Interview: Gibbs M. Smith
A well known figure in publishing circles, Gibbs Smith is also an historian and published author. His Master's thesis on the case eventually grew into the best-selling book, Joe Hill, which has enjoyed multiple printings over the past thirty years.
Following is a full transcript of producer Ken Verdoia's interview with Smith.
Q: Let's maybe consider this from a chronological standpoint and begin with the notion of Joe Hill coming to America, before he's known as Joe Hill.Can we, with any certainty, describe his decision to come to America?
A: Well, I see him as simply an example that was repeated millions of other times by other people. I mean, clearly, his family was poor, his father had died, his mother had several children to take care of. They couldn't survive economically. And America seemed like a place to come that was a lot of opportunity and hope. And he and his brother came and -- partly just to get out of the way, I think, to -- because his mother couldn't take care of all of her other kids.
Clearly, they loved each other and the mother would have been happy if she could have kept them all together, but it wasn't possible. And so he and his brother came to America. And they were filled with all the idealism of then an immigrant. And they were naive and they were not hardened in any way, in my view. They were hopeful and optimistic and wide-eyed about the possibilities of America.
Q: As best we can reconstruct, what is the experience? Are the streets in fact paved with gold?
A: It was not a political act to come here, as I see it. It was just hopeful. When he got here, the experience became -- turned him into a political person.
Coming to the lower east side of New York -- I mean, you go there now and it's called Soho and it's really fashionable and nice. And I see those tenements still there. They're still there. But now there's art galleries and museums and boutiques. But it used to be a smelly, dirty place filled with immigrants from every corner of the world. There was, obviously, families and good times, but there was a lot of misery too there. And people were desperate and depraved, and it was very difficult to survive there. And that's where he ended up after coming through Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. And he cleaned spittoons in a saloon. That was his employment. That was the best he could do, which was about the lowest of the low. And he didn't stay there long. He tried to get out of there.
Q: How did this man, who is more accurately identified as Joel Haagland, how he become Joe Hill?
A: Well, I think the hardening of the -- the confrontation of idealism against raw experience turned him into Joe Hill. Plus, he had some proclivities. He was a clever man. He wasn't about to-- he wasn't going to be just a work beast, as Jack London described the scene in the novel that he wrote called The Beast. I mean, he was not going to become a work beast. He was going to live by his wits. He was clever, he was intelligent, and he was going to keep mobile. He wasn't going to get stuck in one place. And he was doing his version of the good life, in my opinion.
But he was also an idealistic person who could see a better way. And so that's what really drew him into the IWW.
Q: One of the first writings that I've read of Joe Hill is to Solidarity the newsletter of the Industrial Workers of the World. And he writes of finding a man beaten by the side of the road. And the letter almost seems to seethe with political awakening.
A: Definitely. He -- he turns in, turns away from being a naive, hopeful person to a more hardened person, a person who realizes that things aren't going to happen unless you make them happen, that just being cooperative isn't going to get you anywhere. You've got to stand up and defend yourself and defend other people who are in your condition.
And he liked that role. I think he could see an opportunity to become a leader and to play the role of somebody who could articulate what a lot of people were feeling but didn't have the ability to articulate it like he did.
Q: The IWW was not the first attempt at organized labor in America, but it's somewhat unique in terms of it having different principles, different marching orders for itself, different organizing principles. So how can we best describe the IWW as it comes to life in the years before World War I?
A: The IWW was a late effort to organize workers. The early ones started way back just during the Civil War times. And they were, more or less, craft guilds. You had to have a skill and those skilled people organized into craft guilds and they protected the craft.
And the AF of L grew out of that. And to the IWW, the AF of L was the aristocrat of labor. That's what they nicknamed them. And the IWW existed in a later time. AF of L, of course, was still around, but they didn't want to organize unskilled immigrants, they didn't want to deal with people with all the different languages. They didn't want to organize women. And the IWW did all of those things, women, all kinds of immigrants, all kinds of races. All you had to do was be an industrial worker and you could be in the IWW.
And so they went to the lowest level of the work force in terms of people the AF of L wouldn't touch and organized them. That was what the IWW did.
Q: The preamble of the IWW seems topromise unrestrained confrontation with the existing economic order in this nation.
A: Yeah. They were very militant, very radical and they honestly believed they could build a new society within the shell of the old society, and that's what they intended to do. And they intended to do it with the most uneducated, the most recent immigrants, the most unskilled people. So it was a very revolutionary approach.
