Swedish Embassy statement on centennial of Joe Hill’s judicial murder


September 22, 2015

Statement by the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States on the occasion of the centennial of the death of Joe Hill

This Fall we are remembering the centennial of the death of Joe Hill. On November 19, 1915, Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, was executed in Utah State Prison after being convicted of a murder in a robbery gone wrong. Hill denied that he was involved in the robbery and killing. The Swedish Envoy to the United States and the Swedish public all became involved in a bid for clemency. In archival materials donated to the Joe Hill Collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library, by His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1976, this is documented.

In a 2011 biography, William M. Adler concluded that Hill was probably innocent of murder.

Joe was born in 1879 in the Swedish town Gävle. His father, who was a railroad employee died young and when his mother died in 1902 Joe and one of his brothers did what many poor Swedes did at the time. He emigrated to the United States.

Here he became a migrant worker, a labor activist, song writer and cartoonist for the Industrial Workers of the World.

His most well-known songs include “The Preacher and the Slave,” “The Tramp,” “There is Power in a Union,” “The Rebel Girl,” and “Casey Jones—the Union Scab.” Folk singer Pete Seeger sang and recorded his songs. Some of the songs are still sung in the Swedish labor movement.

The most famous song is probably the song about Joe Hill, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” with lyrics by Alfred Hayes and tune by Earl Robinson. The song was performed by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969 and also recorded by her as well as by Paul Robeson. In May 2014, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened their concert in Tampa, Florida, with the song.

Joe Hill was commemorated in Sweden in 1980 with the issuing of a postage stamp that cost 1, 70 Swedish kroner, which at the time was the amount for airmail to the United States.

A biography by Gibbs M. Smith was turned into the 1971 movie “Joe Hill” directed by Bo Widerberg. The film has been restored and digitalized by the Swedish Film institute and the Embassy is hoping it will be screened in the United States in the near future.

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