Mother Jones… the Declining Years

Mother Jones did her best to support the steel strike in Pennsylvania, where she spoke before large crowds and was arrested several times for speaking without permits, even on one occasion in the middle of a speech at Homestead in August 1919. Later in October, following a series of speeches, the New York Times in an article accused her of urging strikers to use violence.

Elliott Gorn states that militancy post World War 1 resulted in one-fifth of all workers going on strike in the year 1919. However, following active hounding of union leaders, a new well organised “Red Scare” campaign erupted, leading to crackdowns on union activists, especially those of the socialist or communist belief (not least Mother Jones who had declared herself in a defiant speech to be a Bolshevik, which had caused the outburst from the New York Times). Amidst these attacks and disunity also among the unions, the strike was lost.

In early 1921, she travelled to Mexico City to the Third Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labour at the invitation of the Mexican government. This trip was to thank her for all her campaigning for the Mexican Revolution and for the release of Mexican prisoners in the United States, one of her many campaigns. While there, she was given a huge reception by thousands of Mexican workers, being referred to as Madre Juanita and liked it so much that she stayed on for several months. Mother Jones was pleased with the recognition bestowed on her, but also noted the ongoing underlying conflicts among different factions of Mexican society.

During the early 1920s, she was quite ill with rheumatism and sought treatment, she became more dependent on friends to look after her, especially the Powderly’s at their house in Washington.

On Tuesday 5th September 1922, the Washington Times reported that Mother Jones was reported: “as being much improved, and she will regain her health again”.  It went on to say that this famous figure of the Labor movement was suffering from a nervous breakdown since July. Several newspapers carried similar stories.

Concerned telegrams came to the Powderly home in Washington from various unions and union leaders including from Chicago Labour friends John Fitzpatrick and Ed Nockles in September 1922 wishing Mother Jones a safe recovery. 

Decades of no fixed abode and endless travelling to remote places, often staying in poor standard accommodation, where food and shelter were minimal began to take its toll on a woman now in her eighties. Very often, she had stayed in miners’ camps, tents and huts, but her health suffered and she regularly endured illness, yet even into her eighties, she always drove onwards after recovery. She was tired!

However, events taking place at Charleston in West Virginia since April 1922 may have been on her mind. Ever since that meeting on 24th August 1921 at Lens Creek when she failed to convince miners to cease their march to Mingo County, she was racked with anger at the outcome for “her boys “and what she perceived as her betrayal. In the meantime some of the leaders such as Bill Blizzard had been charged with treason, Frank Keeney was charged with murder and hundreds of others were facing severe punishment. The treason trials were underway.

The Washington Times carried a report datelined Charleton 30th October,

“Mother Jones has steadfastly refused to take the witness stand in defence of union miners during the trials……..despite the fact that her name has figured more often in the testimony than that of any other individual” it declared. Both defence and prosecution believed she could help their case but she had refused to give evidence. It was stated that she was recovering from a severe illness.

A later report which apparently came when she was tracked down to Powderly’s in Washington when a journalist gained admission to the house using subterfuge. She expressed the hope that ‘all the troubles could be ironed out’.

“I can’t do them any good, she said, “and the best thing is to keep my mouth shut”.

5.1 The Autobiography of Mother Jones.

In late 1922, Mother Jones begins to mention that Clarence Darrow, the lawyer, who had defended “Big Bill” Haywood, had been pressing her to write her book, and she eventually got around to it in 1923.  She collaborated with Mary Field Parton, a journalist and dictated her story which was finally published in 1925. In the book, she provided an incorrect date and year of birth and her departure for America, which later confused generations of historians and probably contributed to the long failure of citizens in her native city of Cork to celebrate her life and her achievements.

Autobiography of Mother Jones. Published 1925.
The Autobiography of Mother Jones.

She was not happy with the published book by Charles H. Kerr & Co and only a few thousand copies were sold initially. There have been several reprints; even a recent actual reprint of the Kerr original by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. Interestingly, Mary Field Parson shares equal billing with Mother Jones on the front cover of that production.

Mother Jones, constantly on the move, had kept very little by way of records herself, and some available records are from negative sources such as newspapers reports, police reports of her speeches and even the Military Intelligence Division, which during the First World War monitored her activities for some time. After the war, the Bureau of Investigation (renamed in 1935, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)) led by J. Edgar Hoover, maintained a firm eye on the activities of eighty-year-old, Mother Jones.

