Mary Jones

Mary may have married George Jones in December 1860, this date is uncertain as in her autobiography she said it was 1861.  We know nothing of George Jones, other than he was an iron moulder. Moulders belonged to the strong International Iron Moulders Union, which by members solidarity protected their much needed industrial revolution skills in foundries thus ensuring good wages. He appears to have been an active union member.

Curiously, in the autobiography, she never mentions George by his first name, she refers to “her husband” on three occasions. Then again, she does not name her children either. Perhaps even 55 years afterwards, the tragedy of 1867 was still too raw and painful to recall. All we know is that she “went back to teaching again, this time in Memphis”

2.1 Tragedy at Memphis.

Memphis sided with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the American Civil War, but because of its important location was immediately targeted and captured by Union forces in June 1862. However, Mary and George Jones enjoyed a period of domestic stability in Winchester Street in the mainly Irish Pinch Gut area. The Irish at that stage comprised about a quarter of the Memphis population of some 40,000 residents.

Mary and George had four children. The family would have experienced the Memphis Riots in May 1866, when the white population, including some Irish residents, attacked the growing black population, who were seeking employment in the town after the American Civil War, resulting in over forty deaths among the African-American population.

Her normal domestic life as a mother who had just given birth to a baby girl, earlier in the year was shattered when in late September 1867, a yellow fever epidemic, swept northwards from the Gulf coast up the Mississippi river carried by mosquitos. It caused the death of her husband George and her entire family of four very young children (Catherine (born 1862), Elizabeth (born 1863), Terence (born 1865) and Mary (born 1867), all under the age of five. Yellow Fever resulted in a horrible death for those who contracted the disease.

Some three thousand people died in this epidemic, which began that September, continued for several months and which badly struck the poorer Irish neighbourhoods at the unhealthy Pinch Gut area, located on the low swampy land near the Bayou Gayoso, a series of canals and streams linked to the nearby Mississippi River. The town was plagued over the next decade by further yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s.

Later in 1924, when Mother Jones was writing her autobiography, she recalled this personal tragedy of Memphis.

“All about my house I could hear weeping and the cries of delirium. One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart”.

Mary Jones – Mother Jones

Her obvious despair in Memphis, could just as easily, have described the scene, the tears, the horrific sights, smells and the sounds also of the Great Hunger in Cork City, when Mary as a young child and her family tried to survive the terror of the fevers, epidemics and hunger.

“Its victims were mainly among the poor and the workers. The rich and well-to-do fled the city. Schools and churches were closed… Across the street from me, ten persons lay dead from the plague. The dead surrounded us. They were buried at night quickly without ceremony”

Mary Jones – Mother Jones

As a relatively young woman, she had already witnessed the impact of both events on poor workers and their families, she understood how those who possessed little materially, and had little influence died and those with wealth prospered. The trade union philosophy of fair play for all workers, ideas of equality and solidarity, became very real indeed and gave hope in that it offered a solution in a bleak and hopeless time. She volunteered as a nurse for a few months over the winter in Memphis “until the plague was stamped out”.

2.2 Onward to Chicago.

Now a 30 year-old widow, Mary Jones moved back to Chicago and commenced working as a dressmaker, employed mainly by the wealthy elite of this rapidly growing city.

Along with a partner, Mary opened a shop in Washington Street, near Lake Michigan and she lived nearby in 174 Jackson Street. Again there was a brief stability in her life and she supported herself economically.

Mary Jones sewed clothes for “the lords and the barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive” and could not help, but contrast this “tropical comfort” with “the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front”   

Her brief stability was to dramatically end, when an enormous fire raged through Chicago for two/three days in October 1871. On the 8th October, after a very dry summer and autumn, it was said at the time, that the fire originated in a shed owned by Cork emigrants Patrick and Catherine Donegan O’Leary ( Mrs O’ Leary was exonerated of blame by Chicago City Council in 1997). The exact origins of the fire were a matter of some controversy, the truth may never be known for certain. 

The O’Leary’s house

Fanned by southern winds it resulted in the deaths of up to 300 people, destroyed 17,000 buildings and leaving 100,000 people, a third of the population of the city, homeless.

Mary Jones’s business and personal property was burned and she was forced to seek refuge in the nearby Lake Michigan and later still in a local church.  By the winter of 1871, she was a widow, without immediate family in America, homeless and destitute at the early age of 34. She disappears from public records, but it is likely that she rebuilt her life all the while, trying to come to terms with the tragic misfortune she had endured.  

Yet the resilience and determination of this young woman in what was a male dominated and authoritarian world, a world that was changing so rapidly in a huge economic revolution, saw her emerge a quarter of a century later transformed as Mother Jones, a protective “Mother” for thousands of workers, as she became arguably one of the most feared trade union leaders in the history of the Labour movement.