Mother Jones

views updated

Mother Jones

BORN: May 1, c. 1830 • Cork, Ireland

DIED: November 30, 1930 • Silver Spring, Maryland

American union organizer

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was one of the more fascinating figures in the history of the American labor union movement. Fearless, strong-willed, and frequendy arrested even as a senior citizen, Jones worked to organize coal miners across America in the early years of the twentieth century on behalf of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. She was also active in the Socialist Party of America and in the move to end child labor in factories and mills. Newspapers and magazines of the day sometimes referred to her as "the most dangerous woman in America," which was a phrase her opponents used.

"Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."

Irish roots

Mary Harris Jones was born in Cork, Ireland, c. 1830. Some historians believe she was actually born in 1837, even though her autobiography states otherwise. Her parents, like the majority of Roman Catholic families in Ireland at the time, struggled financially and lived on a diet of potatoes they farmed themselves. When a potato fungus began destroying entire crops in Ireland during the mid-1840s, Jones's father and brother left home for America. They avoided becoming one of the estimated one million deaths from starvation that occurred during the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849).

Richard Harris, Jones's father, likely made his way from a job in Vermont to Canada, where the rest of the family joined him. They lived on Toronto's Bathurst Street, and Jones took advantage of the city's free public school system, though she would never lose her distinctive Irish accent. She hoped to become a teacher herself once she finished her studies. However, Irish immigrants faced discrimination, and Toronto schools did not allow Catholics to teach in the system.

Around I860, Jones went across the Canadian-United States border to Monroe, Michigan, to teach at a Catholic-run school there. She quickly discovered that she was not suited for the profession and went on to Chicago, Illinois, where she found work as a dressmaker. After that, she headed south to Memphis, Tennessee. In 1861 she married George E. Jones. He was an iron molder at a foundry, where iron is melted and poured into molds. He was also active as an organizer for the Iron Molders' Union. Historians believe this was Mother Jones's first contact with the labor union movement.

Tragedy strikes

Jones had four children in six years, and she and her husband prospered for a time, along with much of Memphis. But the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) brought financial hardships. The conflict had pitted the Union (the North), which was opposed to slavery, against the Confederacy (the South), which was in favor of slavery. Then the city was hit by an epidemic of yellow fever in the summer of 1867. The deadly virus, spread by mosquitoes, had come to North America with slave ships from West Africa. The disease usually resulted in organ failure within a week, accompanied by bloody or black vomit. In the space of just two months, all of Jones's children, along with her husband, died from the fever.

Jones went back to Chicago, where she knew she could earn a living as a seamstress for the city's wealthy. Tragedy struck again, however, with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It hit the city's poorest, most overcrowded neighborhoods especially hard, and Jones lost her dressmaking business as well as everything she owned. Like the rest of the city's poor, she fled the flames and camped out on the shores of Lake Michigan. She was later taken in by church members, who set up a homeless assistance program. Her autobiography claims that shordy after the fire, she came upon a meeting of the Knights of Labor, an early labor union founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1869. She wrote that she joined the secret organization that day and began working with it as an organizer, but labor historians question this. The Knights of Labor did not organize in Chicago until several years later, and did not admit women members before 1880.

Jones credited the Knights of Labor with helping her through the hard times. Inspired by the group's members, she became a labor organizer and reformer. Involvement in politics and labor issues was a rare pursuit for a woman during that time, especially since women were not allowed to vote in national elections until 1920. But Mother Jones took up the cause of labor reform and was in Pennsylvania during the coal miner strike in 1873. She also helped organize a nationwide walkout for better working conditions for railroad workers in 1877 in Chicago.

The "Miners' Angel"

The first published record of the woman Americans would soon know as Mother Jones came in 1894, when a "Mrs. Mary Jones" is mentioned as having aided Coxey's Army. This was a five-hundred-man demonstration that made its way from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to demand jobs. The country had been in an economic downturn for three years by then, and this would be the first protest march that made the nation's capital its destination. Two years later, Jones was in Birmingham, Alabama, during a miners' strike that was marked by episodes of violence. The first mention of her as "Mother Jones" occurs in an 1897 article in a Chicago newspaper. The piece discusses both the American Railway Union (ARU) convention then underway and its leader, Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926). Founder of the Socialist Party of America, Debs had met Jones in Birmingham and would become one of her most enthusiastic supporters over the next few years.

After that, Jones's name began to appear frequently in newspaper reports of strikes and other labor disputes. The mining industry had emerged as the battleground in the fight to establish unions in the American workplace. The country's immense manufacturing and transportation industries relied heavily on the ore, coal, and other essential ingredients that had to be dug from the ground by men who worked long, grueling hours under dangerous conditions. The mines were owned

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a union organizer, Communist Party leader, and women's rights activist. She left behind a long list of achievements when she died in 1964, including a role in the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire, Flynn and her family moved to New York City in her youth. She came from working-class parents who were interested in social and political reform. This inspired Flynn in her teenage years. At age sixteen, she delivered her first public speech, "What Socialism Will Do for Women," to the Harlem Socialist Club.

