Joe Hill: Poet, Songwriter, and Martyr of the Labor Movement

Don't Mourn - Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill
Don't Mourn - Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill. © Smithsonian Folkways

Joe Hill, an immigrant laborer and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, was put on trial for murder in Utah in 1915. His case became nationally famous as many believed his trial to be unjust and his conviction and execution by firing squad made him into a martyr for the labor movement.

Born in Sweden as Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, he took the name Joseph Hillstrom when he emigrated to America in 1902. He lived in obscurity as a traveling laborer until he became known in labor circles for writing songs. But his real fame came after his death. Some of the songs he wrote were sung at union rallies for decades, but a ballad written about him in the 1930s by Alfred Hayes ensured his place in popular culture.

Fast Facts: Joe Hill

  • Full Name: Born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, but he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom when he migrated to America, later abbreviating it as Joe Hill.
  • Born: October 7, 1879, in Gavle, Sweden.
  • Died: November 19, 1915, Salt Lake City, Utah, executed by firing squad.
  • Significance: Writer of songs for the Industrial Workers of the World, was convicted in a trial thought to be rigged, died as a martyr for the labor movement.

That ballad, "Joe Hill," was recorded by Pete Seeger, and in recent years has been sung by Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps the most famous rendition of it was by Joan Baez at the legendary Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969. Her performance appeared in the film of the festival and the accompanying soundtrack album, and made Joe Hill a symbol of eternal radical activism at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War.

Early Life

Born in Sweden in 1879, Joe Hill was the son of a railroad worker who encouraged his family to play music. Young Joe learned to play the violin. When his father died of work-related injuries, Joe had to leave school and begin working in a rope factory. As a teenager, a bout of tuberculosis led him to seek treatment in Stockholm, where he recovered.

When his mother died, Joe and a brother decided to sell the family home and emigrate to America. He landed in New York City but did not stay there long. He seemed to move constantly, taking a variety of jobs. He was in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake, and by 1910 had taken work on the docks of San Pedro, in southern California.

Organizing and Writing

Going by the name Joseph Hillstrom, he became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The union, known widely as The Wobblies, was viewed as a radical faction by the public and the mainstream labor movement. Yet it had a devoted following, and Hillstrom, who began calling himself Joe Hill, became an ardent organizer for the union.

He also began spreading pro-labor messages by writing songs. In the folk song tradition, Hill used standard melodies, or even parodies of popular songs, to combine with his lyrics. One of his most popular compositions, "Casey Jones, The Union Scab" was a parody of a popular song about a heroic railroad engineer who met a tragic end.

The IWW included some of Hill's songs in the "Little Red Song Book," which the union began publishing in 1909. Within a few years more than 10 of Hill's songs appeared in various editions of the book. Within union circles he became well known.

Photograph of Joseph Hillstrom, aka Joe Hill
Joe Hill. Getty Images 

Trial and Execution

On January 10, 1914, a former policeman, John Morrison, was attacked in his grocery store in Salt Lake City, Utah. In an apparent robbery, Morrison and his son were shot and killed.

Later the same night, Joe Hill, nursing a bullet wound to his chest, presented himself at a local doctor. He claimed he had been shot in a quarrel over a woman and refused to say who had shot him. It was known that Morrison had shot one of his killers, and suspicion fell upon Hill.

Three days after Morrison's murder, Joe Hill was arrested and charged. Within months his case had become a cause for the IWW, which claimed he was being framed because of his union activities. There had been Wobbly strikes against mines in Utah, and the idea that Hill was being railroaded to intimidate the union was plausible.

Joe Hill went on trial in June 1914. The state presented circumstantial evidence, which many denounced as fraudulent. He was convicted, and was sentenced to death on July 8, 1914. Given a choice of hanging or a firing squad, Hill chose the firing squad.

Over the following year, Hill's case slowly developed into a national controversy. Rallies were held around the nation demanding that his life be spared. He was visited by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a notable Wobbly organizer (about whom Hill wrote the ballad "Rebel Girl"). Flynn tried to meet President Woodrow Wilson to argue Hill's case, but was rebuffed.

Wilson did, however, eventually write to the governor of Utah, urging clemency for Hill. The president, with World War I raging in Europe, seemed concerned that Hill was a Swedish citizen, and wished to avoid his execution becoming an international incident.

After months of legal motions and pleas for mercy came to an end, Hill was executed by firing squad on the morning of November 19, 1915.

Legacy

Hill's body was given a funeral in Utah. His coffin was then taken to Chicago, where a service was conducted by the IWW in a large hall. Hill's coffin was draped in a red flag, and newspaper reports noted bitterly that many of the mourners seemed to be immigrants. Union orators denounced the Utah authorities, and performers sang some of Hill's union songs.

After the service, Hill's body was taken to be cremated. In a will he had written he asked that his ashes be scattered. His wish was granted as his ashes were mailed to union offices across the United States and overseas, including to his native Sweden.

Sources:

  • "Hill, Joe 1879-1915." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 2: 1910-1919, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Thompson, Bruce E.R. "Hill, Joe (1879–1914)." The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment, edited by Mary Jo Poole, Greenhaven Press, 2006, pp. 136-137. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Joe Hill." Encyclopedia of World Biography, vol. 37, Gale, 2017.
  • Hill, Joe. "The Preacher and the Slave." World War I and the Jazz Age, Primary Source Media, 1999. American Journey.