Joe Hill

Salt Lake County, Utah
Date of Crime: January 10, 1914
Executed November 19, 1915

“Just before 10 pm on the night of 10 January, 1914, John Morrison, a Salt Lake City, Utah, grocer and a former policeman, was closing his store with his two sons, Arling and Merlin. Two men wearing red bandannas forced their way into the store. One of the intruders shouted 'we've got you now', levelled a handgun and shot Morrison. Arling Morrison grabbed his father's old service revolver and fired two shots at the masked men, who returned fire and fled the scene. Merlin, the younger child, stayed hidden in the back of the store.”

“Arling was dead before Merlin reached him. John died within minutes. When the police arrived, Merlin described what had happened, gave a vague description of the gunmen, and stated that one of them had very clearly said the words 'we've got you now'.”

“John had left the police force specifically because he feared that some of the people he had arrested would seek revenge when they were released from prison. He had recently stated that this was still something he feared. That fact, combined with the shouted 'we've got you now' and the presence of the day's receipts in the cash register, caused the police department to initially conclude that this was a revenge killing. The police department also concluded that at least one of Arling's bullets had found its mark. There was no blood in the store other than John and Arling Morrison's, but witnesses said that one of the gunmen leaving the store appeared to have been wounded. Drops of blood were found in the snow just one block from John Morrison's store.”

“At about 11.30 that night, Joe Hillström [aka Hill] went to the home of Dr Frank McHugh. Hill had a bullet wound in his chest. Hillström explained the wound by saying that he had been shot by a man while arguing over a woman. The bullet had passed through Hillström's body without hitting any vital organs, so McHugh just cleaned and bandaged the wound and arranged for a friend to drive Hillström home. During the examination, a gun dropped from Hillström's clothing. At that time and in that place, this was not unusual enough to cause McHugh any alarm. The friend of McHugh who gave Hillström the ride home later reported that, on the way, Hillström had him stop at a vacant field. McHugh's friend reported that Hillström stepped outside the glare of the headlights and threw an object into the field.”

“The next morning, when McHugh read about the double murder and the police request for help in identifying anyone who had a gunshot wound, he informed them of Hillström's visit.”

“Three days later, McHugh visited Hillström to check the wound and give him some painkillers. When the medication had obviously started making Hillström drowsy, police officers entered the room. They aimed their weapons at Hillström, who was in bed, and ordered him not to move. Hillström started reaching across his bed. An officer, suspecting that Hillström was reaching for a weapon, fired and shattered bones in Hillström's hand. Hillström had been reaching for his pants.”

“Hillström's roommate, Otto Applequist, who was suspected as the second gunman, left town on the night of the murders and was never located.”

“Shortly after his arrest, a Salt Lake City newspaper learned that Hillström was the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] poet/songwriter, Joe Hill.”

“During the course of the trial, the prosecution built a reasonably strong circumstantial case against Hill. They produced a dozen eyewitnesses who testified that the killer looked more or less like Hill. Although young Merlin Morrison said 'that's not him at all', when he was first shown Joe Hill, he later retracted that statement and identified Hill as the gunman who had killed his father and brother. One witness testified that the gunman had scars on his face similar to those on Hill's face as a result of a childhood illness.”

“The original theory of a revenge killing was disregarded as the prosecution presented a case for a simple robbery gone bad. The question of why a robber would yell 'we've got you now' on entering the establishment to be robbed was ignored.”

“No evidence was presented to suggest that Hill had ever met Morrison or had any grudge against him. The gun that Dr. McHugh reported having seen on the night he treated Hill was never recovered. None of Joe Hill's blood was found inside the store. A bullet that had passed through his body caused Hill's wound. That bullet was never found inside the store.”

“Two young attorneys in Salt Lake City, hoping to build their reputations and advance their careers, volunteered to defend Hill free of charge. To his subsequent regret, Hill accepted their offer. Partway through the prosecution's case, Hill fired the attorneys for incompetence, citing their weak cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and their failure to object to leading questions from the District Attorney. In his statement on firing them, he said that he believed they were acting in partnership with the District Attorney to convict him (Hill) of a crime he had not committed. Judge Morris Ritchie refused to excuse the attorneys. Hill then refused to have any active participation in the trial.”

“The case for the defence included the fact that, since the money in the cash register had not been stolen, no motive could be ascribed to Hill. Additionally, 12 other men had been arrested in connection with the crime before Hill and four other men in Salt Lake City had been treated for bullet wounds on the night of the murders.”

“Hill, who never testified in his own defence, had stated that he was shot in a fight over a woman and that his hands were raised over his head when he was wounded. The fact that the bullet hole in the back of Hill's coat was four inches lower than the bullet wound in his back seemed to support Hill's version of how he had been shot.”

“Hill never explained his decision not to testify to his attorneys, or anyone else. Speculation as to his motives for this refusal fell into three camps. One group considered Hill a man of honour who was unwilling to tarnish the reputation of a married woman and that a jealous husband had shot him. Another group held that IWW legal advisors had told him not to testify, as the prosecution had not proven their case. The third group said that Hill knew that his alibi wouldn't hold up if he were cross-examined by the prosecution.”

“After just a few hours, the jury found Joe Hill guilty of murder. Utah law gave him a choice. He could either be executed by a firing squad or hanged. Presented with these options, Hill said, 'I'll take the shooting. I've been shot a couple of times before and I think I can take it'.”

“On 19 November, 1915, Joe Hill was executed by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison. Legend has it that Hill, having heard the 'Ready... Aim' orders, shouted 'Fire'! himself.”


Author:  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Utah Cases, Radical Defendants, Defendants Executed Before 1976