July 18

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 18, 1914:

Singing Wobbly Joe Hill sentenced to death

Convicted of murder on meager evidence, the singing Wobbly Joe Hill is sentenced to be executed in Utah.

A native of Sweden who immigrated to the U.S. in 1879, Joe Hill joined the International Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910. The IWW was an industrial union that rejected the capitalist system and dreamed one day of leading a national workers' revolution. Members of the IWW--known as Wobblies--were especially active in the western United States, where they enjoyed considerable success in organizing mistreated and exploited workers in the mining, logging, and shipping industries.

Beginning in 1908, the IWW began encouraging its membership to express their beliefs through song. The IWW published its Little Red Song Book, otherwise known as the I.W.W. Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. A few years later, the witty and handsome Joe Hill became one of the Wobblies' leading singers and songwriters. Hill composed many of the IWW's best-loved anthems, including "The Preacher of the Slave" which introduced the phrase "pie in the sky." By 1915, Hill was one of the most famous Wobblies in the nation.

Public notoriety, however, could prove dangerous for a radical union man. In 1915, Hill was arrested and charged with murdering two Salt Lake City policemen during a grocery store robbery. Although the evidence against Hill was tenuous, a jury of conservative Utahans convicted him on this day in 1914 and he was sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad the following year.

Ever since, scholars have debated whether Hill was actually guilty or was railroaded because of his radical politics. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Hill became a powerful martyr for the IWW cause by telegramming his comrades with a famous last-minute message: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

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