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Mary Harris Jones

Mary Harris Jones
File:Mother Jones 1902-11-04.jpg
Mother Jones in 1902
Born Mary Harris
1837 (baptized 1 August 1837)
Cork City, County Cork, Ireland
Died 30 November 1930 (aged 93)
Adelphi, Maryland, U.S.
Occupation Labor and community organizer
Political party
Social Democratic Party
Socialist Party of America

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1837[1][2] – 30 November 1930) was an Irish-American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labor and community organizer. She then helped coordinate major strikes and cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World.

Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her 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 began working as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. From 1897, at around 60 years of age, she was known as Mother Jones. In 1902 she was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners. In 1903, upset about 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 then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York. Mother Jones magazine, established in 1970, is named for her.


Mary Harris Jones was born on the north side of Cork City, Ireland, the daughter of Roman Catholic tenant farmers Richard Harris and Ellen (née Cotter) Harris.[3]She was born on 1 May, 1837 and she was baptized on 1 August 1837.[1][1] The date of 1 May was chosen to represent the national labor holiday and anniversary of the Haymarket affair, and the year (1830) to imply centenarian status.

Formative years

Mary immigrated with her family to Canada as a teenager.[4] She received a Catholic education in Toronto before her family moved to the United States.[4] She became a teacher in a convent in Monroe, Michigan. After tiring of her assumed profession, she moved first to Chicago and later to Memphis, where she married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders,[5] later the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America, in 1861.[6] She eventually opened a dress shop in Memphis on the eve of the Civil War.[4]

There were two turning points in her life. The first, and most tragic one, was the loss of her husband George and their four children (all under the age of five) in 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. After that, she returned to Chicago to begin another dressmaking business.[7] Then, four years later, she lost her hard-earned home, shop, and possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 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").[8] The Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the fear of anarchism and revolution incited by union organizations led to the rapid demise of the Knights of Labor. Once the Knights ceased to exist, Mary Jones became largely affiliated with the United Mine Workers. With the UMW, she frequently led strikers in picketing and encouraged the striking workers to stay on strike when the management brought in strike-breakers and militias.[6] She strongly believed that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids."[9]

As another source of her transformation into an organizer, biographer Elliott Gorn draws out her early Roman Catholic connection, bringing to light her relationship to her brother, Father William Richard Harris, Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and Dean of the Niagara Peninsula (in St. Catharines) in the Diocese of Toronto, who was "among the best-known clerics in Ontario", but from whom she was reportedly estranged.[8] Her political views may have been strongly shaped by the 1877 railroad strike, Chicago's labor movement, and the Haymarket riot and depression of 1886.[4]

Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved 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 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 comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign ... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out."[10]

Jones was ideologically separated from many of the other female activists of the pre-Nineteenth Amendment days due to her aversion to female suffrage. She was quoted as saying that "You don't need the vote to raise hell!"[11] Her opposition to women taking an active role in politics was based on her belief that the neglect of motherhood was a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. She became known as a charismatic and effective speaker throughout her career.[12] A passionate public speaker, she would liven her rhetoric with real and folk-tale characters, punctuate with participation from audience members, flavor it with passion, and include humor-ridden methods to rile up the crowd such as profanity, name-calling, and wit. Occasionally she would include props, visual aids, and dramatic stunts for effect.[12]

By age 60, she had effectively assumed the persona of "Mother Jones" by claiming to be older than she actually was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she supported as "her boys". The first reference to her in print as Mother Jones was in 1897.[4]

"Children's Crusade"

In 1901, workers in Pennsylvania's silk mills went on strike, many being young female workers demanding to be paid adult wages.[13] John Mitchell, the president of the UMWA, brought Mother Jones to north-east Pennsylvania in the months of February and September to encourage unity among the striking workers. To do so, she encouraged the wives of the workers to organize into a militia, who in turn would wield brooms, beat on tin pans and shout "Join the union!" She held that wives had an important role to play as the nurturers and motivators of the striking men, but not as fellow workers. She made claim that the young girls working in the mills were being robbed and demoralized.[13]

