Mother Jones, the Walking Wrath of God
Contribution by Professor Elliot J. Gorn, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA and biographer of Mother Jones, speaking at the inaugural Mother Jones festival, Cork City, Ireland, 1st August 2012.
“There broke out a storm of applause which swelled into a tumult as a little woman came forward on the platform,” wrote the great labor novelist Upton Sinclair. “She was wrinkled and old, dressed in black, looking like somebody’s grandmother; she was, in truth, the grandmother of hundreds of thousands of miners….” Sinclair, famous for his classic 1906 novel The Jungle about life and labor in the stockyards, turned his attention now to the coal wars in Colorado: “Hearing her speak,” he wrote of his old friend Mother Jones, “you discovered the secret of her influence over these polyglot hordes. She had force, she had wit, above all she had the fire of indignation—she was the walking wrath of God….”
Mother Jones, Sinclair wrote, “would tell endless stories about her adventures, about strikes she had led and speeches she had made; about interviews with presidents and governors and captains of industry; about jails and convict camps…. All over the country she had roamed and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.” Sinclair’s words were literally true; for twenty-five years, this elderly woman had no home. As she explained to a Congressional committee when asked where she lived, “my address is like my shoes; it follows me wherever I go.”
So who was Mother Jones? With organized labor’s declining fortunes in the twenty-first century, we don’t hear of her so often anymore. Except for a progressive magazine named in her honor, and her famous battle-cry, “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” she is a faded memory. Yet she was one of the most famous women in America during the first decades of the twentieth century.
In her 60s, 70s, 80s, Mother Jones renounced friends, family and possessions to live on the road with her people, and out of that commitment grew working families’ powerful sense of identification with her. Hearing that she had been arrested once again, a worker named T. J. Llewellen from Missouri wrote to the Secretary of Labor, “I have carried a gun three times in the industrial wars in this country, and by the eternal, if any harm comes to the old Mother, I’m not too old nor by the same token too cowardly to carry it again.” Margaret R. Duvall warned of an aroused working class “more dreadful than this country has ever seen” should any harm come to Mother Jones. And A. Van Tassel of Ohio begged President Woodrow Wilson to free the Miners’ Angel: “This beautiful hero of the labor movement has committed no crime, but is being slowly murdered because she insisted on agitating and educating the workers to realize their true status in society.”
Mother Jones’ early life is enveloped in myth, some of it created by herself. She exaggerated her age to enhance her venerability. In her autobiography, published in 1925, she claimed May Day, 1930 as her birthday. Actually, she was born Mary Harris, and baptized in Cork Ireland in August 1837. She witnessed the Great Hunger, which forced her family to flee to North America. Her teen years were spent in Toronto, where her father worked as a laborer on the railroads, and where she learned the skills of a seamstress, but she also studied to become a teacher. As a young adult, she taught in a convent school in Monroe Michigan, worked briefly in Chicago, then migrated to Memphis, Tennessee, where she met and married an iron-moulder, a union man named George Jones. They had four children, but in 1867, a yellow fever epidemic took all of their lives, save Mary’s. She returned to Chicago, and for the next twenty years, labored in obscurity as a dressmaker. She came to know many political activists and union leaders during these years. Chicago was the most radical city in America, and on its streets, she discovered her gift of oratory. Before the century ended, Mary Jones was marching with Coxey’s Army demanding a jobs program, and organizing anthracite miners in Pennsylvania.
Her most important act, however, was creating “Mother Jones.” Mary Harris was a poor Irish famine immigrant, a young schoolteacher and dressmaker, who drifted away from her working class Toronto family to pursue a life in the United States. Mary Jones was the wife of a working class man and mother of a young family until plague took them all, and left her a middle-aged widow, making ends meet sewing dresses in Chicago. It was in that booming shock-city—where hundreds of thousands of people from overseas and from America’s hinterlands came to start fresh—that she re-created herself, became somebody new. By the late 1890s, she was almost as dispossessed as an American could be—poor, working class, Irish, widowed, elderly (she turned sixty years old in 1897). With precious little left to lose, she invented and inhabited the role of Mother Jones.
The new persona transformed her. She never called herself Mary again; all of her letters were signed “Mother Jones,” and businessmen, union leaders, even presidents of the United States addressed her that way. She wore antique black dresses, exaggerated her age, spoke of her impending mortality, and invoked a mother’s claim to moral virtue. But she merged her saintly image with hellfire oratory and raw physical courage. She defied police officers, private detectives, and national guardsmen; she flaunted judges’ injunctions, belittled governors, and assailed businessmen; she served several jail terms, declaring she could raise more hell inside prison than out.
