Mary Jones

Mary 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 through the solidarity of members, they protected their skills which were essential in the foundries driving construction and transport in the industrial revolution. They received good wages by the norms of the period. He appears to have been an active and valued union member.

Iron Moulders at work 1858.

Curiously, in her later autobiography, she never mentions George by his first name although 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 in southern Tennessee, sided with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the American Civil War, but because of its important location on the Mississippi River it was immediately targeted and captured by Union forces in June 1862. However in spite of the war, 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 in quick succession.

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. This attack resulted in over forty deaths among the African-American population.

Her normal domestic life as a young 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, and which continued for several months. Yellow fever badly infected the poorer Irish neighbourhoods in the unhealthy Pinch Gut area, located as it was 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.

Historical sign in Memphis, Tennessee,
relating to a later yellow fever epidemic 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 and connections prospered. The trade union philosophy of fair play for all workers, ideas of equality and solidarity, became very real indeed and gave her hope for the future as 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 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, and used by some to denigrate poor Irish immigrants. The full 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, including most of the business district and leaving 100,000 people, a third of the population of the city homeless.

Aftermath of the Chicago Fire, 1871. (c) 1912 by J. L. Le Beau.

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. The rebuilding of Chicago began immediately, and within a year or two, new office buildings emerged from the ashes of the city along with rows of houses and infrastructure.

Mary Jones then disappears from public records, but it is likely that like Chicago itself, she began to rebuilt her life all the while trying to come to terms with the tragic misfortune she had endured.   She would have seen the wide disparities of riches between the wealthy magnates and leaders of industry, some of who benefitted from the construction boom and the tens of thousands of poor who were forced to live in the slums and on the streets.

The influx of immigrants to the city depressed wages and unemployment increased. The dreadful sanitary conditions in the poor areas of the city resulted in the spread of cholera and small pox and thousands died in the early 1870s. Many worked for long hours in the huge slaughter houses, meatpacking warehouses and the stockyards on Chicago’s southside, where working conditions were dangerous, dirty and poorly paid.

Cyclical boom and busts came and went but had the effect of increasing the economic and social uncertainties for the poor, the homeless and unemployed. By 1874, faced with the obvious destitution across the city, the businessmen organised the Citizens’ Association. This organisation was established to defend the interests of property owners, concerned at the growth of agitation and ‘alien’ ideologies such as socialism and anarchism which, they claimed were being imported by the immigrant communities from Europe.

The young Mary Harris experienced these upheavals, listened to the debates and arguments but most of all witnessed what was taking place all around her. She was a resilient and determined woman in what was very much a male dominated world. It was a world that was changing so rapidly with the impact of the huge economic revolution taking shape and with the introduction of machinery resulting in the growth of very powerful and unaccountable corporations. The stage was set for the clash of the economic classes and Chicago was to become its cockpit.

She studied, observed and participated in the attempts to organise those who existed on the lower rungs of society. After this apprenticeship, she emerged into the public some 20 years transformed as Mother Jones, a protective “Mother” for thousands of workers.