Simon Cordery’s speech at 2013 Festival

Our thanks to Professor Simon Cordery who has forwarded to us the text of his address to the Spirit of Mother Jones festival 2013.

“Mother Jones:  Sinner and Saint”

Presentation to the Mother Jones Festival

1 August 2013, Shandon

S. Cordery

Professor Simon Cordery

Simon Cordery

Department of History

Western Illinois University

Macomb, Illinois, USA


Let me begin with the Children’s Crusade of 1903

Began 7 July 1903 from Kensington, Pennsylvania

Striking Textile Workers and their children


On the first day Mother Jones led a colorful column of marchers out of the city, numbering about 400 people

On the third day she was down to about 280 people and by the fifth day there were only about 40 continuing for the full 140 km

Their objective was New York City, where they hoped to raise funds for the strikers and their families

The march to New York City lasted for two weeks

Somewhere along the route Mother Jones decided to take the children to Sagamore Hill, the summer home of Theodore Roosevelt, on Long Island

This brought her intensive coverage in the media:  she was moving from being a labor leader to a national celebrity

As she put it at the time, “Sometimes it takes extra-ordinary means to attract ordinary interest”


Sometime during the 1890s Mary Harris “Mother” Jones worked in rope and textile factories in the states of Alabama and South Carolina

Of this experience she writes in her Autobiography, “I was given work in the factory, and there I saw the children, the little children, the most heart-rending spectacle in all life.”

Mother Jones saw many “heart-rending spectacles” growing up.

She was born here, in Cork, in 1837

She was baptized in Shandon’s North Cathedral on 1 August 1837

But she grew up at a time of intense misery, during the Great Hunger

Her father and eldest brother left Ireland in 1847 and moved to Canada

Mary, her mother, and three other siblings followed later, when the family could be established in Toronto



Mary Harris moved to a quite hostile environment

She was a Catholic in a Protestant Country

She was educated as a teacher in public school

She left home at age 22, in 1859, moving to Monroe Michigan in the USA

She lived in Monroe for one year, then in Chicago, before setting in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1861

She married George Jones,  a skilled iron molder,  with whom she had four children

But in 1867 all five—her husband and their children—died in a yellow fever epidemic

She returned, bereft and alone, to Chicago

She opened a dress making business

But in 1871 it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire and she entered a personal Wilderness

She would later tell tales of what she did during that period of her life

These were perhaps not entirely in keeping with th efacts

She claimed ot have been active in the local Knights of Labor, to have helped organize strikers in the great 1877 railroad strike, and to have listened to and rejected the preachings of Anarchists


In 1894 Mary Harris returned from the margins of history

She participated in Coxey’s Army in Kansas City

She visited the communitarian experiment at Ruskin, Tennessee

This is when she worked in those rope and textile factories in the South

She met and befriended Eugene DEBS

She read and learned from the Appeal to Reason

Reading newspapers like the Appeal to Reason she forged her ideology around the labor theory of value:

“We are fighting for the time when there will be no master and no slave. …When the fight of the workers to own the tools with which they toil is won, for the first time in human history man will be free.”

Around 1900 she began organizing coal miners

She worked for John Mitchell of the United Mine Workers of America


He sent her into the most notorious mining districts 1899-1903

She entered Pennsylvania and West Virginia

Her work in those states earned for Mary Harris Jones the nickname the “Miners Angel” but by then she was calling herself Mother Jones


She told the miners, “You pity yourselves, but you do not pity your brothers, or you would stand together to help one another.”

she became disillusioned with the Mine Workers and with Mitchell, which is why she was busy organizing children in 1903

but by 1913 she was back with the union

sent to help in the bloody strike of 1913-1914, she found herself arrested, deported from the strike district, threatened, imprisoned

on 19 APRIL 1914 hired mine guards shoot into Miners’ camp at Ludlow 20 people dead, most of them women  and children

a brutal reminder of the viciousness of the mining companies, and of the callousness of Robber Barons like John D. Rockefeller, who controlled one of the largest companies in the strike region

After Ludlow she was constantly travelling

But she was slowing down and wearing out

Her last public appearance was in 1926

until 1 May 1930 she was filmed as part of the celebration of her “Centenary”

Mother Jones is very difficult to “place” in American labor history

She was very much both sinner and saint

and your stance depends on your own position, then as now



Mother Jones exploded the gender conventions of her day


She is credited with creating the catchphrase


one contemporary called her “a Chicago virago urging disorder in language that made the women hysterical and got the men to marching”

