Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Joe That They Forgot to Kill

The oil portrait of Joe Hill that kept an eye on me as I worked late at my desk as IWW General Secretary Treasurer in 1971.

On November 19, 1915 Utah authorities took Joe Hill from his prison cell, tied him to a straight back chair, blindfolded him and pinned a paper heart on his chest.  Then, in accordance with the local custom a firing squad of five men, four of them with live rounds in their rifles and one with a blank perforated that paper valentine.

No one was better at setting words to popular or sacred songs to use in educating and rousing up workers than Joseph Hillstrom, a Swedish immigrant who drifted into the migratory labor life of the American west shortly after the dawn of the 20th Century.  He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1910 and was soon sending songs to IWW papers, including his most famous composition, The Preacher and the Slave, meant to be sung to the music of the Salvation Army bands that were frequently sent to street corners to drown out Wobbly soapbox orators.

As a “footloose Wobbly” Hill was likely to blow into any western town where there was a strike or free speech fight going.  He was a big part of any Little Red Songbook from 1913 on with such contributions as The Tramp, There is Power in the Union, Casey Jones the Union Scab, Scissor Bill, Mr. Block, and Where the River Frasier Flows.  He also began to compose original music as well, the most famous of which was The Rebel Girl which he dedicated to the teen-age organizer of Eastern mill girls, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. 

Hill also dispatched caustic, if crude, cartoons to Industrial Solidarity, the union’s newspaper, some of which ended up on silent agitators—stickers meant to slapped up in mess halls, in lumber camps, in city flops and beaneries, and even factory floors. 

Joe Hill was often the first fellow worker ready to take the stump at a free speech fight and the first arrested.  He was loved by his fellow working stiffs and feared as an enormous pain in the side of western bosses.

Hill showed up in Salt Lake City where the local copper barons feared he might bring their miners out on strike.  When he showed up at a doctor’s office with a bullet wound, he was arrested and charged with the robbery and murder of a grocer the night before.  He refused to give police an alibi claiming that a woman’s honor was involved.  He was tried, convicted and executed by firing squad in 1915.  He was just 36 years old.

Most scholars agree that it was physically impossible for him to have been involved in the robbery or to be shot by the grocer.  The judgment of history is that Joe Hill was framed.  He became a martyr to labor in no small measure because of his Last Words, a letter to IWW General Secretary Treasurer William D. “Big Bill Haywood, “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.” That has been shortened as a union motto to “Don’t Mourn Organize.”

He also composed a memorable Last Will:

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

In 1971 I was serving as General Secretary Treasurer of the I.W.W. I was a 22 year old kid who often worked in the Chicago office late at night nursing a quart of Meister Brau as I tried to catch up with a backlog of corresponded and reports from delegates around the world.  A large oil painting of Joe Hill looked down on me from across my desk—the same desk Big Bill Haywood had used.  Joe’s blue eyed stare kind of kept me on task.

A year or so earlier when I was hanging around the old General Headquarters on Halstead Street,  the mail brought a letter with a small manila envelope enclosed marked “Joe Hill’s Ashes.”  It seems that someone cleaning out a closet in Detroit found an overcoat with the envelope in the pocket.  The overcoat had belonged to his father, a local IWW officer in 1915.  For some unknown reason he had never got around to scattering the ashes.

A few days later several fellow workers took the ashes down to what was then still called Waldheim Cemetery where we scattered the ashes around the Haymarket Martyrs Memorial, which was surrounded by the graves of dozens of unionists, anarchists, Socialists and Communists including Emma Goldman. We sang some songs and went on our way, convinced that we had given Joe a last farewell.
Not quite.  In 1988 the Postal Service discovered that it was in possession of anther envelope containing Joe’s ashes.  It had been intercepted by some vigilant local postmaster in 1915 for suspected subversive content.  The envelope was sent to the National Archive, but eventually claimed by the IWW.  The ashes were divided into several small packages.  At the suggestion of Abby Hoffman the British labor troubadour Billy Bragg reportedly ate a small bit.  Other packets were scattered to the air in Canada, Nicaragua, and Australia.  Some of those sent to his home country of Sweden were scattered but some were buried in the wall of a union hall in Landskrona.

A few grains of one of these smaller packets ended up in the guitars of Wobbly troubadours Mark Ross, then a stationary delegate in Montana and the late, legendary Utah Philips.  There is also an urn in the current Chicago headquarters office of somewhat murky origins that is supposed to contain some of the ashes.  If so, they also must have come from the 1988 discovery.

The final packet was taken in 1989 by legendary IWW editor, artist and poet Carlos Cortez to be scattered at the dedication of a monument to the six striking coal miners killed by Colorado State Police machine gun fire in the 1927 Columbine Mine Massacre. 
Joe would have approved of it all.

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