Mother Jones organized workers’ wives into boisterous demonstrations, and she cajoled and browbeat union men to stay true to their organizations. As Mother Jones, she spoke for the family of labor with deep moral authority. Her speeches rejected the untrammeled rule of the marketplace and upheld instead an ideal of humane communities of working families. She invoked wrenching images of blood stolen, bodies mangled, and youth exploited to dramatize the injustice of poverty in America. Above all, she gave working people hope and told them that their collective aspirations were in the best traditions of American freedom.
These were hard times for American workers. Coal was America’s fuel, and three quarters of a million men mined it. They were paid roughly $400 a year, often in company scrip, which forced them to live in company towns and buy goods at the company store, while private armed guards routinely abrogated their civil liberties. Half a million steel workers labored on twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. Millions of women and children worked in mills and sweatshops for pennies, often with little choice but to work or starve.
Mother Jones was one of many radicals of her era, including socialist party leader Eugene V Debs, anarchist Emma Goldman, champion of black freedom W.E.B. Dubois, communitarian journalist Julius Wayland, Industrial Workers of the World organizer Big Bill Haywood. All responded to the crushing weight of corporate power by mobilizing Americans with new ideas—with unions, syndicalist organizations, political parties—even to the point of open rebellion. Mother Jones was at the center of these radical, often violent times.
She worked more for the United Mine Workers than any other organization, especially in the early days when it was the largest industrial union in America. She organized anthracite miners in Pennsylvania and bituminous workers in the Middle West’s Central Competitive Field, but she broke with the UMW leadership as it turned more conservative early in the twentieth century. In 1903 she organized a protest against child labor, the “March of the Mill Children,” from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island. Between 1905 and 1912, she went out on the road organizing for the Socialist Party, and for the radical Western Federation of Miners. She was the founding mother of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a signer of that group’s original charter. She organized copper miners in Calumet, brewery workers in Milwaukee, and garment workers in Chicago. She rejoined the Mine Workers as a paid organizer around 1912, just as it launched two massive efforts that turned violent in West Virginia and Colorado. “Medieval West Virginia,” Mother Jones said of the Mountain State, “with its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God almighty about West Virginia.”
She did not win all of her strikes, but she was the most prominent and successful organizer of the United Mine Workers, which in the early twentieth century was one of America’s largest and most successful unions.
But we miss her larger importance if we focus only on the nuts and bolts of daily organizing. Mother Jones, above all captured the spirit of the labor movement, and the American left. She had a gift for words. When someone once introduced her as a great humanitarian, she snapped, ‘Get it right; I’m a hell raiser, not a humanitarian.” Thrown into prison once again during the Colorado strike, she told reporters, “I can raise more hell in prison than out.” When a man in prison told her that he was serving time for stealing a pair of shoes, she replied that he should have stolen a railroad, then he’d be a United States Senator. Testifying before Congress and asked to state where she lived, she said that her address was like her shoes, traveling with her wherever she went. Reminded of Jesus’s self-abnegation, Mother Jones declared, “Christ himself…would agitate against the plutocrats and hypocrites who tell the workers to go down on their knees an get right with God. Christ, the carpenter’s son, would tell them to stand up on their feet and fight for righteousness and justice on the earth.”
And travel she did, thousands and thousands of miles by rail and car, in horse-drawn carriages and on foot, giving hundreds of speeches across America. In the nineteen teens, she worked with Mexican revolutionaries in the southwest, political prisoners in California, and steel workers in the Midwest. The 1920s found her back in the coal fields, but now in her mid-80s, her health increasingly broke down, and her great oratorical powers began to flag. She continued making appearances, and she worked on her autobiography, which appeared in 1925. On May Day, 1930, she and hundreds of well-wishers celebrated her hundredth birthday (she was really 93). Six months later, she passed away.
They buried Mother Jones in the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive Illinois, alongside the “brave boys” who fell in labor’s cause. Thousands came to hear Father John Maguire’s funeral oration, and tens of thousands more listened on WCFL, Chicago’s radio voice of labor:
Today, in gorgeous mahogany furnished and carefully guarded offices in distant capitals wealthy mine owners and capitalists are breathing sighs of relief. Today, upon the plains of Illinois, the hillsides and valleys of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in California, Colorado and British Columbia, strong men and toil worn women are weeping tears of bitter grief. The reasons are the same…. Mother Jones is dead.
For working men and women, Mother Jones was one of their own. She organized thousands of workers in a range of trades. But perhaps her greatest achievement was being heard at all. Who was more silenced in early twentieth century America than an elderly immigrant widow? Yet she created a character, Mother Jones, lived that persona until the day she died. And having found a voice as Mother Jones, she raised it like a prophet in the cause of America’s workers, and they responded to her call.