She also ignored contemporary conventions regarding age

She began her career with the United Mine Workers at the age of 62, at a time in life when most people were winding down

She travelled relentlessly and created the persona of a white haired grandmother in her unfashionable frilly black dresses

She looked like a grandma but acted like a firebrand

A journalist who met her at the height of her powers in 1902 wrote “Mother Jones was attired in a black gown, her gray hair was neatly dressed, and she looked more like a dignified matron of Colonial days than the woman who has roughed it in the mines with what she terms in a slight brogue ‘me boys’”

She was apolitical sinner, as well, and delighted in the shock she could cause

Mother Jones was a socialist, on the fringe of an American political scene dominated by Republican and Democrats

She could be deliberately provocative

At the height of the red Scare in 1919 she would delight in telling crowds “I am a Bolshevik!”

And she would justify her choice:  “When I was in Washington, I heard the Bolsheviki and I wondered what I meant, so I went to the library and found out and I found that Bolsheviki stood for the majority taking over the industry.”


But to the working people she helped she was something close to a saviour


She appeared before them as Mother

A Mother coming to save them

She told them, “You are doing God’s holy work and I can see victory in the heavens for you.  I can see the hand above you guiding and inspiring you to move onward and upward.  We must redeem the world.”

But she did not mince her words if she thought they were acting like cowards:  “You get down on your knees like a lot of Yahoos when you want something.  At            the same time you haven’t sense enough to take peaceable what belongs to you through the ballot.  You are chasing a will-o-the-wisp, you measly things…”

She was an Organizer

Mother Jones brought wives, sisters, and daughters into strikes when she created “Mop and Broom” brigades to get women active and help the men

she urged women to join the fight, complaining:

“You are too sentimental, you spend your time staying at home thinking of dress and trinkets when you ought to be out raising hell.  This is the fighting age!”

She was a Socialist

and not just a Firebrand

She told the workers that the fighting, the striking, the shooting, was only one part of the struggle:

“the fight can be won, and will be won, but the struggle will be long and education, agitation, and class solidarity all must play a part.”

and she trusted working people to do the vital thinking that would reorder the world:

“industrial despotism will have to die and you my boys must use your brains, you must study and think.  The sword will have to disappear and the pen will have to take its place.”


What does all of this mean?

To begin to appreciate and assess Mother Jones, let’s  return to 1903, the year of the Children’s Crusade

In November of that year, after her summer walk to Sagamore, she was in Colorado, where coal miners in two sections of the state were involved in two separate but simultaneous strikes

The United Mine Workers wanted to end the strike in northern Colorado after mine owners offered to negotiate

but Mother Jones and other organizers in the southern half of the state feared if the northern miner ended their strike the owners would suppress the strike in the South

she travelled the roughly 300 kilometres to the strike meeting

she spoke, giving a short but powerful speech warning them not to betray their brothers in the South and convinced mines to refuse settlement

The miners voted to stay on strike but John Mitchell, the UMWA leader, feared the cost of the two strikes would bankrupt the union

He told the leaders in the North to hold another vote to end the strike

This vote went in favor of ending the strike

This was just two days after Mother Jones had left the strike zone!

And it raises questions about the Mother Jones effect

She was charismatic, but her influence could fade after she had gone away

Without films or television or the internet to keep her perpetually before the public the Mother Jones effect could prove frustratingly short-lived

As events in northern Colorado proved in 1903

And after her death

Mother Jones experienced three deaths:

Physically, she died on 30 November 1930

The second death occurred in the obituaries

Her image was sweetened and softened as they mostly neglected her socialism, her calls for violence, her demands for justice, and her championing of the labor theory of value

She became a harmless, faintly risible grandmotherly figure, a character from a quaint but long-dead recent past

The third death of Mother Jones was the one she most feared:  she vanished from sight, at least for a generation until radicals in the 1960s rediscovered her and found fuel for their fires in her words

But she was easily forgotten because she created no organizations, she edited no newspapers, and she died an ordinary death in old age, not the glorious martyrdom she craved


Yet today, here in Cork and elsewhere, perhaps everywhere, in our globalized world what she said and what she stood for have once again become relevant and found an audience

She demanded a decent standard of living for ALL people

She fought for safe places to work

She wanted children to attend school, and not have to work

And she should have the last word, from the 1903 Children’s’ Crusade:

“I ask, Mr. President, what kind of citizen will be the child who toils twelve hours a day in an unsanitary atmosphere, stunted mentally and physically?  Denied education, he cannot assume the duties of true citizenship.  Enfeebled physically he falls a ready victim to the perverting influences our present economic conditions have created.”

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