Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My body? Oh, if I could choose I would to ashes it reduce—Joe Hill

Utah prison authorities took pride in their firing squad’s marksmanship.  But “the Joe that they forgot to kill went on to organize.”
Note:  Yesterday this blog noted a historical figure—William Tellwho  upon closer examination dissolves into an entirely mythical hero.  Today we look at the greatest folk hero of both the labor movement and the American left who turns out to have been a living, once breathing human being. 

Today begins a year of centennial observations of  Joe Hill’s death, and most importantly, his remarkable life and its rich legacy.
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 agitatorsstickers meant to slapped up in mess halls, in lumber camps, in city flops and beaneries, and even on the factory floor. 

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, a former policeman named Morrison—and his son the night before.  He told police that he was shot but that a woman’s honor was involved and would say no more.  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.  But questions always lingered about the bullet wound and that vague alibi.  Finally in 2013 writer William M. Adler did remarkable spade work and an exhaustive investigation of Hill time in Salt Lake in his book The Man Who Never Died, The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon.  Adler identified the likely real murder of grocery store owner and his son—Magnus Olson, a career criminal with a long record who was known to be in the area and who had beef with the former policeman.  The police had even picked him up as a possible suspect but he talked his way out of it and hid his identity under a welter of aliases.  Then Adler identifies the mysterious woman—20 year old Hilda Ericson, the daughter of the family which ran the rooming house where he was staying.  She had been engaged to Hill's friend, fellow Swede and fellow worker Otto Applequist who also boarded at the house.  Joe won the girl’s heart and she threw over Applequist for the Wobbly bard.  An upset Applequist shot Hill in a fit of jealousy, but immediately regretted it and was the man who took Joe to the doctor for treatment.  After taking Hill back to the rooming house he packed his bag and disappeared left at 2 am with the excuse he had gone looking for work.  Hill refused to name Applequist out of loyalty to his friend, and refused to identify the girl to share her public humiliation.  And despite all that it cost him, Hill refused to say more.

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

The painting that watched over me and my desk at IWW General Headquarters in Chicago.

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 they were 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.
In 1988 Utah Phillips and IWW General Executive Board Chairman Fredric Lee accepted a packet of Joe Hill's ashes from the National Archives.

Not quite.  In 1988 Frederic Lee, chairman of the General Executive Board discovered that the National Archives was in possession of an envelope mailed to a Chicago man in an attempt to prevent the remains from being seized by the Feds during the Palmer raid period.  The Postal Office discovered the contents when the envelope tore open in a postage canceling machine exposing a photo of Hill, a copy of his Last Will, and a packet of ashes. It was seized for suspected subversive content and somehow eventually ended up in the Archives.  Lee initiated negotiations for the return of the contents of the seized envelope and the Archives eventually agreed.  At his own expense the Chicago radical economics professor flew to the capital and signed for the contents.  When Lee died earlier this month this great service was fondly recalled.
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 Butte, Montana and the late, beloved Utah Philips.  There also an urn at the current IWW General Headquarters in Chicago 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 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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