Bloor, Ella Reeve (1862–1951)
Bloor, Ella Reeve (1862–1951)
American labor organizer, suffragist, journalist, and Communist Party leader, who devoted over 50 years of her life seeking justice for the working class. Name variations: Ella Reeve Ware, Ella Reeve Cohen, Mother Bloor. Pronunciation: Bloor rhymes with more. Born Ella Reeve on July 8, 1862, on Staten Island, New York; died in a nursing home in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania, on August 10, 1951; daughter of Harriet Amanda (Disbrow) Reeve and Charles Reeve (owner of a drug store); attended public school in Bridgeton, N.J., and the Ivy Hall Seminary before being taught at home by her mother; later attended the University of Pennsylvania; married Lucien Ware, in 1881 (divorced 1896); married Louis Cohen, in 1897 (divorced 1902); married Andrew Omholt, in 1930; assumed the surname of her companion Richard Bloor while on a trip to Chicago and was thereafter known by that name; children: (first marriage) Pauline (1882–1886), Charles (1883–1886), Grace (b. 1885), Helen (b. 1887), Harold (1889–1935), Hamilton (b. 1892); (second marriage) Richard (b. 1898) and Carl (b. 1900).
While giving birth to six children in ten years, she also became active in the suffrage and temperance movements and joined the Knights of Labor and the Ethical Culture Society (1880s); joined the Social Democracy of America (1897); joined the Socialist Labor Party (1900), then the Socialist Party (SP, 1902); ran for secretary of state in Connecticut on the SP ticket (1908); elected SP state organizer for Ohio (1910); worked with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for the Workers Defense Union (WDU, 1917–19); joined the newly formed Communist Labor Party and appointed national organizer for the Eastern Division (1919); was organizer for the International Labor Defense Council (ILD, 1920s); appointed organizer for the United Farmers League (1931); elected to the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) Central Executive Committee (1932–48); named delegate to the Women's International Congress Against War and Fascism, held in Paris (1934); appointed chair of the Pennsylvania CP and ran for Congress on the CP ticket (1940); made 80th Birthday Tour, part of the CPUSA "Win the War Against Fascism" campaign (1942); arrested 36 times.
Three Little Lovers of Nature (1895); Talks About Authors and Their Works (1899); We Are Many (1940); and numerous articles.
In 1937, Life magazine referred to Ella Reeve Bloor as "the grand old lady of the U.S. Communist Party." Known the world over by the affectionate name of Mother Bloor, she was a living symbol of the American Communist movement for three decades, and a rabble-rouser who stirred up many an audience with her fiery oratory. At the same time, Bloor's personal correspondence reveals a loving, if frequently absent, mother and a faithful friend who served as an inspiration to many. She joined the Communist Party in 1919, at age 57, because she felt it was the organization most capable of furthering the cause of working men and women. Party membership for Bloor was a means to the ultimate end—freedom and justice for the American worker.
Ella Reeve Bloor was born July 8, 1862, on Staten Island, New York, the oldest of ten children. Both her mother Harriet Disbrow Reeve and her father Charles could trace their families back to the original settlers of Connecticut. Charles Reeve was a druggist, moving his family to
Bridgeton, New Jersey, where he owned a drug store. The Reeve family was a prosperous one, and Bloor's childhood was comfortable. After several years of public school, Bloor briefly attended the Ivy Hall Seminary. She later remembered hating school and left at the age of 14 to be taught at home by her mother. During this period, she was an avid reader of the novels of such authors as George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ) and Charles Dickens and the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was also active in the Presbyterian Church, often joining the minister on visits to the poor.
As Bloor increasingly came to question the social conditions of her day, she grew close to her paternal great-uncle, Dan Ware. Her parents, especially her father, disapproved of their daughter's nascent radicalism. In Dan Ware, a former abolitionist and supporter of the Green-backers, Bloor found a supportive and influential role model. He introduced the young woman to the work of the agnostic Robert Ingersoll and of Charles Darwin as well as to the teachings of the Unitarian Church. Bloor was 17 when her mother died. Until her father remarried two years later, she took care of her younger siblings and the house. Bloor did not take kindly to the new Mrs. Reeve, supposedly one of the richest women in Bridgeton. Shortly after her father's remarriage, 19-year-old Bloor married Dan Ware's son, Lucien.