To enforce worker solidarity, she travelled to the silk mills in New Jersey and returned to Pennsylvania to report that the conditions she observed were far superior. 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 also divulged their side of the story. They claimed that if the workers still insisted on a wage scale, they would not be able to do business while paying adult wages and would be forced to close down.[14] Even Jones herself encouraged the workers to accept a settlement. Although she agreed upon a settlement which sent the young girls back to the mills, she continued to fight child labor for the remainder of her life.[14]

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 to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want to go to School and not the mines!"[citation needed]

As Mother Jones noted that many of the children at union headquarters had missing fingers and other disabilities, she attempted to get newspaper publicity about the conditions in Pennsylvania regarding child labor. However, the mill owners held stock in essentially all of the newspapers. When the newspaper men informed her that they could not advertise 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."[15] 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. Even though Mother Jones wrote a letter for such permission, she never received an answer.[16] Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. Jones's Children's Crusade was described in detail in the 2003 non-fiction book, Kids on Strike!.

In the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, Mary Jones arrived in June 1912, speaking and organizing through 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 13 February 1913, 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.[citation needed]

After 85 days of confinement, her release coincided with Indiana Senator John Worth Kern initiating a Senate investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines. Mary Lee Settle paints an accurate and compelling portrait of Jones at this time in her novel The Scapegoat (1978). Several months later she was in Colorado, helping organize coal miners. 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.[citation needed]

Later years

File:Mother Jones 02.jpg
Jones was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as the "grandmother of all agitators."

By 1924, 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 Jones. Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW 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 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 1 May 1930, and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel.[citation needed]


She died in Silver Spring, Maryland at age 93 on 30 November 1930.[17][18]

She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who had died in the 1898 Battle of Virden.[19][20] She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys".[21]


  • Jones uttered words still invoked by union supporters more than a century later: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."[22] Already known as "the miners' angel" when she was denounced on the floor of the United States Senate as the "grandmother of all agitators," she replied:
    I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.[citation needed]
  • 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 Jones' legendary work among an earlier generation of the region's coal miners, dubbed themselves the "Daughters of Mother Jones". They played a crucial role on the picket lines and in presenting the miners' case to the press and public.[23]
  • Mother Jones was established in the 1970s and quickly became "the largest selling radical magazine of the decade."[24]
  • To coincide with International Women's Day on 8 March 2010 a proposal from Councillor Ted Tynan for a plaque to be erected in Mary Harris Jones' native Cork City was passed by the Cork City Council.[27] Members of the Cork Mother Jones Commemorative Committee unveiled the plaque[28] on 1 August 2012 to mark the 175th anniversary of her birth. The Cork Mother Jones Festival was held in the Shandon area of the city, close to her birthplace, with numerous guest speakers.[29] The festival now takes place annually around the anniversary and has led to growing awareness of Mother Jones' legacy and links between admirers in Ireland and the US.[30] A new documentary, Mother Jones and her children, has been produced by Cork-based Frameworks Films [31] and premiered at the Cork festival in 2014.

Music and the arts

  • "Union Maid", a song written by Woody Guthrie, calls for women to emulate Mother Jones by fighting for women's and workers' rights.
  • "The most dangerous woman," a spoken-word performance by indie folk singer/spoken word performer Utah Phillips with music and backing vocals added to it by indie folk artist Ani Difranco, can be found on their collaborative album Fellow Workers. The title refers to the moniker that President Theodore Roosevelt gave[citation needed] to Mother Jones, referring to her as "the most dangerous woman in America." Utah Phillips performed the song "The Charge on Mother Jones." This folk song was written by William M. Rogers.[33]
  • "The Spirit of Mother Jones" is a track on the 2010 Abocurragh album by Irish singer-songwriter Andy Irvine.[34]
  • The title track of folk-roots duo Wishing Chair and Kara Barnard's 2002 album Dishpan Brigade[35] is about Jones and her role in the 1899–1900 miners' strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania.[36]
  • Jones is the "woman" in Tom Russell's song "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," a commentary on the troubles of striking miners that appeared on his 2009 album Blood and Candle Smoke on the Shout! Factory label.
  • The play The Kentucky Cycle: Fire in the hole portrays Jones as an inspirational figure one of the other characters knew and was inspired by to go and create unions in other coal towns.



