Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

November 15, 2002

JOE HILL, an organizer and troubadour for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), achieved martyrdom 87 years ago when the State of Utah shot him to death on Nov. 19, 1915. Hill was executed by a firing squad at the state prison at Point of the Mountain, Utah, at age 36. His alleged crime was the gunshot killings of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son in a night-time robbery on Jan. 10, 1914. But his real crime was being a union organizer in a viciously anti-union state led by a Republican governor who was a union-hating, right-wing extremist.

Joel Hagglund was Joe Hill's birth name when he began life on Oct. 7, 1879 in Jevla, Sweden. He migrated to the United States in 1902, arriving at a time when public opinion was opposed to immigrants. He was relegated to a job of cleaning spittoons in a Bowery saloon in New York City.

He soon moved to Chicago, staying only briefly, before working his way to the Pacific Coast.

LABOR JOURNALIST Len DeCaux wrote about Joe Hill in his 1978 book, "The Living Spirit of the Wobblies." DeCaux said: "Joe followed the harvest, laid pipe, dug copper, worked in smelters and on construction jobs, on the docks and at sea." He also worked in the woods as a logger.

While he worked, and traveled by railroad freight cars, the guitar-playing Joe wrote songs and poems. His labor songs included "Casey Jones," "The Union Scab," "The Preacher and the Slave," "The Tramp," "Scissor Bill," "Mr. Block" and "The Rebel Girl."

He wrote the last song, dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, while behind bars in Utah.

"ONE BIG UNION" was the idealistic goal of the Wobblies. They wanted the IWW to represent skilled and unskilled workers organized on an industry-wide basis. The Wobblies hoped to become so powerful that a grievance in a single shop could spark a regional or national strike that would paralyze an entire industry. In Joe Hill's day, the IWW had about 250,000 members. Many of them toiled in the woods and mines of the West.

It was natural for Swedish immigrant worker Joel Hagglund to gravitate to the militant Wobblies. But there are two views as to where he joined the IWW. DeCaux and others say he signed up in 1910 at San Pedro, a port city near Los Angeles. But William Adelman, a professor of labor and industrial relations at a University of Illinois urban campus in Chicago, said Hagglund joined the Wobblies in Portland in 1910.

IT SEEMS PROBABLE that Hagglund signed up in both cities - San Pedro and Portland. He probably joined the Wobblies in San Pedro and then re-enlisted in the IWW cause later the same year in the Rose City. Back in 1910, when the Northwest Labor Press still had the name Portland Labor Press, this newspaper reported on a series of two-hour speeches made in Oregon by railroad union leader Eugene Victor Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs, a fiery orator and a frequent Socialist candidate for president of the United States, was one of the founders of the IWW. Debs spoke in Portland on Oct. 23, 1910. It is plausible that Joel Hagglund might have come to Portland from a logging job in the Oregon woods to hear Debs and been moved to sign up for another IWW membership card to replace the one he'd gotten earlier in San Pedro but perhaps had lost in his travels.

BY CHANCE, Hagglund was working in the San Francisco area at the time of the epic earthquake of 1906. He wrote an account of it for his hometown newspaper in Sweden.

In 1911 Hagglund joined an international brigade that fought in the Mexican Revolution on behalf of oppressed peasants.

AS A WOBBLY, Joel Hagglund encountered employer hatred for members of the militant union. In an effort to starve out the radical Wobblies, bosses compiled blacklists of IWW members. Joel Hagglund's defense against that tactic was to change his name to Joe Hillstrom, and to later change it again - to Joe Hill, a name for the ages, as it turned out.

"Of all the Wobblies, Joe Hill is best remembered," wrote Len DeCaux, a Wobbly himself who once edited the CIO News. DeCaux spoke at a Pacific Northwest Labor History Association conference in Portland three decades ago.

HIS WAS THE LANGUAGE of music and song - direct, lasting and universal," wrote DeCaux. "... Joe Hill was a plain worker, a young man, a songster, a troubadour with a message for all seasons."

In 1913, Hill rode freight trains from California to Utah, responding to "a call for free-speech fighters" issued by the IWW, according to DeCaux. The author said the Wobblies were under fire from Utah's union-hating governor, Republican William Spry, and his motley army of police, employers and their strikebreakers and armed goons, backed up by the Beehive State's dominant Mormon Church and its numerous business enterprises, including a Salt Lake City newspaper, the Deseret News.

In Utah, Hill, using the name Hillstrom, took a job as a machinist at the Silver King copper mines at Park City.

AFTER THE MURDERS of the grocer and his son on the night of Jan. 10, 1914 by two robbers wearing red kerchiefs over their faces. Hill had the misfortune to seek medical treatment for a gunshot wound to the chest. When the doctor who treated him read newspaper accounts of the murders he notified police. Officers tracked down Joe and arrested him. Not wanting to involve his union, Joe told police his name was Joseph Hillstrom. But it wasn't long before the Salt Lake Tribune discovered that the murder suspect was the Wobbly activist known as Joe Hill.

Labor historian Bob Master, writing in the publication "Labor Unity," summed up Hill's trial:

"Despite the flimsy evidence, a hostile judge, a vengeful prosecutor and an enflamed press succeeded in obtaining a conviction."

Hill was convicted even though witnesses said the grocer and his son were robbed by two men, one of whom was shot by the son, but police could not produce Hill's alleged accomplice. Also, the grocer, a former local policeman, often told friends he feared that someone he'd arrested might someday seek vengeance. Hill and the grocer had never met, but an ex-con sent away by the cop-turned-grocer bore a physical resemblance to Hill.

AT HIS TRIAL, and later appeals hearings, Hill would say of his bullet wound only that he incurred it in a fight over a woman. His conviction and death sentence stirred up worldwide protests. United States President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, infuriated Utah's anti-union Republican governor, William Spry, by several times asking for clemency and a new trial for Hill. President Wilson made the requests on behalf of himself and also in response to pleas from national labor leader Sam Gompers and the Swedish ambassador. A woman on the University of Utah faculty, whose father had been president of the Mormon Church, was fired for writing letters to national figures seeking their intercession for Hill. A prominent Colorado attorney, who was a former judge, was disbarred by the State of Utah after he handled Hill's appeals. He did not charge Hill for his services.

Before his death, Hill wrote to his Wobbly friends these famous words: "Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!"

Hill's body was shipped to Chicago, where the IWW had its headquarters. Some 30,000 mourners attended his funeral. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in every state but Utah on May Day 1916.


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