In October 1917, W.B. Carlile, the postmaster of Chicago, seized a letter addressed to a man named Charles Gepford, who lived on Cottage Grove. In a cover note to the solicitor of the Post Office, Carlile explained that the letter “was accidentally mutilated in the process of machine cancelation. As a direct result of this mishap, the contents were expelled from the enclosure and their nature unavoidably disclosed.” The envelope has not survived, but its contents were recently rediscovered in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. They include, among other items, the ashes of Joe Hill.

The ashes, still in a torn and weathered three-by-five-inch packet, are the last known remains of Hill, an American folk hero and martyr of the U.S. labor movement. Hill was a singer, a songwriter, an itinerant worker, and an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In November 1915, he was executed by a Utah firing squad.

The IWW brought his body to Chicago, where more than 30,000 attended a memorial service for him on a gray, misty Thanksgiving Day. A huge crowd overflowed the West Side Auditorium and spilled out onto the street, blocking traffic in all directions. After listening to speeches and to several of Hill’s songs, the mourners followed Hill’s coffin until it was placed in a hearse, then moved toward the elevated station at Van Buren and Halsted in a procession that stretched for more than a mile. According to a contemporary account by Ralph Chaplin, an IWW writer and editor, “all elevated and surface lines leading to Graceland Cemetery were crowded to capacity for over an hour.” There was another service at Graceland–normally a burial ground for wealthy Chicagoans–with a few policemen quietly observing. The police must have found it painful, wrote Chaplin, “to see them singing and cheering unmolested in an exclusive and sedate graveyard like Graceland.” Hill’s body was cremated the next day.

On November 19, 1916, the first anniversary of Hill’s execution, the IWW held its tenth convention at the West Side Auditorium. Hill’s ashes had been divided up into numerous small packets that had his picture printed on the front. “Murdered by the capitalist class,” said the caption beneath the photo. But in his rough workman’s clothes and with his big-eared, expressionless face, Hill looked more like an ordinary longshoreman than a sainted labor martyr. A short poem Hill wrote as his last will and testament was printed on the back. The envelopes were given to IWW delegates and to visitors from other countries. “The delegates will make the final distribution of these ashes,” reported the Industrial Worker, the IWW newspaper, “with appropriate ceremonies when they return to their respective homes and countries.” The ashes were later scattered on every continent except Antarctica and in every state of the union except Utah. However, some of those grisly little envelopes were never given to anyone to scatter.

Joe Hill, born Joel Hagglung in Gavle, Sweden, in 1879, came to the U.S. looking for work in 1902. He spent a year working in a Chicago machine shop, where his union activities earned him a place on an employer blacklist. So Hagglung became Hillstrom–sometimes shortened to Hill–and drifted west, living in Christian missions and finding work in wheat fields, copper mines, and on the docks of the west coast. In 1910, in either Oregon or southern California–depending on who you ask–he became a “Wobbly,” a member of the IWW.

The IWW, as it was founded in Brand’s Hall on the near north side in 1905, was a self-styled revolutionary union that stood for socialism, direct action against employers, and worker control on the job–and against the more timid trade unionism preached by cigar maker Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AF of L.). During the next ten years, the IWW’s uncompromising attack on the power of capital attracted tens of thousands of members, especially in industries that had been neglected by craft unions, such as mining, timber, shipping, and agriculture. For a time, the union was a serious rival to the AF of L, a situation that made more than a few employers distinctly uncomfortable.

Soon after Hill joined the Wobblies, he began sending songs, stories, cartoons, and poems to the IWW office in Chicago. He wrote some of the most popular labor ballads of his era and is best remembered for his work as a songwriter. The itinerant Swede had a sly sense of humor and a knack for thinking up new words for popular tunes. Some of his best-known songs, such as “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “The Preacher and the Slave,” were set to the tunes of Christian hymns–songs that were familiar to the working men Hill met in missions and flophouses across the country.

Hill lived in southern California for a while. He got involved in a dockworkers’ strike in San Pedro, a campaign for free-speech rights in San Diego, and, according to one labor historian, “an abortive revolution in Tia Juana, which aimed to make Lower California into a commune.” In 1913 he became secretary of the San Pedro IWW local. That same summer Hill began bumming his way back to Chicago, stopping in Salt Lake City to earn some money.

On January 10, 1914, he was arrested by the Salt Lake City police as a suspect in the murder of a grocery-store owner and his son. A second son, who had survived the shooting, said that his brother had fired a shot at his attacker before being killed. Hill was turned in by a doctor who had treated him for a gunshot wound.

