NAME: Mary Harris Jones
DATE OF BIRTH: August 1, 1837 (She later claimed it was May 1, 1830)
PLACE OF BIRTH: Cork, Ireland
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Mary Harris was born to Richard and Mary Harris. She came from a long line of social agitators. It was common in Ireland then to see British soldiers marching through the streets with the heads of Irish freedom fighters stuck on their bayonets. Her paternal grandfather was hanged by the British for being a freedom fighter. Several sources say her father also was one and, shortly after his father was hanged, was forced to flee Ireland with his family. Another source says he left to work on railway construction crews in the U.S. and Canada. At any rate, they did leave Ireland, eventually settling in Toronoto, Ontario, in 1841.
EDUCATION: Mary attended public schools in Toronto, and graduated from the normal school in 1854 at the age of 17. The next year, she began working as a private tutor in Maine. She received a teaching certificate in Michigan in 1857, at age 20, and taught at St. Mary's Convent school in Monroe, Michigan.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Mary only taught in Michigan for about eight months, moving to Chicago to work as a dressmaker. From there, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1860 to teach school again. It was here, in 1861, that she met and married George E. Jones, a staunch and prominent member of the Iron Molders' Union. At times, Mary traveled with George in his union organizing. Through him, Mary learned about unions and the psychology of working men. Later, she would advise women that "the wife must care for what the husband cares for, if he is to remain resolute."
Life was good for a while, as Mary and George bore four children in quick succession. But tragedy first struck in 1867, when her husband and all the children died in a yellow fever epidemic, within a week of each other. She stayed in Memphis nursing other victims until the epidemic waned, then moved back to Chicago, working as a dressmaker again. But tragedy soon followed. In 1871, she lost everything she owned in her home and seamstress shop in the great Chicago fire. It was then that Mary embarked upon the path that made her name synonymous with social justice. Probably the seeds were sown earlier, while sewing in the homes of wealthy Chicago families. She later said:
After the great fire, Mary began to attend meetings of the newly formed Knights of Labor, held in a ragged, fire-scorched building. The fraternity and its ideals must have struck a chord in Mary, bringing forth her compassion and passion. And although she continued to work in Chicago as a seamstress, she had no fixed home. She began volunteering with the Knights of Labor as an organizer -- traveling back and forth across the country, from one industrial area to another, living with the workers in tent colonies and shantytowns near the mills. She in essence adopted the hard workers of America, and they called her 'Mother.' (One source says during a strike, a mine detective bashed the skull of a miner. While Mary cradled his head, the delirious, dying miner thought she was his mother and called her such; the name stuck.) When asked about where she lived, she said:
The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. America was changing from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Immigrants and displaced farmers made up the vast array of workers, digging out coal and forging steel. But they were subjected to nightmarish conditions and paid starvation wages. Mary would travel to wherever there was a strike, organizing and helping the workers. She would hold educational meetings, and bolster the men's spirits to keep up the fight. Often she was at odds with union leaders. In 1877, Mary helped in the Baltimore and Ohio railroad workers' strike in Pittsburg. In the 1880s, she organized and ran educational meetings, saying:
On May 1, 1886, labor unions in Chicago organized a strike for an eight-hour work day. (Two years earlier, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had called for the eight-hour work day to begin on that day.) Two days into the strike, a fight broke out and two strikers were killed by police; others were wounded. On May 4, spurred by incendiary fliers saying the police had murdered the strikers on behalf of the business owners, thousands of workers gathered in Chicago's Haymarket Square for a rally. Although the people remained calm throughout, when the police ordered everyone to disperse and began marching in formation through the crowd, a bomb was thrown and exploded near them, killing one policeman. (Seven more policemen died later from their injuries.) The police began firing into the crowd, ultimately killing 11 people. Many of the wounded were afraid to seek treatment, for fear of being arrested.
It was because of this event that Mary "changed" her birth date to May 1, 1830 -- May 1 in honor of the strike for an eight-hour work day. This date has become celebrated worldwide as International Workers' Day (except in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand), commemorating the social and economic achievements of the labor movement and remembering the Haymarket Riot. Mary probably moved her birth seven years earlier to embellish the grandmotherly image of 'Mother' Jones.
Prominent strikes Mary participated in include the Pullman railroad strike in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1894; the Pennsylvania anthracite coal miners' strike in 1902; the Ludlow miners' strike in Colorado in 1913; and the nationwide steel workers' strike in 1919. She also helped other workers as well. In 1901, she helped form a union of domestic servants and helped silk weavers (often daughters of miners) fight for better work conditions. In 1909, she helped striking shirtwaist workers; the next year she helped organize women bottlers in Milwaukee breweries. In 1916, she helped streetcar workers in Texas and New York.
