On November 19, 1915, the state of Utah executed a Swedish immigrant named Joe Hill, who was convicted of murder. His execution raised a lot of controversy. People around the world had tried to save him. Because Hill helped workers fight for their rights, it seemed to many that leaders of industry just wanted him out of the way. Others were sure he was the murderer.
Joel Haggellund immigrated to the U.S. at age 23. There he started to go by the names of Joseph Hillstrom or Joe Hill. Hill got jobs doing manual labor around the country. He experienced firsthand the harsh conditions of working people, especially immigrants.
As a way to protest and change unjust treatment, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Capitalists had no love for the IWW. This labor union was radical, tough, and sometimes violent.
As a labor activist, Hill wrote songs, spoke, and organized laborers to band together and demand rights. His songs became famous. Workers and unions all over the world used them in their own struggles for higher wages and better working conditions.
In 1913, Hill came to Utah and began working in the Park City mines. He also kept on “organizing.”
In 1914 someone killed a store owner named John Morrison. The police arrested Hill and charged him with murder. The trial would be a mistrial today for several reasons—mainly because the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. However, the jury found him guilty.
The case caused an international furor. People all around the world suspected that the mine owners were just trying to get rid of Hill. Countless people wrote letters asking that he be pardoned. Even President Woodrow Wilson tried to get him pardoned.
But Governor William Spry would not pardon Hill.
At his execution, at the state penitentiary at Sugar House, Hill told his followers, “Don’t mourn; organize!” He also asked them not to bury his body in Utah.
Whether or not he committed the crime, Joe Hill has become a folk legend. Working people came to regard him as a martyr, and his songs and statements inspired later generations working for social and economic justice.