Who was Joe Hill

If you’re a member of the IWW you no doubt already know of Joe Hill thanks to his contributions to the Little Red Song Book (and if you’re not, we would encourage you to join). Most famous for his song “The Preacher and the Slave” Joe was a travelling musician that became a folk hero for the radical work he carried out in the trade union movement; for his beautiful songs that cut right to the heart of the pains of being a worker in early twentieth century America and for his tragic death at the hands of the American state. As it is the hundred and fifth anniversary of his untimely death we at the ACU thought we would explore a little about the man’s life and work, and remember this martyr for the trade union movement. 

Joe Hill, originally named Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, was born on October 7th 1879 in Gävle, Sweden to a conservative Protestant Family. Despite his family being from a more traditionalist worldview, Joe’s early life was one filled with song. Both of his parents were musicians and while a young man Hill wrote songs about his family, and even went to concerts at the workers’ association hall in his hometown. Tragedy struck the happy family in 1887 when Hill’s father died from an injury at his job as a train conductor, and soon Joe and his 5 other siblings were forced to quit school to support themselves. The 9-year-old Hill found himself working in a rope factory rather than attending school but this too wasn’t to last. In 1900 Joe caught TB and at the age of 21 moved to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm both for work and to get treatment for his condition. It was during this treatment that the radiation therapy would leave the young joe with facial disfigurements. Two years after these treatments Joe’s mother would pass away, while herself under medical treatment. With this final tragedy the family sold their home and each went their separate ways; four of Joe’s siblings settled in different parts of Sweden but Joe and his younger brother Paul instead set off for America.

For the next 12 years Joe travelled America, working odd jobs, living in tent cities and writing songs about his experiences. In 1910 he joined the IWW and served as the secretary for the San Pedro local branch. During his time here he wrote many of his most famous songs, including “Pie in The Sky” and the famous “The Preacher and the Slave” that would make its way into the IWW songbook. When legendary folk singer Utah Philips performed Joe Hills songs in concert he would explain why so many were written to the tune of the hymn songs that the salvation army would sing – “Joe liked to steal, the Wobblies generally liked to steal the hymn tunes because they were pretty and everybody knew them and then changed the words so they made more sense”. 

In 1911 he put his revolutionary words into action and, along with an army of homeless radicals, joined up as part of a socialist army that invaded Mexico in hopes of over throwing the dictator of Mexico at the time, Porfirio Diaz, as well as hoping to take over Baja California and turn it into a worker’s free state. The invasion was a disaster and soon the better trained and equipped Mexican Army, still at that time loyal to Diaz, routed the revolutionary army six months after it had crossed the border. In 1912, Hill was apparently active in a Free Speech coalition of Wobblies, back when being pro free speech actually meant standing up to authority, and protested a San Diego police decision to put a stop to street meetings. During this time he was also spotted at sites of industrial action, offering kind words and zealous songs to lift the spirits of workers across America. 

It was in 1913 that Joe’s work supporting strikers would first bring him into conflict with the police. He was arrested for the first time and held for thirty days, charged for what he says in his own words as being “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg”. 

After this Joe was on the police’s watch list and in 1914 when a grocer and his son turned up dead after a botched robbery and Joe turned up the same day at a hospital with gunshot wounds the police pinned the murders on Joe. This was held up on shaky ground, with the only evidence being circumstantial eye witness accounts that did not identify Joe, only a young assailant that escaped with gunshot wounds. Joe, for his part, said he got his gunshot wounds in a feud over the love of a young woman, but refused to give up the name of the young woman or rival on worries that he would only incriminate them. 

The identity of the woman and the rival that caused Hill’s injury was a well kept secret, one that Joe thought he took to the grave with him, though a 2011 biography of Hill presents information about a possible alibi which was never introduced at the trial. Hill and his friend Otto Appelquist were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. In a recently discovered letter, Erickson confirmed her relationship with the two men and the rivalry between them. The letter indicates that when she first discovered Hill was injured, he explained to her that Appelquist had shot him out of jealousy over their shared love for Hilda. 

During the trail and on the lead up to his execution Joe managed to draw in support from all across America. His supporters included a daughter of a former Mormon church president, radicals that he had worked with during his striking days, and even senior politicians like the Swedish minister to the United States and President Woodrow Wilson. Despite all of these appeals to justice on November 19th 1915 Joe was brutally and unjustly executed by firing squad. His last recorded words were to Bill Haywood, a well known and loved leader of the IWW, and it’s with those words we will leave you now.

“I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize!”