Denver author William Adler is in Madison, Wis. when I call him to talk about labor activist and folk singer Joe Hill. He's on a three-month tour with his family to promote his new book The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, which he reads from this week in Missoula. It details the life of the Swedish-born activist and member of the International Workers of the World who wrote songs such as "The Rebel Girl" and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab," and who was executed by firing squad in November 1915. Back then, Hill was convicted of murdering a Salt Lake City grocer (a former cop) and the grocer's son—but the century-old case was controversial, as evidenced by the numerous songs and stories that sprung up about Hill after his death.
Over the last six years, Adler has pieced together a biography of Hill's dynamic life. The mystery surrounding Hill's alleged crime compelled Adler to delve into some of the murkier aspects of the trial, and, eventually, led him to a letter that alludes to Hill's innocence. "When I started the book I thought of it as a murder mystery and a whodunit," Adler says. "It was a great unresolved crime of the 20th century and I thought maybe I could reopen it as a cold case."
Hill's link to the grocery murder was simple: on the same night the two men were murdered, Hill showed up at a doctor's office with a gunshot wound. Hill mentioned he was shot in a fight over a woman, but he didn't elaborate and the prosecution took the coincidence and ran with it. Hill didn't help his own case. Despite pleas from his supporters, he refused to testify on his own behalf. But like the story of union man Frank Little of Butte who was lynched in 1917 for his pro-union, anti-war activities, Hill's story isn't really about a murder so much as it's about labor politics.
"Joe Hill was recklessly principled," says Adler. "The evidence against him was extremely sketchy. But he felt that to testify was to have to prove his own innocence rather than make the state prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He didn't quite understand how the judicial system was going to treat a radical. He thought that in the end the truth would come out, but the fact is that he wasn't on trial so much for murder as his radical union the Wobblies was on trial for its very existence."
In an effort to dig up more material on Hill, Adler tracked down the family of a writer who had been researching Hill for a novel. The novel never came to fruition, but the would-be novelist's daughter pulled her deceased father's research from the attic and handed it over to Adler. In the pile of notes he found a letter written in 1949 by Hill's former sweetheart, Hilda Erickson, to the novelist.
"What she claimed in the letter backed up Joe Hill's original alibi which was that he had been shot by a friend in a quarrel over [Hilda]," says Adler. "It was basically this lovers' triangle that ended up turning into this cause célèbre."
Adler hasn't been able to answer the question of why Erickson, who died in the early 1970s, didn't step forward with the alibi during Hill's trial. He does know that she met with Hill every Sunday for the entire 22 months he was in prison until his execution.
"Maybe he wanted to protect her privacy and her reputation as a chaste woman," he says. "She could have stepped forward and I don't know why she didn't nor do I know why she decided, 35 years later, to step forward and write the letter."
Adler also thinks he knows who the real murderer was—a man, Magnus Olson, aka Frank Z. Wilson, with 16 aliases over his 50-year criminal career who was in Salt Lake City at the time and was the first suspect in the case. Police documents say Olson convinced the Salt Lake City police department of his innocence and was turned over to Elko County, Nev. for a different crime.
"I spent a year tracking him down," Adler says. "Later, in 1929, he owned the getaway car that Al Capone's men drove in the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago."
The mysteries have been part of the fun, but on Adler's book tour, he's shining a light on Joe Hill's life as a political activist and musician. After all, he says, unions and immigrants are still being scapegoated for American's economic woes just as they were in Hill's time. In honor of Hill's music, Adler's having local musicians play Hill's songs at his readings.
"Joe Hill understood the power of music as a weapon of social protest and also to unite people of disparate backgrounds," Adler says. "People could unite around a song...and in some ways it's hard to appreciate that today. On the other hand, I'm in Madison and they've been singing every day at the state capital since February. They're still singing. So there must be something to it."