In 1914, the state of Utah put labor activist Joe Hill on trial for murder in a case that remains controversial to this day. Learn about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the woman who fought hard for Hill’s pardon.
When the state of Utah sentenced labor activist Joe Hill to die in 1914, it kicked a hornet’s nest that has yet to settle a century later. Hill was famous among the Industrial Workers of the World for his contributions to their union’s Little Red Songbook. The “wobblies” – as the union’s members were called – used to drive their jailers crazy singing songs from the book at the top of their lungs whenever they found themselves in prison. One of the songs they sang was called “Rebel Girl,” which Hill wrote in honor of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Flynn was a single, divorced mother who travelled the country with her son in tow soapboxing for the IWW. She was one of the union’s few female members and a rabble-rouser of the highest order. Hill sang that she inspired “courage, pride, and joy in the fighting rebel boy.” But Flynn did a whole lot more than inspire. Her speeches were said to make lazy people stand straight and drunks give up on drink. She also helped organize some of the union’s most successful strikes.
Hill was in frequent correspondence with Flynn in the months before his execution. They only met in person once, but became close through their letters, and Flynn launched a fierce campaign to save Hill. She even wrangled a meeting with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to plead for Hill’s pardon. President Wilson lobbied Utah governor William Spry to postpone Hill’s sentence, but Spry bristled at the suggestion that Utah’s courts would ever execute someone without a proper trial. Hill died by firing squad on November 19, 1915.
One of the last songs Hill penned was for Flynn’s son, Buster. It went, “and by and by you’ll ride out West, like cowboys that you’ve read of, but don’t fall off your pony dear, and break your little head off.” It was good advice, indeed, from a man who would lose his own head out West.
Image: Cover of The Rebel Girl by Joe Hill. Helen Gurley Flynn left a strong impression on Hill, and inspired his labor song "The Rebel Girl". 1915. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
See William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, New York: Bloomsbury, 2011; Bruce Watson, Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, New York: Penguin, 2005.