the Fire in the Hole script and accompanying images to examine
events that led to the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.)
and Joe Hill's trial and execution in Utah; 1905-1915.
In 1905 a handful of
the nation's most radical political and labor figures met in Chicago. Featuring
"Big" Bill Haywood of the Western
Federation of Miners and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist party, the group
aimed to ignite a grassroots fire that would sweep the nation and burn down
a system they viewed as evil.
The industrial workers
of the world – the I.W.W., also known by their nickname of wobblies– would
prove to be the most radical and militant movement in the nation's labor history.
Fresh from his acquittal on murder charges in Idaho, Bill Haywood soon became
a driving force for the Wobblies. Convinced that the Western Federation of
Miners was not the answer, Haywood wanted the I.W.W. to represent all workers
in one big union. . .and have that union clash head-on with the centers of
power in America.
"They were very militant,
very radical. And they honestly believed they could build a new society within
the shell of the old society. And that's what they intended to do. And they
intended to do it with the most uneducated, the most recent immigrants. The
most unskilled people. So it was a very revolutionary approach."
The I.W.W. organized
confrontational strikes. . .and staged free speech campaigns that flooded
cities with wobbly speakers who attacked big business, government and the
existing social order.
"They were perceived
as a threat to the status quo. They were perceived as anarchists. They were
perceived as people who are not adverse to using violence to achieve their
Never large in numbers,
the I.W.W. was soon perceived as a dangerous crowd of terrorists dedicated
to destroying the nation. Government and business leaders said the rules of
civil society did not apply when dealing with the wobblies:
San Diego Union:
"Hanging is none too
good for them, and they would be much better off dead. They are absolutely
useless in the human economy. They are the waste material of creation, and
should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion to rot like any other excrement."
-- The San Diego Union
As a new decade dawned
in 1910, the nation's labor wars dramatically escalated. Hundreds of strikes
-- large and small -- tore at the nation. The anti-union Los Angeles Times
was bombed, and two union organizers would eventually plead guilty to planting
the dynamite that killed twenty workers. The I.W.W. orchestrated strikes in
the East. Both labor and management claimed to be fighting for justice. Both
sides claimed to be carrying forward the banner of America's promise.
The entire world seemed
to teeter on the brink of destruction. In Europe riots challenged the traditional
monarchies. On the American border, revolution in Mexico spilled over, with
peasants under Pancho Villa fighting their government, and ransacking the
town of Colombus, New Mexico. Federal troops were called out.
The future was anything
"Workers of the world,
awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights. All the wealth you make is
taken, by exploiting parasites."
The songs of Joe Hill
came to symbolize the industrial workers of the world. . .and symbolize what
many viewed as a life and death struggle for the future of the nation. Swedish
immigrant Joe Hill, his name shortened from Hillstrom, wrote songs to mobilize
the masses to action.
"He was dealing with
a bunch of people who couldn't even speak the language. And how do you organize
people and get them to do something in unison if you can't communicate? And
the songs were one way to do that."
"His songs are very direct,
they're very easy. They're repetitive at some times. He uses popular tunes
of the day and hymn tunes which are easy to sing. He takes music and makes
it the instrument of convincing people ideologically that they need to belong
to the union. And its very direct."
"Shall you kneel in deep
submission, from your cradle to your grave? Is the height of your ambition
to be a good and willing slave?"
"Well that's pretty straight
forward stuff. That's not great poetry and that may not be great art, but
boy it pretty well gives you the ideological version of the I.W.W.'s account
of early twentieth century corporate capitalism."
Joe Hill came to Utah
in 1913. The state was still recovering from a violent confrontation between
copper miners and the Utah copper company in Bingham Canyon near Salt Lake
City. Why Hill came to Utah was never answered. But he would not leave alive.
On the night of January 14th, 1914, two men entered a Salt Lake City grocery
store. Grocer John Morrison, a former city police officer, and his son were
murdered in the shootout. Police reported one of the masked gunmen had been
Joe Hill is shot the
same night as the Morrison murder. He's shot in the chest. He gets on a streetcar,
he goes to a Murray doctor whose name is McHugh, Dr. McHugh for treatment
of his wound. McHugh reads the paper the next morning, reads about the murder
of the Morrisons, and calls police and says ‘look I treated a guy last night
that had a gunshot wound. Check him out.'"
When he is arrested,
Hill claims he was shot by a man in an argument over a woman–but refuses to
At his trial, Hill refused to testify and refused to cooperate with his volunteer
attorneys...a fact the prosecutor drove home in his closing argument:
"If you were an innocent
man when asked for an explanation of your wound why in God's name did you
not tell the story and clear your name from the stain upon it? Because you
were a guilty man, and you couldn't tell a story that could be corroborated.
"Well, your sitting on
the jury and this prosecuting attorney is a pretty good attorney, and you
say to yourself, ‘Well, you know, maybe that's true. Why in the world won't
he tell us what happened?'"
Convicted of the murders,
Hill waited on Utah's death row to face a firing squad. And as he waited,
Joe Hill became a rallying cry for the I.W.W.
"Another crime is about
to be perpetrated by the capitalist class against the workers. Our song bird
is about to be executed–before he has a chance to sing for us the glorious
songs of freedom. Will we permit him to be executed? Only we can prevent his
execution. We demand his life. . .and we are going to enforce our demands."
— Emma B. Little
Thousands of letters
poured into the office of Utah governor William spry, urging him to block
the execution. Spry offered hill a chance to offer any evidence that might
give Utah a reason to save his life. Again, Hill refused to cooperate.
". . .and there comes
a time where in my opinion Hill decides that he will be the martyr for the
When wobbly leader "Big"
Bill Haywood offered to bankroll an appeal of his conviction to the supreme
court, Hill refused the offer.
"July 28, 1915. To William
D. Haywood. Dear fellow worker, There is no reason to be sentimental about
it, Bill. We cannot afford to let the whole organization go bankrupt over
one individual. Yours for industrial freedom." -- Joe Hill
But letters of protest
and the pleadings of Sweden's minister to the United States convinced president
Woodrow Wilson to take the unusual step of intervening in a state criminal
"I respectfully ask if
it would not be possible to postpone the execution of Joseph Hillstrom until
the Swedish minister has an opportunity to present his view of the case to
your excellency." -- Woodrow Wilson
Spry reluctantly delayed
the execution. But when Hill's supporters failed to offer evidence, only their
claims of hill's innocence, spry restored an execution date for November 19th,
1915. In a final telegram to "Big" Bill Haywood, Joe Hill crafted a rallying
cry for the I.W.W. . .and managed to slip in a comment about a final resting
"Goodbye Bill. I die like
a true rebel. Don't waste time mourning– organize! It is a hundred miles from
here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line
for burial? I don't want to be caught dead in Utah." -- Joe Hill
In a final interview
from his cell, hill refused an invitation to confess to the crime:
"I die with a clear conscience.
I die fighting. . .not like some coward. But mark my words. The day of my
vindication is coming."
Hill's body was rushed
from the prison for a required autopsy. Each member of the firing squad received
a twenty dollar gold piece. The Wobblies brought Hill's body to Chicago for
a funeral. More than thirty thousand people turned out. For the legal system
in Utah, Joseph Hillstrom was a convicted murderer sent to a just punishment.
For the Wobblies, Joe Hill was a martyr whose name would be invoked in labor
struggles for the next fifty years. Consistent with his final request, the
ashes of Joe Hill were scattered in every state. . .except Utah.
The execution of one
man had triggered international protests. But the killing of women and children
would shock the nation.