On 19 November 1915: Swedish songwriter, cartoonist and itinerent worker, Joel Emanuel Hagglund, aka Joe Hill, was executed by firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a crime he didn't commit. Joe was an organiser and songsmith for the anarcho-synicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies as IWW members were called, were unrepentant revolutionaries, calling for ' one big union' and for the overthrow of capitalism.
Swedish born, he emigrated to New York aged 23, with his brother Paul, after the death of his parents, spending his time as a wandering itinerant and musical troubadour, engaging in the struggles of his time, hopping from one freight train to the next, working as a labourer, washer of dishes, sweeper of floors, moving cargo on docks, picking crops and working in construction. He was later to adopt the name Joe Hill after being blacklisted after trying to start a union in Chicago.
Joe Hill active in the Labour movement throughout his live,he would go to Mexico at the time of the revolution in 1911, fighting with his comrades under a red flag like the true rebel that he was, tryng to overthrow the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Next stop onto San Diego in 1912vto support fellow workers protesting against police banning of street meetings. Then onto British Columbia helping organise a national construction strike, then on to San Pedro to help dockworkers. Joe saw his music as a weapon in the class war, composing songs to be sung on soapboxes, picket lines or in jail.Hill had taken popular songs of the day and inserted his own lyrics,satirical, irreverent, often humorous,commenting on the plight of the working class in America.
He would inspire many, his fellow workers and comrades, but to the bosses he was someone to be feared, someone they considered dangerous, he was in their eyes a marked man.
In January 1914, he was arrested in Salt Lake City on trumped up charges and accused of murder. On the evening of 10th January 1914 in Utah he sought medical treatment for gunshot wounds, he claimed they had been inflicted upon him after quarrel with a man over a woman, and refused to elaborate anymore, earlier that evening in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been shot and killed. One of the assailants was wounded, so Hill's injury implicated him in the incident. Yet despite the uncertainty of witnesses, no one coming forward to identify him as one of the assailants at the scene of the crime no blood of Hills found at the scene a local jury was convinced of his guilt. No physical evidence linking him to the murder he was accused of.
He was scheduled to be shot by firing squad, this caused outrage across the world. an international campaign to exonerate him was launched, from Britain to other European countries and even President Woodrow Wilson calling for a retrial. Those looking at the case eventually declared its willingness to hear testimony from the woman's husband, but Hill loyally refused to identify his alleged assailant in case it damaged the reputation of the lady involved.
Sadly the eventual day came and he was executed and shot down by firing squad on this day 19th November 1915.
Whilst waiting his execution he wrote the following words which were later turned into song :-
My will is easy to decide
for I have nothing to divide
My kin don't need to weep 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 breeze blow
My dust to where some flowers grow
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would soon grow up and grow green again
This is my last and final will
Good luck to all of you, Joe Hill
In his final letter to IWW leader Bill Haywood he wrote: "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."
He died proclaiming his innocence and just before he was assassinated in reply to a question if he had anything further to say he answered "Fire" unfortunately they did.
Up to 30,000 people would attend his funeral, he was subsequently cremated and his ashes divided into 600 envelopes, that were sent to IWW branches across the globe. From his conviction to his death he became an icon for workers everywhere, and his subsequent execution sent echoes around the world. For many his spirit and his legacy lives on.
The Ballad of Joe Hill - Phil Ochs