"I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."
- Joe Hill's last written words
Every successful popular movement has its legendary, or near legendary, characters. People, or groups, who seemed bigger than life, and in the end must be sacrificed to the cause. The civil rights movement had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The American Revolution had Nathan Hale.
For the labor movement the group that fit that role was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While the roll-call of the IWW is filled with legendary characters, far more than can be written in anything less than a book, one character stands out above them all - Joe Hill.
'Joe Hill ain't dead,'he says to me.
'Joe Hill ain't never died,
Where workingmen are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side!'
- Alfred Hayes, 1925
Joel Emmanuel Haaglund was born in Gefle (Gävle), Sweden in 7 October, 1879. He was the ninth child of Olof Hägglund, a railroad worker, and his wife, Margareta. Shortly after Joel's eighth birthday, Olof died. Thus at a time when many of us were entering the third grade, Joel and his five surviving brothers were forced to go to work to support their family.
Joel's mother died in January, 1902. Joel and his brother, Paul, emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York City in October 1902.
His first job in America was cleaning spittoons in one of the roughest, and poorest, neighborhoods in New York City. He soon traveled west as a migrant laborer, working as a farmhand, construction worker, longshoreman and logger.
By 1906 he had made it to San Francisco, California, in time to witness the Great 1906 Earthquake.
Some time between 1906 and 1910 he changed his name to Joe Hillström. It wasn't a legal name change.
When and why he changed his name is unclear. It could have been to hide his identity because of his vocal support for worker's rights. Some rumors say he had turned to petty theft to bridge his frequent streaks of unemployment, thus enabling him to stay ahead of the law. Both theories seem likely.
In 1910 Joe Hill joined the IWW and converted to socialism.
An injury to one, is an injury to all
When the IWW (aka Wobblies) was created in 1905, there was no large union in America for unskilled labor. The chief national union was the American Federation of Labor, an organization for craft guilds. The AFL had no political goals, nor any interest in organizing the mass production industries. The AFL saw itself as a partner with capital, thus it wasn't crushed by big industry and government like the Knights of Labor was a decade earlier. The AFL outlook was somewhat pessimistic, and its practices tended to divide workers against one another.
Because of the failures of the AFL philosophy (and hostile courts and government), only about 5% of the workforce was unionize in 1905.
After decades of Republican and conservative Democratic Presidents, the Supreme Court had created a precedent of rulings that were hostile to both workers and minority rights. No real worker safety laws existed. No child labor laws existed. The courts were biased heavily against any union organization. The reason for this could be explained in a 1905 Supreme Court ruling.
the Supreme Court ruled that a New York law setting maximum working hours for bakers was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Constitution prohibits states from interfering with most employment contracts because the right to buy and sell labor is a fundamental freedom protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The courts simply ignored the fact that a contract between the powerful and the powerless was not all the different from extortion. There was no legal recourse for unskilled workers and no labor union that would represent them...until the IWW.
The Wobblies were everything that the AFL wasn't. They targeted the unskilled for organization. Unlike the AFL, there were no autonomous unions, only one big union. There was no hierarchy in the IWW, everyone was equal to everyone else (giving rise to the phrase, "We are all leaders.")
The Wobblies do not require its members to work in a represented workplace, nor does it preclude members from joining other unions.
But the biggest difference was that the IWW was political above all else. They were radical leftists and were proud of it. Their view was that their union and their class were one and the same. Their goal was to abolish the wage system and replace it with an economic system that emphasized people over profit.
Joe Hill embraced the Wobblie philosophy like few others.
What made Joe Hill extra-ordinary was his ability to express that philosophy.
Singer, Songwriter, Poet, Radical Activist
In late 1910, he wrote a letter to the IWW, identifying himself as a member of the Portland IWW local. In that letter he called himself "Joe Hill".
Between 1911 and 1913 Joe Hill rose through the ranks of the IWW. He wasn't a front-line organizer, although he did get severely beaten and permanently scarred during a free speech campaign in San Diego in 1912.
Instead, Joe Hill's gift was in music.
Even today, the songs of the IWW are sung on picket lines, and no IWW songwriter was more popular than Joe Hill. In fact, in the
IWW songbook, 13 of the 53 songs are written by Joe Hill.
Joe Hill's songs became the most effective recruiting tool of the Wobblies. The tunes were known for their satirical quality and their biting wit.
For instance, one of the more popular songs was "Casey Jones - The Union Scab" (to the tune of "Casey Jones"):
The Workers on the S. P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn't strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.
Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S. P. line.
The workers said to Casey: "Won't you help us win this strike?"
But Casey said: "Let me alone, you'd better take a hike."
Then some one put a bunch of railroad ties across the track,
And Casey hit the river bottom with an awful crack.
Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blessed spine;
Casey Jones was an Angelino,
He took a trip to heaven on the S. P. line.
When Casey Jones got up to heaven, to the Pearly Gate,
He said: "I'm Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S. P. freight."
"You're just the man," said Peter, "our musicians went on strike;
You can get a job a'scabbing any time you like."
Casey Jones got up to heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers of the S. P. line.
They got together, and they said it wasn't fair,
For Casey Jones to go around a'scabbing everywhere.
