Dreamed We Saw Joe Hill Last Night

On November 19, 1915, the state of Utah executed Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. But he was a Wobbly and dispensable to society, especially in Utah, a starkly conservative western state outraged by the sheer existence of these radicals. The common attitude of law enforcement during these years was that if a radical didn't do the crime, they'd probably commit a crime later so let's not bother too much with finding guilt or innocence. This unjust execution inspired global outrage and continues to remind us of the injustice radicals face today.

In 1914, a grocer named John Morrison was shot and killed in a Salt Lake robbery. The same night, Joe Hill went to the hospital with a gunshot wound. He refused to explain anything about why he was shot. Figuring they could easily dispose of both cases, the police pinned Morrison's death on Hill and charged him with murder. It now seems that Hill was shot by a rival for a woman named Hilda Erickson, who was a member of the family that rented Hill a room. Erickson confirmed her relationship with both men in a letter discovered only about 15 years ago. Out of respecting her honor, he refused to reveal anything about his injuries, even at the point of death.

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden. He immigrated to the United States in 1902 at the age of 23. This was a common destiny for many young Scandinavian men during these years, a time when they faced very real poverty at home and the US provided economic opportunity. Hill went to the West Coast. He worked a number of different jobs, mostly itinerant labor positions. This was a fertile recruiting ground for the IWW. Founded in 1905, the Wobblies saw their greatest organizing successes among the rootless working classes of the West who drifted between the fields, forests, and mines of the far-flung region, riding rail cars in deplorable conditions, facing all sorts of police harassment and other forms of oppression, and despised by much of polite society. Yet the mainstream American labor movement, personified by the American Federation of Labor, showed little interest in organizing these workers, preferring to concentrate on the respectable skilled labor positions that it defined as the core of the American workforce. This created an organizing vacuum that the IWW filled.

Like most committed Wobblies in the West, Hill drifted from job to job. We first know he was a member of the IWW when he wrote a letter to the Industrial Worker in 1910, identifying himself as working in Portland. By 1912, Hill was in San Diego where he participated in that city's free speech fight. He flirted with the idea of going to Mexico to fight in the Mexican Revolution, but never did. He bemoaned the introduction of voting machines in California as a hopelessly bourgeois reform that would never change anything. In 1913, he moved to Utah, where he worked in copper mining and construction, agitating for revolution among his fellow workers and probably participating in two IWW strikes in Salt Lake that year. During these years, he composed many of the songs that became part of the IWW songbooks used to build solidarity among members and against the horrible conditions they faced in their lives.

By the time Hill was arrested in 1914, the Western forces of order saw the IWW as Enemy Number 1. Because they organized the region's most despised workers with no apologies and no compromise, the forces of order – police, courts, politicians, newspapers, and business operators – saw them as scum to be eradicated. The sheer fact that Joe Hill was a Wobbly was enough to charge him with murder.

The Wobblies were excellent propagandists. Due to their organizing with a flair for public attention and because those stories still appeal to people interested in labor, we remember certain highlights – Lawrence, Paterson, Joe Hill. But in my research in IWW newspapers, what I've seen is very little coverage of many of those events at the time. Lawrence was a small-fry thing in Wobbly news organs until the cops started beating the mothers of young children trying to escape the strike.

Similarly, although we remember Joe Hill as the ultimate Wobbly today, it took a while for the story of his arrest and trial to get the organization's attention. There was little interest in his plight during the trial. The local press trumped up the charges, the trial was a farce in which Hill lacked legal counsel, police never found a gun. None of this mattered. Hill was convicted on June 26, 1914, and given the death penalty on July 8.

It was only at this point that Hill's case came to the attention of the IWW propagandists. But when they got their teeth into something, they did not let go. Very quickly the case became a national and international phenomenon. Not only did he become the latest class martyr for the IWW, but progressives and reformers saw his trial as a farce of justice. The Swedish ambassador got involved in the case and asked President Woodrow Wilson to intercede. Wilson appealed to Utah Governor William Spry for clemency. Spry was not as rock-ribbed conservative as one might assume. Although a Mormon, he was a strong opponent of prohibition. But he would do nothing for Hill.

Hill was a true revolutionary though. He thought most "reform" efforts ridiculous distractions from the real task at hand. Hill saw himself of more value to the revolution as a dead martyr than a living organizer. Like John Brown before him, Hill played this role until the end. He wrote, with some false modesty, to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn bemoaning the amount of resources spent on someone as insignificant as himself. And then there's his famous last telegram, sent to Big Bill Haywood, reading, "Good-bye Bill. I will die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

He even wrote his last will to be sung:

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 a 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,
Joe Hill

In some ways, Hill was right. He was more valuable as a martyr. Hill became the embodiment of IWW martyrdom; hardly the only Wobbly to give up his life to state violence, Hill's self-image of martyrdom made him the person other Wobblies looked to for a model of strength and virtue, even as some pointed out his trial did not result from any workplace action. He also became the most famous Wobbly in public memory, perhaps even more than Big Bill Haywood. Had he lived, no one would know who he was. He was just another miner, another working-class person of the early 20th century American West who saw no hope in capitalism and longed for a more just system.


It's important to not only remember the legends of American labor history, but also to remember them in a non-romantic way. We can understand the state repression of anyone accused of radicalism without turning people into heroes. Hill certainly played his string out to the end, but his actions were not necessarily in service of the class struggle. But that's OK! He was a person like the rest of us. He probably liked sex and he wanted to respect the woman he fought over. What's important here is the willingness of the state to kill anyone seen as a threat to the social order, no matter if they were really just fighting for justice and dignity. If Hill is a hero, it's because he understood what was going to happen to him and wanted to go out the right way, creating that myth that could inspire others. Good for him for doing so and good for us.


