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Joe Hill Trial: 1914

Circumstantial Evidence But No Motive, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Joe Hill
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Soren X. Christensen, Orrin N. Hilton, E.D. McDougall, and F.B. Scott
Chief Prosecutor: E.O. Leatherwood
Judge: Morris L. Ritchie
Place: Salt Lake City, Utah
Dates of Trial: June 17-28, 1914
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Execution by firing squad

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of Joe Hill launched the legend of Joe Hill, a lyrical spokesman for the Industrial Workers of the World. His conviction and execution made him a martyr symbolizing, in the eyes of many union workers, all the injustice of American society.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, better known as the Wobblies), organized in 1905, sent its messages to laboring people through song. Its Little Red Song Book, which set new words to popular, often religious, tunes, enjoyed print runs of 50,000. Before World War I, the Wobblies directed or participated in 150 strikes, some as large as a 10-week holdout by 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Songs were an important element in Wobbly tactics, for they brought a sense of solidarity to heterogeneous groups of workers.

The song book's 1911 edition introduced a writer named Joe Hill and a song—"The Preacher and the Slave"—that became one of his most famous. To the tune of "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," it sang:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Hill, a native of Sweden, was soon a popular hero. He meandered across the country, playing piano, banjo, guitar, and violin in hobo jungles, migrant workers' camps, and city slums. Each edition of the songbook introduced several of his new Joe Hill songs.

Hill was staying with friends in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday, January 10, 1914, when he went out for the evening. Toward midnight, he knocked at the door of Dr. Frank M. McHugh, who dressed a bullet wound that pierced Hill's chest. Hill told the doctor, "I got into a stew with a friend who thought I had insulted his wife."

The same night, police investigated a shooting at a grocery store. Proprietor John G. Morrison and his elder son were found dead. His younger son, Merlin, 13, reported seeing two men come in carrying pistols. They shouted, "We have got you now!" and fired, then ran.

Morrison was a former policeman who had lived in constant dread of those he had previously arrested. Twice he had shot and wounded men who attacked him.

Police found Morrison's pistol, discharged. A witness reported seeing two men run from the store, one holding his hands to his chest.

After Dr. McHugh dressed Hill's wound, he read of the murders and called the police. Since Hill had been wounded the same night as the murders and he would say only that his shooting occurred during a fight over a woman, he was arrested.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917