoided execution by providing an alibi. Yet he chose a martyr’s death. Why? That to me was the real mystery of Hill’s life.”