Joe Hill Narrative Script
Written by Ken Verdoia
Who shot Joe Hill? Who was the woman he claimed was the reason for the shooting? Who convinced him not to testify? Hill would never say. In closing arguments to the twelve member jury, prosecutor Leatherwood blistered Hill for his silence.
If you were an innocent man, Joe Hillstrom, when asked for an explanation of your wound, why in God's name did you not tell the story and clear your name from the stain upon it? Because you were a guilty man, and you couldn't tell a story that could be corroborated, thats why. -- Leatherwood
Well, you're sitting on the jury and this prosecuting attorney is a pretty good attorney. And you say to yourself, well you know, maybe that's true. Why in the world won't he tell us what happened?
Hill's defense attorney tried to argue that silence could not be used against his client.
E.D. McDougall Quote:
I do not know how he was shot. . .but I know that he was not shot in the Morrison store. But his refusal to tell how he was wounded should not be held against him. It is not the duty of the defendant to prove that he is innocent. The burden is on the state to prove that he is guilty.--E.D.McDougall
In his final comments, Leatherwood invoked horrific images of the violent reputation of the industrial workers of the world--if not their name--to convince the jury that the very future of society was at stake in their decision.
Enforce the majesty of the law. Enforce it so that anarchy and murder and crime shall be pushed back beyond the pale of civilization. Enforce it so that you and your sons and all upright men shall walk the earth free from the dangers of those parasites who murder and rob rather than make an honest living! --E.O. Leatherwood
The jury began its deliberations late in the afternoon of June 25th, 1914. . .as the jury met on into the night, rumors started to circulate that an I-W-W uprising was in the works to free Joe Hill.
Herald Republican Quote:
Information was furnished Sheriff Andrew Smith yesterday that I-W-W sympathizers are planning to rescue Joseph Hillstrom from the courtroom in case the jury should find him guilty.--The Salt Lake Herald Republican.
There was no evidence of a plan to break Hill out of jail. But there was the first public outcry by the I-W-W that Joseph Hillstrom had been set-up by a sinister conspiracy involving the Mormon church and big business.
But intriguingly in this case, six of the twelve jurors were non-Mormons, the judge was not Mormon, and the prosecutor wasn't Mormon.
The LDS church simply was not involved either at an institutional level, nor were its leaders involved at a personal level in arranging for the outcome of the Joe Hill case.
I doubt very much that anybody sat around a table and said, let's kill the wobbly.
Don't think there was. But I think there was a climate, not only in Utah, but in the West, that the I-W-W was a threat to the status quo, to the power that's a much more serious situation than saying that this was a conspiracy of the mining companies and Utah construction company and the LDS church. . .because it's the whole community that feels this way about that situation.
Joseph Hillstrom was found guilty of the murder of John G. Morrison. Consistent with state law, Judge Morris Ritchie gave Hill a choice for his execution. . .death by hanging, or by firing squad.
I'll take shooting. I'm used to that. I have been shot a few times in the past, and I guess I can stand it again. .... I've been in this calaboose almost a full year, and that's a long time to live on the kind of stew they serve here. I keep myself in good spirits by reminding myself that the worst is yet to come. Once a month or so a missionary comes around---I think he prays for me.--Joe Hill
One year after the Morrison murders, Hill was still in the Salt Lake City jail, waiting for his appeal to be heard by the Utah State Supreme Court. The inmate's identity had become split. To the authorities he was Joseph Hillstrom--condemned to die. To the industrial workers of the world, he was Joe Hill--a symbol to be saved.
Emma Little Quote:
Another crime is about to be perpetrated by the capitalist class agains the workers. Our song bird is about to be executed--before he has a chance to sing for us the glorious songs of freedom. Will we permit him to be executed? Only we can prevent his execution. We demand his life. And we are going to enforce our demands. --Emma B. Little
In the spring of 1915, Hill was visited in his cell by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Flynn was a bright and fiery leader of strikes for the I-W-W in the east.
She was a remarkably strong orator. She could harangue a crowd of working stiffs and inspire them. She was a tough organizer with a modern, feminist sensibility.
Flynn came away from the meeting as Hill's new champion.
Elizabeth G. Flynn Quote:
He is tall, good looking, but naturally thin after sixteen months in a dark and narrow cell with another row of cells between him and daylight. Joe Hill had nothing to say about his case or himself. He only said, "I'm not afraid of death, but I'd like to be in the fight a little longer." Can we afford to give up our Joe Hill without a struggle?--Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Hill immediately composed a song in honor of Flynn. . .a sentimental tune that championed the women of the I-W-W. He titled it: "The Rebel Girl". The meeting with Flynn also signaled a change in Hill's statements about his case. One of the first to notice was Orrin Hilton, his union-backed attorney for the appeal of his conviction.
