From the West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, 11:3(August 1997): 2-5. [Claude Frazier is a nationally known allergist and author of Miners and Medicine, West Virginia Memories (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).]
"I sat alone through the nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart...."1
At thirty-seven, Mary Harris Jones sat in a darkened room in an empty house and grieved for her husband and all four of her children, victims of a yellow fever epidemic that overwhelmed Memphis, Tennessee in 1867.
Who was this bereft young widow and sorrowing mother? In 1867 she was simply the Widow Jones, but some thirty or so years later she was known far and wide as Mother Jones, a plump, white-haired little woman with Irish blue eyes and an irreverent tongue, who dedicated herself to bettering the lot of the men, women and children of the working class, a lot that was often exceedingly grim at the turn of the century.
Mary Harris, born in Cork, Ireland in 1830, was a truly remarkable woman, not only for her times, but for any time. Fierce, witty, courageous, stubborn, hardy, dramatic, eloquent, given to extravagance and hyperbole in word and deed, she was born independent and destined to go her own way, no matter what. Like Barbara Jordan of our own day, she was a spellbinder. Like Carrie Nation wielding her axe, she flirted with violence. Like Mother Teresa, she was compassionate, and like Mother Bicerdyke, who once searched Civil War battlefields at night to tend the wounded, she was fearless. The last years of the Nineteenth Century and the early years of our own were not pleasant years for many ordinary Americans, nor for their children who were frequently sent into the mines and mills at an early age to help their families survive. Mother Jones seems to have suddenly sprung into this world of grinding poverty and gruesome working conditions fully armed with invective against the bosses and the governments she held responsible for the despair of so many.
Not a great deal is known of her early life. She was brought to Canada from Ireland then to the states by her family. After graduating from a Canadian normal school, she taught for awhile in public school and a New England Convent school. Apparently she left teaching to take up dress-making in Chicago, then returned to teaching in Memphis, where she met and married George Jones, an iron molder and active union man.2 Perhaps those few years before the yellow fever decimated her family were happy, but she makes little or no mention of them in her autobiography. She does say that after she buried her family, she eventually returned to Chicago and dressmaking, but fate seemed determined to deliver a knockout blow, for in the fall of 1871, the great Chicago fire left her homeless.
However, even then destiny played its hand; she wandered one day into a Knights of Labor meeting and found her life's work.3 She became a union organizer, an agitator for justice for the working class, for the strict enforcement of child labor laws, for better and safer conditions for women in the mills and sweatshops, for better pay and working conditions for all who worked and bore the brunt of the nation's transition from an agricultural to an industrial society.
Her sojourn with the Knights was not long, for they soon melded with the United Mine Workers, and although she also served a short time for the Workers of the World as an organizer, most of her union effort down the years was with the UMW.4
A hundred pound bundle of energy, she could have been anyone's grandmother with her motherly face, white hair and her usual black dress trimmed with white lace complete with black bonnet, but the moment she stepped onto a platform and opened her mouth (she could cuss like a mule skinner) the grand motherly image vanished and she harangued her audience, often electrifying them and bringing them roaring to their feet, ready for action. Her subjects varied from a dignified cataloging of miners' wrongs to such a rousing statement as the following:
The womanhood of this state shall not be oppressed and beaten and abused by a lot of contemptible, damnable blood hounds (her favorite epithet for the Baldwin-Felts guards) hired by the operators. They wouldn't keep their dogs where they keep you fellows. You know that. They have a good place for their dogs and a slave to take care of them. The mine owners wives will take the dogs up and say, "I love you, de ah. . . ."5
But she would also lambast the miners themselves, telling them:
You are to blame, you have voted for the whole gang of commercial pirates [her equally favorite epithet for mine owners and other business bosses] every time you get a chance to free yourselves....6
In a speech in Charleston, West Virginia she both praised and admonished her "boys" as she called them:
With machinerey you have changed the whole industrial world, you have changed literature, the pulpit in the teaching of religion. Your public press today is in the interest of the ruling classes. These editors have got to do it. Don't blame the editor. I blame the pirates behind. The poor editors are like you, slaves, and you are slaves.
Nobody can change this but you. The other class will never change it. They will tell you to go up to Jesus, and Jesus will tell you to get back and fight.7
Her love of the theatrical, evident in many of her speeches was carried over in dramatic "commercials" she would stage to illustrate the plight of the working classes, especially that of the mill children, and when confronted by sheriffs' posses or the militia, she would organize miners' wives into mop and broom brigades that would descend in force upon the unlucky men. Often accompanied by dishpans and even sometimes a fife and drum, the keep up an infernal din and threaten mayhem with their weapons. More than once they cowed strong men with and threats, and more than once spooked mine mules into running away.
Perhaps one of her most famous theatricals that she organized was the long march of mill children from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay to try to get President Theodore Roosevelt to strengthen child labor laws. She gathered up a number of striking textile workers and mill children, many of the latter crippled by factory machinery, their fingers lost or crushed. The trek of over a hundred miles is said to have begun at Philadelphia's City Hall where she held up a crippled child for the gathering crowd to see; she especially wanted the media to take note and also the city officials who appeared at the windows to check out the commotion in the courtyard below. She wrote in her autobiography that a great crowd gathered and she told them that "Philadelphia mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children." The officials, she noted, were quick to close the windows and disappear. However, no doubt as she intended, the media played up her little drama, creating quite a stir. So, the little band, complete with fife and drum, took to the road on their way to see the President at his estates at Oyster Bay.
