At the moment of his execution (link to Death Penalty) on November 19, 1915, Joe Hill became a martyr and symbol for labor movements throughout the world. His trial and death sentence had become an international controversy, involving the president of the United States (link to President Wilson) and the highest officials in Sweden. On the morning following his death, the New York Times prophetically worried that Hill's execution might "make Hillstrom dead more dangerous to social stability than he was when alive," and predicted, "there will grow up in the revolutionary group a sincere belief that he died a hero as well as a martyr." This comment was extremely accurate, and the facts of Joseph Hillstrom's life and trial have evolved into a well-known legend in the labor community. Vernon Jordan states that the legend of Joe Hill has "become as fixed a part of the American landscape as have Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed." Like these two other American legends, the stories surrounding Joe Hill are often exaggerated, romanticized and misleading.
One of the most common misconceptions of Joe Hill is that he was not given a fair trial granted by the constitution. While he may have had a poor defense, and was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence, experts like Vernon Jordan agree, "it is clear that Hillstrom had a proper trial." Author Wallace Stegner, who extensively researched and reviewed the life and trial of Joe Hill, concluded that Hill "was probably guilty of the crime the state of Utah executed him for." Because Hillstrom chose not to testify on his own behalf or comment on his injuries during his trial, much speculation has been made concerning his guilt or innocence. This silence was used by the IWW (link to IWW) and other groups after his execution to mold Joe Hill's memory into the martyr and legend that he is today.
Sometimes the myth of Joe Hill blames specific groups for his death. The Mormon Church (link to Mormon Conspiracy paper), as well as the local "copper barons" are often blamed as conspirators with the biased Utah State Government and officials for Hill's execution. The Mormon church, although it may not have agreed with Joe Hill's political leanings, was not directly involved in the trial. The myth that everyone involved in the trial was Mormon is also disproven because most of the key figures, such as the lawyers and justices of the supreme court were not members of the L.D.S. church. "Copper Barons," although responsible for certain social problems of the day, also do not appear to be involved in the trial in any covert or conspiratorial manner.
Governor Spry (link to Governor Spry), Utah's governor during the Joe Hill controversy, expressed his concern to President Wilson about his interference and postponement in Hill's death. "Your interference in this case," he writes, "may have elevated it to an undue importance and the receipt of thousands of threatening letters demanding the release of Hillstrom, regardless of his guilt or innocence, may attach a peculiar importance to it." His concerns were valid, for as soon as Joe Hill was executed, his story was used as inspiration for unions around the world for decades to come. Judge Hilton's (link to Judge Hilton) two hour eulogy to Hill in Chicago also helped create the legend, as well as IWW leaders who made Hill a "labor martyr."
The myth of Joe Hill has endured for generations, gaining strength and power, because of the emotion and controversy stirred up at the time. Joe Hill was viewed by many as an ordinary worker who was taken advantage of unjustly by the government, big business, the Mormon church, among other groups. Thousands were moved by his story, so the myth continued to be passed on and retold. Various types of artists have used Hill as inspiration in their work. A few include: John Dos Passos who wrote his book, 1919 on Joe Hill, Earl Robinson, whose song, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," has been remade by various musicians, and Barry Stevens, who wrote a play entitled The Man who Never Died.
Although the case, trial and life of Joe Hill is still full of mystery, his legend lives on. As Wallace Stegner wrote in his essay, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," "They killed everything of Joe Hill but the poet, and the poet went on to organize. The Joe Hill who may never have walked a picket line in his life has been on hundreds since his death. He has been improved and remade in the image of his makers. As a legend, he is whole and unambiguous." This "whole and unambiguous" image of Joe Hill is what survives today. The actual person, perhaps not as glamorous, purposeful, or refined, remains a mystery.