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Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection: Joe Hill

Interpretive exhibit examining the historical and cultural context of the the Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection at the Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

His Story

Joe Hill, originally born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund and also known as Joseph Hillström in Gavle, Sweden, is celebrated as one of the most renowned figures within the IWW. A passionate organizer and leader for the labor movement, he seamlessly melded his fervent commitment to workers' rights with his profound love for music, ultimately earning a lasting legacy as one of the IWW's most distinguished songwriters. His debut composition, "Casey Jones - the Union Scab," marked the inception of a prolific career contributing to the iconic "Little Red Songbooks".

Hill's musical aptitude was evident from a young age, nurtured by the talents of both his parents. His preferred instrument, the violin, was a source of great joy, and his ability to play was largely driven by heart and passion. In 1902, Hill embarked on a journey to the United States, where he adopted the name Joseph Hillstrom, later becoming popularly known as "Joe Hill". In 1910, he took up the cause of the IWW and joined their ranks in San Pedro, California.

During his efforts to organize laborers in Salt Lake City, Utah, Hill found himself ensnared in controversy, ultimately facing conviction for the alleged murder of a grocer, John G. Morrison. The trial was marked by intense hostility towards Joe Hill and the IWW. Many fervent supporters of the IWW vociferously decried the trial as a grave miscarriage of justice. A lawyer, summarizing the case for Solidarity (May 23, 1914), poignantly noted, "The primary charge against Hill is that he is an I.W.W., and consequently presumed guilty."

Both Joe Hill and numerous supporters in the United States and abroad adamantly believed in his innocence and disavowed any involvement in the murder. Regrettably, the trial's verdict led to Hill's execution by the state of Utah in 1915, wherein he was struck down by a firing squad. His parting message to the world was a resounding call to action: "Don't waste any time mourning – ORGANIZE!"


Joe Hill

Portrait of the renowned Joe Hill, a member of the IWW, a poet, and a martyr. Musicians, such as Joan Baez, have performed songs in tribute to his memory. He is celebrated as an inspiration to activists beyond the IWW.

Tributes to Joe Hill

Ralph Chaplin's tribute to Joe Hill, printed in an IWW Songbook. Other tributes include the "Ballad of Joe Hill" also titled "I Swear I Saw Joe Hill Last Night"



Here are some resources related to Joe Hill:

  1. The Letters of Joe Hill
    Joe Hill's letters compiled into one source. An excellent primary source for Joe Hill concerning his trial and correspondence with other IWW members, including the editor of "Solidarity."

  2. The Case of Joe Hill
    Written by Philip Sheldon Foner about Joe Hill's trial. Same author who compiled the "Letters of Joe Hill."

  3. Don't Mourn—Organize!: Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill
    This CD compiles some of the IWW songs written by Joe Hill with the help of other musicians. You will find songs, poems, and speeches by or about the labor organizer Joe Hill.

  4. The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon
    Abstract: Drawing on extensive new evidence, the author deconstructs the case against his subject and argues convincingly for the guilt of another man. This book does justice to Joe Hill's extraordinary life and its controversial end. (Secondary Source)

  5. The Legend of Joe Hill
    An article on Joe Hill and the way he has become a legend in labor history, even an influential character in American labor culture.

  6. 'Joe Hill Ain't Never Died': Wallace Stegner's Act of Literary Imagination
    A critique of a novel written on Joe Hill that claimed to be historical when it was actually more fictional. It's interesting to see how Joe Hill has inspired fictional works that tried to historicize some legends about him.

  7. Joe Hill: A Labour Legend in Song
    An excellent article on Joe Hill as a significant and sometimes folkloric figure in labor music. The article also includes the song "Joe Hill," with musical notation included.