|Mother Jones with miners' children preparing for the Children's Crusade March on Teddy Roosevelt.|
When the widow Mary Harris Jones drew the last breath of her long life in the bedroom of friends in Adelphi, Maryland on November 30, 1930 she had no living kin to mourn her. But she left behind thousands and thousands of miners and their families from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, all the way out to Colorado and dozens of other places who grieved for the woman the called simply, Mother Jones.
At her request, her body was taken to rest with “her boys” at the Union Miner’s Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois were so many victims of the vicious Illinois coal field wars and those killed in mine collapses and explosions. She was laid next to the dead of the Virden Massacre. Later a modest but impressive monument was erected with her bas-relief bronze image attached to a pillar and flanked by statues of two miners, heads bowed. The monument also contains the inscribed names of the Virden dead.
A few months later an almost unknown former railroad telegrapher recently turned to hillbilly singer on radio named Gene Autry sang about her on one of his first records:
The world today’s in mourning
O’er the death of Mother Jones;
Gloom and sorrow hover
Around the miners’ homes.
This grand old champion of labor
Was known in every land;
She fought for right and justice,
She took a noble stand.
O’er the hills and through the valley
In ev’ry mining town;
Mother Jones was ready to help them,
She never turned them down.
On front with the striking miners
She always could be found;
And received a hearty welcome
In ev’ry mining town…
Mary Harris started life far away, the daughter of tenant farmers living on the fringes of the city of Cork in 1837. Her exact birthdate is unknown, but she was faithfully baptized on August 1 meaning that she was probably born sometime in July. Almost 90 years later in The Autobiography of Mother Jones she claimed the symbolic birthday of May 1, 1830. May Day as selected as the International Workers Holiday commemorating the 8 Hour Day Strikes of 1886 in which she had participated and the execution of the Hay Market Martyrs She back dated her birth year, frankly, because her story of labor hell raising was even more impressive if people thought she was even older than she was. To this day, many sources therefore identify her as 100 years old at her death.
Her family decided like so many others to seek their fortunes in the New World. They fortunately immigrated to Ontario, Canada when she was five, just before the Potato Famine. They were able to establish themselves in the new country before hoards of desperate and wretched immigrants would flood the cities. They prospered enough to afford a good Catholic education for their children. One brother, Father William Richard Harris went on to be one of the most influential priests in Ontario. Mary was sent to a convent school in Toronto.
Armed with that education, she got a job teaching in a Catholic school in Michigan and then pushed on to the boom city of Chicago where she first plied the trade of a seamstress. In 1861, on the eve of the Civil War she accepted another teaching job in the busy river port city of Memphis, Tennessee. Her employment did not last long. She met and married George E. Jones an iron molder and sometime organizer for the National Union of Iron Moulders.
Thus would begin the happiest six year of Mary Jones’s life. Four children arrived in quick succession, each one doted upon. George, as a skilled tradesman, made a reasonably good living although he could spend little time with his growing family working 10-12 hour days, six days a week. That made him an ardent union man and also impressed his wife who ever after maintained a working man should earn a decent enough wage to support a family on 8 hours a day. There were the inevitable disruptions to their life brought on by economic disruption to the city caused by the Civil War and from occasional local strikes.
Mary’s happiness was shattered when her husband and all four children perished in a yellow fever epidemic in 1867. She donned the widow’s black mourning that she would wear the rest of her life and vowed not to marry again. Not only did she lose her family, but the expense of burying them made a pauper of her. She tried to establish herself again as a seamstress, but found that the many accomplished Black women in the city who had been trained to sew elegantly in the homes of the wealthy during slave times, too much competition.
She returned to Chicago and started again as a seamstress. She also took in laundry, the traditional job of Irish widows, but tried hard to leave that stigmatizing trade behind as she built of a trade as a lady’s tailor. Then just when that business was established she found home and shop, and everything she owned destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871.
Stunned, she stumbled through the next weeks nursing the injuries of the many injured. Then, as the city rose from the ashes she turned to the labor movement and poured the rest of her life into its service. She joined the Knights of Labor and was soon a noted speaker for them in the city which seemed perpetually in the throes of labor strife.
In 1877 she was working for the Knights in Pittsburgh when the Great Railway Strike broke out. Despite the official opposition to strikes by Knights leaders like Terrance V. Powderly, Mary Jones made her first public mark as a speaker urging the workers on and the spread of the strike. Pittsburgh became one of the hubs of the strike as it spread across the country and the site of pitched battles as strikers tore up tracks and burned rolling stock.
The strike impressed two things on her—the incredible, power of working men when they were righteously angry and united and the ruthlessness of the Capitalist bosses in suppressing the challenge to their authority.
For the next nine years she traveled for the Knights, but spent most of her time in Chicago. She began to invent a new role for herself—not an organizer who had to be interested in things like keeping membership rolls and establishing permanent organizations, but a self-proclaimed hell raiser and agitator whose job it was to stir the workers to collective action and support them in the heat of strikes and battles. That often put her at loggerheads with institutionalists in the Knights as it later would with the other unions she was involved in.
