Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born in Gefle (Gävle), Sweden in 1882. As a child, after the death of his father, in 1887, he worked in a rope factory. He emigrated to the United States in 1902 and settled in California where he changed his name to Joe Hill. Converted to socialism in 1910, Hill became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was one of the leaders of the San Pedro dock workers' strike. In 1912 he was beaten up and permanently scarred during a free speech campaign in San Diego.
Hill was also a songwriter and his socialist songs appeared in the trade union newspapers, Industrial Worker and Solidarity. After his Red Songbook was published his songs were sung on picket lines and demonstrations. Songs such as The Preacher and the Slave and Casey Jones - The Union Scab became internationally known folk songs.
His biographer, Franklin Rosemont, has pointed out: "Hill contributed to the IWW cause primarily as wordsmith and artist rather than as organizer or soap-boxer. He loved to draw and his cartoons show that he carefully studied the work of such pioneering exemplars of the cartoonist's art as F.B. Opper and Rube Goldberg. He played piano, accordion, guitar, and banjo, and clearly enjoyed the popular music of his day."
George Seldes interviewed Hill and William Haywood in 1912: "When Bill Hayward came to the coal and iron capital of America, Ray Springle and I went to his headquarters, not for news stories, which we knew would never be published, but out of interest in the new labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World. And so, by chance along with its new leaders we met the ballad-maker of the IWW, Joe Hill." Seldes later recalled: "Joe Hill was a man of great enthusiasm and such easy friendship that in the week or ten days in which we knew him the three of us and another of his friends pledged a lifetime of loyalty to one another."
Hill's trade union activities made him a marked man and unable to find work in California, he moved to Utah. In 1913 Hill helped to organize a successful strike at the United Construction Company. During this dispute Hill stayed with some friends in Salt Lake City. While he was there, John G. Morrison, a former policeman, and his son, Arling, were shot dead by two masked gunman in his grocery shop. A few weeks before the murder, Morrison had told a journalist that he had recently been threatened with a revenge attack because of an incident while he was in the police force.
After the shooting, police discovered two men trying to board a departing train at a railroad station near the store. According to the official report, officers Crosby and Hendrickson had to "empty their guns" to prevent the two men from escaping. The men were taken into custody and identified as C.E. Christensen and Joe Woods, two men with arrest warrants in Prescott, Arizona for robbery.
On the night of the murder, 10th January, 1914, Hill visited a doctor with a bullet wound in his left lung. Hill claimed he had been shot in a quarrel over a woman. Noting that the bullet had gone clean through the body, the doctor reported Hill's visit to the police. They already knew about Hill's trade union activities and decided to arrest him. Hill refused to say how he got the wound. As a witnesses standing outside Morrison's store claimed that he heard one of the murderers say: "Oh, God, I'm shot." Hill was charged with the murder of Morrison and Christensen and Woods were released from custody.
The police chief of San Pedro, who had once held Hill for thirty days on a charge of "vagrancy" because of his efforts to organize longshoremen, wrote to the Salt Lake City police: "I see you have under arrest for murder one Joseph Hillstrom. You have the right man... He is certanly an undesirable citizen. He is somewhat of a musician and writer of songs for the IWW songbook."
Leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World argued that Hill had been framed as a warning to others considering trade union activity. Even William Spry, the Republican governor of Utah admitted that he wanted to use the case to "stop street speaking" and to clear the state of this "lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen, IWW agitators, or whatever name they call themselves"
At Hill's trial in Salt Lake City none of the witnesses were able to identify Hill as one of the murders. This included thirteen-year-old Merlin Morrison, who witnessed the killing of her father and brother. The bullet that hit Hill was not found in the store. Nor was any of Hill's blood. As no money was taken and one of the gunman was heard to say: "We've got you now", the defence argued that it was a revenge killing. However, Hill, who had no previous connection with Morrison, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
Franklin Rosemont has argued: "Nearly all historians have come to recognize as one of the worst travesties of justice in American history. After a trial riddled with biased rulings, suppression of important defense evidence, and other violations of judicial procedure characteristic of cases involving labor radicals, Hill was convicted and sentenced to death."
Bill Haywood and the IWW launched a campaign to halt the execution. Elizabeth Flynn visited Hill in prison and was a leading figure in the attempts to force a retrial. In July, 1915, 30,000 members of Australian IWW sent a resolution calling on Governor William Spry to free Hill. Similar resolutions were passed at trade union meetings in Britain and other European countries. Woodrow Wilson also contacted Spry and asked for a retrial. This was refused and plans were made for Hill's execution by firing-squad on 19th November, 1915.
When he heard the news, Hill sent a message to Bill Haywood saying: "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize." He also asked Haywood to arrange his funeral: "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." Hill last act before his death was to write the poem, My Last Will.
An estimated 30,000 people attended Hill's funeral. The instructions left in Hill's last poem were carried out: "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." Hill's ashes were put into small envelopes and on May Day, 1916, were scattered to the winds in every state of the union. This ceremony also took place in several other countries.
Alfred Hayes wrote a poem about Hill that was later adapted by Earl Robinson and became the famous folk song, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night. The folk singer, Phil Ochs, wrote and recorded a different, original song called Joe Hill. In 1971 Bo Widerberg wrote and directed the popular Swedish film, Joe Hill.