Orrin Hiltin Quote:
Hillstrom is a peculiar man. He seems to me to be a man who wants to be a martyr for a cause.--O.N. Hilton
He does seem to change. And there comes a time where in my opinion Hill decides that he will be the martyr for the labor movement.
Te was a very smart man and he realized what was happening and that he could be useful to the cause he really believed in by playing that role. I think that became part of it towards the end.
Still, Hill bristled at the confines of jail, acknowledging in a letter to a friend that delays in his appeal were wearing on him.
The hearing on my case has been postponed, and they are trying to make me believe that it is for my benefit. But, I'll tell you that it is damn hard to see where the benefit comes in. Damn hard. Yours as ever, Joe Hill.
"May it please the court. . ."
Finally, in the summer of 1915 the supreme court met in the Salt Lake City and County Building to hear Hill's appeal.
A careful study of the record in this case warrants the assertion that no case appealed to this court in recent years is so utterly lacking in the essential, fundamental elements of proof to sustain a conviction.--O.N. Hilton
Hilton's lengthy argument was essentially simple. The trial was not fairly conducted. Convicting Hill on the basis of his unexplained gunshot wound was ridiculous. . .and holding Hill's silence against him in reaching a conviction was outrageous. The three-member court reached a rapid conclusion.
Chief Justich Straup Quote:
Under the circumstances, the defendant's wound--without explanation--was quite as much a distinguishing mark as though one of the assailants had one of his ears chopped off. And the defendant may not avoid the natural and reasonable inferences of remaining silent. -- Daniel N. Straup, Chief Justice.
July 7th, 1915,
Dear friend and fellow worker. Was denied a new trial, and was immediately moved to the state prison where I am now. I am only a drop in the bucket, and this is a fight where individuals don't count. But to tell you the truth, I hate to lay down as long as there is a fighting chance. Yours for the one big union, Joe Hill.
William D. Hawywood. . .Big Bill, the leader of the I-W-W telegraphed Hill, telling him the union would bankroll an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
July 28, 1915.
To William D. Haywood. Dear fellow worker, There is no reason to be sentimental about it, Bill. We cannot afford to let the whole organization go bankrupt over one individual. Yours for industrial freedom, Joe Hill.
Hill's execution date was set for October first, 1915. From her base in New York, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn orchestrated a national campaign to pressure Utah to stop the execution.
Elizabeth G. Flynn Quote:
His exceptional courage makes his plight even more pathetic...and doubles our determination to save him. If we are to save his life we must appeal to you for immediate financial assistance. Will you and your friends sign and and mail the enclosed appeal to the governor? -- Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
The I-W-W pleas, and national newspaper coverage of the pendingHill execution, generated an avalanche of mail for the office of Utah's governor, William Spry.
Salt Lake City Tribune:
Letters and telegrams from all parts of the world, demanding a pardon for Hill, poured into the office of Governor Spry yesterday. most are from lawyers and professional men who are not affiliated with the I-W-W. The governors office is receiving an average of two hundred letters per day.--The Salt Lake Tribune.
Not all of the letters were simple petitions for Hill's life. Some promised a reign of terror for Utah if Hill should die.
The Knights of Death Quote:
We work silently. But when the times comes for reckoning, it will be swift sure and terrible, for the revenge of the K.O.D. is silent, swift, sure and terrible. We never fail.-- Agent 7, K.O.D.
Authorities quickly translated the group to be the Knights of Death, and announced the group was clearly an assault squad formed by the I.W.W. to terrorize Utah.
William Spry Quote:
I am not afraid of any threats that may be made by any man or organization when they resort to the unprincipled tactics of anonymous leters. I am going about my business as I always have, and am not frightened by the threats of death to myself or my family.--William Spry.
But privately, Spry was terrified at the prospects of Utah...and him specifically...being targeted by a group he considered mad bombers. He hired as many as two dozen private detectives from the Pinkerton Agency as guards and as undercover spies to monitor the wobblies.
He also is afraid for his family. Because there have been threats made against him, and he has guards that help with his children, taking them to school and various things of that sort. So he's concerned about what the effect might be on his family.
Spry even joined with Hiram Johnson, the Governor of California, in requesting a federal strike force to crush the I-W-W.
My dear governor. Many thousands of letters have poured into the office, and hundreds have contained vicious threats on my life, the lives of members of my family, and against the property of the state. Like you i am satisfied few people realize the extent of the operations of this organization, and I will be more than glad to cooperate with you in requesting federal assistance. -- William Spry, Governor.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, New York City. Dear friend and fellow worker. According to the local press the only hope for me now is the board of pardons. I suppose that means they are going to give me life if I beg for it real nice. I'll tell you Gurley, I think I would rather be buried dead than buried alive. I never licked the hand that holds the whip, and I don't see why I should have to start now. Yours, Joe Hill.
