A Legend Who Refused to Die
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re 10 years dead.”
“I never died, " says he. . . .
And standing there, as big as life,
And smiling with his eyes,
Joe says, “What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize.”
--Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson
From the docks of San Pedro to the copper mines of Utah, Joe Hill was a legendary union agitator who helped form the Industrial Workers of the World and was immortalized in song and story.
Hill was the troubadour of the IWW, the Wobblies. His short and turbulent career was marked by a commitment to the downtrodden and a trademark sense of humor that endured to the moment of his execution by a Utah firing squad for a questionable murder conviction.
Although Hill’s story will always be connected with his Utah trial and execution, it was in Los Angeles that he wrote the songs that inspired generations of workers and rebellious students.
He was best known for his bitter parodies of popular songs, published in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book,” which proclaimed its purpose on its paper cover: “To Fan the Flames of Discontent.”
Hill’s masterpiece was “The Preacher and the Slave,” set to the tune of “In the Sweet By-and-By.” It made fun of “long-haired preachers” who console hungry workers with the promise that “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” Another was “Casey Jones--The Union Scab.”
Founded in 1905, the IWW reached out to unskilled workers. Although many craft unions barred women and minorities, the Wobblies proposed one union for all.
They sought to organize immigrants and the workers on the bottom of the economic heap, regardless of race or sex.
During the bitter union organizing that periodically convulsed Southern California in the early part of this century, the Wobblies filled L.A.'s jails and sang Hill’s songs.
Born in Sweden in 1879, Joel Hagglund came to America in 1902, wandering across the country, working on the railroads and waterfronts.
He Americanized his name to Joseph Hillstrom and then simply to Joe Hill.
He drifted through life a loner, not knowing what he wanted or where he was going, until he reached Los Angeles, a fiercely anti-union town, in 1910.
Watching the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers strike against Southern Pacific, Hill became intent on rebuilding America as a socialist society and came to share the dream of creating one big union. He joined the IWW and began writing songs.
The Wobblies were not pacifists, and Hill was among those who believed that physical force was the best response to suppression of unions.
Hill was a quiet man with a hot temper, who carried a .pistol in a shoulder holster. He found refuge at the waterfront’s Scandinavian Seamen’s Mission, run by his preacher friend, Gus Lund. Hill, a teetotaler, drank coffee, wrote songs and played the piano for the homeless.
In 1913, Hill ran afoul of the Los Angeles Police Department, which habitually harassed radicals and what the Los Angeles Times then characterized as “union-labor parasites.” After a streetcar robbery, the police went looking for Hill.
The charges were dropped when no one identified him as the holdup man, but Hill fled Los Angeles for Chicago, stopping in Utah to earn money. While staying with a Swedish family, he was arrested and accused of fatally shooting two people during a robbery.
Hill said he was innocent. No witness at the trial identified him as the gunman. No motive was introduced and no gun was found. When a friend of Hill swore to the police that the IWW man had been with him the night of the murder, the authorities ordered the friend to leave Utah.
But Hill refused to offer more than a cursory explanation of a gunshot wound he suffered the night of the robbery.
He said he was shot in the chest during a fight over a married woman, but gave no details and never revealed her name. In the end, prosecutors convinced the jury that a chain of circumstantial evidence, and Hill’s failure to testify fully, was proof of guilt.
Hill was sentenced to death, but an international outcry ensued. More than 75,000 petitions for his pardon poured into Utah.
When the uproar reached the White House, President Woodrow Wilson twice wired Utah Gov. William Spry urging “a thorough reconsideration of the case.” Spry responded by accusing the president of meddling.
On the eve of his execution, Hill sent a telegram to IWW chief “Big Bill” Haywood, asking that his body be hauled over the state line. “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah,” Hill said.
Given a choice between hanging and a firing squad, Hill selected the latter. And in a final act of defiance, on Nov. 19, 1915, while tied to a chair with a paper target over his heart, he yelled the order to fire.
His last wish was honored on May Day 1916, when tiny packets of his ashes were scattered to the winds, having been mailed to IWW locals in several countries and every state--except Utah.