  1. ^ a b c "Mary Harris Jones". Mother Jones Commemorative committee. Retrieved 30 November 2012. ... 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 early 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. ... 
  2. ^ "Mother Jones (1837–1930)". AFL-CIO. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Day by Day in Cork, Sean Beecher, Collins Press, Cork, 1992
  4. ^ a b c d e Arnesen, Eric. "A Tarnished Icon", Reviews in American History 30, no. 1 (2002): 89
  5. ^ Religion and Radical Politics: An Alternative Christian Tradition in the United States, Robert H. Craig, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992
  6. ^ a b Russell E. Smith, "March of the Mill Children", The Social Service Review 41, no. 3 (1967): 299
  7. ^ Ric Arnesen, "A Tarnished Icon", Reviews in American History 30, no. 1 (2002): 89
  8. ^ a b Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott Gorn
  9. ^ Dreher, Rod (5 June 2006) All-American Anarchists, The American Conservative
  10. ^ Sandra L. Ballard; Patricia L. Hudson (18 July 2013). Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-4358-3. Retrieved 26 September 2013. 
  11. ^ Russell E. Smith, "March of the Mill Children", The Social Service Review 41, no. 3 (1967): 298
  12. ^ a b Mari Boor Tonn, "Militant Motherhood: Labor's Mary Harris 'Mother' Jones", Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, no. 1 (1996): 2
  13. ^ a b Bonnie Stepenoff, "Keeping it in the Family: Mother Jones and the Pennsylvania Silk Strike of 1900–1901”, Labor History 38, no. 4 (1997): 446
  14. ^ a b Bonnie Stepenoff, "Keeping it in the Family: Mother Jones and the Pennsylvania Silk Strike of 1900–1901”, Labor History 38, no. 4 (1997): 448
  15. ^ Russell E. Smith, "March of the Mill Children", The Social Service Review 41, no. 3 (1967): 300
  16. ^ Russell E. Smith, "March of the Mill Children", The Social Service Review 41, no. 3 (1967): 303
  17. ^ Death Notice for Mother Mary Jones, The Washington Post, 2 December 1930, pg. 3.
  18. ^ Associated Press (1 December 1930). "Mother Jones Dies. Led Mine Workers". New York Times. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 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.... 
  19. ^ "Service Tomorrow for Mother Jones," The Washington Post, 2 December 1930, pg. 12.
  20. ^ Gravesite: 39°04′50″N 89°44′00″W / 39.080686°N 89.733286°W / 39.080686; -89.733286{{#coordinates:39.080686|-89.733286|type:landmark|||||| | |name= }}
  21. ^ "United States Department of Labor – Labor Hall of Fame: Mary Harris "Mother" Jones". Retrieved 6 September 2010. 
  22. ^ "Quotations from Mother Jones (#2)". Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
  23. ^ "The Pittston Coal Strike" at
  24. ^ Scully, Michael Andrew. "Would Mother Jones Buy 'Mother Jones'?", Public Interest 53, (1978): 100
  25. ^ Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Elementary School webpage
  26. ^ Service and Social Justice ministry webpage
  27. ^ "Minutes of Ordinary Meeting of Cork City Council" (PDF). Retrieved 6 September 2010. 
  28. ^ Irish Times coverage of the Cork Mother Jones Commemorative Committee
  29. ^ "Mother Jones Remembered". Retrieved 17 March 2012. 
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Sandburg, Carl, The American Songbag, 1st edition. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.
  33. ^ RE: "The Charge on Mother Jones"
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^

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