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PETER FROST revisits the legendary labour movement hero exactly 100 years after he was murdered

It must be one of the best known and most inspiring anthems of the international labour movement. We all know “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,” it is still sung whenever and wherever workers are involved in struggle.

The subject of the song was shot on a trumped up murder charge exactly a hundred years ago today precisely to stop him becoming an inspiration to working people. It was a cruel plot, but it failed.

The copper industry bosses in Utah like so many employers in the US were both vicious and vindictive and were terrified of Joe Hill and the ideas he represented.

They took two years to convict him and then, on November 19 1915, their private firing squad cut him down. They and their political thugs, private police forces, strike-breakers and scabs are long forgotten but Joe Hill’s name still echoes around the globe.

Joe would have loved the fact that he is best remembered in song, because as well as being a great organiser and a shrewd communist politician Joe was first and foremost a balladeer for the working class.

His most famous songs include The Preacher and the Slave, The Tramp, There is Power in a Union and Casey Jones — the Union Scab and a hundred more. Some are still being sung today.

His last song, The Rebel Girl, celebrated his comrade and friend, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (below), hero of the Bread and Roses strike and long-time chair of the Communist Party USA. It was first sung at Joe Hill’s funeral.

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So who was Joe Hill? He was born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in Sweden, in 1879. In 1902, when 23, he and his brother Paul sailed to the US in search of work.

Joe learnt English and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) better known as the Wobblies. This new militant union had been founded in 1905 for previously unorganised groups of workers. Its aim was to build one big union.

Joe started to earn his reputation as an IWW stalwart and travelled all over, organising workers under the IWW banner. He wrote and sang his own political songs, penned satirical poems and great cartoons as well making inspiring speeches.

His songs frequently borrowed familiar melodies from popular songs and hymns. He coined the phrase pie-in-the-sky, which appeared in his song The Preacher and the Slave, a parody of the hymn In the Sweet By-and-By.

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As his fame spread, to avoid blacklisting, he changed his name, first to Joseph Hillstrom and then to Joe Hill.

By 1911, Joe was in Tijuana, Mexico, along with several hundred hoboes and radicals to help Mexicans trying to overthrow the dictator Porfirio Diaz. ??In 1912 he was in San Diego with Wobblies, socialists, Suffragettes and trade unionists to protest against the police banning all street meetings.

In British Columbia he helped organise a railroad construction crew strike. In San Pedro he lent his support to a strike of Italian dockworkers. This led to Hill’s first imprisonment — 30 days for vagrancy.

Hill became a legend, not just to his political comrades but also to the vicious bosses of mills, factories and mines — and that was dangerous.

The copper bosses in Utah hatched their plans to teach a lesson to this uppity communist.

Early in 1914 a Salt Lake City former policeman and his son were shot and killed by two men. The men, faces covered by red bandanas, couldn’t be identified.

That same evening, Joe Hill arrived at a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound, he said he got the wound in a fight over a woman but would say no more.

Later research suggests that he and another Swede, Otto Appelquist, were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson. Appelquist had shot Hill, apparently out of jealousy.

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A red bandana was found in Hill’s room. The local police, in the pay of local mine owners realised this was a chance to good to miss. They arrested Joe.

The prosecution dug up a dozen eyewitnesses who said that the killer resembled Hill. One was 13-year-old Merlin Morrison, the victims’ son. On first seeing Hill Morrison told police “That’s not him at all,” but after a little coaching he positively identified Hill as the murderer.

The carefully selected jury took just a few hours to find Joe Hill guilty of murder.

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An appeal failed. Hill’s lawyer Orrin N Hilton, summed it up: “The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was a socialist, a communist and a member of The Wobblies therefore sure to be guilty.”

In an article for a radical  socialist newspaper Hill gave his own opinion. He wrote: “There had to be a scapegoat and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live.”

A huge campaign demanded Joe’s freedom but in vain. Joe Hill was executed by firing squad just a century ago.

Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood (below), another IWW and communist leader, who himself would later be victim to another trumped-up murder charge.

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Hill’s letter said “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organise… Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”

Supporters took Hill’s body to Chicago where it was cremated. His ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and sent, all around the world, to IWW Wobbly branches and supporters.

In line with Joe’s last request many of the ashes were cast to the wind all over the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Nicaragua.

More ashes were distributed on the first anniversary of Joe’s death to IWW convention delegates in Chicago.

The small envelopes carried a portrait of Joe himself and the legend “Joe Hill, murdered by the Capitalist Class.”

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So feared was the establishment that some envelopes, and ashes, were seized by the US Post Office because of their subversive potential.

It took more than 70 years and some heavy negotiations to get these ashes released. In 1988 they were finally turned over to the IWW.

Suggestions on what should happen to them included enshrining them at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. A more off-beat suggestion was that they be eaten by today’s Joe Hills, protest singers like Billy Bragg.

Billy Bragg (below) has confirmed to me that he had indeed swallowed a small pinch of Joe’s ashes with some Union beer to wash it down.

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Joe’s ashes were also scattered at a 1989 ceremony which unveiled a monument on the previously unmarked grave of six unarmed IWW coal miners, in Lafayette, Colorado. They had been machine-gunned by Colorado state police in 1927 more than 60 years before.

As the Ballad says: “Where working men defend their rights?It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 19 November 2015.

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