At only five feet tall and dressed in black with just a touch of lace at her throat and wrists, Mary was a perfect picture of a grandmother. Yet when she spoke, she was dynamic, energetic and enthusiastic -- bringing her audiences to tears, applause and laughter. She was a gifted storyteller with a brilliant sense of humor. Her intensity was almost explosive when she began to speak; her listeners (mostly men) sat up, fully alert, and believed that together they could do anything. She'd smile and scan the people gathered with her bright blue eyes, then say:
Starting in 1890, she joined the coal miners' fight, becoming an organizer for the newly formed United Mine Workers of America. First she was a volunteer, then she became a union employee. She traveled to West Virginia, Alabama and Colorado, the hardest to organize areas. The miners and their families lived in towns where everything -- the houses, stores and even churches -- was owned by the mining company. She knew the gruesome conditions and hazards of their work, and even went into the mines during strikes to convince scabs (men who worked while others were striking) to quit and support their fellow workers. She warned miners to not trust the churches because they were financially supported by the mine owners. One preacher chastised Mary for holding a union meeting in "a house of God." She said:
Although Mary was raised Catholic, she never claimed allegiance, feeling the organized church had abandoned the revolutionary nature Jesus had espoused. She also felt organized religion was used as a way to keep people from asking questions about their condition. When she spoke to groups, she portrayed Jesus as an organizer of the poor, saying he chose to die rather than betray the poor. On June 20, 1902, at a rally near Clarksburg, West Virginia, Mary was arrested after her speech. When she found out she would be detained in a hotel, she demanded to be put in jail with the other miners who had been arrested. During her career, she was arrested or escorted out of town many times -- only to return again and again.
Remembering lessons she learned from George, Mary often involved the wives and children of miners to dramatize the situation, as well as keep up the men's resolve. In 1902, she told striking miners in Arnot, Pennsylvania, to "stay home with the children for a change and let the women attend to the scabs." Then she led a march of the miners' wives from mine to mine, driving away strikebreakers with brooms and mops. She used this strategy many times at other strikes. In 1907 in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, she urged strikers' wives to stand at the picket line, with their children. If arrested and imprisoned, she told them to sing as loudly as they could so the townspeople would be happy to have them released.
As for children, Mary traveled to several Southern cotton mills, assessing the working conditions -- although cotton mills were not exclusive to the South. She hired on at some, telling the managers she had children who would be working with her. She described the typical conditions at the mills:
In 1903, to dramatize the need to abolish child labor, she led a caravan of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in Long Island, New York. They carried banners saying "We want time to play!" and "We want to go to school!" The president refused to meet with them, but the "Children's Crusade" caught the public's attention. She is quoted as saying:
In 1898, Mary helped found the Social Democratic Party. In 1904, she resigned from the UMWA and began lecturing for the Socialist Party of America, traveling throughout the southwest. She became an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners (who mined metal rather than coal), who were much more radical than the UMWA. In 1905, Mary was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World union -- the only woman amond 27 people signing the manifesto calling for the organization. The predecessor of this union was the Knights of Labor.
While still participating in strikes and organized drives for unions, Mary became concerned as well about the conditions of Mexicans working in the U.S. She also focused energy on raising funds to defend Mexican revolutionaries who had been arrested or deported. She supported the overthrow of the dictatorial Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, and visited his successor, Francisco Madero, until he was assassinated.
In 1911, Mary left the Socialist Party to again work for the United Mine Workers union as an organizer. It was during this time that 'Mother' Jones came to national attention through the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia. On September 21, 1912, she led a march of miners' children through Charleston, West Virginia. On February 12, 1913, she led a protest about mining conditions and was arrested.
At the age of 76, Mary was convicted by a military court of conspiring to commit murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. This whole ordeal created such a fervor nationally that the U.S. Senate ordered a committee to investigate conditions in the coalfields. Before the investigations began, newly elected governor Hatfield set 'Mother' Jones free. (Because of her adding seven years to her age, everyone believed she was 83 years old.) She didn't waste any time -- traveling to Colorado to help miners in a yearlong strike. She arrived in Trinidad, Colorado, and spoke at the West Theatre:
Mary was evicted from mine company property several times, but returned again and again. She was arrested and imprisoned twice: first for about two months at Mt. San Rafael Hospital, and later for 23 days in a squalid semi-basement cell at Huerfano County Jail in Walsenburg. This second time was in Ludlow, Colorado, after she'd been told to leave town or be arrested. After her prison term, she was escorted out of town, but she slipped back in with the help of railroad workers.
On April 20, 1914, miners and their families, 20 people in all, were killed in a machine-gun massacre at a tent colony in Ludlow. Mary traveled the country telling the story. She caught the attention of the nation, and its leaders. President Wilson and members of the House Mines and Mining Committee responded by proposing that the union and each mine's owners agree to a truce and create grievance committees.
