Finding Joe Hill in new biography

Book Review

“The Man Who Never Died. The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon.”

By William M. Adler

Bloomsbury, 2011, hardcover $30, also available in e-book format

“I never died,” said he.

Nowhere is the romance of the Industrial Workers of the World more beautifully told than in the life and songs of its greatest troubadour, Joe Hill. The new book carefully catalogues everything that is known about his life and death, but adds much more. The spirit of the labor’s battles 1901-1915, especially in the West, is examined and exalted. The contribution of IWW volunteers to the Mexican revolution in Baja California is included. The author takes great pains to settle the question that previous biographies and one movie skirted, “Was Joe Hill guilty of the murder for which he was executed?”

Adler asserts that Hill was no murderer. He goes over the prosecution’s circumstantial case, carefully explains the errors made by the defense (particularly Hill’s own cavalier mindset), catalogues the tricks and outrights lies circulated by the capitalist media, and then goes much further. He demonstrates that a much stronger circumstantial case could have been made against another likely suspect, a career criminal who had been in the area of the crime and may have had the motive for murder that Joe Hill clearly lacked.

For this reader, such painstaking arguments were not really necessary. I would have been convinced by one sentence on page 340, “Hill’s body had yet to be cremated, in fact his pulse was barely gone, when [Utah} Governor Spry formally and unambiguously declared class war on the Industrial Workers of the World.” Adler goes on to talk about the nationwide witch-hunt, formally joined by President Wilson and the federal government as World War I began, that effectively suppressed labor’s most robust organization.

Some readers may take issue with William M. Adler’s total advocacy of his subject and the Industrial Workers of the World. Those who might accept the view that the IWW was and is perfect might be cautioned to study strategies and tactics more carefully, but no one ever can take away from the sheer honest bravery that Joe Hill and his organization did and does exemplify. Just as the song says,

“From San Diego, up to Maine

In every mine and mill

Where working folks defend their rights

It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill. It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”