Flynn later worked as a union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a powerful labor organization of the era. She married a fellow organizer and had one child, but the marriage did not last. She then began a long-term relationship with Carlo Tresca, an Italian labor activist and anarchist—one who believes there should be no government. Flynn and Tresca were both active in various long and bitter labor disputes between 1912 and 1916. These included a 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts; the New York City hotel and restaurant workers' walkout a year later; and a strike by Minnesota miners in 1916.

During that era, U.S. companies used a variety of strategies to keep unions out of the workplace. In many cases they tried to prevent organizers like Flynn from speaking in public, but the IWW fought back with lawyers who challenged such actions in court. Flynn was arrested a dozen times for her labor-organizing work, but she was never convicted. In 1917 she helped start the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). In 1920 the group became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In the early years of the 1920s, Flynn worked on behalf of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian American leftists who were later executed in 1927. Leftist refers to the liberal movement in terms of politics and social and economic issues. The long years of work and travel took their toll on Flynn's health, and she spent a decade recuperating in Oregon. By 1936 Flynn had returned to New York City, where she joined the American Communist Party. She worked for the party on several issues, but was especially active as an advocate for women's rights. During World War II (1939–45), for example, when many American women went to work in factories to fill the jobs vacated by men serving in the armed forces, Flynn campaigned for the establishment of child-care centers, a somewhat unusual idea at the time. In 1942 she entered a Congressional race as a representative at large from New York and received 50,000 votes.

Flynn's activism and public position as a member of the American Communist Party's national board brought her a fair amount of trouble in the early 1950s. At that time, the U.S. government and national law-enforcement agencies began to harass Communists as suspected agents of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a collection of nations dominated by Russia and considered America's greatest enemy from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. It was dissolved in 1991 and replaced by fifteen independent states. Flynn was convicted in 1952 of conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. She served a twenty-eight-month prison term in Alderson, West Virginia, at a women's facility.

Flynn wrote a memoir of her time in prison. After her release, she continued her political work. She became the national chairperson for the American Communist Party in 1961 and traveled to the Soviet Union several times. On a 1964 trip she fell ill and died there. She was given an official state funeral held in Moscow's Red Square, but her ashes were buried in Chicago.

by large corporations, whose executives profited immensely and were strongly opposed to any interference in how they ran their companies.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) was formed in 1890 from the remnants of two other unions, including a Knights of Labor local group. Jones probably went to work for the UMW as an organizer around 1897. In 1900 and again in 1902, she took an active role in two separate Pennsylvania coal miner strikes. Many of the miners had an Irish, Scottish, and recent immigrant background just like Jones. Like them, she had known poverty, hardship, and personal tragedy. She reminded them of this, but also explained the workings of the American capitalist system, a system in which the price of goods, services, and labor is dependent on supply and demand. As workers, the miners were replaceable parts in the economic equation, and company owners were determined to keep the workers at the bottom of the economic ladder. The mines even employed children and paid them even less.

When workers went on strike, company management spared no cost to demonstrate their opposition and authority. Union leaders were followed, arrested, and jailed on questionable charges. "Scabs," or strike-breakers, were brought in from other cities or states to replace the striking workers. Adding to the difficulties of the miners, the mines were often located in remote towns, where there was little chance of finding other work. In some cases, the companies owned the towns, including the housing, stores, bank, and other facilities, and the workers' rent and bills were taken direcdy out of their pay. On one occasion, Jones was taken in by a miner when she came to town, but he and his family were thrown out of their home in the middle of the night for doing so. Due to her efforts to help the miners, Mother Jones was often called the "Miners' Angel."

Strike leader

Jones told people about the courage of striking workers at the rallies she organized. In the Pennsylvania strikes, she even led a march of miners' wives and children, who brought along mops and buckets to sweep the streets clean of scab workers. As noted on the United Mine Workers Web site, Mother Jones liked to remind audiences: "Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living."

In 1903 Jones traveled west when miners at the Colorado Fuel and Iron company went on strike. The company was controlled by the Rockefeller family, one of the richest in the world. In West Virginia she rallied striking miners, then went on to Philadelphia, where a textile mill strike included a large number of workers who were children. She led some of them on a march from Philadelphia to New York City. "I am going to show Wall Street [New York financial district] the flesh and blood from which it squeezes its wealth," she asserted, according to Elliott J. Gorn in his biography Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Huge crowds turned out in New York City when the striking workers arrived. Over the next few years, Jones traveled to the western part of the United States once again, this time to help organize workers in the railroad industry and in the copper mines. In addition, she continued to show up when needed in the mining regions of the Appalachian Mountains, a huge range located in the eastern part of the United States.

