Nonfiction Review: “The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon” by William M. AdlerBiography, Book Reviews, Nonfiction Add comments
By Hugh Iglarsh
How does one write a biography of a figure like radical minstrel Joe Hill? By all rights, he should have been an invisible man, and in some ways was just that. Born into the lower reaches of the working class, Hill was another drop in the torrent of emigration from old world to new in the early years of the last century, drawn by economic osmosis to the thinly peopled rawness of the American West. There he became a human tumbleweed, bounced and jostled from place to place and job to job, until the hobo jungle and flophouse became his only home, his fellow laborers his only family.
Long stretches of Joe Hill’s short life are lost even to the most dogged of researchers. As biographer William Adler (author of the previous labor-themed books “Land of Opportunity” and “Mollie’s Job”) says of Hill’s early years in America, after his arrival in New York from Sweden in 1902, “the images are fleeting and blurry… . He was a moving target, and in that regard he was like hundreds of thousands of unskilled immigrants. His was an itinerant, uncertain life, the only constant the hunt for another job, a meal, a toehold in industrializing America.”
But somewhere along the line, amid what seemed the least propitious circumstances imaginable, Joe Hill managed to discover his creative purpose, and forge a new and solid identity for himself. Phrased thus, his story has a Horatio Alger ring to it. But because the identity he wrought was that of a Wobbly, a member of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, and the tale’s ending not an uplifting one, Joe Hill has never received his due. As the progenitor of the modern protest song, he remains a patron saint of the folkies, with spiritual descendants ranging from Woody Guthrie to Phil Ochs to Utah Phillips to the headline balladeers of today, such as David Rovics. But outside this circle, Hill figures dimly in the collective memory, situated in the misty border country between myth and history, remembered if at all as the subject of the 1930s ballad that begins, “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.”
In his subtitle, Adler refers to Hill as an “American labor icon,” suggesting that his goal may be to burnish Hill’s legend as rebel, songsmith and martyr, rather than dig beneath it. But it’s no simple matter to disentangle the image of Joe Hill from the reality of Joseph Hillstrom, his initial Ellis Island name, or Joel Hägglund, his true birth name. The moment of his execution by firing squad in Salt Lake City on November 19, 1915, following a dubious trial, so colors his memory that his earlier life seems a trajectory toward that moment of transfiguration, when the writer of revolutionary songs became the songs’ subject. Like the Haymarket martyrs, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs and too many others, Joe Hill became the embodiment of justice denied in the land of the free, of dissidence silenced by a combination of partisan judges and paranoid newspapers.
What made Joe Hill dangerous were his best qualities–his commitment, his iron will, his wit and inventiveness as the composer of such classic labor tunes as “The Preacher and the Slave” (in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky”), “Casey Jones–the Union Scab,” “Rebel Girl” and “Mr. Block.” It was Joe Hill–begetter of much of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook–who did more than anyone else to make the IWW a singing union. A contemporary writer says of the IWW-led 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts: “It was the spirit of the workers that seemed dangerous. They were confident, gay, released, and they sang. They were always marching and singing. The gray tired crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing, the different nationalities all speaking one language when they sang together.” Another writer commented on the successful strike, which represented the IWW’s high-water mark, “This movement in Lawrence was strongly a singing movement. … There was in it a peculiar, intense, vital spirit, a religious spirit if you will—that I never felt before in any strike.”
What the turn-of-the-last-century IWW had in spades, as epitomized by Hill’s tuneful satirical jabs, was a joyful, boisterous, sassily confrontational attitude, in contrast to today’s largely bureaucratized, compromised and dispirited labor movement. The IWW struggles related in Adler’s book–from the Bread and Roses strike to the Fresno, Spokane and San Diego free speech fights to the Canadian Northern organizing drive–seem today almost as distant and foreign as the battles of the Trojan War. (Although there were moments of Wobbly passion during the recent standoff in Wisconsin, until the rebellious impulse was channeled into electoral recall campaigns rather than the preferred IWW tactic of One Big Strike.)
How in our complacent age can we explain the phenomenon of the IWW free speech campaigns, where armies of migrant workers–described by professional strikebreaker Allan Pinkerton as “worthless things to be dreaded, shunned, driven and despised”–swarmed into western cities filled with club-wielding cops and gun-toting vigilantes, in order to protect their right to agitate on street corners and organize fellow laborers? A West Coast reporter wrote wonderingly of the “thousands of men whose business is to work with their hands, tramping and stealing rides, suffering hardships and facing dangers—to get into jail. And to get into that one particular jail in a town of which they had never heard before, in which they had no direct interest.” Penned up like livestock, the captive Wobblies would sing deafeningly and unceasingly until their release, and when not singing would carve into prison walls the words of the IWW preamble: “It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.”
There has never been anything like the early IWW, and Joe Hillstrom–with English as his second language–was its voice and bard, his tunes and words helping transform the mixed multitude of working stiffs and bindle bums scattered throughout the mining and lumber and railroad camps of the West into a body, a class, a force. Skillfully merging humor and anger, his songs aspired to edify the unlettered, cheer up the demoralized, unify the atomized and rehumanize the alienated.
