I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me
Said I "but Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," said he....
In many respects, these words are true: Joe Hill, laborer, union organizer and songwriter, never died. Nevertheless, it was not ten, but rather 90 years ago today that a Utah firing squad ended Hill's mortal journey and set his spirit free. He had been convicted of the murder of a grocer who'd been killed the same night that Hill was shot by a man who thought Hill had insulted his wife. Without a motive, weapon, positive eyewitnesses, or evidence tying Hill to the scene of the murder, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. Despite appeals from President Woodrow Wilson, AFL President Samuel Gompers, and the Swedish minister to the United States, the Utah Supreme Court refused to overturn the sentence.
Observing his last wish that he not be left in Utah, his body was taken to Chicago where, after a large funeral it was cremated. His ashes were then placed in envelopes and sent to every state in the Union (except for Utah) as well as countries around the world where they were scattered.
Just as his ashes encompassed the world, the song about him (thanks in large part to Joan Baez) has spread and inspired millions over the years, in concert halls, at festivals, marches, rallies, and most recently at demonstrations in Crawford and Washington DC.
Given his instructions against mourning, I don't know that he'd want any kind of commemoration at this time, so here is a poem that he wrote on the night before his execution. Rather than in dedication to his life, it is offered more in testament to the many -- a list that now includes Casey Sheehan -- whose deaths, while senseless and unnecessary, serve to remind us that the the forces of repression can only extinguish life, but not the spirit's ability to motivate and inspire.
Joe Hill's Last Will
My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kind don't need to fuss and moan --
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? Ah, 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.