When the Salt Lake City police found out that Hill had been living in San Pedro, they contacted the chief of police there. “You have the right man,” the chief wrote back. “He is certainly an undesirable citizen. He is somewhat of a musician and a writer of songs for the IWW songbook.”

During his trial, Hill insisted on his innocence but refused to offer a clear explanation for how he wound up with a bullet in his chest. The real story, he said, had to do with the “honor of a woman,” and he felt bound to say nothing more about it. Aside from his gunshot wound, there wasn’t much evidence against Hill. There were no fingerprints, no trace of his blood at the scene of the crime, no proof that the bullet that wounded him came from the gun fired by the grocer’s son.

But the circumstantial evidence, combined with Hill’s reputation as a dangerous labor radical, convinced the jury. Hill was sentenced to death. Despite a worldwide campaign on his behalf–which included letters from tens of thousands of supporters, an official protest by the Swedish minister, and two personal appeals to the governor of Utah from President Woodrow Wilson–Hill was shot on November 19, 1915.

On the last day of his life, Hill sent a telegram to Big Bill Haywood, general secretary treasurer of the IWW: “It is only a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. 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.” Later that day, during an interview with a Salt Lake City reporter, Hill scribbled out his will in the form of a poem. “Let the merry breezes blow,” he wrote, “my dust to where some flowers grow.”

Seventy years later no one is exactly sure how one envelope of Joe Hill’s ashes wound up in the National Archives. Fred Lee is an economist at Roosevelt University who joined the IWW in 1985 and quickly became chair of its executive board. The IWW now includes only a few hundred members scattered in small locals around the country. Lee has his own theories about why the Wobblies originally wanted to hold on to some of the packets that contained Hill’s remains. He figures they were kept as mementos or perhaps to be distributed to newly organized branches or to new supporters of the union in countries where no ashes had been scattered. Most of the leftover packets were confiscated by federal agents in a raid on the Chicago office in September 1917.

That fall the IWW was under attack by employers, outraged citizens, and the federal government. In April the U.S. had entered the war against Germany, which required a nationwide mobilization of men and materiel. The IWW, not being particularly keen on the war effort, kept up its customary campaign to improve wages and working conditions–which included going on strike when necessary. Many patriotic Americans–especially employers–viewed strikes during wartime as part of an enemy plot to deny vital supplies to the armed forces. A story began circulating that the IWW was getting secret funds from Germany, and there was a public cry for a government crackdown.

“The first step in strangling Germany is to strangle the IWWs,” stated an editorial in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Daily World. “Kill them, just as you would any other kind of snake. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuances and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and a firing squad.”

Anger against the Wobblies exploded. In July Arizona authorities forcibly deported 1,000 striking IWW miners from the copper-mining town of Bisbee and dumped them in the desert without food or water. In August Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana, where he had gone to help organize a strike.

President Wilson, pressured by western governors and employer lobbyists, appointed a federal judge, J. Harry Covington, to investigate the IWW. Covington found no evidence of German funds flowing to the union and no evidence that the Wobblies were breaking federal laws. But Thomas Gregory, the U.S. attorney general, was convinced that such evidence existed. Although the head of the IWW, Big Bill Haywood, had wired Washington that IWW records were open for federal inspection, Gregory decided to stage a nationwide raid on IWW offices on September 5, 1917.

The national office in Chicago, then at 1001 W. Madison in the heart of the city’s skid row, was a prime target; but there were also simultaneous raids on offices in San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other cities. In Chicago, the raid was carried out by a team that included six members of the Bureau of Investigation (the FBI’s predecessor), six detectives on loan from the Chicago Police Department, and seven members of the American Protective League (APL), a civilian group made up mostly of businessmen who volunteered to help authorities round up draft dodgers and war dissenters.

When they stormed the IWW offices, the 19 government agents found Haywood and three secretaries quietly at work. For three days the agents carted away five tons of material, including newspapers and pamphlets, correspondence files, buttons, posters, desks, typewriters, paper clips, a few spittoons, and, according to Haywood biographer Peter Carlson, “several small envelopes containing the ashes of Joe Hill.”

What happened to the confiscated packets isn’t clear, but the packet that was addressed to Charles Gepford was mailed in October. Fred Lee guesses that when government agents descended on the Madison Street offices, someone decided that at least one envelope of Joe Hill’s ashes should be saved. “Somebody tried to sneak them out and addressed them to this guy Charles Gepford,” he says. “This was not a plan to distribute the ashes. This was a plan to try to get them away from the federal government–and it failed.” Lee freely admits that his version of events is mostly guesswork. “It’s my plausible story,” he says cheerfully. “It fits the circumstances. Whether it’s true to the last bit, I don’t know.”

