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
Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born 1879 in Gävle (then spelled Gefle), a city in the province of Gästrikland, Sweden. He was the third child in a family of nine, where three children died young. His father, Olof, worked as a Conductor on the Gefle-Dala railway line. Olof died at the age of 41, and his death meant economic disaster for the family. Joe's mother Margareta Catharina did, however, succeed in keeping the family together until she died in 1902.
In his late teens-early 20s, Joel fell seriously ill with skin and glandular tuberculosis, and underwent extensive treatment in Stockholm. In 1902, when about 23, he and his brother Paul emigrated to the United States. Hill became an itinerant laborer, moving from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually to the west coast. He was in San Francisco, California, at the time of the 1906 earthquake.
By this time using the name Joe or Joseph Hillstrom (possibly because of anti-union blacklisting), he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies around 1910, when working on the docks in San Pedro, California. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the IWW newspaper Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the IWW local chapter in Portland, Oregon.
As an itinerant worker, Hill moved around the west, hopping freight trains, going from job to job. By the end of 1913, he was working as a laborer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City.
On January 10, 1914, John G. Morrison and his son Arling were killed in their Salt Lake City grocery store by two armed intruders masked in red bandanas. The police first thought it was a crime of revenge, for nothing had been stolen and the elder Morrison had been a police officer, possibly creating many enemies. On the same evening, Joe Hill appeared on the doorstep of a local Doctor, with a bullet wound through the left lung. Hill said that he had been shot in an argument over a woman, whom he refused to name. The Doctor reported that Hill was armed with a pistol. Considering Morrison's past as a police officer, several men he had arrested were at first considered suspects; 12 people were arrested in the case before Hill was arrested and charged with the murder. A red bandana was found in Hill's room. The pistol purported to be in Hill's possession at the doctor's office was not found. Hill resolutely denied that he was involved in the robbery and killing of Morrison. He said that when he was shot, his hands were over his head, and the bullet hole in his coat — four inches below the exit wound in his back — seemed to support this claim. Hill did not testify at his trial, but his lawyers pointed out that four other people were treated for bullet wounds in Salt Lake City that same night, and that the lack of robbery and Hill's unfamiliarity with Morrison left him with no motive.
Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. When Deputy Shettler, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing ("Ready, aim,") Hill shouted, "Fire — go on and fire!"
Hill's body was sent to Chicago where it was cremated. His ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and according to Wobbly folklore, sent around the world and released to the winds on May Day 1916. However, it was not until the first anniversary of his death (November 19, 1916) that delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes. The rest of the 600 envelopes were sent to IWW locals, Wobblies and sympathizers around the world on January 3, 1917.
Hill's handwritten last will and testament was uncovered in the first decade of the 21st century by archivist Michael Nash of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives of New York University. Found in a box under a desk at the New York City headquarters of the Communist Party USA during a transfer of CPUSA archival materials to NYU, the document began with a couplet: "My will is easy to decide / For I have nothing to divide."
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill, Philip S. Foner published a book, The Case of Joe Hill, about the trial and subsequent events, which concludes that the case was a miscarriage of justice.
Additional archival materials were donated to the Walter P. Reuther Library by Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in 1976.
After some negotiations, the last of Hill's ashes (but not the envelope that contained them) was turned over to the IWW in 1988. The weekly In These Times ran notice of the ashes and invited readers to suggest what should be done with them. Suggestions varied from enshrining them at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC to Abbie Hoffman's suggestion that they be eaten by today's "Joe Hills" like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. Bragg did indeed swallow a small bit of the ashes with some Union beer to wash it down, and for a time carried Shocked's share for the eventual completion of Hoffman's last prank. Bragg has since given Shocked's share to Otis Gibbs. The majority of the ashes were cast to the wind in the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Nicaragua. The ashes sent to Sweden were only partly cast to the wind. The main part was interred in the wall of a union office in Landskrona, a minor city in the south of the country, with a plaque commemorating Hill. That room is now the reading room of the local city library.
One small packet of ashes was scattered at a 1989 ceremony which unveiled a monument to six unarmed IWW coal miners buried in Lafayette, Colorado, who had been machine-gunned by Colorado state police in 1927 in the Columbine Mine Massacre. Until 1989 the graves of five of these men were unmarked. Another famous Wobbly, Carlos Cortez, scattered Joe Hill's ashes on the graves at the commemoration.
On the night of November 18, 1990, the Southeast Michigan IWW General Membership Branch hosted a gathering of "wobs" in a remote wooded area at which a dinner, followed by a bonfire, featured a reading of Hill's last will, "and then his ashes were released into the flames and carried up above the trees.... The next day ... one wob collected a bowl full of ashes from the smoldering fire pit." At that event several IWW members consumed a portion of Hill's ashes before the rest was consigned to the fire.
In a biography published in 2011, william M. Adler concludes that Hill was probably innocent of murder, but also suggests that Hill came to see himself as worth more to the labor movement as a dead martyr than he was alive, and that this understanding may have influenced his decisions not to testify at the trial and subsequently to spurn all chances of a pardon. Adler reports that evidence pointed to early police suspect Frank Z. Wilson, and cites Hilda Erickson's letter, which states that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiance.
He rose in the IWW organization and traveled widely, organizing workers under the IWW banner, writing political songs and satirical poems, and making speeches. He shortened his pseudonym to "Joe Hill" as the pen-name under which his songs, cartoons and other writings appeared. His songs frequently appropriated familiar melodies from popular songs and hymns of the time. He coined the phrase "pie in the sky", which appeared in his song "The Preacher and the Slave" (a parody of the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By"). Other notable songs written by Hill include "The Tramp", "There is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab".