In 1902, a young man named Joel Hägglund boarded a ship from Sweden to the United States. Like many immigrants of the period, he had managed to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of hardship into his short existence: his father had died from head injuries suffered on the job, while his mother was laid to waste by the macabre-sounding “consumption of the spine.” Meanwhile, Hägglund—who was forced to enter the factories at the age of 12—had recently survived a nearly fatal case of tuberculosis. When he landed in America he was just another unskilled immigrant, likely to work hard and die young.
The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon
Which indeed came to pass. Hägglund bounced around the country, picking crops and working the docks, and died 13 years later, at the age of 36. But his was not a quiet death. Adopting the name Joe Hill, he soon became the best-known songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a bottom-up labor movement described by one of its leaders, Big Bill Haywood, as “socialism with its working clothes on.” In 1915, Hill was convicted of murdering a Salt Lake City shopkeeper after a patently biased trial, sparking widespread protests and even prompting President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. Despite the outcry, Hill was shot to death by a firing squad, reportedly dying with a smile on his face. “Don’t waste any time in mourning—organize,” he wrote to Haywood just before his death, the shorthand of which has now become the ubiquitous advice for any progressive movement that sees a setback.
How the anonymous immigrant Joel Hägglund—“whose speech was clumsy, whose job skills were limited, whose education was meager”—transformed himself into Joe Hill, a Christ-like martyr (though ardent atheist) who died for the cause of working people everywhere, is one of the questions William Adler explores in his fascinating and groundbreaking biography. Adler, a Denver-based journalist whose previous book provided a micro-to-macro analysis of the global economy by following a single factory job as it moved south to Mexico, has likewise used the life of Hill to provide a sweeping portrait of militant labor activism in the period leading up to World War I.
Given Hill’s name recognition, it’s curious that Adler is the first to offer a definitive biography of him. This fact likely speaks to the challenges of the project: for most of his life, Hill was as untraceable as any other down-and-out immigrant laborer in the early 20th century. One of the few books about Hill, written by Wallace Stegner, was a historical novel—and one suspects this decision was made on the scarcity of reliable information about Hill’s life before being accused of murder.
The second challenge is finding something new to say about the question of Hill’s guilt, which has long been a source of debate. Stegner, who conducted significant research for his novel, believed that Hill was probably guilty and called him “as violent an IWW as ever lived.” (I read his novel a few years back—the book is now in a box several thousand miles away, so I haven’t been able to take another look—and I recall Stegner’s Hill to be dark, brooding, and psychologically unsound.) The historian Philip Foner, on the other hand, wrote a short non-fiction account, The Case of Joe Hill, and concluded that he was almost certainly innocent. Either way, it has now been nearly 100 years since Hill was shot dead, so this is a very cold case.
Hill’s prior elusiveness makes Adler’s accomplishments all the more impressive. After six years of research, which included a trip to Sweden to visit Hill’s descendents, Adler has skillfully pieced together what can be known about Hill, while digging as far as one can dig—unpublished manuscripts, incarceration records, overlooked notes in attics—that almost certainly exonerates him from the Utah murder. As for the brutal slaying of the shopkeeper, evidence points to a shadowy figure named Magnus Olson, who went by at least 20 different aliases, served time in nine different states, and bore a striking resemblance to Hill.
And it somehow feels appropriate, given the overwhelming passions that swirled around the trial, that living relatives of the murdered shopkeeper aren’t ready to accept the new evidence of his innocence. “Joe Hill was the one who murdered our grandfather and destroyed the economy of our family,” the shopkeeper’s grandson recently told the New York Times. The case of Joe Hill was never really about Joe Hill, after all, but a referendum on a radical group of anarcho-syndicalists who called themselves the Wobblies—and for the general public, their innocence was never an option.
The Wobblies, as members of the IWW were called, have a special place in the hearts of many leftists. Theirs was a labor movement that was actually a movement, made up of people with little to lose but their lives, which they sometimes did. They sang, they marched, they picketed, and they sang some more. “These people do not belong to any country, no flag, no laws, no Supreme Being,” complained San Diego’s chief of police:
I do not know what to do. I cannot punish them. Listen to them singing. They are singing all the time, and yelling and hollering, and telling the jailers to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals.
“Worse than animals” was one of the kinder things said about the Wobblies in San Diego, who were waging a free speech fight with authorities in 1912. (Though they were a labor organization, the IWW made a valuable contribution to the defense of the First Amendment by forcing cities—usually after much blood had been shed—to allow them to soapbox in public.) Here’s the San Diego Union-Tribune on the IWW, worth quoting at length as they make perhaps the bluntest call for class warfare in American history:
Hanging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.
What made the IWW particularly dangerous to bosses—whether of mines or newspapers—was that the ragtag army of miners, fruit tramps, and dockworkers didn’t just want better wages. Instead, they wanted it all: the abolition of the wage system and the creation of an economy run by organizations of workers. In contrast to the American Federation of Labor, the Wobblies embraced men and women of all ethnicities, and focused on the least skilled (of course, least skilled was often just a euphemism for least paid, as anyone who has tried to pick crops can attest). Their goal was industrial democracy, and as Adler writes, “Where you stood on the concept of industrial democracy depended upon whether you sat in a passenger coach or a boxcar.”
Out of these fights grew Joe Hill, the man and the legend. His whereabouts during the Wobblies’ high-profile campaigns in the West are generally unclear; usually, the most that can be determined is that he was likely to have participated; at the very least he was nearby and certainly much affected. Soon he was writing songs, many of which were included in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book” passed from worker to worker. Though few Wobblies could have identified Hill by sight, they came to know him through his songs, especially “The Preacher and the Slave,” which lampooned religion (and coined the term “pie in the sky”):
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
When Hill was arrested in 1915 for the murder of the Salt Lake City shopkeeper, Wobblies and other radicals rallied to his defense. The entire case against Hill was based on a gunshot wound he suffered on the same night of the murder, which Hill privately explained was a result of an argument with a friend over a woman. Yet Hill never took the stand in his defense, initially convinced that the case would be dropped for lack of evidence and believing, wrongly, that he would be granted the presumption of innocence. As the case against him gathered steam, enabled by hysterically inaccurate reporting and a scandalously biased judge, he remained silent—even when such silence seemed sure to send him to his early death.
This is when the story of Hill becomes especially interesting. As one Wobbly wrote, “This is hard on Joe Hill but it is excellent propaganda for the IWW.” Joe Hill knew his case was generating widespread coverage, and during his months in jail he eventually assumed a new identity, becoming less a man and more a martyr—a shift that ultimately would demand his death. He had become, as Adler writes, “the foremost symbol of collateral damage in the war between capital and labor…and the experience changed him profoundly. Joe Hill the metaphor was replacing Joe Hill the man.”
And thus Joe Hill the man died so that Joe Hill the metaphor might live. Since his death, he’s been sung about by Joan Baez and deeply influenced such artists as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He’s been cited countless times for his courage in facing his death stoically while advising fellow activists to keep up the good fight. And now, with Adler’s dogged research revealing that he was in all likelihood innocent, he can more legitimately claim the mantle of labor’s most important martyr. It’s hard to believe, looking at his enduring legacy, that he would have been displeased with his decision.