Lucien Ware was a court stenographer and the young couple lived in various New Jersey towns wherever he could find work. In just under three years, Bloor gave birth to three children. Soon after the third birth, the older two children suddenly died within hours of each other, victims of spinal meningitis. There would be three more babies born to Ella and Lucien Ware in the next seven years. Still, the shock of losing two children on the same day was a tragedy which haunted Bloor the rest of her life. Eventually, the Wares settled in Woodbury, New Jersey. It was there, while tied to the house caring for four small children and feeling "well on the way to becoming just a household drudge," that Bloor decided to act. She joined the fight for women's suffrage and wrote articles for local newspapers demanding the vote. By the mid-1880s, Bloor was the president of the Woodbury branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and a member of the Prohibition Party. She was also a member of a "mixed local" of the Knights of Labor.
Thousands of women similar to Bloor in education and upbringing joined the suffrage and temperance campaigns in the 1880s. Her affiliation with the Knights of Labor, however, was less typical. Bloor would later write that it was the influence of Frances Willard , president of the WCTU and a member of the Knights of Labor, which caused Bloor to join her first union. While Bloor would be interested in women's rights and the cause of temperance throughout her public life, it was the labor movement to which she dedicated her life. By the early 1890s, she traveled frequently to nearby Philadelphia, taking botany and biology courses at the University of Pennsylvania. She also joined the Ethical Culture Society of Philadelphia and through that group, first became exposed to Marxism. Bloor organized women weavers in the Philadelphia suburb of Kensington and came to believe that organization was the only hope for the working class.
Throughout this period, she and her husband grew increasingly apart. Around 1895, torn by feelings for her husband, worry over the needs of her children, and a burning desire to become even more active in labor organizing, Bloor suffered a nervous breakdown and was incapacitated for two months. Much like other women, such as Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman , Bloor emerged from her breakdown determined to make a difference. By 1896, now divorced from Lucien Ware, she moved to New York City, her four children in tow. There she met the socialist Eugene Debs, joined his newly formed Social Democratic Party, and organized railroad workers in Brooklyn. In 1897, Bloor married Louis Cohen, a Fels Naphtha soap salesman and fellow socialist, with whom she would have two more children. This marriage would end five years later.
It has been a joy and privilege to carry the torch of socialism.
—Ella Reeve Bloor
During the early years of the 20th century, the American socialist movement was frequently divided by theoretical disputes. Bloor's brand of socialism was a practical one, less driven by theory than by her concern for the working class. By 1900, disillusioned with the "utopian" nature of the Social Democrats, Bloor joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), then led by Daniel DeLeon, and worked as an organizer for the SLP's union, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. Within two years, factional disputes within the SLP drove Bloor back into the arms of Eugene Debs and his renamed Socialist Party (SP) of America. Now separated from Louis Cohen, Bloor was appointed state organizer for the SP in Pennsylvania and Delaware in 1902, working primarily with miners in the Wilkes-Barre area.
Around this time, for the sake of her children, she established a home in the utopian, single-tax community in Arden, Delaware. There, the children were looked after by other residents while Bloor traveled from state to state on behalf of the Socialist Party. During the years 1905 to 1908, Bloor worked on and off in Connecticut where she was particularly active in the fight for child-labor legislation. She wrote several moving pieces for local newspapers and national periodicals such as Wiltshire's and Pearson's on the horrible conditions children faced in factories and mines. In 1908, she ran for Connecticut secretary of state on the Socialist Party ticket. Although she was unsuccessful in her bid, Bloor was elected SP state organizer that same year.
In 1906, still known as Ella Cohen, Bloor traveled to Chicago at the request of her friend and fellow socialist, Upton Sinclair. His recently published novel, The Jungle, was causing a public outcry over the deplorable conditions found in the nation's meatpacking industry. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt established a commission to investigate. Unable to go to Chicago to gather more evidence, Sinclair asked Bloor to go in his place. However, Sinclair felt it would be improper and possibly unsafe for the 44-year-old mother of six to travel alone. Ella Cohen went to Chicago in the company of the young Welsh immigrant, Richard Bloor; they posed as man and wife. She then wrote articles using Bloor's name about the conditions the couple found in the Chicago slaughterhouses. While the two soon parted company, the name stuck. She would be known as Ella Reeve Bloor for the next 45 years.