These are in a sense spiritual ambitions, which came naturally to a man raised in a society dominated by the Lutheran state church of Sweden–the church that stigmatized his mother as oäkta (illegitimate) in the birth register and his grandmother as a slampa, or slut. It was the same church whose charitable arm begrudged the Hägglunds assistance after Joel’s railroad engineer father died following an accident, bringing crushing poverty that contributed to his mother’s early death and the breakup of the family.
Joe Hill would reject but never escape his religious upbringing, borrowing his tunes from popular hymns and reworking their messages of heavenly redemption into calls for the here-and-now liberation of the masses, after they are organized into One Big Union. His most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a frontal attack on the Salvation Army—what Hill called the Starvation Army for its habit of sermonizing to the hungry before feeding them—and the IWW became a singing movement in part to defend its street presence against the Army’s brass-band-led attempts to drown out the radicals’ ungodly soapbox rhetoric.
Perhaps it was Joe Hill’s religious background that contributed to the great mystery of his life: Why he refused to testify on his own behalf and provide the alibi that could have saved his life. Even after his conviction, which occurred despite a paucity of hard evidence and no suggestion of a motive, the Utah Board of Pardons offered him his freedom if he would prove his innocence to them. But the proud and perhaps naïve Hill wanted a new trial and an acquittal by his peers, not a show of clemency by his betters. His own lawyer commented: “It seems that he wants to be considered a martyr”—a sacrificial offering for his cause, a willing and anointed casualty of the class war.
The Joe Hill story is one of crime and punishment—but the real crime was that of official conspiracy against a growing socialist presence. The execution of Joe Hill, as with all lynchings, had less to do with what he had supposedly done than what he represented. Vilified during his trial by reporters and prosecutors as the personification of violent anarchy, he died a symbol of courage and resistance, his Chicago funeral attended by a multi-ethnic crowd of workers (characterized by the New York Times as “bums and hoboes generally, of whom less than ten percent were American”) estimated at 30,000. The elaborate sendoff would have discomfited the legendarily modest Hill, whose famous last telegram to IWW headquarters said simply, “I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning—organize.”
Adler’s book covers much ground already plowed by others, including Franklin Rosemont’s “Joe Hill,” published by Chicago’s Kerr Publishing. But he tells the story with rare intelligence and verve, and fills out the existing picture with details about Hill’s early life in Sweden and the forgotten story of his six weeks south of the border in Baja California, as part of an unlikely Wobbly army fighting for “land and liberty” together with a radical faction in the Mexican revolution.
Joe Hill’s trial has long been recognized as a travesty; however, Adler goes beyond earlier authors by not only persuasively arguing Hill’s actual innocence, but also naming the likely perpetrator of the brutal and seemingly random slaying of John and Arling Morrison. The murders of the Salt Lake City grocer and his young son were pinned on Hill, who had the bad luck to have been shot and wounded the same night—the only real “evidence” adduced against him. Adler’s prize find is a letter about what happened that evening, written decades after the trial by the mysterious Hilda Erickson. She was the cause of Hill’s quarrel with his friend Otto Appelquist, who, according to the letter, shot Hill in a jealous rage over Hilda’s affections and then disappeared. Joe Hill’s silence in regard to Hilda protected her privacy and reputation; her silence about him in the face of a death sentence is more difficult to explain or justify. While Hill stubbornly refused to divulge his whereabouts that night, the first and more plausible suspect in the murder—a psychopathic lifelong criminal with at least sixteen aliases who ended up as a gunman for Al Capone—was allowed to walk. He had a bloody handkerchief in his pocket, indicating a possible bullet wound. But this was trumped by the red IWW card found in Hill’s pocket, which for the Utah elite was the only evidence that mattered.
Hilda Erickson’s letter, a testament to Adler’s persistence and research skills, is strong exculpatory evidence for Hill. But letter or no, the fact is no real case was ever made against Joe Hill. The district attorney, as Adler notes, concluded with “a raw appeal to jurors’ prejudices and fears,” stoked by mendacious newspaper stories about Hill’s illusory criminal past. The judge played his part in the charade by packing the jury, continuously siding with the prosecutor (his fraternal lodge brother) and misdirecting the jury about how it should weigh circumstantial evidence. As we near the centennial of Joe Hill’s judicial homicide, the time is long overdue for the state of Utah to overturn the conviction and set the record straight about Joe Hill’s raw deal, part of a high-level campaign to discredit and break the IWW. One hopes Adler’s fine book will get the ball rolling for a campaign to redeem not only Joe Hill’s name, but also the state’s wounded legitimacy.
I suspect that Joe Hill himself will always be an enigma. There is no “Rosebud” in Adler’s book, no key to explain his puzzling decision not to defend himself against his persecutors. As with the handful of photographs of Hill reproduced in the book, his deeper personality and motives seem just out of focus, impossible to read. There is something of Billy Budd in the Joe Hill saga, a suggestion of radical innocence a bit too pure for the world in which he found himself. Such innocence—at once splendid, tragic, maddening—acts as a reality check on the systems and institutions that govern in the name of civilized order and public safety. The fate of Joe Hill raises profound and insistent questions about law and justice and authority and national security, which resonate today at least as much as they did a century ago. In this sense, Joe Hill remains very much the man who never died.
“The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon”
By William M. Adler
Bloomsbury, 448 pages, $30