Joe Hill came over from Sweden’s shore
Looking for some work to do
The Statue of Liberty waved him by
As Joe came sailing through, Joe Hill
As Joe came sailing through
His clothes were coarse and his hopes were high
As he headed to the promised land
It took a few weeks on the out-of-work streets
Before he began to understand
Before he began to understand
“Joe Hill,” Phil Ochs (1968)
Who is Joe Hill? Who was he?
We know Joe Hill as a songwriter, cartoonist, agitator, Wobbly, and labor martyr.
He was born in Gävle, Sweden, in 1879 as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund. In 1902, at the age of 23, he joined a wave of Swedish immigration to find work in the U.S. He worked in New York City and Chicago, where he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom then just Joe Hill to avoid a union blacklist for organizing workers.
In 1910 in Portland, Oregon, Joe Hill joined the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies). Over the next few years in Portland, in Spokane, Washington, and in San Pedro, California, he wrote songs to inspire solidarity among Wobblies. With fellow workers, he went to Mexico and fought in the Mexican Revolution in 1911. Even in Mexico, he spent time sitting at the piano, singing and playing. He also fought under the red flag. It’s in Mexico that he felt like a true rebel.
While traveling across the U.S., Joe Hill stopped in Utah in late 1913 to work in the mines. January 1914, he was accused of two murders he didn’t commit. For a long time, historians have tried to be responsible and say that he PROBABLY didn’t commit the murders, but it’s time to drop that academic reluctance. If you still wonder whether Joe Hill could be guilty, read Bill Adler’s The Man Who Never Died, and stop making the story of Joe Hill about his guilt. “Was he or wasn’t he?” is lazy. He wasn’t. His notoriously incompetent legal representation failed him despite flimsy evidence. Joe Hill was convicted.
While in prison, Joe Hill’s case became a cause for his union. An international campaign for clemency, including U.S. President Wilson and Helen Keller, failed to move Utah state officials.
Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City, Utah, on November 19, 1915.
Three innocent people died 100 years ago: grocer John Morrison, his son Arling Morrison, and Joe Hill.
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 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 agian
This is my Last and Final Will
Good Luck to All of you
Read more about Joe Hill
William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, Bloomsbury USA, 2012.
Gibbs M. Smith, Joe Hill, Peregrine Smith Books, 1969.
Guests posts on Joe Hill
Joe Hill and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Nancy Snyder
When Joe Hill Suffered Tuberculosis, Jan-Ewert Strömbäck