By William M. Adler
Bloomsbury Press, $30.00, 435 pages
Joe Hill was born in Sweden, and his real name was Joe Hagglund. In 1902, at the age of twenty three, he arrived in the United States with his older brother. By 1910, he was writing a newspaper column for The Industrial Workers of the World. Joe also wrote poems and songs. He sang them on street corners, and the union published them in its Little Red Songbook. In 1914, he came to Salt Lake City. It was there that Hill was arrested for the murders of a local grocer named John Gibson Morrison and his son. The author presents some convincing arguments that indicate that the real killer was a career criminal named Frank Z. Detroit. Joe was wounded in the chest that same night, but would never reveal his whereabouts. Adler uncovered a letter from Hilda Erickson written in 1949 that implied a romantic aspect to their relationship.
Unfortunately, Adler reveals little that would tell us about Joe’s non-working life. How could he have lost touch with his one relative in the United States? Did he have relationships with other women? Why would a dedicated anarchist prefer to preserve a woman’s reputation than to save his own life? Almost a hundred years have passed since Joe Hill’s execution. What we do know about Joe Hill is that he remains a martyr to the union movement, and that his songs live on in labor songbooks, and writers continue to tell his story in novels, plays, and non-fiction studies. If only a careful scholar like Adler had been around in the 1920’s or 1930’s, we would have more answers and less questions.
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