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Mother Jones: 'The Miners' Angel'


Her voice was low and pleasant. It was not the image you would expect for a fiery union agitator, a woman denounced in the U.S. Senate, who was convicted of conspiring to commit murder, who exposed injustice, and who faced down gunmen and presidents.


At the height of her fame, Mary Harris Jones was about five-feet tall with silver-white hair and wire spectacles, often wearing a simple black dress with lace at the throat and wrists. Her voice was low and pleasant. It was not the image you would expect for a fiery union agitator, a woman denounced in the U.S. Senate, who was convicted of conspiring to commit murder, who exposed injustice, and who faced down gunmen and presidents.

She was born about 50 years after the end of the American Revolution and died on the eve of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. It was a time of staggering growth, change, and conflict. She lived through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. She saw the birth of the industrial revolution and watched men and their families grapple with a system unsympathetic to their needs. She joined the brotherhood of labor and fought to help labor unions grow from a radical idea to an established order. Labor became the family she had lost; she became a mother figure to the union movement.

Her father was a radical, a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, forced to flee Ireland in the late 1830s. He settled his family in Toronto, Canada. While there, Mary went to school to become a teacher and then briefly taught in Michigan. Not liking teaching - "I prefer sewing to bossing little children," she said - she moved to Chicago and became a dressmaker. Around 1861, she moved to Memphis, Tenn., and married George E. Jones, an iron molder who was a member of the Iron Molders' Union. They started a family and in the six years that followed had four children.

In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis; her husband and her four small children died of the disease in the same week. After that loss, she returned to Chicago and her life as a dressmaker. Within a few years, she lost everything she owned in the Great Chicago Fire. It was shortly after these losses that she started attending meetings of the Knights of Labor. A need was filled. The personal tragedies and the sense of fraternity forged a compassion and a fervor that she would unleash in the industrial wars of the next half century.

Jones became increasingly active in the union movement; she was involved in the Pittsburgh rail strike in the 1870s, helped organize the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1890s, was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1900s, raised money for Mexican rebels, and worked with Chicago dressmakers in the 1920s.

Mother Jones would often organize the wives and children of striking workers into "dishpan brigades." The family members would bang together their pots, pans, brooms, and mops to block and prevent replacement workers from taking striking workers' jobs.

She was particularly outraged by the abuse of child laborers, expressly children who worked in texile mills. "Every day little children came to union headquarters, some with their hands off, some with a thumb missing, some with fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped little things," she wrote, "round-shouldered and skinny."

In 1903 she led a "children's crusade" of striking children from the texile mills of Kensington, Pa., to President Theodore Roosevelt's summer home in Long Island, N.Y., to dramatize the exploitation of children. The president refused to see them, but the march drew attention to their cause and Pennsylvania passed a child labor law.

The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 had degenerated into a shooting war between miners and mine guards. The West Virginia militia had been called out three times. Mother Jones, then 83 years old, was there leading a protest about conditions. She was arrested, tried by a military court for conpiracy to commit murder, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her trial and imprisonment created such an uproar that the U.S. Senate ordered an investigation. The West Virginia governor freed her before they could start to investigate.

She died seven months after her 100th birthday. She was buried near the coal fields of southern Illinois. Her headstone reads, "She gave her life to the world of labor, her blessed soul to heaven. God's finger touches her, and now she sleeps."

Some of the early dates in Mother Jones' life are disputed by historians (some believe her birth date is as much as seven years later than she states in her autobiography). Here is a timeline based upon the most agreed-upon timeframes.

May 1, 1830*: born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland.

1838*: Her family is forced to flee Ireland and settle in Toronto, Ontario.

1847*: After training to be a teacher at the Toronto Normal School, she graduates. She teaches school in Michigan for eight months and then moves to Chicago, working as a dressmaker.

1861: After moving to Memphis, Tennessee, she meets and marries George E. Jones, an ironworker and member of the Iron Molders' Union.

1867: Jones loses her husband and all four of her children in a yellow fever epidemic. Later that year, she returns to Chicago.

1871: She loses everything in the great Chicago fire. She begins to attend meetings of the Knights of Labor.

1877: She becomes involved in the Pittsburgh railway strike.

1880s: She organizes and runs union educational meetings.

1890s: Mother Jones gets involved with the struggles of coal miners and becomes a volunteer organizer for the United Mine Workers.

1898: She helps found the Social Democratic Party.

1900: Mother Jones uses a "dishpan brigade," wives gathered at the mine banging pots and pans, to prevent replacement workers from taking strikers' jobs in Arnot, Pennsylvania.

1901: She becomes an employee of the United Mine Workers.

Jan. 25, 1901: She attends her first UMWA convention.

1902: In the Pennsylvania coal fields, Jones leads a march of miners' wives and stops strikebreakers with brooms and mops.

1903: She leads a children's crusade: a caravan of striking children from textile mills in Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in Long Island, New York, protesting child labor.

1904: Mother Jones resigns as a UMWA organizer and becomes a lecturer for the Socialist Party of America. Her main interest is raising funds for Mexican revolutionaries, although she continues to participate in some strikes and drives for several unions.

1905: She is present at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. She is the only woman among the 27 who sign a manifesto for a convention to organize all industrial workers.

1911: Mother Jones leaves the Socialist Party and returns to the payroll of the United Mine Workers as an organizer.

Sept. 12, 1912: She leads a march of miners' children through the streets of Charleston, West Virginia, during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike and gains national attention.

Feb. 13, 1913: She leads a protest about mine conditions and is arrested. Later, she is convicted in a military court of conspiring to commit murder and is sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her conviction creates an uproar and the U.S. Senate orders an investigation into conditions in the West Virginia coal fields.

May 8, 1913: West Virginia governor Dr. Henry Hatfield orders Mother Jones set free. Later that year, she travels to Colorado to support miners on strike there. She is arrested and imprisoned twice.

1915-16: She goes to New York to participate in the garment workers' and streetcar workers' strike.

1919: She helps organize the Pittsburgh steel workers' strike.

1922: Mother Jones leaves the United Mine Workers after a disagreement with its leader, John L. Lewis.

1924: She helps organize dressmakers in Chicago.

1926: She makes her last known public address on Labor Day in Alliance, Ohio.

Nov. 30, 1930: Jones dies seven months after her 100th birthday* in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois.

*Some researchers question these dates

I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser.

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would have been a United States senator.

One of the boys said I was looking good. Well of course I am. There is going to be a racket [fight] and I am going to be in it.

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

My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.

No matter what the fight, don't be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.

Points of Interest
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