Mary G. Harris
|August 1, 1837
|November 30, 1930 (aged 93)
Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.
|Union Miners Cemetery
Mount Olive, Illinois
|Social Democratic (1898–1901)
Socialist (from 1901)
Mary G. Harris Jones (1837 (baptized) – November 30, 1930), known as Mother Jones from 1897 onwards, was an Irish-born American labor organizer, former schoolteacher, and dressmaker who became a prominent union organizer, community organizer, and activist. She helped coordinate major strikes, secure bans on child labor, and co-founded the socialist trade union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
After Jones's husband and four children all died of yellow fever in 1867 and her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, she became an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. In 1902, she was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing miners and their families against the mine owners. In 1903, to protest the lax enforcement of the child labor laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a children's march from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York.
Mary G. Harris was born on the north side of Cork, the daughter of Roman Catholic tenant farmers Richard Harris and Ellen (née Cotter) Harris. Her exact date of birth is uncertain; she was baptized on August 1, 1837. Harris and her family were victims of the Great Famine, as were many other Irish families. The famine drove more than a million families, including the Harrises, to immigrate to North America, as Harris's family did when Harris was 10.
Mary was a teenager when her family immigrated to Canada. In Canada (and later in the United States), the Harris family were victims of discrimination due to their immigrant status as well as their Catholic faith and Irish heritage. Mary received an education in Toronto at the Toronto Normal School, which was tuition-free and even paid a stipend to each student of one dollar per week for every semester completed. Mary did not graduate from the Toronto Normal School, but she was able to undergo enough training to take a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, on August 31, 1859 at the age of 23. She was paid eight dollars per month, but the school was described as a "depressing place". After tiring of her assumed profession, she moved first to Chicago and then to Memphis, where in 1861 she married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders, which later became the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America, which represented workers who specialized in building and repairing steam engines, mills, and other manufactured goods. Considering that Mary's husband was providing enough income to support the household, she altered her labor to housekeeping.
In 1867, Jones lost her husband and their four children, three girls and a boy all under the age of five, in 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. After that loss, she returned to Chicago to open another dressmaking business. She did work for members of Chicago's upper class in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1871, four years after the death of her family, Jones lost her home, shop, and possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Jones, like many others, helped rebuild the city. According to her autobiography, this led to her joining the Knights of Labor.
Jones started organizing strikes. At first the strikes and protests failed, sometimes ending with police shooting at and killing protesters. Most members of the Knights were men, and by the middle of the 1870s, member numbers leaped to more than a million, becoming the largest labor organization in the United States. The Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the fear of anarchism and social change incited by union organizations resulted in the demise of the Knights of Labor when an unknown person threw a bomb into an altercation between the Chicago police and workers on strike. Once the Knights ceased to exist, Mary Jones became involved mainly with the United Mine Workers (UMW). She frequently led UMW strikers in picketing and encouraged striking workers to stay on strike when management brought in strike-breakers and militias. She believed that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids." Around this time, strikes were getting better organized and started to produce greater results, such as better pay for the workers.
Active as an organizer and educator in strikes nationwide, she was involved particularly with the UMW and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf. She was termed "the most dangerous woman in America" by a West Virginian district attorney, Reese Blizzard, in 1902 at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "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."
Jones was ideologically separated from many female activists of her day due to her lack of commitment to the cause of women's suffrange. She was quoted as saying that "you don't need the vote to raise hell!" She opposed many of the activists because she believed it was more important to advocate for the working class than to advocate for women. When some suffragettes accused her of being anti-women's rights, she replied, "I'm not an anti to anything which brings freedom to my class." She became known as a charismatic and effective speaker throughout her career. Occasionally she would include props, visual aids, and dramatic stunts in her speeches. Her talks usually involved the relating of some personal tale in which she invariably "showed up" one form of authority or another. It is said Mother Jones spoke in a pleasant-sounding brogue which projected well. When she grew excited, her voice dropped in pitch.
By age 60, Jones had assumed the persona of "Mother Jones" by claiming to be older than she was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she helped as "her boys". The first reference to her in print as Mother Jones was in 1897.
In 1901, workers in Pennsylvania's silk mills went on strike. Many of them were young girls demanding to be paid adult wages. The 1900 census had revealed that one sixth of American children under the age of sixteen were employed. John Mitchell, the president of the UMWA, brought Mother Jones to northeastern Pennsylvania in the months of February and September to encourage unity among striking workers. To do so, she encouraged the wives of the workers to organize into a group that would wield brooms, beat on tin pans, and shout "join the union!" She felt that wives had an important role to play as the nurturers and motivators of the striking men, but not as fellow workers. She claimed that the young girls working in the mills were being robbed and demoralized. She felt that the rich were denying these children the right to go to school in order to be able to pay for their own children's college tuitions.
To enforce worker solidarity, Jones traveled to the silk mills in New Jersey and returned to Pennsylvania to report that the conditions she observed there were much better. She stated that "the child labor law is better enforced for one thing and there are more men at work than seen in the mills here." In response to the strike, mill owners claimed that if the workers insisted on a wage scale, they would not be able to do business while paying adult wages and would be forced to close. Jones encouraged the workers to accept a settlement. Although she agreed to a settlement that sent the young girls back to the mills, she continued to fight child labor for the rest of her life.
In 1903, Jones organized children who were working in mills and mines to participate in her famous "March of the Mill Children" from Kensington, Philadelphia, to the summer house (and Summer White House) of President Theodore Roosevelt on Long Island (in Oyster Bay, New York). They had banners demanding "We want to go to school and not the mines!" and held rallies each night in a new town on the way with music, skits, and speeches drawing thousands of citizens.
