Historians have speculated that Joe Hill was well aware of his personal value to the union movement throughout his trial and in the months leading to his execution. This line of reasoning holds that Hill perceived an opportunity for a man to publicly die for his cause with the whole world as witness. An acquittal or release would have had little lasting value to the Industrial Workers of the World and their campaign to revolutionize society in America. The creation of a martyr figure could rally thousands. . .even millions. . .to the cause.
Hill's writings in prison seem to sustain the martyr theory. Time and again he downplayed the significance of his individual case, and emphasized the greater good of the "One Big Union" and carrying the struggle forward.
But others viewed Hill on death row as nothing more than a man without options. Reasonably convicted as a murderer, they argued, his only other course would have been to make a full confession and to beg for mercy. Instead, he followed the path of countless prisoners facing execution: a denial of wrongdoing and a belief that he was the true victim of the process.
While motives are debatable, it is a fact that in death Joe Hill became recognized as a martyr for his cause. The songs he had crafted for the I.W.W. took on greater significance with his execution, and were invoked with a strangely near-religious sentiment in labor strikes and protest settings. Those who shared his views would invoke his name as evidence that conspiracies existed among the powerful elite of the nation, and that a good man had fallen at the hands of Big Business and its government partners.
With the resurgence of union activity in the years after World War One, the name of Joe Hill would be invoked in dozens of labor struggles throughout the nation. His songs were sung as a tribute to the man who had urged the world not to mourn, but to organize. Soon poems and songs of tribute to Joe Hill started to circulate among the groups determined to redesign the workplace and society. One of the most enduring was penned in 1925 by the poet Alfred Hayes:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I, "But Joe you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he.
The revolution Hill yearned for did not materialize in the nation he adopted back in 1902. Yet the work, words, life and death of Joe Hill remain in the public eye nearly ninety years after his execution. In one sense, proving Alfred Hayes a prophet through his poetry.