Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

December 1, 2000

IF "LABOR MARTYR" was an entry in an encyclopedia the illustration for it would be a photo of a footloose troubadour known in labor lore as Joe Hill.

Hill was executed by a firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915 at the Utah State Prison. He'd been convicted of the murders of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son who were shot to death in a night-time robbery on Jan. 10, 1914, committed by two men whose faces were covered by red kerchiefs. A handgun was found laying by the son's body, causing police to surmise he'd wounded one or both of the robbers. The storekeeper, a former Salt Lake City policeman, had voiced fears that someone he'd once arrested in his days as a cop might one day seek revenge.

BORN JOEL HAGGLUND in Sweden on Oct. 7, 1879, the man later known as Joe Hill migrated to the United States in 1902 in a time when anti-immigrant feelings ran high. The only job he could find was cleaning spittoons in New York City's poorer neighborhoods. He soon traveled westward. In his 1978 book, "The Living Spirit of the Wobblies," labor author and editor Len DeCaux wrote: "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.

Hagglund happened to be in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake and sent an account of it to his hometown newspaper in Sweden. He also ventured south of the border into Mexico to help exploited peasants in overturning an oppressive regime in the 1910-11 revolution.

IT WAS NATURAL for Hagglund to gravitate to the militant Industrial Workers of the World - known as the Wobblies. The IWW advocated "One Big Union" for workers in all trades, crafts and occupations. There are two schools of thought as to where he joined the IWW. De Caux said he signed up in 1910 in San Pedro, a southern California port near Los Angeles. However, historian William Adelman, who was a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at its Circle Campus in Chicago, said his research showed that Hagglund joined the Wobblies in Portland, Oregon, in 1910. It could be that Joe enlisted in the Wobbly cause in both cities.

According to 1910 issues of the Labor Press, railroad union leader Eugene Victor Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana - one of the IWW's founders - made a series of two-hour speeches in Oregon in 1910. Debs spoke in Portland on Oct. 23. It is plausible that a wandering Joel Hagglund might have paused to listen and be inspired to sign up in the Wobbly cause even though he'd earlier done so in San Pedro.

EMPLOYERS MAINTAINED a blacklist of Wobbly militants in an effort to starve them out by denying them jobs. Joel Hagglund's defense against the blacklist was to change his name to Joseph Hillstrom and to later change it again - to Joe Hill, a name for the ages, as it turned out.

"Of all Wobblies, Joe Hill is best remembered," wrote DeCaux, a Wobbly himself who once edited the CIO News. DeCaux spoke at a Pacific Northwest Labor History Association conference at Portland State University a quarter-century ago.

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

Hill, at 34 and using the name Joe Hillstrom, made his way on freight trains from California to Utah in 1913 to work as a machinist in the Silver King copper mines at Park City. He was responding to "a call for free-speech fighters" disseminated by the IWW. According to DeCaux and the IWW, the Wobblies were under fire from Utah's union-hating governor, Republican William Spry, and his army of police; employers and their strikebreakers and armed goons; backed up by the state's dominant Mormon Church and its numerous business interests including a Salt Lake newspaper, the Deseret News.

After the grocer and his son were killed on the night of Jan. 10, 1914, Hillstrom had the misfortune to seek medical treatment for a gunshot wound to his chest. When the doctor who treated him read of the grocery store murders in the local newspapers, he notified police, who tracked down Hillstrom and arrested him. Not wanting to involve his union, Joe told police his name was Joseph Hillstrom. But it wasn't long before a Salt Lake newspaper discovered that the murder suspect was actually the Wobbly poet and songwriter known as Joe Hill.

HISTORIAN BOB MASTER, writing in "Labor Unity," summed up Joe Hill's trial: "Despite the flimsy evidence, a hostile judge, a vengeful prosecutor and an enflamed press succeeded in securing a conviction."

Hill didn't help his case by dismissing two attorneys who were defending him without charge, and by not testifying in his own defense as to the details of how he'd received the bullet wound to his chest. In a recently marketed video, Salt Lake City public television station KUED-TV reported that Hill would say of his gunshot wound only that he incurred it in a fight over a woman. At later appeals hearings, he refused to say more.

Hill's predictable conviction and death sentence stirred up protests worldwide. Many people took up the cudgels on his behalf. To his supporters he wrote letters and songs while in the Salt Lake jail and later the state prison. U. S. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, infuriated Utah's strikebreaking governor by asking for clemency and a new trial for Hill. President Wilson contacted Spry several times - on his own volition, and also in response to pleas for White House intervention from Sweden's ambassador and from national labor leader Sam Gompers. A woman on the faculty of the University of Utah, whose father had been president of the Mormon Church, wrote letters to national figures on Hill's behalf. After his execution, she was fired and moved to California. A Denver lawyer, a former judge who handled Hill's appeals without a fee, was later disbarred by the vengeful State of Utah.

Although Hill wrote dozens of songs and poems, he's probably best remembered for this admonition he sent to Wobbly colleagues just before his execution: "Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!"

HILL DISPLAYED his sense of humor by writing to IWW leader "Big Bill" Haywood to ask that he arrange for his body to be transported across the state line to Wyoming for burial "because I don't want to be caught dead in Utah."

Instead, Joe Hill's body was shipped to Chicago, where the IWW had and still has its headquarters. Some 30,000 mourners attended his funeral. His ashes were scattered in every state but Utah. Today, his beloved IWW is a tattered remnant of history with only clusters of members here and there, including some in Portland. But the memory of labor martyr Joe Hill still burns brightly.


PORTLAND UNIONISTS and other admirers of Joe Hill marked the anniversary of his death with a musical and biographical program on Sundav night, Nov. 19, at the worker-owned Red & Black Cafe at 2138 SE Division St. The Joe Hillbillies and General Strike entertained with labor songs, and Gene Lawhorn of Carpenters Local 247 gave a report on Joe Hill's life. Jim Cook, leader of General Strike and president of Letter Carriers Branch 82 , said the full-house audience contributed $929 to provide Thanksgiving Day meals for the needy at the Sisters of the Road Cafe. This was the tenth annual Portland observance of Hill's death.


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