Joe Hill

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Joe Hill
Joe hill002.jpg
BornJoel Emmanuel Hägglund
(1879-10-07)October 7, 1879
Gävle, Sweden
DiedNovember 19, 1915(1915-11-19) (aged 36)
Utah, United States
Cause of death
firing squad
Other namesJoseph Hillström
Occupationlabor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World
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For other people named Joe Hill, see Joe Hill (disambiguation).
Joe Hill
Joe hill002.jpg
BornJoel Emmanuel Hägglund
(1879-10-07)October 7, 1879
Gävle, Sweden
DiedNovember 19, 1915(1915-11-19) (aged 36)
Utah, United States
Cause of death
firing squad
Other namesJoseph Hillström
Occupationlabor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World

Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, and also known as Joseph Hillström (October 7, 1879[1] – November 19, 1915) was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies").[2] A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco.[3] Hill, as an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular song writer and cartoonist for the radical union. His most famous songs include "The Preacher and the Slave" (also known as There'll be Pie in the Sky By-and-By), "The Tramp", "There is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab", which express the harsh but combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize their efforts to improve conditions for working people.[4]

In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men.[5] The same evening, Hill arrived at a doctor's office with a gunshot wound, and briefly mentioned a fight over a woman. Yet Hill refused to explain further, even after he was accused of the grocery store murders on the basis of his injury. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers' organizations, Hill was executed in November, 1915. After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry.

Hill's love relationship, though frequently speculated upon, remained mostly conjecture for nearly a century. William M. Adler's 2011 biography reveals new information about Hill's ostensible alibi, which was never introduced at his trial.[6] According to Adler, Hill and his friend and countryman, Otto Appelquist, were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. In a recently discovered letter, Erickson confirmed her relationship with the two men and the rivalry between them. The letter indicates that when she first discovered Hill was injured, he explained to her that Appelquist had shot him, apparently out of jealousy.[7]

Early life[edit]

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born 1879 in Gävle (then called Gefle), a city in the province of Gästrikland, Sweden. He was the third child in a family of nine, where three children died young. His father, Olaf, worked as a conductor on the Gefle-Dala railway line.[8] Olaf died at the age of 41, and his death meant economic disaster for the family. Joe's mother Margareta Catharina did, however, succeed in keeping the family together until she died in 1902.

The Hägglund family home still stands in Gävle at the address Nedre Bergsgatan 28, in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. As of 2011 it houses a museum and the Joe Hill-gården, which hosts cultural events.

In his late teens-early 20s, Joel fell seriously ill with skin and glandular tuberculosis, and underwent extensive treatment in Stockholm. In 1902, when about 23, he and his brother Paul emigrated to the United States. Hill became a migrant laborer, moving from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually to the west coast. He was in San Francisco, California, at the time of the 1906 earthquake.


Hill was the author of numerous labor songs, including "The Rebel Girl," inspired by IWW activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

By this time using the name Joe or Joseph Hillstrom (possibly because of anti-union blacklisting), he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies around 1910, when working on the docks in San Pedro, California. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the IWW newspaper Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the IWW local chapter in Portland, Oregon.

He rose in the IWW organization and traveled widely, organizing workers under the IWW banner, writing political songs and satirical poems, and making speeches. He shortened his pseudonym to "Joe Hill" as the pen-name under which his songs, cartoons and other writings appeared. His songs frequently appropriated familiar melodies from popular songs and hymns of the time. He coined the phrase "pie in the sky", which appeared in his song "The Preacher and the Slave" (a parody of the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By"). Other notable songs written by Hill include "The Tramp", "There is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab".


As an itinerant worker, Hill moved around the west, hopping freight trains, going from job to job. By the end of 1913, he was working as a laborer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City.

On January 10, 1914, John G. Morrison and his son Arling were killed in their Salt Lake City grocery store by two armed intruders masked in red bandanas. The police first thought it was a crime of revenge, for nothing had been stolen and the elder Morrison had been a police officer, possibly creating many enemies. On the same evening, Joe Hill appeared on the doorstep of a local doctor, with a bullet wound through the left lung. Hill said that he had been shot in an argument over a woman, whom he refused to name. The doctor reported that Hill was armed with a pistol. Considering Morrison's past as a police officer, several men he had arrested were at first considered suspects; 12 people were arrested in the case before Hill was arrested and charged with the murder. A red bandana was found in Hill's room. The pistol purported to be in Hill's possession at the doctor's office was not found. Hill resolutely denied that he was involved in the robbery and killing of Morrison. He said that when he was shot, his hands were over his head, and the bullet hole in his coat — four inches below the exit wound in his back — seemed to support this claim. Hill did not testify at his trial, but his lawyers pointed out that four other people were treated for bullet wounds in Salt Lake City that same night, and that the lack of robbery and Hill's unfamiliarity with Morrison left him with no motive.[9]

