Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1 August 1837 – 30 November 1930) born in Cork, was a prominent American labor and community organizer, and founded the Industrial Workers of the World.
She was born Mary Harris, the daughter of a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, Richard Harris and his wife Ellen Cotter, on the northside of Cork city. Some recent materials list her birthday as 1 August 1837, although she claimed her birthdate to be 1 May 1830. Her claims to an earlier date may have been an appeal to her grandmotherly image. The date of May 1 was possibly chosen symbolically, to represent the national labor holiday and anniversary of the Haymarket affair.
The family migrated to the United States and settled in the town of Monroe, Michigan. Harris studied and qualified to become a teacher in Toronto in 1857. She moved to Mem-phis, Tennessee in 1862 where she married George Jones, a member of the Iron Workers’ Union. Two turning points in her life were the 1867 deaths of her husband and their four children (all under the age of five) during a yellow fever epidemic in Tennessee, and the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the death of her family, she moved to Chicago and recreated herself as an independent dressmaker. She lost her hard-earned home, shop and possessions in the Great Fire. This second loss catalyzed an even more fundamental transformation: she turned to the nascent labor movement and joined the Knights of Labor, a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”). As another source of her transformation into a radical organizer, biographer Elliott Gorn draws out her early Roman Catholic connection – including bringing to light her relationship to her estranged brother, Father William Richard Harris, Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and dean of Toronto’s diocese of St. Catherine’s, who was “among the best-known clerics in Ontario.” Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved with the United Mine Workers (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 became known as “the most dangerous woman in America,” a phrase coined by a West Virginia 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 crooks her finger – twenty thousand contented men lay down.”
In 1903 Jones organized children, who were working in mills and mines at the time, to participate in the “Children’s Crusade”, a march from Kensington, Philadelphia, Pennsyl-vania to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt, with banners demanding “We want to go to School and not the mines!” Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. Mother Jones’s Children’s Crusade was described in detail in the 2003 non-fiction book, Kids on Strike!.
In 1913, during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia, Mother Jones was charged and kept under house arrest in the nearby town of Pratt and subsequently con-victed with other union organizers of conspiring to commit murder, after organizing another children’s march. Her arrest raised an uproar and she was soon released from prison, after which, upon motion of Indiana Senator John Worth Kern, the United States Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines.
A few months later she was in Colorado, helping to organize the coal miners there. Once again she was arrested, served some time in prison, and was escorted from the state in the months leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre she was invited to Standard Oil’s headquarters at 26 Broadway to meet face-to-face with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a meeting that prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.
By 1924, Mother Jones was in court again, this time facing charges of libel, slander, and sedition. In 1925, Charles A. Albert, publisher of the fledgling Chicago Times, won a $350,000 judgment against the matriarch.
Mother Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW affairs into the 1920s, and continued to speak on union affairs almost until her death. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). In her later years, Jones lived with friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess of Hyattsville, Maryland. There she celebrated her self-proclaimed 100th birthday on 1 May 1930, and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel. She died at the age of 93 or 100 on November 30, 1930. Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the Virden Riot of 1898. She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, “her boys”.
During her lifetime, Mother Jones was known as “The Miners’ Angel”. Persevering in her efforts despite the many tragic events she witnessed, her fierce determination was vividly expressed in her famous declaration, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” When she was denounced on the Senate floor as the “grandmother of all agitators,” she replied in typical fashion, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.”
During the bitter 1989-90 Pittston Coal Strike in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, the wives and daughters of striking coal miners, inspired by the still-surviving tales of Mother Jones’ legendary work among the miners of that region, dubbed themselves the “Daughters of Mother Jones”. They played a critical role on the picket lines, and in presenting the miners’ case to the news media.
At present, many people know of Mother Jones chiefly because her name has been emblazoned for more than three decades on the cover of every issue of Mother Jones mag-azine, which reports on many of the same social causes espoused by Mother Jones herself.
Additionally, Carl Sandburg, in The American Songbag, suggests that the “she” in She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain was a reference to Mother Jones and her travels to Appala-chian mountain coal mining camps promoting the unionization of the miners.
Students at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia have the option to apply for residence in the Mother Jones House, which is an off-campus service house. Resident stu-dents are required to perform at least ten hours of community service each week, plus participate in community dinners and other functions.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School in Adelphi, Maryland is named for her.
In November 2007, at the Crystal Theater of South Norwalk, Connecticut, the original musical Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children by Crystal Theatre cofounder and director Cheryl Kemeny, was performed. Based on the life of Mother Jones, the production (first staged in 1997) featured around 40 middle- and high-school students of South Norwalk and the surrounding area.
Mother Jones is the topic of a track called “The Most Dangerous Woman” on the album Fellow Workers by Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco
The anonymous song “The Death of Mother Jones” was first recorded by Gene Autry in what may have been his first recording session.
Jones is referenced in the song “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by Tom Russell on his 2009 album Blood and Candle Smoke
The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Col, 1925.
Mother Jones Speaks: Speeches and Writings of a Working-Class Fighter. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1983, ISBN 0-87348-810-5