Skip to main content

Murray Journal

Remembering controversial labor martyr Joe Hill and his time in Murray

Dec 01, 2023 11:45AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

The Eselius home where Joe Hill resided became a labor pilgrimage site until it was torn down in 1950. (Photo courtesy of the University of Utah Marriott Library)

Over a century has passed since the execution of Joe Hill, a Swedish-American labor activist whose brief but impactful stay in Murray City left an indelible mark on the labor movement. This retrospective delves into the life and times of Hill, underscoring his role as an organizer, songwriter, and, in the eyes of some, a martyr.

Hill's influence extended beyond his organizational efforts. His songs, like "There is Power in a Union" and "The Preacher and the Slave," became anthems for the working class, echoing across picket lines and labor protests for decades. After his death, Hill was memorialized in literature and music, most notably in the song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night."

However, Hill's time in Murray was marred by controversy. In January 1914, he was accused of the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer John Morrison and his son, a charge that remains contentious to this day. The evidence against Hill was circumstantial, yet it led to his conviction and eventual execution by firing squad in November 1915, sparking a national outcry and cementing his status as a labor movement icon.

During his time in Murray, Joe Hill stayed on and off with John and Ed Eselius. The Eselius brothers, like Hill, were Swedish immigrants, and they had previously met Hill and his friend Otto Appelquist while working in San Pedro. This connection to the Eselius family reflects the tight-knit nature of the Swedish community in Murray, which was impoverished but closely bonded​​.

On the night of the Morrisons' murder, Joe Hill sustained a gunshot wound from a .38 caliber weapon, which notably resembled the firearm used by the Morrisons, suggesting it might have been used by their attackers. This incident occurred on Jan. 10, 1914, marking a significant event during Hill's time in Murray. Hill, who preferred to keep his personal matters private, did not disclose the specifics of how or why he received the gunshot wound. Seeking medical attention, Hill visited the home office of Dr. Frank McHugh in Murray around 11:30 P.M. that night. He told Dr. McHugh he had been shot by a friend over an argument concerning a woman, and he requested the doctor to keep this information confidential. During his treatment, a gun was discovered in a shoulder holster under Hill's clothing. Dr. Arthur Bird, who happened to stop by Dr. McHugh's home, later assisted in transporting Hill back to the Eselius residence. 

Murray City Marshal Fred Peters caught word of Joe Hill’s wounds and came to investigate with two deputies. Peters notably shot Hill in the hand as he attempted to escape from the Eselius’s window. Following this, Hill was turned over to Officer Blaine Baxter of the Salt Lake City Police Department. During his arrest, Hill maintained a sullen silence and refused to provide details about his injury. He only told the doctors that he was shot by a friend during a quarrel over a girl.

Murray woman Hilda Erickson, whose former fiancé was Otto Appelquist, claimed to have known precisely who shot Joe Hill: Appelquist himself. This information came to light much later, in 1949, when Erickson shared her story with a writer.

Erickson's connection to Hill was personal and complex. Appelquist and Hill had been staying off and on with Erickson's uncles in Murray, Utah. Erickson had ended her engagement with Appelquist a week before Hill was shot. She recalled an incident where Joe Hill had jokingly teased Appelquist about taking Erickson away from him. Following this, Erickson revealed Hill had confided in her that Appelquist shot him in a fit of anger. Despite this, Appelquist immediately regretted his action and carried Hill to a doctor for treatment.

Moreover, Erickson's interactions with Hill extended beyond the shooting incident. She mentioned visiting Hill every Sunday afternoon in the Salt Lake jail, indicating a continued connection or concern for Hill after his arrest and during his incarceration.

While it was known that Hill and Erickson were in contact, Hill never mentioned his relationship to Erickson as a possible motive to being shot or any alibi that would help prove his innocence. A jury sentenced him to die due to the circumstantial evidence that he was the Morrisons’ killer.

President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller advocated for clemency. However, the Utah governor's refusal to intervene led to Hill's execution, and Hill was killed by firing squad. 

Hill’s influence still resonates to this day and has been cited as influential by songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine. 

Until the 1950’s the Eselius home on Plum Street became a pilgrimage site for labor activists until it was torn down. City Marshal Fred Peters achieved notoriety after arresting Hill and was shortly after elected mayor of Murray. Erickson led a quiet life and Appelquist disappeared completely from history. All that remains in Murray of that era is the former Murray Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Second Ward chapel (5056 Commerce Dr.) that served Swedish immigrants Hill had resided with. λ