The prosecution, for its part, produced a dozen eyewitnesses who said that the killer resembled Hill, including 13-year-old Merlin Morrison, the victims' son, and a brother, who said "That's not him at all" upon first seeing Hill, but later identified him as the murderer. The jury took just a few hours to find him guilty of murder.[9]

An appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful. Orrin N. Hilton, the lawyer representing Hill during the appeal, declared: "The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty. Hill tried to keep the IWW out of [the trial]... but the press fastened it upon him."[9]

In a letter to the court, Hill continued to deny that the state had a right to inquire into the origins of his wound, leaving little doubt that the judges would affirm the conviction. Chief Justice Daniel Straup wrote that his unexplained wound was "a distinguishing mark," and that "the defendant may not avoid the natural and reasonable inferences of remaining silent."[10] In an article for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, Hill wrote: "Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a 'goat' [scapegoat] and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be 'the goat'."[11]

The case turned into a major media event. President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller (the blind and deaf author and fellow-IWW member), the Swedish ambassador and the Swedish public all became involved in a bid for clemency. It generated international union attention, and critics charged that the trial and conviction were unfair.

In a biography published in 2011, William M. Adler concludes that Hill was probably innocent of murder, but also suggests that Hill came to see himself as worth more to the labor movement as a dead martyr than he was alive, and that this understanding may have influenced his decisions not to testify at the trial and subsequently to spurn all chances of a pardon.[12] Adler reports that evidence pointed to early police suspect Frank Z. Wilson, and cites Hilda Erickson's letter, which states that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiance.[13]


Diagram of the execution of Joe Hill on November 19, 1915.
Hill's will, written as a poem that begins "My will is easy to decide/for there is nothing to divide"....

Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. When Deputy Shettler, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing ("Ready, aim,") Hill shouted, "Fire — go on and fire!"[14]

That same day, a dynamite bomb was discovered at the Tarrytown estate of John D. Archbold, President of the Standard Oil Company. Police theorized the bomb was planted by anarchists and IWW radicals as a protest against Hill's execution. The bomb was discovered by a gardener, who found four sticks of dynamite, weighing a pound each, half hidden in a rut in a driveway fifty feet from the front entrance of the residence. The dynamite sticks were bound together by a length of wire, fitted with percussion caps, and wrapped with a piece of paper matching the color of the driveway, a path used by Archbold in going to or from his home by automobile. The bomb was later defused by police.[15]

Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah."[16][17]

His last will, which was eventually set to music by Ethel Raim, founder of the group The Pennywhistlers, reads:[18]

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


Hill's body was sent to Chicago where it was cremated. His ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and according to Wobbly folklore, sent around the world and released to the winds on May Day 1916. However it was not until the first anniversary of his death (November 19, 1916) that delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes.[19] The rest of the 600 envelopes were sent to IWW locals, Wobblies and sympathizers around the world on January 3, 1917.[20]

In 1988 it was discovered that an envelope had been seized by the United States Post Office Department in 1917 because of its "subversive potential". The envelope, with a photo affixed, captioned, "Joe Hill murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915," as well as its contents, was deposited at the National Archives. A story appeared in the United Auto Workers' magazine Solidarity and a small item followed it in The New Yorker Magazine. Members of the IWW in Chicago quickly laid claim to the contents of the envelope.

After some negotiations, the last of Hill's ashes (but not the envelope that contained them) was turned over to the IWW in 1988. The weekly In These Times ran notice of the ashes and invited readers to suggest what should be done with them. Suggestions varied from enshrining them at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC to Abbie Hoffman's suggestion that they be eaten by today's "Joe Hills" like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. Bragg did indeed swallow a small bit of the ashes with some Union beer to wash it down, and still carries Shocked's share for the eventual completion of Hoffman's last prank.[21] Bill Bragg has since given Michelle Shocked's share to Otis Gibbs.[22] The majority of the ashes were cast to the wind in the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Nicaragua. The ashes sent to Sweden were only partly cast to the wind. The main part was interred in the wall of a union office in Landskrona, a minor city in the south of the country, with a plaque commemorating Hill. That room is now the reading room of the local city library.

