New Light on the Death of Joe Hill

Nov. 20, 1915, Joe Hill Executed

Nov. 20, 1915: The Times publishes the account of the execution of Joe Hill (Joe Hillstrom)  by firing squad.


The New York Times has two terrific stories that are well worth your time.

The first is Rachel Donadio’s feature on the search for a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, which might be hidden behind a fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio. Giorgio Vasari, the fresco artist, left what might be a tantalizing clue: “cerca trova” — “seek and you shall find” painted on a battle standard.

The second is Steven Greenhouse’s story on new research into the death of labor activist Joe Hill. William M. Adler, the author of a new biography titled “The Man Who Never Died,” says that he found a letter from Hill’s girlfriend explaining that he was shot by a rival suitor and not during the fatal holdup of a market — the crime for which he was executed in 1915.

On the jump: Joe Hill’s execution.

The L.A. Daily Mirror and L.A. Crime Beat assembled to the highest standards from Twitter feeds by the bots at

Nov. 20, 1915, Joe Hill

Nov. 20, 1915, Joe Hill Executed

Nov. 20, 1915, Joe Hill

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1915, Art & Artists, Books and Authors, Crime and Courts, Labor, Obituaries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to New Light on the Death of Joe Hill

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    Two really interesting articles proving the value of archival and indepth research, turning up those unknown clues and missing pieces of puzzles.


  2. richard myers says:

    nice, thanks


  3. pete nowell says:

    In the Times atricle about Joe Hill’s arrest for the streetcar robbery, his accomplice is identified as “Otis Applequist”. In this new book Hill’s assaliant is identified as “Otto Applequist”. Same guy?


  4. Pete, Otto Appelquist was Joe Hill’s friend. They were both from Sweden, and they lived and worked together in California. Otto went to Salt Lake City first, and became engaged to 20 year old Hilda Erickson. When Joe later arrived, Hilda broke off her engagement to Otto. Otto blamed Joe, and on at least one occasion, Joe teased Otto about Hilda. It may have been that Otto was over-sensitive about the broken engagement. Otto immediately regretted shooting Joe, and was the one who carried Joe to the Doctor’s office. Then Otto left in the middle of the night, and as far as is known, never went back to Utah.

    One of the reasons Joe didn’t want to testify was very likely because he would be getting his friend in trouble. (There were other likely reasons as well).

    The newspapers concluded that Otto was likely the other guy in the murders, simply because of his known relationship with Joe. (And they were convinced Joe did it, just because he had been shot.) The newspapers also printed a lot of things that were not true.

    Here is a review i wrote about the book:

    The book’s website is here:


  5. pete nowell says:

    Thanks Richard. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood have always been heros of mine. Of particular interest to me is the time Joe spent in California especially during the 1912 Free Speech riots here in my hometown of San Diego. Hopefully he made a real nuisance of himself here.


  6. One of the issues confronting Joe Hill was the simple fact that he had been a union man in California, and the Los Angeles Times was operated by a very anti-union tycoon by the name of Harrison Gray Otis. With Otis as the editor and general manager, the Los Angeles Times (then called the Los Angeles Daily Times) routinely called for the death penalty for union organizers.

    As i read through the newspaper clippings above, i am able to pick out a significant number of statements that are either vague but unfounded allegations, are distorted, or simply are not true.

    Consider the argument that Joe Hill joined a band of IWW “raiders” who “raided ranches and killed and sold the stock”. That’s not why Joe Hill was in Mexico; he was, rather, fighting in the Mexican Revolution as a soldier in the Partido Liberal Mexicano which was organized by Ricardo Flores Magon.

    Harrison Gray Otis was incensed that the revolutionaries were fighting to overthrow the Mexican government because he was extremely wealthy, and had an estate on the Baja Peninsula that likely would have been expropriated by that government if the revolutionaries had won. (In fact, a different group took power instead.) The Los Angeles Times sought to belittle the revolutionaries, referring to them as chicken thieves. (In response, author Jack London rather famously declared himself a chicken thief, and commented that what the world needed was more such chicken thieves.)

    Given that Otis was using his newspaper as a weapon to protect his own wealth (much of which was invested in his Mexican Rancho), one shouldn’t be surprised at anything that was printed in his newspaper.


  7. It says “Local Correspondence” — under “Hillstrom’s Bad Record”

    Explain how that means A.P., please.

    (And i didn’t mean to reflect on the current /Times/, lotta newspapers change over time. Shoulda mentioned that earlier.)


  8. Ahhh, OK, thanks.

    I believe the feud got so hot between the /Times/ and unions, that there was violence committed by, and against union members, including during the free speech fights in San Diego and Fresno, and i seem to recall that at one point Harrison Gray Otis’s house was blown up.

