Hill, Joe (1879–1915)

Joe Hill is an American legend to the thousands of individuals who continue to believe in him and the cause for which he fought. For members of the labor and civil rights movement, union organizers and activists, and socialists and leftists, he is a mythic hero. John Pietaro, writing for the magazine Political Affairs, sees Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, commonly known as Joe Hill, as the guiding light behind the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), standing as a beacon of revolutionary arts for the entire labor movement.

Joel Emmanuel Hagglund was born in Gavle, Sweden, on October 7, 1879. He was the youngest of Olof Hagglund and his wife Margareta's eight children. Olof died soon after Joel's eighth birthday. Two of his siblings had died earlier from childhood illnesses. After his father's death, Joel Hagglund and his five brothers and sisters went to work to support the family. His first job was in a rope factory; when he was older he shoveled coal on a steam engine for a construction company. When Hagglund was 12 he contracted a form of tuberculosis and underwent massive doses of radiation from x rays, followed by painful operations that left his neck and nose scarred.

In January 1902, Hagglund's mother died. In October of the same year Hagglund and his brother Paul booked passage to New York City. On arrival at Ellis Island they were virtually penniless and desperate to find jobs. They had high hopes because of the stories they had heard about the United States being the land of wealth. Yet the only job that Hagglund could find was cleaning spittoons for pennies a day.

Unable to make a living, the Hagglund brothers decided to leave New York City. What happened to Joel Hagglund for the next eight years is sketchy, but investigative

Joe Hill (aka Hillstrom), labor activist and Wobbly songwriter (1879–1915).

Joe Hill (aka Hillstrom), labor activist and Wobbly songwriter (1879–1915). (Library of Congress)

authors at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and KUED Channel 7 at the University of Utah, as well as scholars at the Joe Hill Project, have tried to fill in the gaps of his life story.

Between 1906 and 1910, Joel Emmanuel Hagglund changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom while laboring in the fields picking fruit and on the docks. Friends in the labor movement maintain that he was forced to live underground by powerful companies because of his ceaseless advocacy of workers’ rights. A less favorable point of view maintains that he turned to petty crime to support himself. As a result, he was a shadowy figure during this time.

In 1910, while working on the docks in San Pedro, California, Joseph Hillstrom came into contact with members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, pejoratively known as “Wobblies,” was a radical union founded in Chicago, Illinois, in June 1905. In late 1910, he wrote a letter to the IWW newspaper, Industrial Worker, stating that he had become a member of the union; then he denounced the police for their hostility toward the Wobblies and to workers generally. This letter is distinctive because he signed his name as “Joe Hill,” the first documented use of this name. Joe Hill became a singer-songwriter, supporting the IWW's efforts to become “One Big Union” by writing songs that were meant to inspire confidence and a sense of solidarity among workers. His songs both celebrated the virtues of labor and denounced large corporations and the “bosses” who exploited working men and women for profit. In “Workers of the World, Awaken,” he reminded working men and women that “If the workers take a notion/They can stop all speeding trains/Every ship upon the ocean/They can tie with mighty chains” (IWW). By 1923, when the IWW published its Little Red Songbook, Hillstrom was listed simply as Joe Hill.

His work on behalf of labor and with the IWW brought him trouble. In 1911, Hill was reportedly beaten by police in Fresno, California. He spent 30 days in jail on a charge of vagrancy. He claimed that this was nothing more than a trumped-up attempt by power interests to silence him during a longshoreman's strike. The police, on the other hand, claimed that Hill was a prime suspect in the armed robbery of a streetcar, but he was not prosecuted for lack of evidence.

Hill then reportedly left California for Chicago in 1913, making a fateful stop in Utah. While the actual events are undocumented, the IWW claims that on January 10, 1914, two men entered a grocery store owned by former police officer John Morrison. One of the masked assailants killed Morrison and his oldest son, Arling, who was thought to have wounded one of the men before dying. Soon after, Hill reportedly arrived at the home of Dr. Fred McHugh. McHugh witnessed a gun that Hill later dumped during a car trip with a friend of the doctor. Hill gave no explanations for the gun, and McHugh notified the police in the morning. Police shot Hill while trying to arrest him, wounding him in the hand.

Joe Hill was held without bail. The prosecutor argued that the crime had been a robbery gone wrong despite witness testimony that it was an act of revenge. Hill was informed that the state would seek the death penalty. Without money or a government-provided public defender, Hill represented himself. Later he accepted the help of two Salt Lake City attorneys. Halfway through the trial Hill fired both men, claiming they had joined in a conspiracy to convict him of a crime he did not commit. Hill was nevertheless convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Because of his work in the labor movement and his apparent martyrdom to the cause, Joe Hill has been featured in songs by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Paul Robeson, testifying to Hill's undying influence as a champion of the downtrodden. This sense of immortality resonates in a biography by William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon (2011). To demonstrate the power his memory holds for many people, authors Stephen and Tabitha King named their son Joe Hill in honor of this fallen hero of the working man.

On November 15, 1915, Joseph Emmanuel Hagglund was executed by firing squad. Prior to his death sentence, Hill sent a telegram to “Big Bill” Haywood, president of the Industrial Workers of the World. According to Steven Greenhouse in “Examining a Labor Hero's Death,” the five-word message read: “Don't waste time mourning. Organize!” This became a rallying call for the IWW: “Don't Mourn! Organize!” For many years these were considered Joe Hill's last words. However, according to Tad Tuleja, writing for The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana, Hill's final words were the defiant “Let her Go! Fire!” (Tuleja 169 ).

John G. Hall

See also: Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ; Pop Music


Adler, William M. The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. New York, Bloomsbury, 2011.

AFL-CIO. “Joe Hill (1879–1915).” http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-People-in-Labor-History/Joe-Hill-1879-1915 . Accessed January 4, 2013.

Greenhouse, Steven. “Examining a Labor Hero's Death.” New York Times, August 26, 2011.

IWW. Little Red Songbook. http://www.angelfire.com/nj3/RonMBaseman/songbk.htm . Accessed January 4, 2013.

“Joe Hill: The Man Behind the Martyr.” PBS/KUED7, University of Utah. http://www.kued.org/productions/joehill . Accessed January 4, 2013.

“The Joe Hill Project.” http://www.joehill.org/index.html . Accessed January 4, 2013.

Mims, Robert. “Martyr of Murderer? Labor Marks Anniversary of Joe Hill's Execution.” Albany Times Union (Albany, NY), July 16, 1990.

Pietaro, John. “The Brief, Revolutionary Life of Joe Hill.” Political Affairs, November 3, 2009.

Stegner, Wallace. Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Tuleja, Tad. The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana. New York: Macmillan, 1994.