As Mother Jones noted, many of the children at union headquarters were missing fingers and had other disabilities, and she attempted to get newspaper publicity for the bad conditions experienced by children working in Pennsylvania. However, the mill owners held stock in most newspapers. When the newspapermen informed her that they could not publish the facts about child labor because of this, she remarked "Well, I've got stock in these little children and I'll arrange a little publicity." Permission to see President Roosevelt was denied by his secretary, and it was suggested that Jones address a letter to the president requesting a visit with him Mother Jones wrote a letter requesting a meeting, but never received an answer. Though the president refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. The 2003 non-fiction book Kids on Strike! described Jones's Children's Crusade in detail.
During the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, Mary Jones arrived in June 1912, speaking and organizing despite a shooting war between United Mine Workers members and the private army of the mine owners. Martial law in the area was declared and rescinded twice before Jones was arrested on February 13, 1913, and brought before a military court. Accused of conspiring to commit murder among other charges, she refused to recognize the legitimacy of her court-martial. She was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary. During house arrest at Mrs. Carney's Boarding House, she acquired a dangerous case of pneumonia.
Jones was released after 85 days of confinement, and her release coincided with Indiana Senator John W. Kern's initiation of a Senate investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines. Mary Lee Settle describes Jones at this time in her 1978 novel The Scapegoat. Several months later, she helped organize coal miners in Colorado in the 1913–14 United Mine Workers of America strike against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron company, in what is known as the Colorado Coalfield War. Once again she was arrested, serving time in prison and inside the San Rafael Hospital, and was escorted from the state in the months prior to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre, she was invited to meet with the owner of the Ludlow mine, John D. Rockefeller Jr. The meeting was partially responsible for Rockefeller's 1915 visit to the Colorado mines and introduction of long-sought reforms.
In 1917, Mother Jones played a role in the Bloomington Streetcar Strike.
Mother Jones attempted to stop miners from marching into Logan County, West Virginia, in late August 1921. Mother Jones also visited the governor and departed assured he would intervene. Jones opposed the armed march, appeared on the line of march and told them to go home. In her hand, she claimed to have a telegram from President Warren Harding offering to work to end the private police in West Virginia if they returned home. When UMW president Frank Keeney demanded to see the telegram, Mother Jones refused and he denounced her as a 'fake'. Because she refused to show anyone the telegram, and the President's secretary denied ever having sent one, she was suspected of having fabricated the story. After she fled the camp, she reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown.
Mother Jones was joined by Keeney and other UMWA officials who were also pressuring the miners to go home.
Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW into the 1920s and continued to speak on union affairs almost until she died. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). Although Mother Jones organized for decades on behalf of the UMWA in West Virginia and even denounced the state as 'medieval', the chapter of the same name in her autobiography, she mostly praises Governor Ephraim F. Morgan for defending the First Amendment freedom of the weekly labor publication The Federationist to publish. His refusal to consent to the mine owners' request that he ban the paper demonstrated to Mother Jones that he 'refused to comply with the requests of the dominant money interests. To a man of that type, I wish to pay my respects'.
During her later years, Jones lived with her friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess on their farm in what is now Adelphi, Maryland. She celebrated her self-proclaimed 100th birthday there on May 1, 1930, and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel.
Mary Harris Jones died on November 30, 1930, at the Burgess farm, then in Silver Spring, Maryland, now part of Adelphi. There was a funeral Mass at St. Gabriel's in Washington, D.C.
Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden. She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys." In 1932, about 15,000 Illinois mine workers gathered in Mount Olive to protest against the United Mine Workers, which soon became the Progressive Mine Workers of America. Convinced that they had acted in the spirit of Mother Jones, the miners decided to place a proper headstone on her grave. By 1936, the miners had saved up more than $16,000 and were able to purchase "eighty tons of Minnesota pink granite, with bronze statues of two miners flanking a twenty-foot shaft featuring a bas-relief of Mother Jones at its center." On October 11, 1936, also known as Miners' Day, an estimated 50,000 people arrived at Mother Jones's grave to see the new gravestone and memorial. Since then, October 11 is not only known as Miners' Day but is also referred to and celebrated in Mount Olive as "Mother Jones's Day."
The farm where she died began to advertise itself as the "Mother Jones Rest Home" in 1932, before being sold to a Baptist church in 1956. The site is now marked with a Maryland Historical Trust marker, and a nearby elementary school is named in her honor.
In 1930, Mother Jones said the following regarding her legacy: "I am considered a Bolshevik, and a Red and an I.W.W., and a radical, and I admit to being all they've charged me with. I'm anything that would change monied civilization to a higher and grander civilization for the ages to come. And I long to see the day when labor will have the destination of the nation in her own hands, and she will stand a united force, and show the world what workers can do."
Mother Jones remained a well-known symbol for the American labor movement after her death and remains an important symbol for the power of organized labor among activists and organizers, both in the United States and globally.
... This plaque will be erected near the famous Cork Butter Market and will be unveiled on 1st August 2012 which is the 175th Anniversary of her baptism in the North Cathedral [St. Mary's Cathedral] (we have not been able to ascertain her actual date of birth but it would most likely have been a few days before this date). Her parents were Ellen Cotter, a native of Inchigeela and Richard Harris from Cork city. Few details of her life in Cork have been uncovered to date, though it is thought by some that she was born on Blarney Street and may have attended the North Presentation Schools nearby. She and her family emigrated to Canada soon after the Famine, probably in the early 1850s. ...
100-Year-Old [sic] Crusader in Her Time Had Headed Many All Night Marches of Strikers. Often Went To President. Lost All Her Family in Memphis Epidemic of 1867. Miners Became Her "Children." Idolized by Workers. Celebrates 100th [sic] Birthday. Mary (Mother) Jones, militant crusader for the rights of the laboring man, died at 11:55 last night at her home in near-by Maryland. She was 100 [sic] years old....