Episode: Joe Hill: Songs of Hope

Original Airdate: 
January 1998

A 90-Minute Documentary Profiles Labor Leader and Protest Songwriter

His legal battle was the most controversial of its time. His death sentence was the subject of protests around the world even gripping the White House. And before Joe Hill faced the firing squad, his legend had reached near-mythic proportions. His life and his death would challenge the American values of fairness and justice...and would provide a rallying cry for defiant workers for generations to come.

In a powerful documentary, PBS presents the story of Joe Hill, a labor organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1915. Airing on Labor Day 2000 (Monday, September 4 -- check local listings),
Joe Hill is a story of a nation struggling with issues of justice, opportunity, and the American Dream.

Using archival photographs, written documents, dramatic re-creations, and interviews with historians, Joe Hill tells the story of an immigrant worker-turned-union organizer caught in a power struggle with big business and politics. The program was written, directed, and produced by Ken Verdoia, co-produced and edited by Nancy Green. Joe Hill's pro-union songs are brought to life by local musicians Rex Flinner and Dan Waldis. Bill Brussard served as director of photography. Local personalities and actors provide voice-overs for the historical characters, including Robin Ljungberg as the voice of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill is the story of a man who enables us to see a lost chapter of the national experience, according to Verdoia. "The story of Joe Hill is the story of European immigration at its peak -- and the extraordinary challenge faced by millions of people seeking opportunity in this country. It's the story of conflict surrounding the early organization of rank-and-file workers. And it's the story of a nation wrestling with issues of justice and fairness."

Born Joel Hagglund in Sweden, he came to the United States with one of his brothers in 1902, where he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom and then simply Joe Hill. He lived and worked all over the United States and, as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, wrote labor songs still sung by activists today.

In January, 1914, Joe was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah, and charged with murder. Twenty-two months later, despite nationwide and international protests, he was executed by a firing squad. The state claimed that Joe and another man, never identified nor found, were the two people who rushed into John Morrison's grocery store at closing time on January 10, 1914 and shot Morrison and his son to death.

Joe Hill employs dramatic re-creations to explore the sequence of events surrounding the murders of the Morrisons. Based on the newspaper accounts of the day and testimony from the preliminary hearing and trial of Joe Hill, re-creations illuminate seven different perspectives of the shootout, rather than just one.

Throughout the documentary the question looms: did Hill actually commit the shootings? The program is a murder mystery never solved. To this day, evidence remains incomplete. The two primary pieces of trial evidence that led to Hill's conviction were an unexplained gunshot wound, and witnesses who described a physical similarity between Hill and a man who entered the Morrison store at the time of the shooting.

Viewers will come to different conclusions about Hill's guilt, according to Verdoia. "Early on, I decided that Hill's guilt or innocence was not the central reason for undertaking this program. For me the importance of the story is to understand the process that was at work...the political and social climate that contributed to the trial and the very notion of 'justice,'" he says.

Co-producer Green agrees. "Whether he is guilty of murder or not, Joe Hill demonstrates the passion an individual can have for a cause. He was a man who represented the small guy against the big industrial machine," she says. "The documentary shows how one man can affect a nation, even the world."

Though much of the story takes place in Utah, the events surrounding the trial and execution of Joe Hill resonated worldwide. President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, the Swedish Minister, national labor organizers, and others tried to stop his execution.

Strangely, Hill seemed to do everything he could to avoid establishing his innocence. Given literally a dozen opportunities to establish an alibi, Hill refused to cooperate.

"Joe Hill is an enigma," says Green. "Some people said he had the soul of a poet and that he could never commit murder, while others claimed he had a dark side. Even his closest friends said he was a mystery."

Interviewed in the documentary are authors and historians, including Helen Papanikolas, Ron Yengich, Michael Quinn, Thomas G. Alexander, Gibbs M. Smith, and John Sillito.

Length: 
1 hour 30 minutes
Appears On:

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