Wallace Stegner, Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel

William M. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill

Phillip S. Foner, The Case of Joe Hill

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When The Legionnaires Celebrated Armistice Day By Lynching The Lumberjack Wobblies

On November 11, 1919, the people of Centralia, Washington, a small lumber town in the southwestern part of the state, celebrated the first anniversary of Armistice Day with a parade. However, town leaders and the local American Legion post decided to turn the parade into an attack upon Centralia's Industrial Workers of the World union hall, which they considered the center of subversion and sedition in their community. When the Legion reached the hall, they broke in and began tearing the place apart. What they did not expect was that the radical loggers had prepared an ambush. The IWW had stationed at least two shooters on a hill approximately a quarter of a mile away. In addition, some of the workers in the hall had weapons. In the hail of bullets, four American Legion members died. Warren Grimm, a University of Washington graduate and lawyer, had not only fought in World War I, but had also served in the military's anti-Bolshevik force in Siberia before returning to his home town of Centralia. Arthur McElfresh had spent 18 months in the army in France. The third dead Legionnaire was Ben Casagranda, a Greek-American who went to war for his new nation. The fourth was another University of Washington graduate and member of the Centralia elite, Dale Hubbard.

Infuriated, the Legionnaires chased a man they thought was Britt Smith, the local IWW secretary, but who in fact was Wesley Everest, an itinerant logger and IWW member. They beat him severely and threw him into a prison cell with other Wobblies they had rounded up. That evening, still incensed, local men took Everest from his jail cell and hanged him from a bridge on the Chehalis River. Later IWW propaganda would claim they castrated Everest, but this is almost certainly mythmaking and not true, as no early documents, including from the IWW, mention it. Trials quickly ensued for a dozen other IWW members. A jury found eight guilty of second-degree murder, and they received sentences ranging from 25 to 40 years at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. The IWW claimed that the timber industry, the American Legion, and local authorities had railroaded the eight men into prison; and their cause served as a rallying cry for an increasingly marginalized IWW over the next 20 years.

Violence in this little lumber town took place as forces of order battled against radicalized loggers over control of the timber industry. Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, timber companies treated their workers like animals. Working and living conditions in the timber camps were truly horrific. Loggers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse's one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces when they sat down to eat, etc. They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a cabal of timber operators and employment agencies who would force men to pay for jobs that disappeared when they arrived. These men also lived in all-male spaces, completely isolated from women in their remote camps. Thus, when men could get to town, the first thing many headed for was to purchase the services of a prostitute. They could not live with dignity either in the camps or when they returned to society. In desperation, and with the American Federation of Labor showing almost no interest in organizing these workers, they turned to the IWW.

Maybe I'm not being explicit enough. Let me clarify. In 1916, Red Cross doctor W.H. Lipscomb took a tour of Northwestern timber camps. He was outraged by all I mentioned in the previous paragraph. He mentioned one camp. It had bunkhouses that held approximately 80 men. Those 80 men had one sink in the bunkhouse. The company provided one towel for those 80 men. A new man came into camp. He was infected with gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe places he shouldn't. The bunkhouse witnessed an epidemic of gonorrhea among the men. In their eyes.

So you can see why workers would join a radical organization like the IWW. But the Wobblies were hated by the timber industry and local authorities. A year before, in 1918, Centralia residents had destroyed the local IWW hall. They figured they could do so again. Little did they know that the union would set up shooters on the hills surrounding the town and arm some of the men inside.

The IWW was on the decline even before Centralia. The logging strike of 1917 had forced the government's hand to intervene in the timber industry because it needed spruce and fir to build airplanes for World War I. The government sent in the military. Rather than operate strictly as strikebreakers, the military chose to mediate the situation. It forced timber operators to improve the camp conditions and give the military rights to inspect them. No improvements = no soldiers to log and no government contracts. In return, it created a paramilitary loggers' organization and forced loggers to join it and renounce the IWW in order to work. Most did, particularly since the government was providing them the safe working and living environments the loggers were fighting for. Some refused of course, including the men still fighting to organize loggers in Centralia.

The Centralia Massacre was not the final blow for the IWW in the United States, but it was close. The official repression of the Red Scare combined with organized violence against the union to make it all but irrelevant. It did retain a small presence in the Northwestern woods through the 1920s and even into the late '30s, though the successful unionization of loggers in the CIO and AFL after 1935 made the organization pointless. Still, loggers in 1919 and 1939 showed a great deal of respect for all the IWW had done for them.

Mentioning the Centralia Massacre quickly became totally unacceptable in the community. Literally none of the participants on the Legion side ever told their story. They all took it to the grave with them. At some point, I think sometime in the '80s, Centralia residents commissioned a bunch of murals for their town representing their history. There are lots of scenes of white people settling the land, but nothing on the massacre. The labor hall in town put up its own mural, though it is kind of hard to see from the road because it is on the second floor. You have to know where to look.


The labor violence that was at the heart of the early 20th century, especially against radicals, is critically important to us today because of the increased war on workers. The fury of the capitalist class against workers for standing up for themselves, combined with the growing violence of the far Right in American politics, has created a world in which violence against organizing workers could easily become part of the landscape again. Just the other day, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao — also the wife of Moscow Mitch McConnell — went on TV to tell workers it was their "patriotic duty" to take low-paying jobs. Ha! I don't think so Elaine! But you combine that with the corporate support for Trump's coup attempt and you have the potential for a renewal of the old violent days of labor.


Erik Loomis, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests

Tom Copeland, The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies

John McClelland, Jr. Wobbly War: The Centralia Story

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