“Don’t waste any time mourning—organize!”

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Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (Born October 7, 1879, executed November 19, 1915) more commonly known as Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labor songwriter, and organizer. Born in Gavle Sweden he immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and learned English while on the Job. Blacklisted for attempting to organize his coworkers at a machine shop he joined the IWW in 1910. He was arrested in 1914 for the murder of a grocer and his son, and executed the next year.

Early Life

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born to Margareta Hägglund and Olaf Hägglund in Gavle Sweden. Joel was one of 9 children by the couple, and one of six to make it to adulthood. His parents were deeply religious Lutherans and rarely discussed politics. His father worked as a railway conductor in order to support the family.

Joel’s musical talents were encouraged from a young age. His parents were amateur musicians, who taught Joel how to play the family’s organ (built by Joel’s father). Later in life Joe Hill would learn how to play the violin, the guitar, the accordion and the piano.

Joel in America

Joel immigrated to the United States after the deaths of his parent. His father was killed in an accident while on the Job and his mother died 15 years later. Joel and His brother departed for the United States together and arrived on Ellis Island in 1902.[1]

In New York Joel was forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet, at one point working in a bar cleaning out the spittoons of customers for pennies a day. Fed up with life in New York City, Joel travelled to Chicago in search of better work. He found employment at a machine shop in the city, but was fired and blacklisted shortly thereafter for attempting to organize his fellow workers. Because of the blacklisting Joel Hägglund became Joseph Hillstrom, later shortened to Joe Hill.

Joe and the Wobblies

The next several years of his life are unclear. Joe Hill was a prolific traveler and reported sightings of him stretch across the whole of the continental United States and even Hawaii. Reports of his activities are scattered but even at this time Joe was something of a “Johnny Laborseed” taking odd jobs and assisting in strikes and labor organizing.

What is known for certain is that in 1910 he’d found a job on the waterfront in California. That same year he joined the San Pedro Local of the IWW. [2]

From then on Joe devoted himself to the IWW. He traveled across the United States and Canada supporting organizing campaigns, and writing music to raise the morale of striking workers. He also reportedly participated in some of the more radical adventures of the IWW.

Joe is said to have joined a group of several hundred Wobblies and Mexican rebels who briefly seized control of Tijuana Mexico in 1911. The groups’ goal was the overthrow of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, but they were beaten back by government troops and cleared out of Tijuana. While the Wobblies who fought in Tijuana reported that Joe had fought alongside them, Hill denied it.[3]

Troubadour of the Labor Movement

Joe Hill’s most famous contribution to American Labor history was his music. While organizing with the IWW hill wrote such songs as “Mr. Block”, “Dump the Bosses of your Back”, and “Where the Frasier River Flows”. His Music combined simple lyrics with biting satire, and became staples of any wobbly organizing campaign or strike.

A good example of the sentiments expressed in Hill’s music can be seen in one of his most famous songs “The preacher and the Slave” a call and response number sung to the tune of “in the sweet by and by”. In it Hill mocks street preachers (in particular the Salvation Army whom the Wobblies mockingly named “the starvation army”) who told poor and unemployed workers that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Its chorus goes:

 You will eat bye and bye

In the glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

The response was “That’s a lie!”

The song goes on to list the empty promises of the preachers, and their condemnations of laborers who try to organize. The final verse emphasizes the need for respite while alive contrasting it with the promises of the street preachers.

You will eat, bye and bye

When you’ve learned how to cook and how to fry

Chop some wood, ’twill do you good

Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye

With one final response “That’s no lie!”

His songs also reflected the inclusive character of the IWW compared to other unions of the same era: the IWW organized minority workers, immigrants and women when few others would. His song “The Rebel Girl” was written as a tribute to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn a fellow wobbly organizer but praised women members of the labor movement in general. To put the song in perspective it was written in 1911, 9 years before the 19th amendment was finally ratified giving women the right to vote.

The Trial of Joe Hill

On January 10, 1914 in Salt Lake City Utah, a grocer named John G. Morrison and his son Arling were closing their store when they were confronted by a pair of masked gunmen. Morrison’s youngest son, Merlin the only eyewitness to the events saw Arling pull out a gun his father kept in the store and shoot one of the assailants. The two masked men then shot and killed John and Arling before fleeing the scene, one of them clutching his wounded chest.