One small packet of ashes was scattered at a 1989 ceremony which unveiled a monument to six unarmed IWW coal miners buried in Lafayette, Colorado, who had been machine-gunned by Colorado state police in 1927 in the Columbine Mine Massacre. Until 1989 the graves of five of these men were unmarked. Another famous Wobbly, Carlos Cortez, scattered Joe Hill's ashes on the graves at the commemoration.[23]

On the night of November 18, 1990, the S.E. Michigan Central Committee of the IWW hosted a gatherings of "wobs" in a remote wooded area at which a dinner, followed by a bonfire, featured a reading of Hill's last will, "and then his ashes were released into the flames and carried up above the trees.... The next day ... one wob collected a bowl full of ashes from the smoldering fire pit." [24] At that event several IWW members consumed a portion of Hill's ashes before the rest was consigned to the fire.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill, Philip S. Foner published a book, The Case of Joe Hill, about the trial and subsequent events, which concludes that the case was a miscarriage of justice.[25]

Hill's handwritten last will and testament was uncovered in the first decade of the 21st century by archivist Michael Nash of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives of New York University.[26] Found a box under a desk at the New York City headquarters of the Communist Party USA during a transfer of CPUSA archival materials to NYU, the document began with a couplet: "My will is easy to decide / For I have nothing to divide."[26]

Influence and tributes[edit]

I.W.W. Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent (1916, Joe Hill Memorial Edition)
Joe Hill's Wake, Michigan (November 1990)


  1. ^ "". 1915-11-19. Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  2. ^ William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, Bloomsbury USA, 2011, pp. 92-94, 121
  3. ^ Adler, The Man Who Never Died, 2011, pp. 115-119.
  4. ^ Adler, The Man Who Never Died, 2011, pp. 12-13, 206.
  5. ^ Adler, The Man Who Never Died, 2011, pp. 44-52.
  6. ^ Steven Greenhouse (quoting John R. Sillito, retired archivist at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah), The New York Times, "Examining a Labor Hero’s Death", August 27, 2011, p. A10.
  7. ^ Adler, The Man Who Never Died, 2011, pp. 294-297.
  8. ^ Joe's bio. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  9. ^ a b c, "Joe Hill: Murderer or Martyr?" February 19, 2002.
  10. ^ "Chief Justice Daniel N. Straup". 1914-06-25. Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  11. ^ Joe Hill, Appeal to Reason, August 15, 1915; cited in "Joe Hill: Murderer or Martyr?"
  12. ^ "Songwriter shot dead". The Economist. August 6, 2011. 
  13. ^ Steven Greenhouse (August 26, 2011). "Examining a Labor Hero’s Death". The New York Times. p. A10. 
  14. ^ Joe Hickerson (December 2, 2010). "Joe's Last Will". Labor Notes. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 
  15. ^ New York Times, "Dynamite Bomb For J.D. Archbold," 22 November 1915.
  16. ^ "h2g2 - Joe Hill - Murderer or Martyr?". BBC. Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  17. ^ Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States, p. 335.
  18. ^ Scanned copy Joe Hill's will
  19. ^ New York Times, 20 November 1916.
  20. ^ Davidson, J. (2011). Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill's ashes in New Zealand, Rebel Press, ISBN 978-0-473-18927-3
  21. ^ Jeff Ditz, "Fifth Estate", 2005.
  22. ^ "Episode 29: Billy Bragg (Part 1)". Thanks for Giving a Damn with Otis Gibbs. Episode 29. April 23rd, 2013.
  23. ^ Denver Post, June 11, 1989
  24. ^ Landry, Carol, "Joe Hill's Wake, Industrial Worker, December 1990, p. 6.
  25. ^ Foner, P. (1965). The Case of Joe Hill, New York: International Publishers Co., inc. ISBN 0-7178-022-9
  26. ^ a b Gary Shapiro, "Michael Nash, Record-Keeper of the Left, Dead at 66," The Villager, August 23, 2012.
  27. ^ Hampton, W: Guerrilla Minstrels. Tennessee
  28. ^ "Joe Hill (Alfred Hayes/Earl Robinson)(1936)". Retrieved 16 January 2012. 
  29. ^ Lori Elaine Taylor (1993). Joe Hill Inc.: We Own Our Past. Indiana University Press. p. 26. 
  30. ^ Joyce L. Kornbluh, Rebel Voices, pp. 155-156.
  31. ^ "Joe Hill song by Phil Ochs". Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  32. ^ "Horror Author Joe Hill's True Identity Revealed". Yahoo. Retrieved Aug 19, 2013. 
  33. ^ "The Ballad of Joe Hill (film)". Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  34. ^ "Raise Your Banners site". Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  35. ^ "Gefle Dagblad 4 November 2011" (in Swedish). 2012-09-10. Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  36. ^ "Trombone For Lovers" Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  37. ^ "Down The Road" retrieved 2014-05-27

Recording of songs[edit]

Cover album of his songs:

Additional reading[edit]

External links[edit]



Internet Archive

Smithsonian Folkways