Ella Bloor spent several years organizing for the Socialist Party and for numerous unions. In 1910, she was elected Ohio state organizer for the SP and worked with coal miners in that state and in West Virginia. During this period, she came to be known as Mother Bloor. Just over 50, her blond hair now streaked with grey, the petite grandmother worked the coal fields alongside another famous "Mother," Mary Harris Jones . True to her beginnings, Bloor took time out from labor organizing to participate in the 1913 Ohio women's suffrage referendum campaign. Shortly before Christmas, 1913, she traveled to Calumet, Michigan, to work with the striking copper miners. In one of the most dramatic passages of her autobiography, Bloor recalled the suffocation death of 73 children attending the miners' union Christmas party. The union would eventually claim that it was the local deputies, at the request of the mining company, who yelled "Fire!" into the crowded hall where the party was held. In the panic to escape down a narrow stairwell from a fire which was not there, several children fell and were trapped. "They laid out the little bodies in a row on the platform beneath the Christmas tree," Bloor later wrote. "Afterwards I saw the marks of the children's nails in the plaster, where they had scratched to get free, as they suffocated." Bloor left this massacre only to witness another. In April 1914, she was in Ludlow, Colorado, working with the striking miners. On April 20, 13 children and a pregnant woman were burned to death after the state militia set fire to the strikers' tent colony. As a mother who had lost children of her own, the violent death of so many children, children who in her mind were the innocent victims of capitalist repression, represented to Bloor the dire need of workers to organize.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Bloor was living in New York City, working as a national organizer for the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union. As a member of the left-wing of the Socialist Party which viewed the conflict as an act of imperialism, Bloor actively campaigned against the war. Although she avoided arrest under the Sedition Act, as field organizer for the Workers Defense Union, she spoke across the country on behalf of those arrested for their antiwar activities. One bright spot of hope for Bloor and for many of her friends was the Russian Revolution in 1917. For Bloor, "It brought new courage and inspiration to all who made the workers' cause their own. It brought what had seemed a distant, shining ideal into the realm of practical, living reality."
In 1919, disappointed in the Socialist Party's stance on the war, Bloor was one of several who participated in the formation of the American Communist Party. For the next 30 years, she worked tirelessly for the party, organizing across the country. Bloor faced arrest numerous times for speaking, especially during the 1920s and the height of anti-radical reaction in the United States. On January 2, 1920, she narrowly missed arrest in Worcester, Massachusetts. On that one day, thousands of Communists, Socialists, and radical labor organizers were arrested as part of the Palmer raids, directed by then U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Hundreds would be imprisoned or deported. Bloor spent most of 1920 speaking on behalf of the political prisoners and was eventually arrested during a protest at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
After a trip to the Soviet Union in 1921 as a trade union delegate to the first Red International of Labor Unions, Bloor spent the next several years organizing in the western United States. In 1925, in order to raise funds for the newly established Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, the 63-year-old woman hitchhiked alone from California to Massachusetts. Two years later, Bloor hitchhiked across the country again, raising funds for the Sacco and Vanzetti defense fund. Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists, had been charged and convicted of murdering a payroll guard during a Massachusetts robbery. Their case interested many American radicals who felt the government was more concerned about Sacco and Vanzetti's politics than their possible involvement in a hold up. Bloor arrived in Boston in time to join the massive demonstrations protesting the execution of the two men and was arrested twice in one day for inciting to riot.
Throughout the 1920s, Bloor continued her efforts among American workers. She helped organize textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Passaic, New Jersey. She went on a speaking tour to raise funds for women textile workers on strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Working for the National Miners Union, Bloor organized coal miners in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana. During this period, she tried to avoid the factional disputes within the Communist Party. Her devotion was to the workers, and she saw the party as the most expedient way of achieving justice for the working class. Theoretical disputes were of little interest to her. Nonetheless, when summoned to Moscow in 1929 by Joseph Stalin, Bloor went. She successfully defended herself against charges that she was part of an American faction disobeying the orders of the Comintern, the international ruling body of the Communist Party. Unlike several other comrades, Bloor was not expelled from the party. However, perhaps as a form of banishment, she was sent to North Dakota where she spent the next two years organizing American farmers.