The autobiography is unreliable in places and there are obvious errors. Mother Jones is the central figure in this book, although she did not play a central role in some of the events described. It is her story and her story alone as told to and as edited by Mary Field Parton. It is polemical in tone, with Mother Jones as the hero, there is no defeatism and she leads the workers to victory in a series of adventures by her activities from the 1880s onwards.

Modern-day edition of the
Autobiography of Mother Jones

Perhaps a criticism is that it fails to reveal the human Mother Jones, her motivations, her real thoughts, other interests or true personality and is lacking in any portrayal of her as a person with wider interests. As she was a fascinating character, a reader is left a little saddened and frustrated as this failure was a lost opportunity to discover the real person and the complete story of the woman born Mary Harris. What did she do in the years from 1871 onwards, did she travel, who did she meet, what for example did she discuss with her friend, Irish labour leader, James Connolly who was executed on the 12th May 1916, after the Easter Rising?

How much did she influence the views of Connolly and other union leaders? It has left generations of historians with the difficult task of trying to excavate details of her life and ensured some of her huge legacy of agitation has remained out of sight.

Her story is extremely powerful in places, yet it has been criticised for being geared towards her personal elevation as a working class champion of workers by encouraging the promotion of her central motherly role as the practical tactic for fighting oppression.

And yet it inspires, it offers hope to workers, it identifies the class basis of the struggle and it calls for practical solidarity among working class people, regardless of race, colour, gender, nationality or religious divisions. In so many ways, it is priceless in its ability to tell the story of the oppression of people. And it is very readable, avoids pedantic analysis and as a Cork woman, who as a young girl experienced the strong oral tradition of storytelling in her native city and in rural Inchigeelagh, no one can doubt her ability to tell a great story.           

5.2 With a Little Help from her Friends

She increasingly depended on a number of old colleagues such as John H. Walker, a former organiser with the UMWA, who had become President of the District 12 Illinois UMWA from 1905-1913.

Mother Jones had worked alongside Walker, a miner who was born in Scotland in 1872 as far back as 1891.   He was a committed socialist who was expelled from the Socialist Party in 1916. Walker served as president of the Illinois Federation of Labour from 1913-1930 and was eventually expelled by John L Lewis from the UMWA in 1932.

Walker sorted out a tax matter for her in 1923 in relation to her salary for the year 1921. It is clear from the correspondence that there was a mutual trust and friendship between the two old comrades and she writes in an open and personal manner to Walker.

Philip Foner published 36 letters from Mother Jones to Walker dating from April 04 (or 05) to the 13th September 1928 most of which are held in the University of Illinois Library. He was probably, outside of Powderly, her longest established friend in the trade union movement.

(Mother Jones with John Fitzpatrick of Chicago. Photo: courtesy George R Rinhard)

She corresponded regularly with John Fitzpatrick, President of the Chicago Federation of Labour. Fitzpatrick had an interesting background. Born in Athlone in Ireland around 1871, Fitzpatrick was brought to live in Chicago by his uncle after his parents died. He worked as a blacksmith. Eager to become involved in the trade union movement in the city, he became active in numerous labour activities. He held many positions in his own union, the International Union of Journeymen Horseshoers of the United States and Canada. Later he was appointed an organiser for the AFL and held this position for 20 years from 1903-1923.

He served as President of the Chicago Federation of Labor from 1906 until he died in office in 1946, a period of 40 years. He was a moderate who supported all labour causes. In 1919, he ran for Mayor of Chicago on the Labor Party banner but was defeated. Their long correspondence indicates that Mother Jones and Fitzpatrick were generally supportive of one another.

Jones continued to campaign for the release from jail for people such as Tom Mooney, J.B MacNamara and other union leaders incarcerated due to labour activities. When in San Francisco she visited San Quentin to meet McNamara, Frank Ryan and Eugene Clancy, David Caplin and Matthew Schmidt who had been convicted in the Los Angeles dynamiting campaign, which involved several Irish union leaders. Twenty-one people had died in a fire after a bomb exploded outside the offices of the Los Angeles Times building on 1st October 1910.

Her interventions with US Presidents and other powerful politicians often revolved around trying to secure the release of union activists which she argued had wrongly jailed. McNamara eventually admitted he had planted the Los Angeles bomb and died in prison in 1941. Schmidt, Ryan, Caplin and Clancy were eventually released after serving their prison terms.