The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike

Jones's work on behalf of the UMW in West Virginia between 1912 and 1913 became one of the most legendary episodes in what had already been a remarkable career. This was known as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike. At the time some workers already belonged to the UMW and had asked for a moderate pay increase when their contract came up for renewal. Their strike spread to nearby non-union mines and quickly turned violent. Weapons were carried on both sides, and clashes between miners and management proved deadly. West Virginia's governor declared martial law, a situation in which the military comes into an area to maintain or restore order and keep the peace. Troops were sent in to disarm the miners, and some journalists warned that a civil war was possible.

There were numerous abuses of power under martial law, which severely restricted the constitutional freedoms normally guaranteed to all Americans by the Bill of Rights (1791), the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1789). Several dozen striking miners, union officials, and Socialist Party members were arrested. Under martial law, they were not allowed the right to a trial by jury, or even legal representation. Tensions worsened. Jones attempted to go and meet with the governor, but was arrested instead on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Since several deaths had occurred during the strike, law-enforcement agents were trying to blame Jones because she was a leader in the strike. She was convicted by a military court and remained under house arrest in a local rooming house. National newspapers tracked the story on their front pages. They noted that since martial law was in effect, Jones's guilty verdict meant that her punishment could be death by a firing squad.

Eugene Debs and other prominent social reformers spoke out and demanded Jones's release. The White House was flooded with letters of support as well. After the long strike was setded, the U.S. Senate debated Jones's status and a newly installed West Virginia governor released her from custody in May of 1913. A Congressional inquiry was launched into the abuses of power that took place when the former governor had declared martial law. As a result, all the convictions were declared invalid and as having no legal basis.

Within a few months, Jones had moved on to the next major conflict between powerful business interests and the unions. This event, which began in the late summer of 1913, again occurred at a Colorado Fuel and Iron company property. At the site, a coal miners' strike erupted into what became known as the Colorado Mine War. When miners were forced from their company-owned homes, they built a tent city on nearby property so their families had a place to live. In April 1914, the temporary tent town in Ludlow of more than one thousand miners and their families was fired upon by Colorado National Guard troops trying to break the strike. The troops opened fire, using a machine gun, killing twenty striking miners and some family members who were sleeping in their tents. Other mining towns broke out in riots that lasted ten days.

Urging support throughout the country

During the months of that Colorado coal strike, Jones spoke at miners' rallies, then headed to Washington and East Coast cities to plead for aid. She crisscrossed the country by train, urging the crowds that turned out to see this elderly, but quite robust and energetic woman criticize the companies, their unfair practices, and the lawmakers and law-enforcement authorities who kept the system in place. Returning to Colorado, she was jailed once again, then released, re-arrested, and held for a total of three months.

Jones also found time to testify before a U.S. House Subcommittee on the mining industry. After the massacre at Ludlow occurred, Mother Jones urged miners across the country to take up arms against the company, run by American oil giant John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960). He, too, had testified before the Congressional subcommittee and famously declared he would lose his entire fortune first before his company ever granted official recognition to a union. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) was forced to send in federal troops to Colorado to prevent what some were once again predicting could turn into civil war.

Jones kept moving for several more years. In 1915 she was in New York City rallying support for striking garment-industry workers, then two years later she joined forces with striking public-transit employees. Her last major effort came in Gary, Indiana, during its long and bitter steel strike in 1919. By this point, she was in her eighties and her age finally slowed her. She went to Maryland, where a retired mine worker and his wife made room in their home for her. She claimed to celebrate her one-hundredth birthday on May 1, 1930, and died several months later on November 30, 1930. She is buried at the Miners' Cemetery of the United Mine Workers in Mount Olive, Illinois.

After her death, Mother Jones became an American folk hero. Songs were written about her, and stories of her accomplishments circulated throughout the Appalachian communities. Her rabble-rousing spirit was discovered by a new generation of social reformers in the 1960s and 1970s, and a progressive magazine named in her honor was launched in 1976. Michael Moore (1954–), the documentary filmmaker who made Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, served briefly as its editor in the mid-1980s.

For More Information


Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Hill & Wang, 2001.

Josephson, Judith Pinkerton. Mother Jones: Fierce Fighter for Workers' Rights. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1997.


Cockburn, Alexander. "Michael Meets Mr. Jones." Nation (September 13, 1986): p. 198.


"Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Remembers the Paterson Strike of 1913." Women's Project of New Jersey. (accessed on July 1, 2006).

United Mine Workers of America, (accessed on July 1, 2006).

"West Virginia's Mine Wars." West Virginia Division of Culture and History. (accessed on July 1, 2006).