Dreamed We Saw Joe Hill Last Night

Class War
File:Joe hill002.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

On November 19, 1915, the state of Utah executed Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. But he was a Wobbly and dispensable to society, especially in Utah, a starkly conservative western state outraged by the sheer existence of these radicals. The common attitude of law enforcement during these years was that if a radical didn't do the crime, they'd probably commit a crime later so let's not bother too much with finding guilt or innocence. This unjust execution inspired global outrage and continues to remind us of the injustice radicals face today.

In 1914, a grocer named John Morrison was shot and killed in a Salt Lake robbery. The same night, Joe Hill went to the hospital with a gunshot wound. He refused to explain anything about why he was shot. Figuring they could easily dispose of both cases, the police pinned Morrison's death on Hill and charged him with murder. It now seems that Hill was shot by a rival for a woman named Hilda Erickson, who was a member of the family that rented Hill a room. Erickson confirmed her relationship with both men in a letter discovered only about 15 years ago. Out of respecting her honor, he refused to reveal anything about his injuries, even at the point of death.


Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden. He immigrated to the United States in 1902 at the age of 23. This was a common destiny for many young Scandinavian men during these years, a time when they faced very real poverty at home and the US provided economic opportunity. Hill went to the West Coast. He worked a number of different jobs, mostly itinerant labor positions. This was a fertile recruiting ground for the IWW. Founded in 1905, the Wobblies saw their greatest organizing successes among the rootless working classes of the West who drifted between the fields, forests, and mines of the far-flung region, riding rail cars in deplorable conditions, facing all sorts of police harassment and other forms of oppression, and despised by much of polite society. Yet the mainstream American labor movement, personified by the American Federation of Labor, showed little interest in organizing these workers, preferring to concentrate on the respectable skilled labor positions that it defined as the core of the American workforce. This created an organizing vacuum that the IWW filled.

Like most committed Wobblies in the West, Hill drifted from job to job. We first know he was a member of the IWW when he wrote a letter to the Industrial Worker in 1910, identifying himself as working in Portland. By 1912, Hill was in San Diego where he participated in that city's free speech fight. He flirted with the idea of going to Mexico to fight in the Mexican Revolution, but never did. He bemoaned the introduction of voting machines in California as a hopelessly bourgeois reform that would never change anything. In 1913, he moved to Utah, where he worked in copper mining and construction, agitating for revolution among his fellow workers and probably participating in two IWW strikes in Salt Lake that year. During these years, he composed many of the songs that became part of the IWW songbooks used to build solidarity among members and against the horrible conditions they faced in their lives.

By the time Hill was arrested in 1914, the Western forces of order saw the IWW as Enemy Number 1. Because they organized the region's most despised workers with no apologies and no compromise, the forces of order – police, courts, politicians, newspapers, and business operators – saw them as scum to be eradicated. The sheer fact that Joe Hill was a Wobbly was enough to charge him with murder.

The Wobblies were excellent propagandists. Due to their organizing with a flair for public attention and because those stories still appeal to people interested in labor, we remember certain highlights – Lawrence, Paterson, Joe Hill. But in my research in IWW newspapers, what I've seen is very little coverage of many of those events at the time. Lawrence was a small-fry thing in Wobbly news organs until the cops started beating the mothers of young children trying to escape the strike.

Similarly, although we remember Joe Hill as the ultimate Wobbly today, it took a while for the story of his arrest and trial to get the organization's attention. There was little interest in his plight during the trial. The local press trumped up the charges, the trial was a farce in which Hill lacked legal counsel, police never found a gun. None of this mattered. Hill was convicted on June 26, 1914, and given the death penalty on July 8.

It was only at this point that Hill's case came to the attention of the IWW propagandists. But when they got their teeth into something, they did not let go. Very quickly the case became a national and international phenomenon. Not only did he become the latest class martyr for the IWW, but progressives and reformers saw his trial as a farce of justice. The Swedish ambassador got involved in the case and asked President Woodrow Wilson to intercede. Wilson appealed to Utah Governor William Spry for clemency. Spry was not as rock-ribbed conservative as one might assume. Although a Mormon, he was a strong opponent of prohibition. But he would do nothing for Hill.

Hill was a true revolutionary though. He thought most "reform" efforts ridiculous distractions from the real task at hand. Hill saw himself of more value to the revolution as a dead martyr than a living organizer. Like John Brown before him, Hill played this role until the end. He wrote, with some false modesty, to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn bemoaning the amount of resources spent on someone as insignificant as himself. And then there's his famous last telegram, sent to Big Bill Haywood, reading, "Good-bye Bill. I will die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

He even wrote his last will to be sung:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan,
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."

My body? Oh, 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

In some ways, Hill was right. He was more valuable as a martyr. Hill became the embodiment of IWW martyrdom; hardly the only Wobbly to give up his life to state violence, Hill's self-image of martyrdom made him the person other Wobblies looked to for a model of strength and virtue, even as some pointed out his trial did not result from any workplace action. He also became the most famous Wobbly in public memory, perhaps even more than Big Bill Haywood. Had he lived, no one would know who he was. He was just another miner, another working-class person of the early 20th century American West who saw no hope in capitalism and longed for a more just system.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

It's important to not only remember the legends of American labor history, but also to remember them in a non-romantic way. We can understand the state repression of anyone accused of radicalism without turning people into heroes. Hill certainly played his string out to the end, but his actions were not necessarily in service of the class struggle. But that's OK! He was a person like the rest of us. He probably liked sex and he wanted to respect the woman he fought over. What's important here is the willingness of the state to kill anyone seen as a threat to the social order, no matter if they were really just fighting for justice and dignity. If Hill is a hero, it's because he understood what was going to happen to him and wanted to go out the right way, creating that myth that could inspire others. Good for him for doing so and good for us.

FURTHER READING

Wallace Stegner, Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel

William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill

Phillip S. Foner, The Case of Joe Hill

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).

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