The man who never died

Joe Hill was one of the most important troubadours of the labor movement. A new book fills in many details of his rich life…

Volume 113, No. 5May, 2013

William M. Adler

Pdf download: “THE PREACHER AND THE SLAVE” sheet music

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

It was a funeral the likes of which Chicago had never seen. As early as dawn they began gathering, a great singing swarm of humanity, tens of thousands of the city’s dispossessed and disinherited. “The ghetto, the slums, the lodging house quarters and the manufacturing districts are buzzing with preparations,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that morning, adding that “hand-bills in a dozen different languages” had urged attendance at the rites. By ten o’clock, when the service began, five thousand celebrants, not just the poor but also intellectual “parlor radicals” and leftists of many stripes, including anarchists, unionists, Socialists, nihilists, and ordinary, nondenominational “wage slaves” – “‘bums’ and hoboes generally, of whom less than 10 percent were American,” the New York Times sniffed – were packed into every seat and wedged into every cranny along the back and side walls of the West Side Auditorium. It was Thursday, Nov. 25, 1915, an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving morning; already the temperature had climbed into the 50s, and the windows of the great second-floor hall were opened wide, and verse after verse, song after song, cascaded outside the block-long building:

Workers of the world, Awaken
Break your chains, Demand your rights.
All the wealth you make is taken
By exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission
From your cradles to your graves?
Is the height of your ambition
To be good and willing slaves?”

Outside the West Side Auditorium, at the intersection of Taylor and South Racine, a milling and singing throng – one writer called it a “mob” of 30,000 people and reported the streets jammed “from curb to curb for over a mile” and all traffic at a halt – echoed the verses resounding from the upstairs hall. As the song built to its final verse, the mighty street chorale swelled to a crescendo.

Workers of the world, awaken!
Rise in all your splendid might;
Take the wealth that you are making,
It belongs to you by right.
No one will for bread be crying,
We’ll have freedom, love and health.
When the grand red flag is flying
In the Workers’ Commonwealth.

The grand red flag belonged to their union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A union, yes, but it might better be described (in its own vernacular) as a loose confederation of workstiffs and bindlebums: hard-rock miners and muckers, timberbeasts, lint-heads, shovel stiffs and straw cats, fruit tramps, dock wallopers, pond monkeys, sewer hogs, and stump ranchers. They called themselves Wobblies, though no one is sure why. (The most oft-cited theory credits a Chinese cook in a railroad camp in the Pacific Northwest who mispronounced “I-W-W” as “Eye-Wobble-U, Wobble-U.”)

The IWW’s heyday lasted for only a brief, electrifying moment at the dawn of the 20th century: when industrial capitalism was new and raw and brutal, and when the union’s vision of a new worker-controlled order – an “industrial democracy” – seemed, if not on the verge of becoming reality, not preposterous either.

The idea of industrial democracy was as subversive as it was simple: “plain folk running society for their own benefit,” as one historian distilled it; “socialism with its working clothes on,” as William “Big Bill” D. Haywood, a founder of the IWW, liked to say. More explicitly, the program called for all workers to form industrial unions under the scarlet-and-black standard of the IWW, the “One Big Union.” Eventually the IWW would call a general strike. Capitalism would screech to a halt like traffic on the West Side of Chicago on that Thanksgiving morning. Industrial unions would take over the machinery of production in the United States, not for profit but for the public good. From there, the workers’ commonwealth would ripple across the oceans.

Where you stood on the concept of industrial democracy depended on whether you sat in a passenger coach or a boxcar. To its legion of critics who rode the rails in comfort, the IWW was a toxic brew of feckless ideology and reckless imagination. “America’s most damnable enemy” and “America’s cancer sore” were representative sentiments. And yet the Wobblies struck a deep, responsive chord among hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised and unskilled laborers, particularly in the raw, extractive industries of the West, where the economy was unstable, the jobs were transitory, and workers saw themselves regarded by employers as beasts of burden devoid of humanity.

The funeral service on that warm Thanksgiving day in Chicago was testimony to the power of song, a power the IWW had recognized right from its start. “We have been naught,” the delegates to the 1905 founding convention sang. “We shall be all.” Wobblies sang in jails, on picket lines, in fields, factories, and mines, in train yards and city streets and hobo jungles. The very act of mass singing seemed to embolden and inspire people of varied backgrounds – emigrants from different parts of the world, who spoke different languages, whose skins were of different color – to unite under the IWW flag for the common goal of social and economic justice. “They had never heard the song before,” the novelist B. Traven wrote of a group of strikers, “but with the instinct of the burdened they felt that this was their song, and that it was closely allied to their strike, the first strike of their experience, as a hymn is allied to religion. They didn’t know what the IWW was, what a labor organization meant, what class distinctions were. But the singing went straight to their hearts.”

A Swedish émigré named Joe Hill wrote their songs. Not all of them, of course, but it was he, says the historian Joyce L. Kornbluh, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement.” The songs were scathing critiques of capitalism – blunt, defiant, satirical, wry, cocky – and distinctly Hill. But Joe Hill, the IWW’s beloved troubadour of dissent, had written his last. Six days earlier, at the age of thirty- six, he had been silenced – executed by a Utah firing squad.

The stage on which Hill’s coffin rested was blanketed in scarlet and black and shrouded with floral offerings from IWW branches throughout the country and across the world. Accompanying the flowers were inscriptions in a variety of languages: Swedish, Hill’s native tongue; Russian; Hungarian; Polish; Italian; German; Yiddish; Lithuanian; and English. Hanging above the coffin was a huge red banner:

NOV. 19, 1915

Joe Hill had been shot for the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer 22 months earlier, in January of 1914, a crime of which he had been convicted on the wispiest of evidence. The victim was John G. Morrison, a 47-year-old former police officer and the father of six. (A son, Arling, 17, was killed alongside him. Hill was tried for the elder Morrison’s murder; an alleged accomplice was wanted for the boy’s killing.)

At trial the state of Utah introduced no motive, no murder weapon, no positive identification of Hill. Its case leaned entirely on circumstantial evidence, and primarily on the fact that Hill had received a gunshot wound on the night the Morrisons had been killed. The state tried to show that the younger Morrison, in the moment before he’d died, had fired the shot that had torn through Hill’s chest. But the prosecutor could not show conclusively that Morrison’s gun had been fired, let alone that Hill had been at the store.

Nor did he need to. For one thing, the trial judge could not have been more partial to the prosecution. For another, Hill did not help himself when he started a ruckus by firing his court- appointed lawyers in open court, and, most egregiously in the eyes of the local press and the appellate court, when he refused to testify. Whether out of naïveté or hubris, it was as if he could not fathom a conviction. As he later acknowledged, “I never thought I was going to be convicted on such ridiculous evidence.” But that was before the state checkmated him. As to proof of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor pointed to what was found in Hill’s pocket: his IWW red card.

This essay was excerpted with permission from “The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon,” by William M. Adler. See for more information.