Housewives and farmers brought them food along the way and provided barns for sleeping, interurban trainmen gave them rides, and people brought clothing for the children. A brief setback occurred at New York City when the mayor refused to allow them to enter, but she soon won him over and the band, dwindled now in numbers, marched up Fourth Avenue to Twentieth Street, where she gave a speech outlining "the horrors of child labor in the mills" to yet another sizable crowd. An owner of a Coney Island nimal show invited the band for a visit and some fun and even provided an elephant to join the march. The elephant tried its best to be helpful to the cause. It sat down on the railroad tracks to delay a train upon which a Senator Mother Jones was eager to buttonhole for the cause was doing his best to escape. Unhappily, the elephant was induced to move in time for the Senator to make his getaway.
After all this, the weary band was turned away at Oyster Bay, for apparently Roosevelt was not at home. Still, as the children and their valiant guide made their way home, people must have been affected, for it wasn't long thereafter that Pennsylvania passed a fairly strict child labor law.8
While she was wonderfully creative in staging events such as this and her mop and broom brigades, what was also endearing about this feisty little old lady was her sense of humor. In a speech at Cooper Union, she told her audience that once when she was being escorted to jail, a polite lieutenant of the militia asked,
"Madam, will you take my arm?" "I am not a Madam," I said, "I am Mother Jones. The Government can't take my life and you can't take my arm, but you can take my suitcase."9
During a steel strike in Pennsylvania in 1919, she was arrested for trying to make a speech. When asked in court who had given her permission to speak in the streets, she replied that she had a permit. When the incredulous judge demanded to know who had given her one, she replied, "Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams.10
She told suffragettes that "I did not believe in women's rights nor in men's rights, but in human rights." And she added, "I have been up against armed mercenaries, but this old woman, without a vote and with nothing but a hatpin, has scared them."
Which was certainly true. Some even called her the most dangerous woman in America.11
She must have been something of an actress, for when she wanted to see for herself what conditions were like in the cotton mills of Alabama for children, she got a job by telling the superintendent that she had six children who would be joining her soon. Jobs were only afforded to families with children, so that the children, too, would be brought into the mill. What she saw in that mill sickened her.12 She wrote that children, barefoot and half-starved, as young as six years of age, walked back and forth all day or night between rows of spindles to replace them as needed or to fix threads that had snapped. To oil the machinery, they were forced to crawl underneath even as the machines were operating. "If they fell asleep, cold water was dashed in their faces and the voice of the manager yelled above the ceaseless racket and whir of the machines."13
She described the beginning of the childrens' day:
At five-thirty in the morning, long lines of little grey children came out of the early dawn into the factory, into the maddening noise, into the lint filled rooms. Outside the birds sang and the blue skies shone. At the lunch half-hour, the children would fall asleep over their lunch of cornbread and fat pork. They would lie on the bare floor and sleep. Sleep was their recreation, their release, as play is to a free child.14
Ah, but they had Sundays off. She continued,
To Sunday school went the babies of the mills, there to hear how God had inspired the mill owner to come down and build the mill, so as to give His little ones work that they might develop into industrious, patriotic citizens and earn money to give the missionaries to convert the poor unfortunate heathen Chinese.15
She could be satiric and often was.
When her own six imaginary children failed to materialize to be added to the sad little army, she lost her job, but never her dedication to outlaw child labor.
Her early years in the labor movement were only a preview of the hardships she would so frequently face, but she was unrelenting, ignoring injunctions, arrest, jail, threats to her life. She walked many a mile along dusty roads, over railroad tracks, up the middle of creeks. Sometimes she drove buggies or rode on mules. She often stayed nights in miners' shacks, sharing a bed with family members. Meals were far too often simply a hunk of bread and a cup of tea. She never seemed terribly dismayed by adversity, taking arrest and jailing in stride. Unfortunately for many other labor leaders, she expected as much from them. Unfortunately, few were as ascetic, so she often railed against those who spent union money on comfortable hotels or steak dinners. She also expected action from her comrades, not compromise; thus, was often at logger-heads with other union leaders, which is apparently one reasons she frequently went off on her own to do battle for the working man, especially her beloved miners.
This must have frustrated mine and mill owners, for they never knew where she would turn up next or what she would be up to. For example, during the bloody Cripple Creek Strike in Colorado, aware that she could not get into the camps without being recognized and immediately evicted, she disguised herself as a peddler, exchanging her usual black dress and bonnet for "Fan old calico dress and sunbonnet." With a small supply of pins and needles and other sewing supplies she roamed the restless southern Colorado mine camps at will and saw first hand what conditions were like. She found them "heart-rending."16
(To be continued in next issue)
1. Mary Harris Jones, Autobiography of Mother Jones, Mary Field Parton, ed. (Chicago: Charles Kerr and Company, 1925), 12.
2. Dale Fetherling, Mother Jones, the Miner's Angel (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974), 3.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Ibid., 17.
5. Edward Steel, ed., The Speeches and Writings of Mother Jones (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 90.
6. Ibid., 93.
7. Ibid., 67.
8. Fetherling, 48-57.
9. Ibid., 122.
10. Jones, Autobiography, 213.
11. Ibid., 204.
12. Fetherling, 20.
13. Jones, Autobiography, 213.
14. Ibid., 120.
15. Fetherling, 20-21.
16. Jones, Autobiography, 95-96.
West Virginia History Center