A collection of seven letters sent by Hill in 1914-15 to his comrade Sam Murray. They had fought in Mexico for the Magonistas in 1911 together and were close friends.
‘The Last Letters of Joe Hill’ from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1. No. 8. December, 1923.
I NOTICE that the Pioneer is going to publish a sketch of the life of Joe Hill in the November issue, so thought you might be able to use some of the letters I have and which were written by him while he was under sentence of death. These letters, to a great extent, show that peculiar spirit which enabled Joe to bear up so well under the enormous strain, while all the forces of both sides of the struggle were being marshaled — one to take his life, the other to save him.
I had been with Joe in Lower California, but had seen nothing of him and heard little, as I had been spending my time in an out-of-the-way place till August, 1914, when I arrived in Frisco and received the latest news relative to his case from a fellow worker who had just left Salt Lake.
If you could get a little poem he wrote a little while before he was shot, entitled “The Bronko Buster,” and inspired by a picture of “Buster” Flynn on a pony sent to him by Gurley Flynn, it will shed some light on the love Joe always had for freedom and the untamable spirit that refuses to surrender it.
The cartoon I am enclosing was sent with the first letter I am sending. SAM MURRAY, SU-410. Oakland, California.
I. Salt Lake City, Sept. 15, 1914.
Dear Friend and Fellow Worker:
Yours of Sept 9 at hand. Glad to hear that you are still alive and kicking and back on the firing line again.
So, you tried to imitate Knowles, the Nature Freak, and live the simple life. It might be all right for a little while, as you say, but I am afraid a fellow would get “simple” of getting too much of the simple life.
Well, I guess the wholesale butchery going on in Europe is putting the kibosh on everything, even the organization work, to some extent. As a rule, a fellow don’t bother his head much about unions and theories of the class struggle when his belly is flapping up against his spine. Getting the wrinkles out is then the main issue and everything else, side issues. That’s human nature or animal instinct rather, and any amount of soapboxing will not change it. The man who coined the phrase “War is hell” certainly knew what he was talking about Well, Sam, old boy, I guess Van has told you everything about my case and I think he knows more about it than I do, because he has been around here and on the outside. I am feeling well under the circumstances and I am fortunate enough to have the ability to entertain myself and to look at everything from the bright side. So there is nothing you could do for me, Sam. I know you would if you could.
Well, with best wishes to the bunch in Frisco, remain, Yours for the OBU. — Joe Hill.
P.S. Is Jack Mosby in Washington yet or did he leave?
II. Salt Lake City, Dec. 2, 1914.
Dear Friend and Fellow Worker:
Received your letter and should have answered before, but have been busy working on some musical composition and whenever I get an “inspiration” I can’t quit until it’s finished.
I am glad to hear that you manage to make both ends meet, in spite of the industrial deal, but there is no use being pessimistic in this glorious land of plenty. Self preservation is, or should be, the first law of nature. The animals, when in a natural state, are showing us the way. When they are hungry they will always try to get something to eat or else they will die in the attempt. That’s natural; to starve to death is unnatural.
No, I have not heard that song about “Tipperary” but if you send it as you said you would I might try to dope something out about that Frisco Fair. I am not familiar with the actual conditions of Frisco at present; and when I make a song I always try to picture things as they really are. Of course a little pepper and salt is allowed in order to bring out the facts more clearly.
If you send me that sheet music and give me some of the peculiarities and ridiculous points about the conditions in general on or about the fair ground, I’ll try to do the best I can. Yours for the OBU.— Joe Hill.
Ill. Salt Lake City, Feb. 13, 1915.
Friend and Fellow Worker:
Should have answered your letter before, but have been busy working on a song named “The Rebel Girl” (Words and Music), which I hope will help to line up the women workers in the OBU, and I hope you will excuse me.
I see you made a big thing out of that Tipperary song. (We had secured nearly 50 dollars by selling it for 5 cents for the Joe Hill Defense. — S.M.) In fact, a whole lot more than I ever expected, I don’t suppose that it would sell very well outside of Frisco, though, by the way I got a letter from Swasey in NY and he told me that “Casey Jones” made quite a hit in London and “Casey Jones,” he was an Angelino you know, and I never expected that he would leave Los Angeles at all.
The other day we got ten bucks from a company of soldiers stationed on the Mexican line. How is that old top? Maybe they are remembering some of the cigars in glass bottles that they smoked at the expense of the “Tierra e Libertad” bunch.
Don’t know much about my case. The Sup. Court will “sit on” it sometime in the sweet bye and bye and that’s all I know about it.
Give my best to the bunch. — Joe Hill.
IV. County Jail, S.L. City, Mar. 22, 1915
Sam Murray, Napa, Cal.
Friend and Fellow Worker: Yours of March 13th at hand. I note that you have gone “back to nature” again and I must confess that it is making me a little homesick when you mention that “little cabin in the hills” stuff. You can talk about your dances, picnics and blow outs, and it won’t affect me, but the “little cabin” stuff always gets my goat. That’s the only life I know.
