100 years after his execution in Utah, the legend of Joe Hill lives on

Posted at 9:59 PM, Nov 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-19 23:59:01-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Joe Hill may not be a household name in Utah as of 2015, but his life and death in Salt Lake City made headlines across the country and the world in 1915.

He's been written and sung about ever since, and many historians say Hill and his fellow labor activists shaped America as we know it today.

Hill was a well-known member of the Industrial Workers of the World, an organization which formed in 1905 with the mission of forming "One Big Union of all the workers". Hill's poems and writings were sources of motivation for his fellow "Wobbly's" as they were called.

By 1913, Hill arrived in Utah and began working at the Silver King Mine in Park City.

In 1914, however, Hill's name and reputation would also become synonymous with a major crime in Salt Lake City, when police identified him as the prime suspect in the murder of store owner John G. Morrison and his 17-year-old son Arling.

A 13-year-old son, Merlin, hid in a back room while shots rang out at the Morrison's store, which was once located on the Northwest corner of 800 South and West Temple in Salt Lake City.

Merlin Morrison has since passed away, but his son, Mike, spoke with Fox 13 News recently, recalling details his father once shared.

"My grandfather, John, was picking up a sack of potatoes at the end of the counter and he was bent over and these guys came through the front door and said 'we got you now' then shot him in the back," Mike said.

The Salt Lake City Police and local media characterized the crime as a "revenge killing." John Morrison was a former police officer with a long history of encounters with unsavory characters.

Joe Hill was arrested a few days after the murders, after a doctor told police he'd treated Hill for a gunshot wound (John Morrison had exchanged gunfire with those who killed him).

Hill's trial was very controversial, as many people speculated the charges against him had been falsified as a way to silence his voice and diminish his causes.

President Woodrow Wilson and the Swedish Ambassador became involved in a bid for clemency on Hill's behalf. But Hill was found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Joe Hill historian and noted defense attorney Ron Yengich describes Joe's demise for Fox 13 News.

"On November 19th, 1915, early in the morning--about 7:02 in the morning--he's taken out at the old prison in Sugar House and there are five men with high-powered rifles, and they put four bullet holes in or near his heart and execute him," Yengich said.

Joe Hill's legacy lives on. His songs and poems are still used by union organizers and social activists. See the bottom of this post for two of those songs, which are performed by Kate MacLeod.

Hill's involvement with the murders of John and Arling Morrison are still a topic of debate among historians, but descendants of the Morrisons believe Joe Hill was indeed guilty.

To mark the 100-year anniversary, Utah has created an archive page containing about 4,000 images of records concerning the international controversy and publicity surrounding the case. That archive page is available here.