A vial containing ashes of Joe Hill, the legendary union organizer and martyr shot by a Utah firing squad 73 years ago after a questionable murder conviction, were released to his union Friday by the government.
National Archives officials handed over a white porcelain cylinder--containing a small quantity of Hill’s ashes--to Frederic Lee, chairman of the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World--the IWW, more commonly known as the “Wobblies.”
After the brief ceremony, Lee flew back to his hometown of Chicago, a hotbed of IWW activism in the years before World War I. The union will decide what to do with the ashes in several months and is receiving suggestions from across the country. One possibility, Lee said, is a monument to Hill.
The ashes had been at the National Archives since 1944. A spokeswoman said, “In 1988, the IWW requested that Joe Hill’s ashes be returned to the union. The National Archives agreed to this unusual request on the condition that all the related record material, including the envelope which contained the ashes, be retained.”
Lee said the union originally had many small envelopes containing the ashes and some were distributed in 1916. But most of the ashes were seized and destroyed by the U.S. government during a raid on “subversive groups” in 1917, Lee said.
Seized by Post Office
The packet of ashes that ended up in Washington originally was seized by the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently fearing the government raid, someone in the IWW’s Chicago office mailed a package containing the ashes to a Chicago man for safekeeping.
But on Oct. 8, 1917, the Chicago post office accidentally damaged the package. Inside was a picture of Hill, a copy of his will and a notation: “Joe Hill--Murdered by the Capitalist Class--Nov. 19, 1915.” The post office seized the material on the grounds that the IWW was considered “subversive.”
“It got ripped in a cancellation machine,” Lee said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have known what was inside. We don’t even know who mailed it because his name was illegible. We know who it was mailed to--a Chicago man by the name of Charles Gepford, but we don’t know who the guy is. There are no records on him.”
Hill was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City on Nov. 19, 1915, on apparently trumped-up charges, but his memory lives on in a famous labor song. In death, Hill became a larger-than-life symbol to unionists worldwide. Shortly before he was shot, Hill sent a telegram to IWW chief “Big Bill” Haywood, saying: “Don’t waste time mourning. Organize!”
Lacked Legal Assistance
Hill was accused of the 1914 murder of a grocery store owner in Salt Lake City. From arrest to trial, he had no legal help. He was convicted in a hostile legal and press environment, and people around the world rallied to his defense, saying he was targeted because of his then-radical political views.
Hill said he was innocent. No witness at the trial firmly identified Hill as the murderer--the gunmen wore masks. No motive was introduced to account for the crime and no gun was found to connect Hill with the murder of the grocer.
When Hill was ordered shot by firing squad, an international outcry erupted. Thousands of pardon petitions poured into Utah. Helen Keller publicly supported Hill, as did Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor. The Swedish ambassador interceded with President Woodrow Wilson, who appealed to Utah Gov. William Spry. Hill originally was from Gavle, Sweden, and immigrated to the United States in 1902.
Before he died, Hill asked to be cremated and specified that his ashes be scattered in every state except Utah.
“I wouldn’t be found dead there,” Hill said. His body was returned to Chicago and cremated and he received a martyr’s funeral.
Hill had worked on the railroads and waterfronts and began roaming from town to town in 1910 as an agitator and organizer for the Wobblies, who dreamed of creating one big union.
He was a prolific writer of union ballads, including “The Preacher and the Slave,” in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky.”
After his death, Hill became a powerful organizing symbol during the next 25 years of mushrooming industrial unionization in America.
Two other songwriters, Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, immortalized Hill in a ballad 10 years after his death. It says, in part:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
But, Joe, I said, you’re 10 years dead.
I never died, said he....
And standing there, as big as life,
And smiling with his eyes,
The Joe that they could never kill
Went on to organize.