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Gilbert: Joe Hill

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund, or Hillstrom, in Sweden. He emigrated to the US at 23 and became a migrant laborer. Often unemployed, he wrote songs and gave speeches for the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, known as the Wobblies. His songs expressed, often with humor, workers’ difficult circumstances and urged them to organize for better working conditions. He penned the lyric “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

In 1914, a grocer and his son were shot and killed by two men in Utah. The son may have wounded one of them, but that wasn’t clear. The same evening Hill went to see a doctor with a bullet wound, which, he said, he got in a fight over a woman. He was arrested for the double murder.

His trial was extremely controversial. There were numerous procedural irregularities; there was no motive, only that one piece of circumstantial evidence – his wound. He refused to testify in his own defense or name the woman involved; he felt that the state had to prove his guilt, and they had no solid evidence. But the fact that Hill was an IWW member worked heavily against him, as did his being what he himself called “a friendless tramp and a Swede.”

Hill was convicted; Utah’s governor received countless telegrams from around the world urging that Hill’s life be spared, including two from President Woodrow Wilson, but he was executed by firing squad at sunrise a hundred years ago tomorrow.

In his excellent 2011 biography of Hill, The Man Who Never Died, William Adler concludes Hill was probably innocent, he identifies an early suspect in the case, a violent career criminal, as the likely murderer, and, citing newly discovered evidence, argues that Hill had been shot by a rival suitor. Hill may have decided he was most useful to society as a martyr for both the right to a fair trial and the labor movement.

Hill kept his courage to the end. He exhorted workers, “Don’t waste time mourning, organize!” He kept his sense of humor, too: The day before his execution, he wrote his will – in verse. It begins, “My Will is easy to decide/For there is nothing to divide. . . .” And he wrote that he expected to travel to Mars the next day, where he’d “immediately commence to organize the Mars canal workers into the IWW.”

The famous song lyrics declare, “From San Diego up to Maine/In every mine and mill/Where workers strike and organize/It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” Joe Hill lives on, perhaps in spirit, certainly in song and history.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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