Yes, that Tipperary song is spreading like the smallpox they say. Sec. 69 tells me that there is a steady stream of silver from ’Frisco on account of it. The unemployed all over the country have adopted it as a marching song in their parades, and in New York City they changed it to some extent, so as to fit the brand of soup dished out in N.Y. They are doing great work in N.Y. this year. The unemployed have been organized and have big meetings every night. Gurley Flynn, Geo. Swasey (the human phonograph) and other live ones are there, and Gurley F. tells me things are looking favorable for the OBU. The hearing of my case has been postponed they say, and they are trying to make me believe that it is for my benefit, but I’ll tell you that it is damn hard for me to see where the benefit comes in at; damn hard.
Well, I have about a dozen letters to answer, Yours as ever, JOE HILL.
V. S.L. Cy., June 6, 1915.
Friend and Fellow Worker:
Your welcome letter received, and am glad to note that you are still sticking to your “little cabin in the hills.” I would like to get a little of that close to nature stuff myself for a couple of months in order to regain a little vitality, and a little flesh on my rotting bones. My case was argued on the 28th of May, and according to Judge Hilton, the results were satisfactory. He says he is sure of securing a reversal, and if so, there hardly will be another trial, for the simple reason that there won’t be anything to try, if I can get a lawyer that will defend me.
With best wishes to all the rebels, Yours for the OBU, JOE HILL.
P.S. I’ve just found out that the Superior Court judges are getting ready to go on their vacation until next fall, so I guess there won’t be anything decided on my case for some time. But “everything comes to him who waits” they say, and that’s the only consolation I got now. — JOE.
VI. Utah State Prison, Aug. 12, 1915.
Friend and Fellow Worker:
Yours of August 5th at hand; and as you see I have been moved to the state prison. The appeal was denied and I was up in court the other day and sentenced to be shot on the first day of October. We were all very much surprised at the decision, because we thought that I would be granted a new trial anyway. But as Judge Hilton says “the records of the lower court are so rotten they had to be covered some¬ how.” I guess you can draw your conclusions from that statement. I wanted to drop the case right there and then, but from reports received from all parts of the country, I think that the case will be carried to the U.S. Supreme Court. I didn’t think I’d be worth any more money. You know human life is kind of cheap this year anyway— but I guess the organization thinks otherwise and majority rule goes with me.
Well, I don’t know anything new and hoping that you are successful in snaring the elusive doughnut, I remain, Yours for the OBU, JOE HILL.
VII. Utah State Prison, Sept. 9, 1915.
Sam Murray, Frisco, California.
Friend and Fellow Worker: Yours received 0.K. Glad to hear that things are picking up. I see that you are employed at making bait for the German “sharks.” Well, war certainly shows up the capitalist system in the right light. Millions of men are employed at making ships and others are hired to sink them. Scientific management, eh, wot?
As far as I can see, it doesn’t make much difference which side wins, but I hope that one side will win, because a draw would only mean another war in a year or two. All these silly priests and old maid sewing circles that are moaning about peace at this time should be locked up in the crazy house as a menace to society. The war is the finest training school for rebels in the world and for anti-militarists as well, and I hope that all the S.S. bills in the country will go over there.
Well, Sam, I don’t know anything about my case. My attorneys told me to leave it all to them, and that makes it pretty soft for me to have someone else do the worrying for me.
I believe your good work on the coast is being felt at this end of the line, though.
With best wishes I am as ever yours, JOE HILL.
VIII. Utah State Prison, Sept. 30, 1915. (When the following was written, Joe expected to be shot within twenty-four hours, and all of us had given up hope. However, he later received a respite of something over a month, thus being forced to go over the strain of the last day on earth again)
Sam Murray, 3345 17th St., Frisco, Calif.
Friend and Fellow Worker:
Well, Sam, I received your letter, but you shouldn’t feel so sentimental about it. This dying business is not quite so bad as it is cracked up to be. I have always said “a new trial or die trying,” and I’ll show that I meant it. I was moved to another cell last night and have an armed guard in front of my cell. I was also given a swell feed for the first time in God knows how long, and that is one of the surest signs.
Well Sam, you and I had the pleasure at one time that few rebels have had the privilege of having, and I guess I’ve had my share of the fun after all. Now, just forget me, and say goodbye to the bunch.
Yours for the OBU,
P.S. Sent a letter to Caroline.
This was the last letter I got direct from Joe, but we kept up the fight; telegraphed to the unions of Sweden, the Swedish Minister at Washington, who sent President Wilson a letter; who also wired the Governor of Utah, but to no avail, and the night before the execution finally took place we received together with some of the other organizations throughout the country, his famous farewell wire: “Goodbye, Forget me. Don’t mourn Organize. which we immediately answered, but which, as near as we could learn, he never received. S.M.
The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/industrial-pioneer/Industrial-Pioneer-(December-1923)%20Part%202.pdf