    Also at one time, Harrison Gray Otis was credited with coining the nickname “Wobblies”, which has been used for, and was adopted by members of the IWW since about 1910. I’ve done just a little exploration, but wasn’t able to find whether it was true.


    • lmharnisch says:

      @Richard: The Times (then at 1st and Broadway) was bombed in 1910 by James McNamara, killing 20 people. A second bomb planted by McNamara outside the home of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis exploded in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard as a police officer was trying to disarm it. A third bomb found at the home of Felix J. Zeehandelaar, the secretary of the Merchants & Manufacturers Assn., failed to explode and was successfully disarmed, providing clues that led to the McNamaras.

      A 1967 book review by Robert R. Kirsch says Otis was the first to use the term “Wobbly” in print. It will take me a while to track that down.

      Here’s a post I did in 2006 about Ricardo Flores Magon you might find interesting.


  9. With all due respect to Mr. Adler, and to Joe Hill’s admirers, let me say that I believe that he was guilty of the crimes for which he was put to death.

    Before I am tossed upon and screamed at, let me say, for openers, that I am an author currently writing a work which deals with the labor situation in the United States in the first term of Woodrow Wilson, and this includes the Joe Hill case as well as IWW strikes around the country (particularly in Washington State) and the copper strikes in Arizona in 1916. So I know of what I speak.

    I have read the court transcript and Hill’s appeal. An interesting side note appears to have occurred when Hill’s attorney, Orrin N. Hilton, was disbarred by the Utah bar for charging that the court that tried Hill was “controlled by a religious power foreign to the laws and the Constitution of the state” (it appears in total in the Report of Cases for the Supreme Court of Utah {1917}, volume XLVIII, pages 173-99).

    The most damning evidence against Hill was the fact that on the night of the robbery he was certainly shot. In addition, his room mate, Otto (not Otis) Applequist, who was suspected of being his partner in crime, had disappeared that night without explanation. It has since been discovered that Applequist had himself been shot and wounded a year before on the same night that there had been an earlier robbery at Morrison’s grocery store.

    And while there was no identification of Hill, nevertheless he was begged by his attorneys to testify to his claim that he was shot by the jealous husband of a woman he was having an affair with (why he only wounded Hill and didn’t kill him was never explained). But Hill refused, instead desiring to become some sort of martyr for the labor cause. But what man would want to die if he was innocent of committing a crime, especially of murder, which he knew could get him the death penalty?

    Nevertheless, Hill stuck to his story, even after he was convicted.

    But his wound was not Hill’s only problem: the evidence convicted him. The killers of the Morrisons wore red bandannas; when Hill’s bunk was searched the police found a duplicate red bandanna. One of the state’s witnesses, a Mrs. Frank Seeley, testified that she and her husband were outside of the Morrison’s store when the two men walked up without the bandannas on their faces, and she saw them up close. One of them, she testified, had a crooked nose and a scar on his neck; and when Hill stood up, she said that he had a crooked nose and a scar on his neck exactly like the man outside the store. Another state’s witness, Nellie Mahan, testified that she saw the size of the man outside the Morrison store, and that he was “tall and thin” just like Hill. One of the doctors who treated Hill’s gunshot wound testified that during the examination a gun had fallen out of Hill’s clothing – it was a .38 caliber Colt pistol, which Hill was known to own. Further, one of the Morrisons was killed by a Luger pistol, and Hill had purchased a Luger weeks before the murders.

    But Hill was also his own worst enemy, firing his lawyers during trial testimony during open court before rehiring them again.

    And while some Hill supporters like to claim that he was not allowed to put on a defense, in fact the men defending him called a number of witnesses to the stand who testified that Hill could not have been the killer.

    Hill was given a fair trial, and fair appeals. From the time he was convicted until his execution was more than 16 months; if he had a reasonable explanation for getting shot, why didn’t his “girlfriend” come to his aid? What happened to Applequist?

    Joe Hill has his defenders, and that is fine. But so did the Rosenbergs and Sacco and Vanzetti, and their convictions have been proven to be correct and proper.


  10. pete nowell says:

    Okay, I’ll give you the Rosenbergs but Sacco and Vanzetti’s convictions were proper and proven? Really? Joe Hill was a guy with a “flexible” moral compass to be sure. My admiration for him is more for his willingness to stick it to those who felt they had a devine right to exploit others for their own profit, not for the petty thief he also may have been. The problem is was his conviction proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the tenor of the times, given the tactics used against the IWW in previous cases, i.e. Big Bill Haywood’s “kidnapping” to stand trial for Frank Steunenberg’s murder and the government sanctioned vigilante actions against the Free Speechers in San Diego, was a fair trial even possible. We could probably argue the point ad nausem. As for why a man would be willing to die for a crime in which he was innocent, you kind of anwsered your own question.


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