Q: How were the Wobblies considered by the major social structures, the economic interests, church interests, political interests, how did they view the Wobblies?
A: They thought they were beyond the pale. There was no -- they were just way out on the fringe, impossible to deal with. They were people who weren't polite, who wouldn't sit around the table and engage in polite conversation or be deferential to the bosses or the power structure, they just kicked them in the shins and said, "Here we are."
And that approach made the power structures mad. I mean, the Wobblies were hard to deal with. They weren't respectful. I mean, you've got to realize where they were coming from. The fact they weren't respectful is a reflection of what they were dealt in life. You wouldn't be respectful to somebody who had their foot on the back of your neck holding you down. And that was how they felt they were. You just would throw the bastard's foot off your neck and stand up. And that's what they tried to do.
Q: Was Hill's songwriting important to the movement?
A: Very. See, he was dealing with a bunch of people who couldn't even speak the same language. And how do you organize people and -- and get them to do something in unison if you can't even communicate? And the songs were one way to do that. Everybody could learn the song because they were all based on popular tunes of the day. And the words were tailor made for this political purpose. And that really had a tremendous effect in uniting these people.
The Scandinavians, the Germans, the Italians, the Croations under -- "Okay, we're going to go on strike and we can sing this song together" and it made you bond. And that's what his songs did. And it was tremendously important to do that.
Plus, as I said before, Joe Hill has this ability to be part of the group of people he was working with. But, also, he has the artist's ability to stand aside and -- and reflect on the experience. And most people were so caught in the experience, they didn't have the ability to step back and reflect on it and articulate it. They were just in it. He was in it and articulating it.
Q: And Hill then --does he view himself as an artist, as a person who has almost a special calling in the movement?
A: That's right. He does. And others see him that way too. I mean, I used -- when I did this research in the 1960s, in the early and mid-1960s, there were still a lot of old Wobblies around, people in their seventies and eighties. And I met most of them that were still alive in the western United States, from California to the midwest. And many of them had an opinion of Joe Hill and some of them actually had seen him and talked to him.
And almost all of them felt like he was a man of unusual ability, both physically and mentally. He had the ability to catch a freight train under difficult conditions that other people admired. I mean, they all to do it to some degree, but it's hard. But he had the skill and the agileness to never get hurt, to always land on his feet, to always -- you know, just like a cat, just skilled.
He had the ability to say the right thing at the right time. I mean, he wasn't always serious, but he was serious. He wasn't just playing at this movement, but he wasn't so serious he wouldn't be entertaining too. So he just had that native ability in every way. He was an unusual man.
Q: Let's look at the environment that Joe Hill eventually experiences in Utah. A:I see Utah -- the only difference between Utah and the other Rocky Mountain states, as I see it, is the Mormon Church is headquartered here. So that's the most unusual thing about Utah. But in every other way, it's just like every other western state that I see.
A: The main industries were owned by outside capital. They weren't home-owned at all. Many of the industries, the biggest industries in Utah were the same ones in other western states and they were all owned by people outside of the western states. In metal mining and there were timber interests and they were, to some degree, ranching interests. But the ranching was the most home-grown. But the mining was the most important, and the smelting, and that was all outside ownership.
Q: It almost sounds like you're describing a colonial experience.
A: I see the Rocky Mountain states as a colony in our own country. It is supplying raw materials from companies who were outside-owned and most of the profits went outside. And the political game the companies played was to work with the state legislatures and the political structure and the national guard to keep their workers under control. And so the workers were under the thumb of the companies and the political structure. And the National Guard, if needed, was there to actually put down strikes. And they did in Utah. And they did in every other western state too.
Q: So outside interests exerted a strong influence on the Utah economy?
A: Yeah. I love the museums, like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but the Guggenheims owned the smelting empire in Utah. That's where they got a lot of their money to build the good life in the east.
Q: What brings Joe Hill to Utah?
A: Joe Hill came here, like he went to San Pedro, California. He went there to work as a stevedore on the -- loading ships. He went to other areas as a construction worker. He came here to work in mines in Park City. He came for a job.
Q: Was he on his way somewhere else?
A: I have no idea where he was going, but he was not staying here, in my view. He was just staying here for a while and then to move on, like he did every other place. I think he liked life on the road. He liked being mobile.