One detail that no one can fill in is the identity of Charles Gepford. Fred Lee doesn’t know who Gepford was, but he knows who he wasn’t. On September 28 indictments were handed down against 166 leading members of the IWW, who were charged with conspiring to undermine the war effort, seize control of industry, and violently overthrow the U.S. government. Nine of the indicted were from Chicago, but Gepford was not among them.

“If he was important enough,” says Lee, “he would have been picked up. He wasn’t even a second-rung leader. His name doesn’t show up anywhere. If you read a history of the union, you would find references to certain people doing certain things. There would have been autobiographical material if he’d been a big organizer. I’ve never seen him in anything I’ve read, and nobody can remember him.”

A staff member at the National Archives, Lee says, asked federal authorities about Gepford, but his name does not appear in any FBI documents. The only clue to Gepford’s background seems to be his neighborhood. The 3700 block of Cottage Grove where he lived was part of what was called the near south at the turn of the century. The area, says William Adelman, vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society, was “a little art colony, with a lot of intellectuals living there.” Not the sort of place where you might find a working-class member of the IWW, but perhaps the sort of place where you might find a liberal, probably secret, supporter of the union.

Lee accepts the explanation given by Postmaster W.B. Carlile that the envelope containing Hill’s ashes was accidentally mutilated by a machine. But he does point out that if the Post Office had wanted to open Gepford’s mail they had the right to under the authority of the Espionage Act.

That legislation, which was passed when the U.S. entered the war in Europe in 1917, gave the Postmaster General the authority to seize “any matter advocating treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.” Postal agents confiscated plenty of antiwar material from pacifists, German sympathizers, Irish partisans who were unhappy that the U.S. was aligned with England, and left-wing labor and socialist groups who argued that American workers had no business going off to Europe to shoot workers from other countries. While they were at it, postal workers also grabbed a large selection of political literature that had little to do with the war but that was judged too extreme for the government to tolerate. The Post Office confiscated enough mail between 1917 and 1921 to fill up more than 200 sizable cartons.

Jerry Clark, who works in the National Archives and whose specialty is Post Office documents dating from 1917 to 1921, doesn’t buy the mangled-by-the-cancellation-machine theory. “I have a feeling these people were being watched,” he says. Maybe the Wobblies thought Charles Gepford was a safe choice to receive Hill’s ashes because he wasn’t on any of their membership lists–but maybe he was on a list that the IWW didn’t know about.

The confiscated packet and accompanying papers were kept by the Post Office until the 1940s, when they were quietly transferred to the National Archives. “We have lots of odd things in the Archives,” says Clark. “Have you heard about the human fingers?” The fingers, which belonged to a group of kidnapped Americans, were sent to Washington in 1915 by Mexican bandits who wanted to prove they held their hostages.

In May 1986 an article titled “Oddities in the Archives” ran in the Archives’ monthly calendar of events. It mentioned, among other things, penguin bones, a ventriloquist’s dummy, Rosemary Woods’s typewriter, and Joe Hill’s ashes. That article led to a story in Solidarity, the monthly publication of the United Auto Workers, where it came to the attention of the IWW and Fred Lee. Last June Lee wrote to Don Wilson, chief archivist of the United States, asking that Joe Hill’s ashes be returned to the IWW. Wilson and his subordinates weren’t sure they had the authority to release them. “Once you get things into the Archives,” explains Lee, “you can’t get them back out.”

The key question, apparently, was whether the ashes constituted a federal “record.” Did the ashes themselves actually convey any information? Or was all of the necessary information sufficiently contained on the accompanying documents and in the paper packet that held the ashes? The final verdict was that the papers and the packet were good enough. Wilson wrote Lee in early October to tell him to contact the Archives to arrange a transfer of the ashes. Lee traveled to Washington to pick them up on November 18.

No decision has been made yet, Lee says, about what the Wobblies will do with Hill’s ashes once they get them. There is likely to be a ceremony of some kind next May Day, the international workers’ holiday. Some of the ashes may be sent to Sweden, where there is a Joe Hill museum, and the rest may be distributed in Chicago’s Waldheim cemetery, the burial ground for a number of noted American radicals, including the labor and anarchist leaders who were executed as a result of the Haymarket affair. Lee says the ceremony will be for rank-and-file labor activists, in the spirit of the telegram Hill sent Big Bill Haywood on the day he died: “I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste time in mourning. Organize.”