The ashes of union legend Joe Hill - what's left of them 73 years after he was executed by a Utah firing squad - are back in the hands of the heirs to his legacy, who are looking for a fitting way to dispose of them.
"I've got them right here in the safe," said Brian Myers of the Industrial Workers of the World.The union got the ashes in November from the National Archives, which had held them as part of a file handed over by federal agents who had seized them at a post office in Chicago.
Hill was cremated in Chicago after he died before a Utah firing squad for killing a Salt Lake City grocery store owner. His final wish was to have his body taken out of Utah and cremated with his ashes to be scattered in every state but the one that killed him.
The union, whose members were known as the Wobblies, now is considered something of a curiosity, but it once was regarded as a serious threat to the established order during its heyday in the first two decades of this century. Its membership now is about one-tenth of the 100,000 it had around World War I.
After Hill's death, portions of his ashes were mailed throughout the country, in accordance with his wishes.
One of those envelopes, carrying the union's imprint and a picture of Hill, was snagged by a machine in the Post Office in 1917 and the contents began to spill out. The ashes were considered seditious and were seized by federal agents under a World War I espionage law.
"The archivists who dealt with these records knew they were there," said Jill Brett, a spokeswoman for the National Archives. "They came to us in 1944, so we knew that we had them."
Virtually nobody else knew the ashes were there until mention of them popped up in a United Auto Workers union magazine feature on strange items kept by the archives, Myers said from the IWW's Chicago headquarters.
The union asked for them back, and after some deliberation the archives, which is more in the habit of keeping things than giving them away, decided to part with Hill's ashes - but decided to keep the envelope they were found in.
"We could certainly turn over the ashes because they weren't records," Brett said.
The ashes were handed over with little fanfare and were taken back to Chicago. Myers said having the ashes in the safe is not as spooky as the portrait of Hill that hangs above his desk.
The union has formed a committee to decide how to dispose of Hill's ashes, and Myers says there have been plenty of suggestions, "ranging from silly requests, such as they should be injected in Michael Dukakis' arm, to very heartening requests."
While no decision has been made, some ceremony probably will be held next May Day, he said.