Police in Salt Lake City Utah investigated the case as a revenge killing. The assailants hadn’t bothered to rob the store, and John Morrison had once been a police officer in Salt Lake City so there were many men who had reason to be angry with him.

Joe hill had stopped in Utah on his way to the IWW’s annual convention in Chicago. Low on cash he took odd jobs across the state to earn enough money for the rest of the trip. While in Salt Lake City Joe was housed by the Eseliuses, a Swedish family he knew.

On the night of the murder Hill left the Eseliuses house, between 6 and 9 in the evening. He returned with a gunshot wound around 1 in the morning.

He was shot, sometime that evening, and around 11:30 went to the offices of Dr. Frank Mchugh to be treated for his wounds. Joe explained to Dr. Hugh that he’d been shot during a fight with a friend, and that the misunderstanding had to do with his friend’s wife.

After examining the wound Dr. McHugh found the bullet wound had not done any permanent damage. The bullet had gone through his chest and out the other side, only grazing his left lung.  Dr. McHugh treated him and then took him back to the Eselius house.

Though Joe was only one of several men unfortunate enough to have been shot that night, the Salt Lake City police arrested him for the murders of John and Arling Morrison on January 13, 1914. The trial began on June 17, 1914 and lasted for more than a year.

The trial was a disaster on the part of both the prosecution and the defense. Neither side was able or willing to give an account of what happened on the evening of January 10. Hill absolutely refused to give an alibi of where he was the evening the murders occurred. Nor was he willing to clarify the circumstances under which he was shot, only stating that to do so would, sully the honor of a lady.[4]

For the prosecution’s part, they were unable to offer any physical evidence linking Joe Hill to the crime. Nor was Merlin Morrison able to initially identify Joe Hill as the assailant who had been wounded in the assault (though he did later do so under prompting by state prosecutors.)Nor was the prosecution able to show any past encounter between Joe Hill and John Morrison or provide any motive for the killing.[5]

But when it became apparent that Joe Hill was a member of the IWW public opinion in the state began to turn against him. The IWW had a hostile relationship with the Mormon Church who had publicly voiced their opposition towards IWW organizing in Utah. But Hill also hurt his own case by his demeanor in the courtroom. From his amateurish attempts to represent himself at the beginning of the trial, to his outburst near the end when he attempted to fire his state appointed attorneys, Joe won few friends in the Jury.

On June 27, 1915 the Jury convicted Joe Hill and the judge sentenced him to death. His attorneys filed for appeal on July 3, but the Utah Supreme Court denied it.

Final Months

Thanks to the organizing efforts of the IWW the trial of Joe Hill became a national and international cause celebre. Thousands of letters from Wobblies and sympathizers poured in from across the country. Representatives and members of the IWW poured in from across the country to protest in Utah. The Episcopal Bishop of Salt Lake City, concerned about the courts bias against hill publicly requested that his sentence be commuted.

Internationally workers in Australia threatened to boycott American products if Hill were executed, while the Swedish Minister to the United States became personally involved in the case. In September Utah Governor William Spry received a telegram from President Woodrow Wilson asking that he postpone Joe Hill’s execution until the Swedish Minister could speak with Governor Spry about the case. Hill was granted a temporary reprieve.

But in October Joe Hill was once again brought before the courts and sentenced to die. His last month was spent writing letters and giving interviews. In one of his last letters, to IWW founder and organizer Big Bill Haywood, Hill famously wrote “Don’t waste any time mourning—organize!”

Death and Legacy

On November 19, 1915 Joseph Hillstrom was executed by firing squad by the state of Utah.  His body was shipped out of state and arrived in Chicago where 30,000 people took to the streets to watch his funeral procession, and more than 5,000 people crowded into the west side auditorium to attend his funeral.

Hill was cremated and his ashes were stuffed in envelopes and mailed to IWW locals in every state, except for Utah in accordance with Hill’s written request to Big Bill Haywood: “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.”

In 1988 the national archives returned a vial of Hill’s ashes to the IWW. The ashes and the package they were mailed in had been seized by the US post office in 1917. The package was never delivered as it was said to contain subversive material, specifically a picture of hill, the ashes, and an annotated copy of
Joe Hill’s will. Afterwards Joe Hill’s last will was finally honored, and his ashes were spread to the wind.