Joe Hill and the Death Penalty

  On June 27, 1915, a jury found Joe Hill guilty of murder in the first degree. During sentencing on July 8th under Utah statutes defining the penalty for first degree murder, Joe Hill was given the option by Judge Ritchie of being hanged or shot to death. Hill replied, "I'll take shooting. I'm used to that. I have been shot a few times in the past and I guess I can stand it again."1

    The death penalty was nothing new to Americans, early settlers to the new world brought with them the practice of capital punishment. The first recorded U.S. execution dates back as far as 1608 to the Jamestown colony of Virginia where even the pettiest of crimes, such as stealing grapes, received the death penalty. The United States movement to abolish the death penalty began in the early Eighteenth Century, sparked by writings of European theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire and Cesare Beccaria. Reform movements in the Nineteenth Century caused some states to abolish the death penalty all together, while others held on to capital punishment. In an effort to make the death penalty more palatable to the public, states began passing laws against mandatory death sentencing and instead enacted discretionary death penalty statutes and moved executions from the public eye to the closed doors of correctional facilities. The first half of the Twentieth Century marked the beginning of the "Progressive Period" of reform in the United States. From 1907-1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty and three limited it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first degree murder of a law enforcement official.2

    Utah was not one of those states. Utah law still supported the death penalty in 1914, and it was still a common procedure. During 1900-1935, Utah executed 18 persons and the United States as a whole executed 4,646 during that time period, peaking to nearly 200 per year.3 Although Utah state law supported the death penalty, many people did not. Dr. McHugh may have been one of those people. Joe Hill allegedly confessed of killing the Morrisons to Dr. McHugh but it is speculated that Dr. McHugh did not testify regarding the confession because he was "a socialist and a disbeliever in capital punishment, and did not wish to see Hill executed."

    During jury instructions Judge Ritchie informed the jury that lesser offenses of second degree murder and manslaughter could be found applicable in Joe Hill's case. The jury could have made a recommendation for leniency, which might have produced a sentence of life imprisonment, but they did not. Thus, it was mandatory upon the court under Utah statue to sentence Hill to death. When Hill's attorneys applied to the Utah Board of Pardons for a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment and failed, his fate was sealed.

    Joe Hill's death sentence encountered a severe reaction from both the local and national public. Isaac A. Hourwich of the New York Review claimed that Hill had not been proven guilty and should not be executed. Emil S. Lund, a member of the Utah State House of Representatives, requested that Joe Hill's sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. He cited as his reason his belief that capital punishment is immoral and made it clear that he had no sympathy with the IWW.4 Virginia Snow Stephen, a socialist and daughter of former Mormon Church President Lorenzo Snow, in an effort to help Joe Hill, spoke with him a few times in his jail cell. She also opposed capital punishment and had much sympathy for the working class.5 Jerome B. Sabath of the National Association for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was also endeavoring to have Joe Hill's sentence commuted to life imprisonment.6 Frank Caurll, Clara K. Schade and John F.C. Holler of San Francisco wrote this to Governor Spry, "For a state through its officials to administer the penalty of death where the slightest chance of innocence remains, is a blot upon the honor and the state. Such brutalities committed by the state undermine the strength of government and bring contempt upon the law."7 Miss Theodora Pollok, a member of the California Suffrage Association, sent the following telegram, "Utah's ironbound conservatism and prejudice against Hill's labor affiliation was so great that otherwise stern disbelievers in capital punishment refused to ask commutation and sympathetic professional men feared assisting me. I thought the death penalty very extreme under the circumstances. I found in Salt Lake City that even the prosecuting attorney and the Supreme Court judges had a great deal of feeling against capital punishment, especially on circumstantial evidence. But practically none of the prominent people whom I consulted would ask that the death penalty be set aside in the case of Joseph Hillstrom, sentenced to death on evidence purely circumstantial. I believe this lack of logic to be traceable almost invariably not so much to the evidence in the case as to the community feeling about Hillstrom's organization."8

    Despite all the controversy and opposition to the death sentence of Joe Hill, the court upheld the sentence and found the law just and fair. Before his execution Hill said, "the cause I stand for means more than any human life...much more than mine." On November 1, 1915, Hill was executed by the authorities of the state of Utah.

1Salt Lake Tribune, 9 July 1914.

2Randa, L. Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, University Press of America, 1997.

3Espy, M. Watt; Smykla, John Ortiz. Executions in the U.S., 1608-1987: The Espy File, The University of Michigan, 1987.

4Archives of Secretary of State of Utah. Letter to Gov. William Spry, 14 Sept 1915.

5Salt Lake Herald-Republican, 21 June 1915.

6Salt Lake Harold-Republican. 24 September 1915.

7Archives of Secretary of State of Utah. Letter to William Spry; Utah Board of Pardons.

8Theodora Pollok to W A F Ekengren, 2 October 1915. Archives of the Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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