Mother Jones Court-Martial: 1913

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Mother Jones Court-Martial: 1913

Defendants: Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, W.H. Adkins (alias Bunk Adkins), Charles Batley, Tip Belcher, C.H. Boswell, Clyde E. Bowe, William Brandridge, John W. Brown, Leonard Clark, H.V. Craise, Ernest Creigo, Harrison Ellis, Grady Everett, Charles Gillispie, Ed. Gray, Boyd Holley (alias Boyd Adkins), W.H.H. Huffman, Frazier Jarrett, John Jones, Charles Kenney, Sanford Kirk, Charles Lanham, A.D. Lavender, G.W. Lavender, George W. McCoy, Tom Miskel, Carl Morgan, Cal J. Newman, Bert Nutter, Ernest O'Dell, John O'Dell, Robert Parrish, G.F. Parsons, W.H. Patrick, Paul Paulsen, Will Perdue, W. Lawrence Perry, Oscar Petry, Jim Pike, William Price, Joe Prince, John Seachrist, John Siketo, Emory J. Sowards, Cleve Vickers, E.B. Vickers, Charles Wright, Steve Yager, and J.D. Zeller (alias Dutch Zeller)
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to inflict bodily injury, murder, conspiracy to destroy personal property, conspiracy to inflict bodily injury, accessory to crime after the fact, unlawfully carrying weapons
Chief Defense Lawyers: Albert M. Belcher, Harold W. Houston, Adam B. Littlepage, M.F. Matheny; court-appointed attorneys: Edward B. Carskadon, Charles R. Morgan
Prosecutor: George Selden Wallace, Judge Advocate
Judges: Clarence F. Jolliffe, Captain Boughner (first name unrecorded), Samuel L. Walker
Place: Pratt, West Virginia
Date of Trial: March 7-14, 1913
Verdicts: Officially unrecorded, but deduced from contemporary newspaper accounts: Mother Jones, Boswell, Brown, Creigo, Kenney, A.D. Lavender, G.W. Lavender, Miskel, Parsons, Seachrist, Cleve Vickers and E.B. Vickers: guilty; all others: not guilty
Sentences: Up to 20 years' imprisonment (commuted to time served)

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial of an 83-year-old labor agitator who had become known as "the Miners' Angel" caused such tumult that the United States Senate investigated labor conditions in the coal fields of West Virginia. Historians of labor relations consider the trial a major event in the movement, from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, to protect laborers against low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions.

Born in 1830 in Ireland, Mary Harris was brought to America at the age of five. She graduated from teacher' school at 17, taught in Michigan, moved on to dress-making in Chicago, and then returned to teaching in Memphis, Tennessee.

Yellow Fever and Chicago Fire

There in 1861 she married iron molder George E. Jones, a worker dedicated to the union viewpoint. In six years, the couple produced four children, but in 1867, within one week, yellow fever killed all four and then their father. Widow Jones returned to dressmaking in Chicago.

For three days in October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire ravaged the city. Mary Harris Jones's home and shop became rubble. Shortly thereafter she joined the Knights of Labor, an organization determined to unite workers in a single cooperative system.

Working as a seamstress for Chicago's well-to-do, Jones pondered her late husband's convictions, the goals of the Knights of Labor, the hungry wretches shivering in one-room shantytown "houses," and those oblivious to it allher wealthy employers. Soon she was recruiting new Knights.

In 1877, the fourth year of a grueling depression, railroad workers struck over reduced wages. Marching on picket lines in Pittsburgh, Jones watched 6,000 workers defy strike-breaking troops, dispatched by the governor. After the soldiers killed 26 of their comrades, the strikers destroyed 105 locomotives and 79 railroad buildings before President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops. Mary Jones became convinced that, while workers could exercise power, private industry commanded the federal troops.

"Mother" of All American Workers

Soon known as Mother Jonesfor she considered all American workers her familyMary traveled and spoke constantly, living in shantytowns and tent villages. In fact, she lived, she said, "wherever there is a fight."

By 1890, Mother Jones was helping organize the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). The year 1902 saw her leading Pennsylvania coalminers' wives who wielded mops and brooms to drive away strikebreakers. When theIndustrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in 1905, she was the only woman among the 27 signers of its manifesto. By 1911 she was a paid organizer for the UMW.

"'I Warn This Little Governor"

In July 1912, the UMW struck against the Paint Creek Mining Company near Charleston, West Virginia. Advising a crowd of 1,000 workers that the governor couldif he would-ban the armed guards who protected company premises, Mother Jones described him as a "goddamned dirty coward." She said, "I warn this little governor that unless he rids Paint Creek of these mineguard thugs, there is going to be one hell of a lot of bloodletting in these hills."

By September, Governor William E. Glasscock, seeing 2,000 workers supporting the strikers, ordered in 1,200 National Guardsmen to establish martial law. The strike continued into February. On Monday the 10th, 50-armed strikers attacked 25 mine guardswatchmen, office workers, and nonunion volunteersalong a ridge above the town of Mucklow. At a machine-gun post, guards Fred Bobbitt and W. R. Vance were killed and three others wounded before National Guard soldiers arrived. The militia arrested 48 strikers but no nonstrikers.

