Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a prominent activist and community organizer who helped shape the United States labor movement during the turn of the 20th century. Her influence reached deep into West Virginia, inspiring coal miners to organize and fight for a multitude of rights that they had been denied for years. Because labor rights and coal is a very much a part of West Virginia to this very day, a profile of Mother Jones seemed fitting for Women’s History Month.
Mary Harris was born near Dublin, Ireland in 1830. Eager to start a new life in America, her parents immigrated when Mary was very young. She attended school in the United States and graduated with high honors. She became a Catholic school teacher shortly after graduation, briefly leaving the profession to pursue a career in dressmaking. At the age of 30, she met and married Robert Jones, an ironworker and member of the Iron Moulder’s Union. They had four children together and enjoyed a few years of modest prosperity.
Two tragic events became defining moments for Mary and changed the course of her life. The first came in 1867 when a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of her husband and all of her children. At the age of 37, she moved to Chicago alone and took up work as a dressmaker until the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed her business. Distraught and without family, a home or money, she turned to her deceased husband’s union members for help. Their generosity and compassion touched her heart and shaped her future as an activist.
Mary’s first experience with union activism was with the Knights of Labor. She discovered that she had an aptitude and passion for organizing protests and inspiring workers through her speeches. Even though the first strikes were considered failures, with many losing their lives at the hands of police brutality, Mary remained passionate and driven. As the demise of the Knights of Labor became inevitable, many members, including Mary, left the organization. It was at this time that she became involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) as a volunteer.
For the next several decades, Mary traveled across the country to help workers. She participated in the Pennsylvania coal mine strike in 1873 and the Great Railway Strike of 1877, in Pittsburgh, PA. During the 1880’s she organized and ran educational meetings. In the 1890’s her involvement with the struggle of coal miners grew, and she became an organizer for the UMW, eventually becoming a paid employee.
It was during these years that “Mother Jones” came to life. By the age of 60, Mary had fully assumed the persona. She went by “Mother” instead of Mary. Some suggested that it was a trick, carefully crafted to better sway workers and their families to strike. She was known to wear outdated black dresses, refer to male workers as “her boys,” and she would claim to be much older than she actually was. Even when she spoke with passion and fervor, her voice was considered pleasant and not “shrill,” adding to her efficacy as a leader, organizer and orator.
At the turn of the century, the role of women in society was very limited. Most were expected to lead quiet lives, tending to the needs of their families and home. Women, especially elderly ones, were not supposed to have opinions, and they were certainly not to voice their opinions in public. By embracing the very role that restricted most women, mother and matriarch, Mother Jones was able to break free from those restrictions. She became the mother of the poor and exploited workers of America.
The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Mother Jones spent much of her time in Appalachia, specifically in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, working with the coal miners on strike. She gained some notoriety for organizing their families too, getting wives and children to protest as well. She was arrested in West Virginia for ignoring an injunction that banned meetings of striking miners. At her trial in 1902, a West Virginia district attorney, Reese Blizzard, said of Jones,
There sits 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.
“The most dangerous woman in America” was clearly not concerned with the opinions of Blizzard or others like him because a year later she organized the “Children’s Crusade.” Mother Jones along with the children who worked in mills and mines marched from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Roosevelt. They carried banners that read “We want to go to school and not the mines!” She was criticized for creating such a spectacle. However, she did so because newspapers, which were partially owned by mine and mill owners, refused to print stories about the children who were killed, disfigured or disabled by the difficult and incredibly unsafe working conditions. Although child labor laws did not change overnight, it was an event that helped push the agenda forward. Mother Jones remained an advocate for strict child labor laws for the rest of her life.
Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912
The Paint Creek – Cabin Creek Strike lasted from April 1912 to July of 1913. It was considered one of the most devastating in American labor union history with about 50 deaths caused by violence and others caused by starvation and malnutrition. It was initially a non-violent strike, but mine operators quickly sent in 300 guards from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to try and break up the strike.
Beatings and sniper attacks had become a daily occurrence by the time Mother Jones arrived in June of 1912. In spite of the danger, she faced armed guards, persuaded other miners from the area to join the strike, and she secretly organized a march of 3000 armed miners to the state capital. Because of the increased tension and violence, martial law was declared and rescinded twice during the year and two months of the strike. Mother Jones was arrested, court martialed and sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary in February of 1913. Her trial, conviction, and imprisonment created such a furor that the U.S. Senate ordered a committee to investigate conditions in the West Virginia coalfields. While being detained at Mrs. Carney’s Boarding House, newly elected Governor Hatfield released her without comment. She had only been imprisoned for a total of 85 days.
Her imprisonment in West Virginia did not slow her down. Just a few months after her release, she helped organize coal miners in Colorado. This led to her arrest, imprisonment and being escorted from the state. After the Ludlow massacre in Colorado, she was invited to meet with the owner of the Ludlow mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Their meeting prompted him to visit the mines and eventually introduce necessary reforms.
Legend and Legacy
Mother Jones continued to be a hardworking leader, organizer and advocate for labor rights up until her death in 1930. Just a few years before, she faced charges of libel and slander. In 1925 the publisher of the Chicago Times won a $350,000 judgement against Jones. The very same year she released her book, The Autobiography of Mother Jones.
For several decades she traveled across the United States and maintained no permanent address. She has been quoted as telling a congressional committee, “My address is my shoes. It travels with me wherever I go.” There are many other quotes attributed to Mother Jones as well. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” is still used by union supporters. When she was supposedly called the “grandmother of all agitators, she replied with, “I hope to live long enough to be the great grandmother of all agitators.” Finally, her most famous quote, “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a Hell-raiser!”
Her spirit and commitment to community improvement is celebrated in Wheeling, West Virginia. The Mother Jones House, located on 14th Street in East Wheeling, is a partnership between Wheeling Jesuit and Laughlin Memorial Chapel. Students provide 10 hours a week of community service and receive an AmeriCorps Education Award at the end of the year. From the Wheeling Jesuit website:
“The Mother Jones House lives by the six core values of: simplicity, faith, community, social justice, learning and service.”
Her influence can still be felt over a century later. During the Pittston Coal strike, which occurred between 1989 and 1990, she was still considered a legend and inspiration. Wives and daughters of the striking miners called themselves the “Daughters of Mother Jones” and were instrumental during protests. Multiple folk songs, such as “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie and “The Charge on Mother Jones” by William Rogers, reference her life and work as an activist. The musical, “Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade,” debuted in 2014 as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The progressive magazine, Mother Jones, launched in the 1970’s and is named after the activist mother.
Mother Jones lived with her friends on a farm in Adelphi, Maryland during her later years. Depending on the record, this is where she celebrated her 93rd or 100th birthday on May 1st, 1930. She was filmed giving the following statement for a newsreel:
She died a few months later on November 30th, 1930.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside the miners who died during the Battle of Virden. Between 1932 and 1936, miners raised over $16,000 for a graveside monument in her honor. The monument weighs over 80 tons, stands over 20 feet tall and includes two bronze statues of coal miners. On October 11th, 1936, approximately fifty thousand people came to the unveiling, a daylong event that included speeches from various leaders and politicians, including Senator Rush D. Holt (D) from West Virginia.
To learn more about Mother Jones, her life and activism, check out the following sites:
National Women’s History Museum
Illinois Labor History Society