Q: Let's describe what life might have been for a Wobblie coming to Utah in the era of 1912, '13 or '14.
A: It might have seemed like it would be a very hostile place, but it really wasn't. Murray, Utah was the center of the smelting industry. It was also a place where most people who were in mining had some connections. Because most of the Bingham miners had some connection to Murray. The miners in Park City certainly did. Joe Hill did. There was a big Swedish and Scandinavian community in Murray and he had friends there he knew in Sweden. One girl he knew was a gal named Hilda Erickson. She was from his home town in Sweden. The mayor of Murray was a socialist. The town council were socialists. It was compatible with his political views. It was not a place that he would have felt estranged from.
Q: The murder of John and Arling Morrison takes place in January 1914. After those killings, in the immediate hours, do investigators give the local newspapers a hypothesis on what they believed may have been the motive behind the killings?
A: They do. They think the killing is either as a robbery and there was a killing, or it was for revenge. They think, because Mr. Morrison had been a police officer, that he had incurred some enemies and that revenge against what he might have been involved in as a policeman was behind the shooting. The person who shot Morrison said, "We've got you now." just before he pulled the trigger. That's in the record, and that makes it sound like revenge. And so that's the theory, that there was some kind of a revenge.
There's absolutely no evidence, of course, that Joe Hill had any contact with Morrison prior to the shooting.
Q: How, in this setting, does Joe Hill enter the picture?
A: Okay. Joe Hill is shot the same night as the Morrison murder. He's shot in the chest. He gets on a streetcar, he goes to a Murray doctor, who's name is McHugh, Dr. Frank McHugh, for treatment of this wound. He knows McHugh because when Hill comes down from Park City, he stays with a family. They have two boys. One of the boys develops pneumonia and McHugh was treating him for pneumonia. So he's the doctor that Joe Hill had seen, so he goes there for treatment for this gunshot wound.
Q: What does Joe Hill say about the source of the wound?
A: He says that he was shot in a confrontation over a woman. The theory is, as he evolves this story later, that he may have been with the wife of another man and the man came back and shot him. Or he may have been involved with a girl friend. It's unclear to me, of course, what it is. But what he says is that he was shot because he was with a woman and a man didn't like that and shot him.
Dr. McHugh reads the paper the next morning, reads about the murders of the Morrisons and calls the police and said, "Look, I treated a guy last night that had a gunshot wound. Check him out."
Q: Hill is arrested. Trial is set. The prosecution does not have a certain eyewitness that says, "Yes, he definitely did it." They don't have the smoking gun, per se. What is their strategy?
A: Well, I think that the whole strategy is over the gunshot wound because Joe Hill wouldn't explain in any detail or provide the name of the woman. That's what they really wanted. If there was a woman, why didn't he -- why don't you give us the name of the woman?" He would never do that. And that became the whole issue in terms of the strategy because if he won't provide the name of the woman, this guy really wasn't with a woman. And if he wasn't with a woman-- they implied-- he did do the murder.
I think, as it became clear that Joe Hill really had baggage -- I mean, he was IWW, he was a political person, and there became a big defense to save him, then I think the whole thing changed from Mr. Leatherwood's [the prosecutor] point of view. He could see a political career developing here for himself and took advantage of it. There was a personal ambition on top of a rather meager legal strategy.
Q: One of the stunning moments in the trial occured when the prosecution was presenting witnesses, Joe Hill rises before the Court and attempts to fire his two attorneys.
A: Yeah. Increasingly, he was painted as a radical. And what he did there simply furthered that impression. The momentum builds from a simple case, you know, a more or less ordinary important case to one with enormous implications, politically, tremendous symbol across the country and a tremendous effort to save Joe Hill. By the time he was executed, the whole country and much of the world was aware of this.
And so there was a steady building of this. And I think the trial was in June and it was a nice summertime in Utah. It was -- it -- by the time this was over, it was very heated. Both the weather was heated and the trial was heated. And the interest was heated.
Q: What was the environment like during the trial? For example, the reporting by local newspapers?
A: Well, they became much more militant and much more playing up the fact that he was part of a radical union. And the mining tradition in Utah was somewhat juxtaposed against this, the labor tradition that he represented. And so there were broader things brought into the coverage other than just the trial.
Q: Sounds like he became a symbol for everyone.
A: He did.
Q: Both those who were championing his cause and those who were seeking to crush the IWW.
A: And it became one of the most important trials and cases in United States history.