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Sugar House Journal

The Second Commemoration Since the Death of Joe Hill

Oct 08, 2015 13h42 ● By Bryan Scott

Descendants of Joe Hill and John Morrison pose for picture with Chloe Stewart .Photo credit by Anne Kocherhans

By Elizabeth Suggs

The commemoration of the execution of Joe Hill, whom many believe to be wrongly convicted, was marked on Sept. 5.   

“Joe Hill has been known as a labor songwriter. He was known before he died,” Dr. Lori Taylor, wrangler and co-chair of the Joe Hill Organizing Committee, said. “He would have already been well-known even if he hadn’t died.”

In an effort to destabilize the Wobblies, growing public opinion believes, Joe Hill was suspected and convicted of murder. While the evidence may be strong that Joe Hill was innocent, there is not yet sufficient evidence to say whether he was or was not guilty. 

According to the AFL-CIO, Joe Hill was well known as an Industrial Worker of the World (IWW) or part of the “Wobblies,” as well as a folksinger of popular labor songs. His songs were played in hobo jungles, workers’ rallies and on picket lines. 

Months before his arrival in Salt Lake City, a rally broke out in Utah. Hill’s songs were played in what became known as a riot started by the Wobblies.

“He’d been heading to Chicago and stopped in Utah,” Taylor said. “He went into a situation already volatile.” 

What happened to the Wobblies was printed in the paper as the riot, according to Taylor. Hill arrived in a city that was already anti-Wobblie. 

Soon after visiting Utah, according to KSLA, Hill was caught in a dispute with his best friend, which made him the lead suspect in a double murder. The best friend had shot Hill after he hoped to date the friend’s ex-fiancé. The murder happened the same night Hill was treated for his gunshot wound, which made him a prime suspect.  

“The friend was a hot head,” Taylor said. “He shot Joe and immediately was sorry.” 

 Taylor explained that Murray was the centerfold of Swedish immigrants. Hill never presented his alibi at trial, but those in the Swedish community, according to Taylor, “knew it was true.” 

“One important thing to look at is two innocent people were murdered,” Taylor said. “I don’t believe Joe Hill did it.” 

Hill was killed by a firing squad at the old state prison where Sugar House Park presently stands. Due to the nature of the history, Taylor and committee wanted the commemoration to be held at Sugar House Park. 

“He was executed at the old state prison,” Taylor said. “We did it in the neighborhood because that’s where he died.” 

The Joe Hill celebration marked the second commemoration since his execution nearly a 100 years ago. Hill, unlike other martyrs, was remembered not only for the unjust, but for his songs. 

“Joe Hill has been known as a labor songwriter,” Taylor said. “It’s the songs that set him apart.”

The real anniversary of Joe Hill’s death is in November. The anniversary in November is celebrated once a year as a vigil to remark on his death and remember him. 

“It was Labor Day weekend,” Taylor said. “And this weekend was more of a celebration. The vigil will be somber.”

Sean Desilets, professor at Westminster, was one of the many that attended the Labor Day event. 

“There’s a long and beautiful tradition of resisting corporate power in America,” Desilets said. “Joe Hill (along with the activism that sprung up before and after his death) is an important part of that tradition. It is important to remember and celebrate our heroes.” 

The event went from noon to 10 p.m., with the last performance by Judy Collins ending at 9 p.m.

“I wished I could have stayed longer,” Desilets said. “But really the important thing, for me, was being there.” 

While it rained on the event earlier in the day, many still attended and continued to enjoy the music. As the day wore on, rain dissipated and sun covered the grounds. 

Most of those who attended remained seated and quiet, as they listened to music played by Mark Ross, David Rovics, Judy Collins and many others. Each performer was given 45 minutes without any planned lengthy stop.

Taylor Hoffman, Sugar House resident, attended the event near the end. Hoffman had no idea she missed the Mischief Brew, a favorite of hers. 

Judy Collins, however, brightened the mood. 

“I didn’t know anything prior,” Hoffman said. “I did know who it was about, but had no clue it was the anniversary or that there was an event.”

Lack of advertising wasn’t what made her unaware, Hoffman explained. 

“It was my fault,” Hoffman said. “Someone was bound to say something at Black Cat Comics[her work]. I just go into my own insulated place.” 

In response to what she missed, Hoffman purchased items from the Joe Hill store just outside the park. The store sold Joe Hill memorabilia and books, as well as CDs and records of performing bands. 

Near the store, Chloe Stewart, a sophomore and Sugar House resident, stood beside her history project. She, along with Yasmin Projansky and Haley Segura, partnered together to create a project on one of the leaders in history.

“Why do any of the normal history leaders?” Stewart, the only one in attendance, asked. “We heard of his story and got really interested.” 

The project on Joe Hill won the National History Day prize, and later the group visited Washington, D.C. for the project. 

“This was my first,” Stewart said. “My partners have done science projects.” 

The two descendants of Joe Hill and John Morrison, whom Hill was convicted of killing, attended the event. Both Rolf Hägglund and Marilyn Morrison-Ryan greeted each other warmly. According to Taylor, the friendly mix between the two descendants “really set the tone” for the event. 

“It doesn’t have to be a point of contention,” Taylor said. “We can live in the present. Whether he’s guilty or not, the time of that question has passed.”