Mother Jones, the Walking Wrath of God

 

Prof Elliott J Gorn

Professor Elliot J. Gorn addressing the Cork Mother Jones festival, Firkin crane centre, Cork, 1st August 2012.

 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.

Mother Jones festival “an outstanding success”

The Cork Mother Jones Festival has been called “an outstanding success” by Jim Nolan of the organizing committee.

“The Mother Jones festival was an outstanding success in every way for Shandon and Cork; it achieved massive local national and international publicity for our community”, he declared.

Mr. Nolan continued,

“Mother Jones is now finally back in her native place and we have made up for the failure to honour this brave and courageous woman who was born in this community 175 year ago”.

The festival, organised by a voluntary committee in association with the Shandon Street Festival, concluded recently after three days of celebrations in and around the ancient historical community of Shandon, taking in the North Chapel, St.Anne’s Church, the Firkin Crane Centre and the Maldron Hotel (the old North Infirmary).

The highlight was the unveiling of a plaque designed by Mick Wilkins to commemorate Mother Jones on John Redmond Street on the evening of Wednesday 1st August. Fortunately glorious sunshine arrived for the unveiling event which was performed by Cllr. Ted Tynan and Jim Nolan of the Shandon Street Festival. Music was provided by the Butter Exchange Band and Norman O’Rourke and the American and Irish National Anthems were played.

Capacity crowds were present for all events. Professor Rosemary Feurer’s film Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America was shown three times during the festival to cater for the number of people wishing to see it. The ground-breaking Andy Irvine concert at St.Anne’s Shandon was performed before a sell out crowd of almost 300 people.

The festival was opened by Lord Mayor John Buttimer at the Firkin Crane on Wednesday morning 1st. The Lord Mayor praised the work of the voluntary committee who had constructed a highly interesting series of events, talks, music, concerts and an exhibition on the life of Mother Jones by Jim Fitzpatrick. A concert organized by Richard T Cooke featuring a host of Cork talent attracted a capacity attendance to the Firkin.

The inaugural Mother Jones lectures provided a focus for some stirring debates on the afternoon with Joe O’Flynn, General Secretary of SIPTU, Professor Elliott Gorn of Brown University and Marat Moore, author and founder of the Daughters of Mother Jones. This event also featured a wondeful re-creation of the speeches of Mother Jones performed by internationally renowned actress Kaiulani Lee.

The festival, which attracted huge publicity for Shandon featured on TV3 and most of the national media, also attracted international media attention with even a front page story on the Mount Olive Herald and in the widely read Mother Jones Magazine as well as numerous labour and history websites throughout North America.

A host of Cork artists and musicians appeared at the festival, including Two Time Polka, Hank Wedel, Jim Williamson, Cork Memory Lane Group, Hugh Moynihan, the Cork Singers Club, Richard T Cooke, traditional musicians, while Andy Irvine played at a sell out concert at St.Anne’s Shandon.

Following a recent meeting of the organising committee, it was decided to hold the annual Mother Jones festival in 2013 in Shandon from Tuesday 30th July to Thursday 1st August. Further announcements will be made in relation to the events as they are confirmed.

Mother Jones plaque unveiled

The City of Cork, Ireland has finally given recognition to its rebel daughter Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones) with the unveiling of a plaque on the 175th anniversary of her birth / baptism in the historic Shandon area of the city.

The event was the highlight of a three day festival commemorating the Cork woman, once dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her activities on behalf of workers and the poor and her role in exposing the evils of child labour in the United States and having it declared illegal.

The plaque was unveiled jointly by committee members Councillor Ted Tynan and Jim Nolan on behalf of the committee and in addition to the large attendance were a number of people associated with the histocial and social legacy in the United States.

Mother Jones plaque unveiling in Cork

Mother Jones plaque unveiled in Cork’s historic Shandon area

Rosemary Feurer at Cork Mother Jones plaque unveiling

Prof. Rosemary Feurer, US labor activist,  writer / director and maker of the documentary film “Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America”, addresses the crowd after the unveiling of the plaque to Mother Jones. Also in photo (L-R) are committee members Jim Fitzpatrick, Michael Lally (Manager of Maldron Hotel Cork) and Richard Cooke.

A complete set of photos from the event will be uploaded over the next 48 hours and can be viewed on our photo page at Flickr