In 1915 and 1916, Mary helped in the strikes of garment workers and streecar workers in New York. In 1919, she helped steel workers striking in Pittsburg and was arrested again. In 1921, as a guest of the Mexican government, Mary attended the Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting in Mexico -- a highlight of recognition for her role in the labor movement. The next year, she resigned from the UMWA. (Both of her resignations from the UMWA were from disagreements with the presidents; the first time being John Mitchell. She felt Mitchell had been bought off by the mining companies and was serving their interests rather than the workers'. As for John L. Lewis, the later president, she thought he was a self-promoter and detested him until she died.)
In 1924, Mary was sued for libel, slander and sedition. The next year, the publisher of the Chicago Times, a fledgling newspaper at the time, won a shocking $350,000 judgment against her. Early in that year, Mary was attacked by a couple of thugs while staying at a friend's house. She fought them off, causing one to flee and seriously injuring the other, a 54-year-old man who later died from the wounds -- which included a blunt head injury from Mary's trademark black leather boots. Police arrested her, but she was released soon after when the attackers were identified as associates of a prominent local business man.
That same year, 1925, Mary published her autobiography, which she'd probably started writing in 1922 or 1923. She dictated her stories to Mary Field Parton, a reporter, friend and mistress of Clarence Darrow. (He wrote the introduction to the first edition.) Afterwards, she continued to lecture, as her health permitted. She was now 85 years old. Her last known public speaking engagement was in Alliance, Ohio, in 1926, as the guest of honor at a Labor Day celebration. Her last public appearance was at her 100th birthday party (although she was really only 92 years old) on May 1, 1930, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Mary lived in Silver Spring with a retired coal miner and his wife, Walter and Lillie May Burgess. Seven months after the birthday party, 'Mother' Jones died on November 30, 1930, at the age of 93. A requiem mass was held at St. Gabriel's in Washington, D.C., then her body was sent to Mount Olive, Illinois, to be buried in the Union Miners Cemetery, in the coalfields of southern Illinois -- near the graves of victims of the Virden, Illinois, mine riot of 1898. (See the website on the cemetery, below, for more on this event.) Mary had requested to be buried there, back in 1924.
Mourners paid tribute to Mother Jones there, both at the Odd Fellows Temple and the Ascension Church, where the memorial service was held. About 10,000 to 15,000 people attended. The Reverend John W.F. Maguire, president of St. Viator's College in Bourbonnais, Illinois, said in his address:
Starting in 1934, the Progressive Miners of America, who owned the cemetery, raised over $16,000 to erect a monument to 'Mother' Jones. It stands 22 feet high, built of 80 tons of pink Minnesota granite. On October 11, 1936, the dedication ceremony included an estimated 50,000 people. Five special trains and 25 Greyhound buses brought people to Mt. Olive. Others came by car or hitch-hiked. West Virginia Senator Rush D. Holt spoke, as did North Dakota Congressman William Lemke and socialist leader Duncan McDonald. The final speaker was Lillie May Burgess, who said Mother Jones had wanted to live another 100 years to "fight to the end" so that "there would be no more machine guns and no more sobbing of little children."
For years, October 12 was Miner's Day, celebrated with a big gathering in Mt. Olive and a visit to the monument. Mary's work was honored throughout the 1930s, by labor activists and Gene Autry recording "The Death of Mother Jones," whose song origins are obscure. After that, her memory faded and the copyright on her autobiography lapsed. Finally, in 1972, the Charles Kerr Company published a second edition of her autobiography, folk singers revived "The Death of Mother Jones," and in 1976, Mother Jones Magazine was formed, promising journalistic muck-raking much like its namesake.
'Mother' Jones has been criticized as not being a feminist. Her focus, though, was on the rights of workers -- men, women and children. She strongly opposed the suffrage movement, feeling it supported a passive inactivity; whereas she was wholeheartedly about taking action. She pointed out that the women of Ludlow, Colorado, had voting rights in the state, but it did not stop the massacre from happening. She said:
As a side note, the popular children's song "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" is believed to have been inspired by 'Mother' Jones. It first was sung in the late 1800s, spread throughout Appalachia (probably by coal miners), and was widely sung by railroad work gangs in the 1890s. In addition to being nicknamed 'Mother' Jones, Mary also was called 'The Miners' Angel' and 'The Grandmother of All Agitators' -- a title she was proud of, saying she hoped to live to be the great-grandmother of agitators.
DATE OF DEATH: November 30, 1930
PLACE OF DEATH: Silver Spring, Maryland
PORTRAYED BY: Ann McEvoy
Mother Jones: The Miners' Angel - Illinois Labor History Society
Mother Jones - Wikipedia
Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America - Book review on Womenshistory.About.Com
The Haymarket Riot - Wikipedia
The Union Miners' Cemetery - Illinois Labor History Society
She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain - Wikipedia
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