The Angels' Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stairs.
Casey Jones went to Hell a'flying;
"Casey Jones," the Devil said, "Oh fine:
Casey Jones, get busy shovelling sulphur;
That's what you get for scabbing on the S. P. Line."
Joe Hill coined the phrase "pie in the sky" in his song "The Preacher and the Slave" (a parody of "In the sweet bye and bye").
Joe Hill's rising popularity made it impossible for him to find work in California. Being an itinerant worker who was familiar with hopping trains, he soon found himself as a tram worker at a mine in Park City, Utah.
The Martyring of Joe Hill
Just before 10pm on the night of 10 January, 1914, John Morrison, a Salt Lake City grocery, was closing his store with his two sons, Arling and Merlin, when two armed men with bandannas on their faces forced their way in.
John had left the police force some years earlier specifically because he feared that some of the men he had arrested might seek revenge. His fears seemed to have come true when he heard one of the armed men said, "we've got you now".
Arling grabbed his father's service revolver and fired two shots. Merlin hid in the back of the store. Arling died of gunshot wounds almost immediately. John died some time later.
Merlin told the police that he thought Arling had wounded one of the men. Witnesses agreed.
Around 11:30 that night Joe Hill went to the home of Dr Frank McHugh with a bullet wound to the chest. He told the doctor that he had been shot by a man while arguing over a woman. The bullet had passed clean through, so the doctor cleaned and patched up the wound and was arranging to send him on his way when a gun dropped from Joe's clothing.
At the time and place, carrying a gun wasn't all that unusual, but when McHugh read about the double murders he called the police.
Three days later, McHugh visited Joe to give him some painkillers. When Joe was getting drowsy the cops stepped in and told him he was under arrest. When Joe was reaching for his pants, a cop shot and shattered the bones in his hand.
"Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a 'goat' and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be 'the goat'.
I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and in my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music.
Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squads - I am ready for you. I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist'."
- Joe Hill writing in socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason
When Merlin was first shown Joe Hill his response was "that's not him at all". Merlin later retracted his statement and identified Joe Hill as one of the murderers.
What happened in between? William Spry, the Republican governor of Utah, admitted that he wanted to use this case to "stop street speaking" and to clear the state of "lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen, IWW agitators, or whatever name they call themselves". Spry had already built his reputation by breaking the Western Federation of Mineworkers strike.
Other witnesses testified that Hill looked something like the murderer, and prosecution built up a reasonably strong circumstantial case.
The defense built its case on the lack of motive. Hill had never met John Morrison before. Even more importantly, no money was taken from the store, making the logical assumption that this was indeed a revenge killing.
Although the bullet that wounded Joe went through his body, no bullet that wounded the murderer was ever found at the scene. What's more, 12 people had been arrested before the police came for Joe Hill, and four other people had been treated for gunshot wounds in the area that night.
Joe Hill explained his wound had happened when he had his hands over his head, and the fact that the bullet hole in the back of Hill's coat was four inches lower than the bullet wound in his back seemed to support Hill's version of how he had been shot.
However, Joe's defense was crippled long before the verdict.
Joe Hill had accepted two young attorneys who promised to defend him for free in order to advance their careers.
Partway through the trial Joe fired them for incompetence, weak cross-examinations, and failure to object to leading questions by the prosecution. In his statement for firing his lawyers he accused them of acting in partnership with the district attorney.
The Judge refused to excuse the attorneys. At that point Joe probably realized the trial was a formality and he refused to actively participate in the trial.
Hill never explained his decision not to testify.
It took only a couple hours for the jury to find Hill guilty.
"I'll take the shooting. I've been shot a couple of times before and I think I can take it."
- Joe Hill choosing between being shot or hung
The IWW launched a major campaign to have his conviction reversed.
Hill spent 22 months in prison while the case went through the appeals process.
Tens of thousands of letters were sent as part of the campaign on Joe Hill's defense. Virginia Snow Stephen, the daughter of the president of the Mormon Church appealed on his behalf. So did the ambassador of Sweden. Even President Woodrow Wilson, at the urging of the Secretary of State, sent a telegraph asking that his execution be delayed and an investigation made into the fairness of the trial.
Governor Spry wouldn't budge.
"Your interference in this case may have elevated it to an undue importance and the receipt of thousands of threatening letters demanding the release of Hillström, regardless of his guilt or innocence, may attach a peculiar importance to it."
- Governor Spry's response to President Wilson
To the end Joe Hill refused to explain exactly how he was shot and by whom, leading to speculation it involved a married woman.
On 19 November, 1915, Joe Hill was taken before a firing squad at the Utah State Prison. Legend has it that when asked if he had any last words, his response was "Fire!"
In Joe Hill's last telegram to 'Big' Bill Haywood he asked that his body be taken over the state lines. "I don't want to be found dead in Utah," is how Hill phrased it.
Joe Hill's funeral was in Chicago where 30,000 attended. There was no religious services, only songs written by Joe Hill.
Joe Hill's body was cremated, and his ashes were sent to IWW members in every state in the union (except for Utah), as well as several countries around the world.
My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kind don't need to fuss and moan --
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? Ah, If I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.
- Joe Hill's last will