Joe Hill Murderer or Martyr?

by Jim Farrar (1975)

Although its title may suggest otherwise, this paper in no way deals with the innocence or guilt of Joseph Hillstrom. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the knowledge to render an accurate judgment in this particular case. What I will try to do, however, is present two different character sketches of Mr. Hillstrom. He will be examined through both the eyes of his enemies and devotees.

Just who was Joe Hill? Had you asked the people of Utah this question in 1914, chances are you would have been told that Joseph Hillstrom was an I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) cut-throat who had murdered a Salt Lake City grocer in cold blood, a Swedish immigrant who had become nothing but a hardened criminal since his arrival in the United States. Public opinion, to say the least, was not exactly in Joe Hill’s favor, at least in Utah. This was in part due to the fact that the local press, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune in particular, constantly described him as some type of dangerous sociopath with extremely hostile antisocial tendencies.

Historian Philip Foner, discussing pre-trail coverage in the Salt Lake papers, quotes the Deseret Evening News as saying that Hill had been accused in Los Angeles of participation in street car holdups. Even though no conviction was noted, the picture presented to the public from that point on was that Joe Hill was a seasoned criminal with a record behind him. The public, then, formulated their opinions mainly from what they had read in the newspapers. Whether or not these descriptions were accurate is not the issue here, the point is that public sentiment against Joe Hill was more or less generated by local press.

The Utah “fat-cats,” which is to say the governmental authorities and industrialists in that state, considered Hillstrom anathema for reasons of their own, the main one being that he had been supposedly actively involved in I.W.W. activities. Therefore, they reasoned, he must’ve been guilty.

Consequently, he was not only a dangerous radical, but a murderer as well. The important thing to remember here is that not only was Hill an accused murderer, thus rendering him an undesirable element in its own right, but he was also an I.W.W. “bigwig” who was a potential threat to Utah industrialists.

You see, Hill wrote the songs that the Wobblies sang on their picket lines, which, needless to say, the industrialists did not totally appreciate. He was a disruptive menace, the despicable epitome of union organizers. He was to be hated and feared simultaneously. Although these allegations may or may not be true, I think that I am fairly justified in saying that the Utah aristocracy, circa 1914, did reflect such contempt for Joe Hill. And, also, they should have. After all, he was a threat to them.

Logically, those who sympathized with Hillstrom did not view him as such. Discounting the fact that a great number of people displayed commiseration for him simply because they felt that he was being tried for a crime that he didn’t commit, we find that his “disciples” saw him as a gentle man who loved his own brother so much that he would call his name from mountain summits. Too “gushy?” Perhaps. Many would say, however, that this best exemplifies Joe Hill’s character. The fact that Hillstrom was an active participant in the I.W.W. movement would seem to suggest that he did at least care enough for his fellow men to try and do something of benefit for them.

In fact, Hill’s most ardent supporters were themselves affiliated with the I.W.W. To them, Hillstrom was an accomplished, prolific, and famous songwriter to whom they were indebted. His music enraptured them, for it echoed the philosophy of the I.W.W. Perhaps Joe Larkin best described this sentiment at Joe hill’s funeral when he said

Over the great heart of Joe Hill, now stilled in death, let us take up his burden, rededicate ourselves to the cause that knows no failure, and for which Joseph Hillstrom cheerfully gave up his all, his valuable life. Though dead in flesh, he liveth amongst us...Goodbye Joe, you will live long in the hearts of the working class.

Indeed, he never was forgotten.

Unfortunately, we will never actually know what kind of a man Joe Hill was. However, I do hope that this brief essay does at least present two distinct pictures of Hill; if it does, then I have fulfilled my purpose.

Works Cited

Philip S. Foner, The Case of Joe Hill (New York: International Publishers, 1965), p. 25.

Joe Hill, motion picture, Paramount, 1972.

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