When Swedish born union organiser and radical song writer Joe Hill was executed in the United States in 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sent packets of his ashes all over the world- to every state in the US (except Utah where he died), Asia, Europe, every country in South America, Australia and supposedly, New Zealand. But were his ashes actually sent here? And if they were, what happened to them? Why is there so little historical record of their fate?
These are the questions that Jared Davidson sets out to answer in Remains to be Seen. After extensive research drawing on archival material, much of it previously unpublished, he concluded that while there is no “concrete evidence” of Joe Hill’s ashes arriving in New Zealand – or even being sent here in the first place – it is highly likely they were. While the IWW in New Zealand was on the decline in the later half on the 1910s (a result of state repression) there were many members who were still agitating and maintaining contact with the US IWW.
Ashes did arrive in Australia (though they were destroyed by police soon afterward in a raid on the Sydney IWW offices). At the time Australia and New Zealand shared the same postal shipping route which went to Sydney via Auckland so if the ashes were indeed sent here, chances are they arrived. The mostly likely scenario is that they were intercepted and destroyed by state censors.
Remains to be Seen is largely a historical account of the New Zealand state’s repression of militant labour during World War One. Under the War Regulations Act the state was given immense power to censor publications and imprison agitators. Solicitor-General John Salmond had the ability to circumvent parliament in deciding what material needed to be censored, and described IWW publications as a “public evil”.
The book is an easy read and doesn’t require a great amount of prior knowledge about labour history on the part of the reader and would serve as a good introduction to anyone wanting to discover more about repression of dissent in New Zealand during the first world war. Some of the material may come as a shock to those unfamiliar with this history. In the forward a number of books on the topic are suggested for further reading.
Jared Davidson has written books on design and does the design work for the Labour History Project. This is his first labour history book.