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Joe Hill: Adler's 'The Man Who Never Died' - history of the working class

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September 24th, 2011

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07:10 pm - Joe Hill: Adler's 'The Man Who Never Died'
Well, as a result of the Guardian's post by Clancy Segal for Labour Day, I found myself captivated by the lovely Joe, and began reading up on him in some earnest. Here are some thoughts on William M Adler's new biography, The Man Who Never Died (I'll cover some other works in a later post)

This is, certainly for the foreseeable future, going to be fairly definitive. It's a mixture of biography and real-life crime investigation, examining the murders for which Joe was executed and suggesting an identity for the probable real murderer. It's a cracking read, well-researched and well-illustrated, although the picture quality could have been better (the illustrations are printed on the text pages, not as separate plates on better-quality paper: as some are from newspaper reproductions, this is not ideal). Joe comes across as endearing, courageous, stubborn, witty – I fell in love with him myself. We learn a good deal about his family background in Sweden, including his lengthy and life-threatening struggle with tuberculosis, mainly in the form of lupus vulgaris and scrofula. (One or two remarks about "lack of prison pallor" and a persistent chest cold, together with his extremely gaunt face in later photographs, make me wonder if the disease began to recur in pulmonary form towards the end, because of the prison conditions.) I was amused and delighted to learn that his travels had taken him through Hull, where I grew up and my parents still live. I know the station he and his brother, like so many immigrants, had passed though: when I visit my parents, I get off the train and get the local bus there. In future, I shall think of him there, in his early 20s, full of hope and excitement (and think, why could you not have stayed here, pet, and been so much safer?) The biography publishes his account of his experiences in the San Francisco earthquake: it's not entirely to his credit, but it's heartening to reflect that Joe later outgrew the petty-minded racism reflected in one of his earthquake anecdotes. He grew wiser and developed a broader sense of humanity.

Adler identifies the mysterious woman of Joe's alibi, Hilda Ericksson, his landlords' niece, and reproduces a letter written by her to another researcher in the 1940s, in which she reveals that the chest-wound which led to Joe being suspected of murder was inflicted by her ex-fiancé, Otto, who blamed Joe for her breaking off their relationship. Joe never named her, or called on her to give evidence which might have helped to save him, despite the political machinations at work. Was she worth the sacrifice? Joe clearly thought so, although we don't get a strong impression of her personality from the book. There is a full chapter on the Morrison family, the original victims (I can't understand one online review which I had read, which claimed they had been ignored), so the reader gets to know and care about them, too. The pages are also haunted by a more sinister figure: a Norwegian, Magnus Olson, with numerous aliases, a lengthy and violent criminal record, and an unfortunate general physical similarity (being tall and Scandinavian, and only slightly younger) to Joe. When Joe was first arrested (shot through the hand by the police, despite being already drugged and bedridden from his lung wound), he was taken to be Olson under another name. Olson is posited as the real murderer, and the case is certainly persuasive: he continued his life of crime into the '50s, in and out of prison, and was involved with Al Capone.

This is a wonderful book, heartbreaking and inspiring and infuriating.
Make sure you have a handkerchief to hand when you read it.
Current Location: Glasgow
Current Mood: besotted

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 24th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the review! It definitely sounds like an interesting read. I intenf on picking the book up myself whenever I get the chance (read: when I can afford it, hardcovers are a bit pricey).

[User Picture]
Date:September 24th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
and by "intenf" I of course mean "intend".
[User Picture]
Date:September 24th, 2011 10:31 pm (UTC)
It's wonderful! Yes, a bit pricey, but I managed to buy a used (review?) copy online from the US, for rather less: it was being sold in aid of a housing charity, which is good. I hope a paperback will come out in due course. I've fallen for Joe in a big way: I've since bought his songbook and his letters, and he's very much in evidence as a pin-up in my bedroom! ;-D I printed and framed up (if you'll pardon the phrase) a couple of portrait photos, and was able to get this poster (16" x 24") on eBay. As a friend of mine said, "OMG, how sad! – But just look at those cheekbones!" The poor boy certainly has a lot of h/c appeal!

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