It’s a bleak, early spring day in Stockholm, year 1900. A young man has just gone off the train from Gävle. Outside the Central Station he attracts some attention, not for his youth, not for his slender figure, but for the rashes that cover his face and neck. Is it something contagious? Not leprosy, right?
His name is Joel
His name is Joel Hägglund (1879 – 1915). A few years later, in America, he’ll take the name Joseph Hillström. After yet another few years his name will be Joe Hill, and he will go down in history under that name—as an agitator, union leader and singer-songwriter. In the year 1915, he’s executed in America, convicted.
With this, the labor movement got a martyr, and this year is the centennial for Joe Hill’s execution.
This agitator, whose songs were sung and whom many sang about on the other side the Atlantic ocean—for example, Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen—has a well-preserved legacy, maybe more in America than in Sweden. Stephen King gave a son the name Joseph Hillstrom, which the son shortened to Joe Hill. On social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, comments are flooding in about the death sentence and comparisons between now and then.
The centennial could just as well be a multi-centennial on the discrimination of people on the edge of the labor market. Today’s unprotected guest workers in Stockholm and other cities have a lot in common with the so called low-skilled work force that Joe Hill wanted organized in the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World.
This organization is described like this by one of Kerstin Ekman’s characters in Menedarna (1970):
“The IWW is something they founded to get a union that also works as a place for the trash. Those who don’t want to educate themselves and would rather not do anything at all.”
The agitator was sentenced and executed in the Mormon state Utah. The U.S. President appealed for a pardon for Joe Hill. The pardon was rejected and the radical Swedish American moved on to the afterlife for what was probably a miscarriage of justice.
The rashes brought Joel to the capital
But let’s move on to the stay in Stockholm. The rashes brought Joel to the capital. The disease symptoms were already apparent in the mid-1890s. He first sought medical attention in his hometown for the rashes on his right hand and one of the alas of the nose. He went to the hospital when they didn’t heal and was treated with x-rays. The diagnose was cutaneous tuberculosis. He quickly went home with a bandage around his hand and a referral to a specialist in Stockholm, Dr. Tage Sjögren on Hamngatan. Sjögren, medical doctor working on a Battalion aid station with skin diseases as a speciality, used phototherapy (or light therapy). Back then this was a new method.
Two to three times a week, Joel had to lie down on an examining table and reveal his skin for the ultraviolet light from a lamp.
“Watch your eyes!”
After the doctor’s or a nurse’s orders, the light was turned on. It’s not difficult to imagine how Joel would rather have his eyes closed than protect his eyes with patches previously used by other patients.
When health wasn’t a hindrance, this soon-to-be revolutionary labor singer hurried out on the streets of Stockholm. With rising restlessness, he waited for the treatment to stop. In the end, he made a virtue of necessity, which already was a saying back then. He started to look forward to the hospital visits, where he had to lay still—which could be healthy for both mind and body.
Hospital care was required
His condition did not improve. Eventually, hospital care was required.
April 15, 1900, Joel was hospitalized in “Serafimerlasarettet” for cutaneous tuberculosis. Forearm and nose glands in particular.
He was treated with phototherapy again, as well as medicines and surgery. Joel was periodically very weak. Friends to his family who came to visit had a hard time talking to him as he was covered in bandages.
The doctors were still hopeful. The youngster’s lungs were strong and the tubercles didn’t seem to reach them.
Serafimerlasarettet, founded in 1872, is usually described as Stockholm’s first hospital and was used until 1980. The buildings on Hantverkargatan on Kungsholmen, opposite the city hall, are still there. Joel’s records were, unfortunately, cancelled after a while, according to the National Archives.
Naturally, the patients didn’t have their own rooms but lay in beds in big hospital wards.
Many patients were workers. Joel laid and listened to wheezing and throat clearing from the patients in the other beds. Some found each other in obvious topics—such as sharp condemnations towards injustices and repression.
When he wasn’t in agony and weakness, Joel participated in the conversations. Otherwise, he laid and stared up at the ceiling. At this point, fight songs from religious melodies started to materialize.
His home in Gävle was pious, but his relationship to God was, with today’s vocabulary, flexible. His grade in Christendom was a C, and one of his most famous songs is about how “you got pie in the sky when you die”.