In 1886 she joined the Knights, the local Central Labor Council made up of craft unions, and the anarchist agitators of the International Working Peoples Association in planning a city wide strike on May 1 for the eight hour day. There was already a major strike going on at the McCormick Reaper Works with pitched battles between strikers, scabs, and police as well a half a dozen other strikes, including one by seamstresses. Mary was not a leader of the strikes, but was a reliable street corner orator who knew just how to stir up a crowd with a combination of salty language, vicious and colorful attacks on the bosses, and humor. She was not at the Haymarket for the protest meeting for the killing of strikers at the McCormick Works on May 4 when the bomb went off in the midst of attacking police. But she did witness the enormous oppression that followed and the quick railroading of the Anarchist leaders and their executions.
If there had been any vestige of labor conservatism in her heart following those events, it was replaced by a burning anger.
In the years after the Haymarket, the Knights collapsed as an effective union. Mary was not attracted to the craft union movement which had become the American Federation of Labor. She felt that their refusal to organize the mass of unskilled laborers in industry was not only a breach of solidarity but a long term prescription for disaster
She went to work in the notorious textile mills in Birmingham, Alabama in 1894 to learn about conditions. Then she led the workers out on a dramatic, but futile strike.
After that, she attracted the attention of United Mine Workers president John Mitchel, who began to selectively employ her in the coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The UMW was the only AFL union whose charter permitted it to organize industrially and like Jones was interested in spreading that principle to other basic industry.
Around 1897 when she was 60 years old and already white headed, Mine Worker periodicals began to recount the adventures of Mother Jones.
She had also been a member of the old Socialist Labor Party (SLP), and then had joined another industrial unionist, Eugene V. Debs in his new Socialist Party (SP). Both parties occasionally employed her as a speaker. She was not opposed to electoral activity as an auxiliary support for workers in the labor movement, but it was neither her passion or main interest.
She published The New Right (about the rights of labor, not conservatives) in 1899 and the two volumes of Letter of Love and Labor in 1900 and 1901.
At the turn of the new century, Mother Jones was just beginning the most famous and colorful part of her long career.
In 1901 Mine Worker leader Mitchel sent Mother Jones to help build solidarity for striking silk workers in Pennsylvania. Many were young girls and a key demand was parity for them with men’s wages. But she had a different view. She wanted the enactment and enforcement of child labor laws to keep many of the young women out of the mills and high wages for men so that their wives and daughters would not have to work. This was in keeping with her deeply held Irish Catholic reverence for home and hearth and a belief that women were happiest as wives and mothers with economic security.
She saw women as essentially an important auxiliary for the struggle of men, who they would nurture and support. She organized strikes wives and children into “Broomstick militias” and turned them out armed with said brooms sticks and pans to bang on when injunctions prevented their husbands from picketing.
The strike ended. Thanks to Mother Jones a great deal of attention had been drawn to child labor issues, but the settlement included wage boosts for the girls, not a release from labor. Mother Jones reluctantly recommended ratification of the contract anyway. But she never again involved herself in a strike involving large numbers of women workers, and thus missed the big strikes in the mills of Lawrence and Paterson and by garment workers in New York and Chicago.
In 1902 she was in West Virginia pulling miners out on strike. Reese Blizzard, s local district attorney told a jury trying her on charges of violating an injunction against picketing that she was “The most dangerous woman in America…. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign ... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.”
Back in Pennsylvania working with miners for the UMW and continuing her agitation to end child labor for the next two years. In 1903 she launched her famous Children’s Crusade march with child laborers from the mines and silk mills from Kensington and Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s palatial home at Oyster Bay, New York. The President snubbed her, refusing to meet either her or the children and not even responding to a written request for an interview. But the march of bedraggled children led by a white haired old lady in old fashion clothes got national press attention and brought the issue of child labor to the fore.
An exasperated Roosevelt, after she defied Federal anti-strike injunctions in Colorado the next year, would repeat Blizzard’s characterization and would thereafter usually be credited as the first one to call her the most dangerous woman in America.
Mother Jones had gone to Colorado, which was already in almost a civil war, right after the Children’s march. She found conditions deplorable and organized violence by company thugs and the Colorado Militia outrageous. Once again she organized miners’ wives to support their husbands. Back east the UMW’s Mitchell became alarmed at reports of wide spread violence during what was an unauthorized wildcat strike. He ordered UMW members, representing about a third of those out, back to work or risk losing their union charters. That effectively broke the strike with no gains despite enormous suffering. Many strike leaders were blacklisted.
Outraged by the betrayal, Mother Jones broke with the Mine Workers, sacrificing the only steady, if meager, income she had earned for years. There after she lived mostly on charity and handouts from supports, living and eating with whatever workers she was organizing.
