Biography of U.S. Labor Leader Joe Hill Part 1

About the United States labor leader and songwriter Joe Hill, biography and history of the man.


JOE HILL (1879-1915). Labor leader and songwriter.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you and me.

Says I: "But Joe, you're 10 years dead."

"I never died," said he.

On Nov. 19, 1915, the state of Utah created a legend. It took a penniless migrant worker and turned him into one of the great martyrs of the American labor movement. It achieved this transformation by executing the itinerant songwriter-organizer Joe Hill for a murder he was widely believed not to have committed.

How Joe Hill came to be punished for this crime is one of the more curious stories in American legal history. It began in Sweden, where Joel Emmanuel Haagland was born in 1879. His father was a train conductor whose meager salary supported a wife and nine children. When Joel was eight years old, his father died as the result of a railroad accident and Joel went to work to help support the family, eventually becoming a seaman. After his mother's death in 1902 the family was separated, and Joel and his brother Paul sailed off to a new and better life in America.

An introverted, uneducated man, Haagland apparently had a gift for organizing workers, and he put that talent to use shortly after his arrival in the U.S. He was fired from a job in a Chicago machine shop for attempting to organize his fellow laborers. To escape the blacklist that resulted from the incident, he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom, which was shortened by his acquaintances to Joe Hill.

For the next few years Hill wandered around the country working at a wide range of jobs. In 1910 he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies) a radical organization that had as its goal the destruction of capitalism through a series of general strikes. Hill helped the Wobblies organize workers up and down the West Coast. But his main contribution to the IWW was the songs he wrote for the Little Red Song Book, the organization's most effective propaganda tool. Such songs as "Casey Jones--the Union Scab," "Mr. Block," and "The Preacher and the Slave" (which coined the phrase "pie in the sky") inspired workers throughout the country and helped contribute to the growth of Hill's legend.

In 1913 Hill's travels took him to Utah. He was not to leave the state alive because of a murder that occurred in Salt Lake City on Jan. 10, 1914. That particular Saturday night, two armed masked men entered the grocery store of John G. Morrison, who was closing up with his two teenage sons. According to the 13-year-old, the men rushed toward the grocer shouting, "We've got you now." One of the men then shot Morrison, after which his 17-year-old son grabbed a revolver and fired back. Although the younger boy wasn't sure, he thought that one of the assailants had been hit at this point. What he could say with certainty was that his brother's gunfire was returned and that both his father and brother were killed. The men fled without taking anything.

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