Did You Know that a 72-year-old Irish woman, beloved by millions, was once called the most dangerous woman in America? Her name was Mary Harris Jones, and this feisty little Irish lady was also called the Mother of All Agitators. Born in Cork City, Ireland on 1 May 1837, her family fled the Great Hunger to Canada where she trained as a teacher and dressmaker. In 1861, she married George Jones, an iron molder and union organizer in Memphis, Tennessee. They had four children, but she lost all four and her husband in the 1867 yellow fever epidemic. Determined to survive, Mrs. Jones moved to Chicago where she worked as a dressmaker until her shop was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.
After her second heartbreaking setback, this courageous Irish lady took a job as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and United Mine Workers union in 1897. This was a hard time for labor in a tycoon-dominated America where politicians and police controlled the workplace for the giants of industry. In 1876-77, 21 miners in Pennsylvania were given mock trials and executed for union activities as ‘Molly Maguires’ – a name created to paint them as criminal conspirators when, in fact, the only organization they belonged to was the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Mary Harris Jones, now in her 60s, entered the field of labor. An effective speaker she began organizing mine workers who she called ‘her boys’; they, in turn, called her ‘Mother Jones.’ Her success in organizing mine workers and their families was phenomenal. This petite, white-haired, grandmotherly-looking lady was a radical labor organizer. When she was called ‘the grandmother of all agitators’ by a local politician, she replied ‘I hope to live long enough to be the great grandmother of all agitators!’ She also organized strikers’ wives because she felt that if the wife didn’t share the husband’s beliefs, he wouldn’t stay committed for long. In 1902, she was arrested for ignoring a West Virginia state injunction banning meetings by striking miners. The District Attorney said at her trial, ‘There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She crooks her finger and 20,000 workers lay down.’ According to Clarence Darrow, she was ‘one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor movement’. When asked for her address, she replied, ‘my address is on the sole of my shoes, it travels with me!’
For months she lived in the most desolate mining camps, sharing her meager belongings with half-starved miner’s families, nursing the sick and cheering the depressed. Not limited to organizing coal miners, she did likewise in the silk mills of Pennsylvania. When she noticed that many of the children had missing fingers and other disabilities from accidents in the mills and mines, she tried to publicize the terrible working conditions of child labor. Newspapers refused to carry her story noting that the mill and mine owners held stock in their papers. She replied, ‘Well, I’ve got stock in these children, and I’ll arrange my own publicity.’ In 1903, she organized 200 children from the mills and mines, many of whom were maimed, to carry banners demanding ‘We want to go to school, not the mines!’ She led this “Children’s Crusade” on a march from Philadelphia to President Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home at Oyster Bay, Long Island. The march took several weeks, and in every town along the way, Mother Jones was ready with a speech telling the public that she was on her way to let the President hear ‘the wail of the children’! He refused to see her, but she got her publicity! Child labor laws soon followed.
In January 1914, she visited Ludlow, Colorado to support miners trying to organize against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller. She instilled hope in the strikers with her powerful speeches, even though she was now over 80 years of age. The mine owners had her arrested and confined in a psychiatric ward at Mt. San Rafael Hospital. On 21 January, miners’ wives and children organized a march to protest her arrest. Adjutant General Chase, commander of the Colorado Militia, was so furious he gave orders to ‘Ride down those women!’ Mounted troops attacked the march with sabers drawn, injuring many, and Mother Jones was escorted to the state line and told never to return. More than 13,000 miners and their families were evicted from the company shacks, so they set up a tent colony on land belonging to one who supported their cause. The Governor called in the National Guard who were easily bought by the mine owners. In April, the Guard attacked the tent colony of miners and their families resulting in the violent deaths of 75 people including 2 women and 11 children. After the Ludlow Massacre, Mother Jones went to Standard Oil’s New York headquarters to face Rockefeller; the meeting prompted him to visit the Colorado mines and introduce reforms.
Mother Jones remained active in the union movement and her influence opened the door to other female labor leaders like Lenora O’Reilly who went from child laborer to co-founder of the Woman’s Trade Union League; Aunt Sara McLaughlin who rose to the top of the Textile Mill Union as organizer and Julia Sarsfield O’Connor who became the first female officer in the Woman’s Trade Union when she was elected President. The story was repeated again and again. Mother Jones died on 30 November 1930 and her name is still part of labor history. A plaque was erected to her memory in her native Cork city on 1 August 2012. However, most of the lasting tribute to her may be in the world of music. Gene Autry’s first recording in 1931 was ‘The Death of Mother Jones’; Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid’ calls for women to emulate Mother Jones and in 2010, Irish singer/songwriter Andy Irvine, recorded ‘The Spirit of Mother Jones.’ There is one song, however, that has stood the test of time, the first printed version of which appeared in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag in 1927. Sandburg noted that the lyrics refer to Mother Jones’ travels among the Appalachian mountain coal mining camps promoting the unionization of the miners. Think of Mother Jones – one of the Irish who helped make America great – when next you sing, ‘She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes, etc.
Mike McCormack, National Historian (originally publish 2018)
THIS IRISH AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH PROFILE IS PRESENTED BY THE ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS (AOH.COM)