Hill was back in the city-county building again, this time to appear before the board of pardons...a familiar group, since it was made up of the three supreme court justices, Governor Spry, and Utah's attorney general. But rather than turn him away, the board offered Hill a chance to tell how he was shot...to identify the woman he claimed was the subject of the argument that left him wounded.
All you've got to do is allow us to verify your alibi and we'll cut you loose. That's interesting. But I think that at that point he had decided that he was better employed as a martyr to the union.
I do not want my death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and I am not clamoring for a pardon. I do, however, want a new trial, a fair trial. If I cannot have a new trial, I am willing to give my blood as a martyr that others may be afforded fair trials! -- Joe Hill.
Justice McCarty Quote:
If I were convinced in the least that Hillstrom was not rightfully convicted, I would vote to give him a full pardon. But when he did not take the opportunity offered him, he practically confessed that the conviction is legal and right. --Justice William McCarty, State Board of Pardons.
Salt Lake Tribune Quote:
Even the attorneys for Hillstrom were disgusted with his performance before the state board of pardons. Governor Spry and the other members of the board actually pleaded with Hillstrom to present any new evidence he might have. But Hillstrom dramatically stated that he did not want his freedom, that he wanted vindication. -- The Salt Lake Tribune.
Back in his cell, Hill started writing goodbye letters in anticipation of execution on October first. First, to a group of friends in California.
Dear friend and fellow worker: You shouldn't feel so sentimental about this. This dying business is not quite so bad as it's cracked up to be. I was moved to a new cell last night, and have an armed guard in front of my cell. I was also given some swell feed for the first time in God knows how long--and that is the surest sign. Now, just forget about me, and say goodbye to the bunch. -- Joe Hill.
To a Salt Lake City Wobbly who wanted to write a biography of Hill.
We shall not ruin fine paper in writing such trash. The only time that exists for me is the present. I am a citizen of the world, and I was born on a planet called earth. On which side of this planet I first saw light means so little it is not worth talking about. I shall only say that I have always tried to do the little that I could to advance freedom's banner a little closer to its goal. -- Joe Hill.
And finally, to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a letter that revealed a deeper connection than its salutation indicated.
Dear friend and fellow worker. Well, Gurley, I guess I am off for the great unknown tomorrow morning. They can kill me, I know, but they can never make me eat my own crow. I would like to kiss you goodbye. Not because you are a girl, but because you are the original Rebel Girl. Goodbye, Joe Hill.
But, quietly, the scene of the drama was shifting to Washington, D.C. Virginia Snow Stephen had not surrendered her belief in Hill's innocence. Less than two weeks before Hill's execution, she telegraphed the Swedish ambassador to the United States.
Virginia Snow Stephen Quote:
September 20, 1915
Joseph Hillstrom, a Swedish subject, has been sentenced to be shot to death October first at Salt Lake City. Will you request Secretary of State to delay execution pending investigation? -- Virginia Snow Stephen.
The telegram found its way to W.A.F. Ekengren, the Swedish Minister to the United States.
To the president: A Swedish subject named Joseph Hillstrom has been sentenced by the courts of Utah to be shot October first for murder in the first degree. i have come to the conclusion that the evidence, which is only circumstantial, is insufficient to warrant capital punishment. My government has instructed me to do my utmost. I venture to most respectfully lay the case before you, Mr. President, for your benevolent consideration. --W.A.F. Ekengren, Swedish Minister.
Ekengren's telegram was placed on the desk of Woodrow Wilson.
We all know Woodrow Wilson is an idealist. He believed that there was perfectability in mankind. And so he could be appealed to on idealistic grounds, and he was. There's an innocent man, perhaps, being executed. This is consistent with Wilson trying to save someone in that situation.
Woodrow Wilson Quote:
September 30, 1915
To the Governor of Utah, (please find out his name and address). I respectfully ask if it would not be possible to postpone the execution of Joseph Hillstrom until the Swedish Minister has an opportunity to present his view of the case fully to your excellency.-- Woodrow Wilson.
In Utah, Governor Spry bristled at the unprecedented presidential intervention, but agreed to halt the execution to allow Ekengren to present new evidence.
He's convinced that Joe Hill is guilty, and that Wilson is interfering in something that's not his affair because this is a state matter, not a federal matter.
Wilson...thinking his action was entirely innocent...was stunned at the national press reaction.
New York Sun Quote:
If the action is to become precedent, our governors will be reduced to defending the administration of justice in their states to members of the diplomatic corps! --The New York Sun.
My Dear Governor Spry. Of course you understand that I sent you the message I did in the Hillstrom case only because I thought it due to the representative of a foreign nation to give him the utmost benefit of any possible process in the case of a subject of his government sentenced to death. Very sincerely yours, Woodrow Wilson.