Finding Joe Hill in new biography

Joe Hill book cover300x448

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."



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  • The IWW organizes Workers, not companies like the AFL and could not be controlled or coopted by Capital.

    Posted by Kenneth Stretcher , 12/24/2011 8:10pm (4 years ago)

  • Thanks for publishing this beautiful short review. I can't help myself--I had the honor of co-authoring with Earl Robinson, the composer of the song "Joe Hill," his autobiography, "Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson." There's a lot in this book about Paul Robeson and about many left-wing cultural workers and artists of the mid-20th century. If anyone's interested in a copy, contact me at

    Posted by Eric, 12/23/2011 2:16pm (4 years ago)

  • I have long known of Joe Hill;I admire his courage;in fact I admire anyone who stands against oppression.We need a Joe Hill right now.

    Posted by Americulchie, 12/23/2011 4:43am (4 years ago)

  • Great book about a great man. Long live the U.S. working class, and long live the trade union movement!

    Posted by RobMoir, 12/22/2011 4:47pm (4 years ago)

  • Good to know the background to that. I'm glad someone has looked into this history. It's important for workers and everyone to know about past struggles for what they teach and as inspiration.

    Posted by Babette Grunow, 12/22/2011 4:43pm (4 years ago)

  • Excellent book. Excellent review. Long live the memory of Joe Hill and success to the struggle of the working class in the U.S. and everywhere!

    Posted by RobMoir, 12/22/2011 4:42pm (4 years ago)

  • No one and no one since has sang this beautiful song like the late, great Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson, America's-maybe humanity's greatest culturist, humanitarian and entertainer-known as "The Great Forerunner".
    Perhaps it was the Quaker in Paul, perhaps the Native American, perhaps the African, but whatever, Joe comes alive in Paul.
    The same Paul and the same Joe.
    It's in the windows of peoplesworld that we will find them-"Where working folks defend their rights"-where the voice to voice legacy of Earl Robinson, Alfred Hayes, Joan Baez and Paul Robeson are endlessly celebrated-as they should.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/20/2011 2:08pm (4 years ago)

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