“Joe Hill”


The singer "dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you and me." He points out that Hill is dead. Hill replies, "I never died." The singer describes the details of Hill's death; Hill answers, "What they forgot to kill Went on to organize."


The innocence of Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, "Joe Hill," is such an article of faith in the folk community that it was stated as fact in the earlier editions of this index. This even though the sources containing this song knew so little about the case that different sources gave different dates for his execution.

An honest assessment has to admit uncertainty. Facts are sadly few -- indeed, little is known of Hill's dozen years of freedom in the United States; even before his death, he was legendary enough that he is said to have been part of far more labor actions than any man could possibly have participated in. He rambled -- but probably not as much as the tales imply. All that is really certain is that he was the best and most important songwriter for the IWW.

The story of his execution is even more troubling.

What is known is that a murder took place in early 1914 at a grocery store in Salt Lake City. John G. Morrison and his son Arling were slain. Arling managed to kill one of the attackers; according to Morrison's surviving son Merlin, he shot another in the chest. The killers left without actually taking anything.

Hill later turned up at a doctor's with a bullet hole in his chest. It was a clean injury; the doctor treated and released him.

Still, when the police looked for a killer, they found Hill with an injury that fit the description, and he had no alibi. Arresting him was certainly not unreasonable; how many guys were there in 1915 Salt Lake City (the city of the conservative, law-abiding Mormons) with bullet wounds in their chests?

The problem was not the arrest but the trial. Hill attempted to defend himelf, all the while claiming the trial was fixed. This is probably overblown, but certainly the judge was prejudiced against him, and allowed the prosecution undue liberties. Hill, a non-lawyer, didn't know when to protest. No evidence could be presented to directly connect Hill with the murder (Merlin Morrison could not identify him), but with the city convinced he was guilty, and with no alibi except a vague claim about a woman's honor, he was naturally convicted.

One of those convinced that he should die was the governor of Utah. So the various calls for clemency and a new trial were denied. He was executed on November 19, 1915. He had written that he didn't "want to be caught dead in Utah," so his body was cremated and the ashes sent all over the country as a rallying point.

A good summary of the case is found in the December 2005 issue of _American History_ magazine. Author Ben Lefebvre sums up the whole case pretty well: "Whether Hill was guilty of murder or not, he clearly did not receive a fair trial, one that might have credibly determined the truth" (p. 62).

It does seem that few people actually want the truth. I visited Amazon.com in trying to find good additional sources to allow further research. The reader reviews were absolutely useless -- clearly most of them had already decided their opinions, and they reviewed the books positively or negatively based on what *they* think happened. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1879-1915 - Life of Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, known as "Joe Hillstrom" or "Joe Hill."
  • 1902 - Hill emigrates to the United States
  • Jan 10, 1914 - The Salt Lake City robbery/murder for which Joe Hill was arrested
  • 1915 - Execution of Joe Hill for the murder


  • Pete Seeger, "Joe Hill" (on PeteSeeger39) (on PeteSeeger48)


  1. Arnett, p. 175, "Joe Hill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Burt, p. 95, "(Joe Hill)" (1 fragment)
  4. BI, Arn175


Author: Words: Alfred Hayes/Music: Earl Robinson
Earliest date: 1938 (music copyright; the words are older)