The Death of Joe Hill, the Immortal   – By Dennis Vannatta

Pic by Pratik Gupta




I’m tired—this night of restless dreams.  I’d pray to the God of Sleep to give me peace, but what if I summoned up Death instead?  Sleep and death are much on my mind.

Why, then, do I find myself chuckling?  I look down.  Ha! I’m dressed as a Catholic priest.  No, make that a Lutheran minister.  I have a Bible in my hand.  Do Lutheran’s use the King James version?  And why a Lutheran in the first place?

Flanked by two guards, we walk across a bare dirt compound toward a grim building with the lovely, incongruous name, Sugar House Prison.

Ah, yes.  He was born Joel Haggland in Sweden and so would likely have been Lutheran, right?  He came to America barely a decade ago and rebranded himself Joe Hill.  And this, as I realize in that way that dreamers know what they cannot know, is November 18, 1915, and tomorrow Joe Hill will die.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me.

The good news I have come to bring him has nothing to do with Lutherans or God but does have something to do with immortality.

Joe’s cell is as cold as a tomb, I would say, except that’s too obvious a foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is hardly necessary when the denouement is already known by all, even Joe himself:  tomorrow he will be executed by firing squad for a crime he possibly committed but probably didn’t, the murder of a grocer, John Morrison.

Joe doesn’t rise from his iron bed when he realizes someone is in the cell with him, only smiles good-naturedly if a little wearily and says, “Another Bible peddler?  Your compadre already gave me one earlier today.”

My “compadre” must be the staff chaplain come to bring him the comfort of God’s word before the darkness falls forever.

Indeed, Joe is holding a Bible at the moment and returns to thumbing through it, as he’d been doing when I intruded.

“I keep looking for that eleventh commandment,” he says.

“Eleventh commandment?”

“You know:  Thou shalt organize.”

I laugh appreciatively.

“Here,” I say, handing him my Bible.  “Maybe it’ll be in this one.  It’s a Lutheran Bible.”

He frowns quizzically.  “Lutheran?”

“Yes.  Well, you’re Swedish, right?  So . . . Lutheran.”

He snorts.

“You can keep your pie in the sky crap.  I want my pie right here, right now.”

Don’t say it, don’t say it! I plead with myself, but I can’t help it, some imp of the perverse compels me to ask, “Will you request pie for your supper tonight?”

It takes him a second to get it, but when he does I’m relieved to see that he’s not angered but amused.  He barks out a laugh, claps his hands, and says, “Ha!  My last meal.  Yeah, I’m going to have one more slice of that shit-pie the bosses have been feeding us all our lives.”  Then, shaking his head:  “No, for my last supper I’m going to order the same thing my brothers in the copper mines are probably eating tonight.  Bread and water.  Maybe a cup of coffee if they’re damn lucky.”

“‘The copper bosses killed you, Joe,’” I quote.

He smiles wryly.

“Killed?  Don’t rush it, padre.  I’ve got a few more hours yet.”

“It’s a line from a song.”

“They wrote a song about the copper bosses?”

“Well, they’re mentioned, but the song is about you.”

“Me?  I don’t recall hearing a song about me.”

“They haven’t written it yet.  They won’t until after . . . you know . . . after tomorrow.”   

He scratches his head, then snaps his fingers:  “I think I’ve got it.  For some odd reason you’ve written the words to a song about me, and you’ve gotten somebody to put it to music in a few days, right?”

“No.  I’m not a poet or a song-writer either one.  I heard it sung in a movie.  Motion picture.  Cinema.  Whatever you call them these days.”

Did they have movies in 1915?  No talkies, for sure.  I saw Joan Baez sing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” in Woodstock in 1970 or ’71 when I was in the Army in West Germany.  I was happy to be there rather than in Vietnam, but I didn’t want to be in the Army anywhere.  I was a draftee, though, and didn’t have much choice in the matter.  I’d like someone to explain to me exactly how being forced to serve in the military differs from slavery.  I wonder what Joe would say about that?  But I don’t have a chance to ask him.

“Now, wait a minute, wait a minute,” he says.  “First you say the song hasn’t been written yet, and then you say you heard it in a ‘movie,’ whatever that is.  And now that I think of it, how did you get in here, anyway?  I don’t remember them opening the cell door for you.  I just look up and you’re standing there. . . . Oh, I get it.  I’m dreaming.”

He shakes his head like he’s trying to shake himself awake.

“No, actually, I’m the dreamer,” I tell him.  “Or maybe we’re both dreaming.  I’m not sure how all this works myself.”

He waves a hand dismissively.

“Don’t worry about it.  I’ve been called everything except a child of God.  I don’t mind being called a dreamer.  Hell, I am a dreamer.”

I seize upon this as my entry into my purpose.

“Does your dream ever tell you your future?”

There’s that wry smile again.

“Hm.  Well, at the moment it doesn’t look like I have a future.  Not past tomorrow morning, anyway.  Tell me, padre, in your dream am I going to get off the hook tomorrow, go dancing with my darlin’ on Saturday night?”

I have trouble looking him in the eye.  My mouth fills with saliva.  I struggle to swallow it down.  Too vivid a dream, too vivid!

I shake my head sadly.  “No.  I can’t tell you that.  I’m an accursed sort of dreamer.  I can only tell you what will happen.  But it’s not all bad news.  You won’t dance with your Hilda Erickson on Saturday night, but you will achieve a kind of immortality.  Your body may not survive tomorrow, but your name will.  It will be sung down through the ages.  Joe Hill the great labor organizer!  A martyr for the cause of the working man!”

For a moment he seems to be trying to laugh, but he can’t bring it off.  Instead of derisive laughter, he gives himself up to a look of joy and gratitude.

“Thank you, dreamer, thank you!  I’m not a brave man.  I’m really not.  Tomorrow . . . if this bitter cup could pass from me . . . but if I must die, to die in the cause of the working man!”

“There’s your consolation, Joe.  There’s your hope.  We all face a firing squad of one kind or another, but you’ll live on through your name inspiring labor organizers for generations to come.  In fact, your ashes—forgive me—your ashes will be divided into six hundred envelopes and mailed to labor organizations around the world for scattering.”

“Six hundred?  Around the world?  Then it’s true.  Labor will triumph.  The future will belong to the working man, not the capitalist fat cats who force us to grind our bones to make their bread.”

“Well . . .”

“What’s the matter?  I can’t say I like that look on your face.”

“Maybe triumph is too strong a word.  You know how these things go—up one day, down the next.  Right now the capitalists seem to have the upper hand just a teeny tiny bit.”

He slumps back against the mercilous stone wall.


“These things take time, Joe.”

“Time.  What time is it?” he asks.

I check my watch—but I’m not wearing one.  Anyway, already he seems to have lost interest in the answer.  Lost interest in me, too, as he sits in silent communion with some vision that doesn’t include me.  I might as well not even be here.

God knows I don’t want to be here in this bitterly cold cell, outside only a joyless night without moon or stars.

He whispers something—a name, I think.  The romantic in me wants to think the name is Hilda Erickson, his beloved.  But it might have been Big Bill Haywood. 

 And, I realize, I don’t really care.  What good will my caring do?  What comfort has my “good news” brought the despairing, the afflicted, even in dreams?

Wake up, fool, wake up!

The fool sleeps on.


About the Author

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Modern Literature, River Styx, Chariton ReviewBoulevard, and Antioch Review.  His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.