The name Joe Hill might be familiar to some of you through the eponymous song; but just who was he, and why was he killed?
At the turn of the 20th century, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also known as Joseph Hillström, was an emigrant from Sweden to the United States. A songwriter and labourer, he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and rose in the IWW, traveled widely, organized workers under the union’s banner, and wrote political songs and satirical poems, as well as speaking at rallies.
In January 1914, the migratory working life of Hill caught him in the wrong place at the wrong time: Tangled in a political murder investigation and a love triangle gone awry on the wrong night, Hill was essentially used as a scape-goat for expediency; what the locals in Salt Lake City took to be a homeless tramp and easy goat turned out to be a man with connections, and the trial became a major media event: Clemency was requested from such prominent people as President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and the Swedish ambassador. Despite numerous contradictions, and evidence to the contrary, Hill was executed by firing squad on 19 November 1915. His last will, eventually set to music by Ethel Raim of the Pennywhistlers, reads as follows:
My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”
My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow,
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,