On Wednesday, county prosecutor T. C. Townsend ordered police to arrest Mother Jones and release her only to the military authorities at Pratt, West Virginia. There she and the 48 were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the Mucklow deaths and injuries.

Under martial law, the trial was a court-martial. Opening on March 7, 1913, the prosecution described how the defendants had murdered Bobbitt and Vance and feloniously wounded John Crockett, Thomas Nesbitt, and R. L. Taylor in their conspiracy to steal a machine gun, and had then conspired as accessories after the fact to help the murderers escape.

Judge Advocate George S. Wallace, the prosecutor, first tried to name defendants John W. Brown, George F. Parsons, and Charles H. Boswell (editor of the Socialist newspaper Labor Argus) as leaders of the strikers. Cross-examination revealed that witnesses identifying them were themselves defendants who had been promised release for testifying for the prosecution.

Posed As a Miner for Five Months

A surprise prosecution witness, detective Frank Smith of the J. W. Burns agency, testified that he had posed as a miner for five months, holding a union card and noting which defendants were armed. Other witnesses, including National Guardsmen, identified defendants but could not say they saw them firing guns. And, to prove that the 83-year-old Mother Jones had incited the strikers, the prosecutor placed in evidence some 100 pages of speeches she had delivered during the preceding August and September.

The court-martial was suspended for 24 hours while defense attorneys Albert M. Belcher and Harold W. Houston obtained an order from circuit-court judge Samuel D. Littlepage ending the court-martial. They argued that the U.S. Constitution placed civil authority above the military and that the state constitution protected civilians from military trials. Recently elected Governor Henry D. Hatfield intervened, insisting that either the judge withdraw his order or he would withdraw the troops. The judge backed down.

The prosecutor now introduced witnesses who had heard Mother Jones's speeches. They refused to describe them as inflammatory. The strongest testimony, from a company clerk, simply said Jones advised the miners not to hand over their guns to local authorities.

Defense witnesses were few. Two militiamen affirmed the orderliness of defendants they guarded. One witness swore that defendant Cal Newman spent February 10 not fighting but arranging to put a boar to a sow.

Like Roosevelt, Wilson, and Bryan

Closing, defense attorney M. F. Matheny compared the Mother Jones' speeches to the "inflammatory" speeches of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and William Jennings Bryan. Calling the case industrial warfare, he said, "West Virginia cannot afford to take one side of these contending armies and cast them in prison, deny them their rights, and disarm them and leave the other people in control."

Prosecutor Wallace's concluding remarks summed up the testimony of nine witnesses who had heard Mother Jones speakincluding her warning that if any miner were imprisoned "we would tear up the state." The defense neglected to point out that all the crimes alleged had occurred before she made this threat.

The military commission presented sealed findings to Governor Hatfield. Details of the verdicts were not disclosed, but within a week 25 defendants were released as not guilty and 19 more were given freedom conditional on good behavior. The others were moved to civilian jails for further disposition that remains unrecorded.

Mother Jones was imprisoned until May 7, when Governor Hatfield released her. Shortly, she watched from the Senate gallery as a resolution established an investigation of conditions in West Virginia coalfields by the Senate Committee on Education and Labor.

Some 20 years later, while serving as a U.S. senator, Hatfield disclosed that the verdict would have sent miners and Mother Jones to prison for many years. "I did not confirm the findings of the military court," he said, "in the case of Mother Jones nor any of the other cases."

Mother Jones worked for striking coal miners for another 10 years. During a yearlong Colorado strike, she was arrested and imprisoned twice more. Following the killing of 20 strikers and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, in April 1914, she prevailed on the House Mines and Mining Committee and PresidentWoodrow Wilson to establish a grievance committee. Later she participated in strikes of streetcar workers and garment workers in New York City and of steel workers in Pittsburgh.

Mother Jones died seven months after her 100th birthday. At her request, she was buried in the United Miners Cemetery in the coalfields of southern Illinois.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Atkinson, Linda S. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Crown, 1978.

Fetherling, Dale. Mother Jones: The Miner's Angel, A Portrait. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Foner, Philip S., ed. Mother Jones Speaks: Collected Writings and Speeches. New York: Monad Press, 1983.

Guttridge, Leonard F. Great Coalfield War. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1972.

Jones, Mary Harris. Autobiography of Mother Jones. Edited by Mary Field Parton. 1925. Reprint, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co. for the Illinois Labor History Society, 1972.

Long, Priscilla. Mother Jones, Woman Organizer, and Her Relations with Miners' Wives, Working Women, and the Suffrage Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Red Sun Press, 1976.

Steel, Edward M., ed. The Correspondence of Mother Jones. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

. The Court-Martial of Mother Jones. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

. The Speeches and Writings of Mother Jones. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.