The experience also hardened Jones’s already state opposition to women’s suffrage. She had long argued, “You don’t need the vote to raise hell.” But now her ire was raised against the largely middleclass suffrage movement, and indeed against women crusading for reform in general. Colorado women had the vote, and those same middle class women did not exercise their franchise in support of the starving and oppressed workers, as many reformers claimed they naturally would. In fact they seemed to be especially vocal in opposition dreading civil disorder more than they thirsted for justice. And many suffrage leaders were also prohibitionists who during and after World War I would successfully campaign to deny workers one of their few pleasures and solace—a dram of drink.
In her 1925 Autobiography Mother Jones would bitterly note that, “the plutocrats have organized their women. They keep them busy with suffrage and prohibition and charity.” This aspect of her career is often glossed over or omitted by modern activists who claim her inspiration, especially feminists.
After the collapse of the Colorado wildcats, Mother Jones stayed mostly in the west for the next 9 years agitating not only among coal miners, but among hard rock miners usually in association with the radical Western Federation of Miners. She was active among copper miner in Arizona and Idaho and was a repeated nuisance.
In 1905 she returned to Chicago to support her friends Socialist leader Eugene Debs and Western Federation leader William D. “Big Bill” Haywood in founding a revolutionary new industrial union. She signed the March 1905 call to the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was present at the June founding. She took out a red card but was never active with the union, and when she resumed relations with the UMW a few years later, was actively hostile to IWW organizing attempts in the coal fields.
That re-association with the UMW—although not employment—came when she rushed east to support the Cabin Creek/Paint Creek Strikes in West Virginia which had devolved into open civil war between miners, authorities, and gun thugs of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency. She arrived in June 1912 when the strike was three months old a taking a turn for the worse. Baldwin-Feltz agents using machine guns and even an armored train were moving to evict strikers from company housing. Shootings and assaults on all sides were common.
75 year old Mother Jones flew into action. She rallied miners with fiery rhetoric. She personally snuck past patrols of armed guard on foot to reach miners isolated at Eskdale and bring them out on strike. Then in secret she organized a 3000 man march of armed miners to the steps of the state capital in Charleston to read a formal declaration of war on rabidly anti-union Governor William E. Glasscock. After that, miners went on the offensive, attacking mine guards and scabs at several occasions.
Martial law was declared three times over the next few months. The final time was on February 10, 1913. Three days later Mother Jones was arrested attempting to publicly read the Declaration of Independence. When she was hauled before a military tribunal on charges of inciting a riot, she refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court or to offer a defense. Charges were amended to include conspiracy to commit murder. She was quickly convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison at hard labor.
Since her arrest Mother Jones had been held in isolation at Mrs. Carney's Boarding House unable to communicate with supporters or the press. While there she contracted pneumonia. In May she smuggled a letter to pro-labor Indiana Senator John Worth Kern who on May 23 announced the creation of a special Senate Subcommittee to investigate conditions in the West Virginia mines. The subcommittee also extended its investigations to two other violent hot spots—the Michigan copper mines, and Colorado coal fields.
Meanwhile a new pro-labor Governor Dr. Henry D. Hatfield—yes one of those Hatfields—took office. He ordered Mother Jones transported to a hospital in Charleston for treatment and then released unconditionally with several other jailed activists. Hatfield imposed a settlement of the strike generally favorable to the UMW, but local militants held out for more until June.
Despite her ordeal, Mother Jones sprang back into action only a few months later as Colorado coal miners prepared for another big strike in the coal fields. Once again she was on the stump and in the tent villages of evicted strikers. She organized marches and women. And once again she was arrested. Held for several days, she was deported to the Colorado border with orders never to return. Before she could come back Colorado Militia and Baldwin–Felts thugs attacked the sleeping camp at Ludlow with machine gun fire and burnt the tents killing at least 19, mostly women and children.
Mother Jones barnstormed the east publicizing the outrage. The resulting publicity caused John D. Rockefeller, owner of one of the major employers, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company to meet personally with her and promise to go to Colorado himself, which he did. He also ordered some improvements in mine conditions, but did not offer union recognition. Also met personally with President Woodrow Wilson.
Mother Jones remained mostly in the east until 1920 often working with the UMW in the mine fields, but also offering support to other strikers, including those defying World War I strike bans in defense related industry. She only escaped the persecution and prosecution of Debs, IWW leaders, and other militant unionists because of her age and public sympathy.
Well passed 80 she still spoke up in union affairs, and was a vocal critic of some UMW actions. She spoke out fearlessly on any topic when asked. Which, inevitably, got her into trouble one last time. In 1924 the publisher of a fledgling Chicago newspaper sued her for slander, libel, and sedition. As usual, she refused to contest the case and was fine $350,000. A virtual pauper, she had no money to pay.
But the same year Charles H. Kerr & Company, the labor and socialist publisher, issued The Autobiography of Mother Jones. The modest royalties were expected to provide some small income in her advancing years. Now lawyers got it all for the settlement.
Finally surrendering to age and infirmity, Mother Jones moved into the home of her friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess where she was lovingly cared for. She would entertain visitors and the press, always willing to share a story or a sharp opinion. On here adopted birthday of May 1, 1930 a newsreel team filmed her delivering a short greeting from her bed. It was the only time her voice was ever recorded. Eight months later she was dead.