Even before the stock market crash of 1929, agriculture had suffered greatly in America. Bad weather, poor harvests, and an unstable market meant farmers were already in a precarious financial state when the Great Depression began. Although Bloor had spent 30 years organizing industrial workers, she instinctively knew how to reach many of the farmers throughout the Dakotas and Montana. As an organizer for the United Farmers' League, Bloor was active in the Farmers' Holiday movement. By refusing to produce food stuffs, they hoped that the nation would recognize the vital role small farmers played in the American economy.
The Communist Party apparently appreciated Bloor's work with the farmers, for in 1932 she was elected to the Central Executive Committee, the party's highest ruling body. More good fortune came to Bloor during her stint in the American West. In 1930, she met and married Andrew Omholt, a North Dakota farmer and Communist more than 20 years her junior and a foot taller than the petite Bloor. The two came east in 1933 where Bloor took part in the Ambridge, Pennsylvania, steel strike, one of the most violent labor actions during the Great Depression. In 1934, Bloor was arrested for the 36th and final time in Loup City, Nebraska, where she spoke on behalf of striking women chicken pluckers. While out on bail, she traveled to Paris for the Women's International Congress Against War and Fascism.
The following year was a difficult one for Bloor. After all appeals were exhausted, she spent 30 days in an Omaha, Nebraska, jail for her part in the Loup City strike. Also in 1935, Bloor suffered the loss of her oldest son and fellow Communist, Hal Ware. She devoted an entire chapter of her 1940 autobiography to her son, detailing his work for the party as agricultural expert. Yet again, Bloor rallied and spent the summer of 1936 campaigning for Communist Party candidates across the country, accompanied by Omholt and two of her granddaughters. In 1937, after traveling to the Soviet Union as an honored guest of the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution celebration, Bloor "retired" in her 75th year. The occasion of her birthday that year became a "colossal festival and mass celebration" sponsored by the Communist Party on Staten Island, New York. Thereafter, Mother Bloor birthday celebrations became an annual Communist Party event.
Also in 1937, an American unit fighting the fascists in Spain named itself the Mother Bloor brigade. Although supposedly in retirement on the Pennsylvania apple farm where she and her husband now lived, Bloor would continue her public life, representing her party in the fight against fascism. While she had been an avowed pacifist during World War I, Bloor, like many others, felt quite differently about the second World War. Communism was ideologically opposed to fascism and the American Communist Party put its full weight behind sustaining the war effort. As part of her 80th birthday tour in the summer of 1942, Bloor and fellow CP leader Anita Whitney , who was celebrating her 75th birthday, made 23 appearances in 20 days. After a brief rest, Bloor continued the tour alone and made another 21 appearances in a month. Speaking on the party's "Win the War Against Fascism" theme, her goal was to particularly attract women to party membership. Their numbers did increase during this period.
In the years after World War II, the U.S. government once again reacted against radical movements. The Taft-Hartley Act, the Smith Act, and the McCarthy hearings all took their toll on the American Communist Party. Perhaps because of her age, Bloor was never indicted nor was she called to testify as so many of her comrades were. By 1948, the FBI which had followed her movements for almost 30 years noted that her "mind wanders" and in 1949 canceled her security index card due to "mental decrepitude."
Ella Reeve Bloor died in a nursing home in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania, on August 10, 1951. She was 89 years old. The woman known as Mother Bloor to countless workers was remembered fondly in death. In the Daily Worker, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote, "Her life was devoted to fighting against capitalism and all its foul deeds." On the afternoon of August 14th, Bloor's body lay in state in New York City's St. Nicholas Arena. Seven thousand mourners passed by the open casket and another 3,000 attended the funeral service that night. The next day, she was buried in the same Camden, New Jersey, cemetery as the poet, Walt Whitman. The service ended with the reading of one of Bloor's favorite works by Whitman, "The Magic Trumpeter": "War, suffering gone/ The rank earth purged/ nothing but joy left!"
Barton, Anne. Mother Bloor: The Spirit of '76. NY: Workers Library Publishers, 1937.
Bloor, Ella Reeve. We Are Many. NY: International Publishers, 1940.
Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley. Daughters of America: Ella Reeve Bloor and Anita Whitney. NY: Workers Library Publishers, 1942.
Buhle, Mari Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Draper, Theodore. American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period. NY: Vintage Books, 1960.
Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Kathleen Banks Nutter , Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts