Wobbling On

The labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill was executed on this day in 1915, found guilty of murder in a controversial, internationally reported trial. As Hill and his fellow Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) saw it, he was scapegoated for his unionizing activities, which he continued even in his last, famous note to IWW leader Bill Haywood:

Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize…. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.

Most commentators conclude that Hill was innocent, or at the very least convicted on shoddy evidence. There was certainly little doubt among those who gathered for Hill’s funeral, to mourn and protest:

As early as dawn they began gathering, a great singing swarm of humanity, tens of thousands of the city’s disposed and disinherited.… By ten o’clock, when the service began, five thousand celebrants, not just the poor but also the intellectual “parlor radicals” and leftists of many stripes, including anarchists, unionists, Socialists, nihilists, and ordinary, nondenominational “wage slaves” — ” ‘bums’ and hoboes generally, of whom less than 10 per cent were American,” The New York Times sniffed — were packed into every seat and wedged into every cranny along the back and side walls of the West Side Auditorium.… [T]he windows of the great second-floor hall were opened wide, and verse after verse, song after song, cascaded outside….

The above is excerpted from the first paragraphs of William Adler’s recent The Man Who Never Died. Adler’s book is a biography framed by history and eulogy: “The IWW’s heyday lasted for only a brief, electrifying moment at the dawn of the twentieth century: when industrial capitalism was new and raw and brutal, and when the union’s vision of a new worker-controlled order — an “industrial democracy” — seemed, if not on the verge of becoming reality, not preposterous either.” Whatever the fate of the movement, the man became even more of an inspiration after his death, the following excerpted from 1919, the second volume of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy:

Along the coast in cookshacks, flophouses, jungles, wobblies, hoboes, bindlestiffs began singing Joe Hill’s songs. They sang ’em in the county jails of the State of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, in the bullpens in Montana and Arizona, sang ’em in Walla Walla, San Quentin, Leavenworth, forming the structure of the new society within the jails of the old.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.