For two years, he resided in Stockholm
Most of the time, Joel was a lodger on Västerlånggatan in Gamla Stan (the Old City). For two years, he resided in Stockholm. Longer than planned. This was because the treatment took longer than the doctors thought. It was more expensive than Joel’s family expected as well; the hospitalization costed about 75 Swedish öre per day. The family payed, at least initially.
Afterwards, Joel had to pay with what he earned from his temporary jobs. He called himself an ironworker, but he also worked as a paper salesman. Paper salesmen were often seen on the street, young boys in their characteristic hats handed out papers such as Stockholms Dagblad and Stockholms-Tidningen. Joel with his hat might have had a hard time reconciling with both the informal headgear and the often defencist messages in the columns.
Many of the newspapers at the turn of the century, on the other hand, propagated for something as sympathetic as equal and universal suffrage.
He had his political sympathies
Joel was not a searching young man but was clear early on about where he had his political sympathies. Already in Stockholm, he identified as a revolutionary syndicalist and had contact with radical publications such as Brand. When he wasn’t in the hospital, Joel spent evenings at cafés and in parks. Among the new friends were young social democrats who later would become active anarchists or syndicalists.
May 1st started to be celebrated as a labor movement’s worldwide day for demonstrations in the year 1890. Naturally enough, there are no documents that show whether Joel demonstrated or was in the hospital May 1st ten years later. But, wherever he was, he would have agreed with slogans against the throne, sword, and altar. According to a biographer, Ingvar Söderström, was Joel radicalised in Stockholm. The distress and poverty was greater than in Gävle.
His family dispersed
When both his parents were dead, his family dispersed. Out of the nine kids, six survived their first years and grew up. Four sons and two daughters. One son, Ruben, moved to Stockholm. Another brother, Paul, went along with Joel to America. While Joel became a hero in Sweden and America, Paul became the exact opposite. At least in Gävle. This was because he had left his wife and kids.
Paul was married and, a few years later he remarried in America, without divorcing his first wife, says one of Joe Hill’s relatives, namely Rolf Hägglund, who is the grandson to another one of Joe Hill’s brothers, Efraim.
Rolf lives in Västerhaninge. When I take the shuttle train there, it feels like I’m in “Joe Hill-land”. In the centrum, the atmosphere is tough. Many of the unemployed could become members of a modern day counterpart to the militant IWW. On the pub’s patio, some regulars are shivering. And, it was in Västerhaninge that the Mormons built their first Swedish temple.
We talk about how Joe Hill was sentenced to death for murder and executed. A shopkeeper, J.M. Morrison, and his son had been murdered the 10th of January year 1914 in Salt Lake City in Utah. Joe Hill, early suspected for the murder on the shopkeeper, refused to tell the police what he had done that dire evening.
“They have nothing on me”, he said time and time again in his cell, a line that’s repeated in Kerstin Ekman’s work.
Hägglund cherishes the memory of the historical relative
Hard to know why he kept quiet. I believe that the explanations are 25% honor and 75% naïve belief in the judiciary. He couldn’t believe that he was going to be sentenced, since he was innocent, says Rolf Hägglund, who cherishes the memory of the historical relative.
Hägglund’s five kids did their special projects about Joe Hill. So did also two of their cousins. The fact that there are no personal documents left from his time in prison, Robert calls a “historical misdeed”.
For a period, the prison sent Joe Hill’s letters, drafts of song lyrics and other documents to a relative in Sweden. Their widow later burned everything, completely fixated to eradicate the traces of a condemned and executed member of the family.
October 5th it was time for Joel to leave Stockholm and return to Gävle. He walked with some toil towards the central station, made a stop in Järnvägsparken and looked at the statue of Nils Ericson, an engineer but above all railroad worker, just like Joel’s dad, who died after an accident at work. When Joel was only eight years old, his dad who was a conductor, fell under a moving railroad car. He later died from the injuries, one of countless of people who die at work without getting a memorial.
Just as he arrived to the station, the lanky man attracted some attention. His rashes were gone but were replaced by scars. The nose was as thin as a line, one of the alas thin as a leaf, which has been observed by many late beholders of his portrait.
Martyrs’ looks and charisma usually cause endless associations. This was also the case with Joe Hill. But what survived the illness and poverty—indeed, survived death—is above all the songs.
In that sense, a monument has also been erected of a working “Hägglund”.
journalist and writer, Stockholm, Sweden
Translation from Swedish: Dan Strömbäck
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