Jones never owned property or lived in a house she could call her own, she stayed with friends such as Ed Nockles in Chicago, Margaret Schmidt in San Francisco and with the Powderlys in Washington and many others for over 30 years.

“Ed Nockels is one of the great men who give their life and talents to the cause of the workers”.

Later on, she regarded the Powderly’s home in Washington as “home”. In a personal letter written to Terence Powderly from Springfield, Illinois dated November 23rd 1921, she writes to say…

“I hope Kerwin, Mrs Powderly and all are well. Tell them I am coming home when the spring comes.”

Later in the same letter

“Give my love to all at home and tell Margaret I am suffering for that tonic that is in the cellar”

In a letter from Powderly to Ed Nockles on 20th September 1922, assuring the Chicago Labour leader that Mother Jones was recovering from an illness, he writes,

“My home is hers and as one of the family, she doesn’t count when it comes to expense.”

Nockels in an earlier letter had offered to pay all the expenses of treating and looking after Mother Jones during her illness.

Whenever she was in Washington, Mother Jones stayed with the Powderlys at 502 Quincy Street, later changed to 3700 Fifth Street, and claimed in an article that Mr Powderly would say, “Well Mother Jones, when are you coming home for good?”

In a later letter to Mrs Powderly dated 23rd February 1923, while on her way to Chicago

“I would like to be home again and sit down in the evenings with the family”.

One has to assume that the tonic in the cellar mentioned above was her whiskey. The same article in the Evening Star newspaper in Washington in 1928 gave her views on prohibition. Apparently, some Internal Revenue agents had called to her over prescriptions for whiskey prescribed by her doctor.

“They were nice about about it “said Mother Jones, “and said it was alright. I don’t like the stuff, but I have to take it. At my age, you know I need it. And I told them what I thought about prohibition. Ugh! This country never has been bossed and won’t be now”

In the same article, it was mentioned that she had seen every President from McKinley to Coolidge. Later on 13th January 1930, a letter was received by the Washington Star from a reader Rolla Onyun who claimed to be a friend of Mother Jones and that “Mother Jones is possessed of a fine clear memory.” The letter states that she spoke with great feeling towards McKinley and Taft and claimed that “Taft was particularly kind and courteous to her”.

She had supported Woodrow Wilson of the Democratic Party for re-election in 1916, declaring “Socialism is a long way off; I want something right now”.  Dale Fetherling claims Jones was fond of Wilson for his championing of child-labour legislation.  

She also met with and had endorsed old-guard Republican Calvin Coolidge in September 1924, a few weeks before the presidential election, going against most Labor organisations who backed La Follette, the Progressive candidate.  She had met Hoover earlier also, although not when he was in the White House at the time. Theodore Roosevelt refused to meet Mother Jones after his PR loss to her following the 1903 March of the Mill Children. 

After her death, the Labor Newspaper in a long tribute to her; claimed President McKinley freed twelve Union Pacific railroad strikers, who had been jailed for violating a federal injunction. In response to her plea, President Taft “pardoned fourteen Mexican revolutionists who were about to be extradited to the tyrant Diaz and certain death at the hands of a firing squad.”

Mother Jones had a special affinity for those who stood by labour and justice and were in jail. She sent hundreds of letters to various Presidents, State governors and prison authorities seeking clemency for prisoners, not all of whom may have deserved her attention. She was convinced that anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be spared execution right up to the end. They were executed on 23rd August 1927.

Her final home.   

Terence Powderly died on 24th June 1924, but she continued to visit his wife Emma and stay with her. Emma had married Terence in 1919, she was related to his first wife, Hannah Dever, who had died in 1901. Emma, who herself passed away in 1940 and Mother Jones became great friends. Later Walter and Lillie May Burgess met Mother Jones at the Powderly’s’ home in Washington and Lillie May often took Mother Jones out to visit their farm at Hyattsville, in rural Maryland.

(Mother Jones’ 100th birthday – courtesy of Saul Schniderman).

Now over 90 years old, Mother Jones decided to stay with the Burgesses from 1928 onwards. The farm hosted her “one-hundredth birthday of Mother Jones” party on May 1st 1930, (the year she claimed to have been born) at which hundreds of people attended including many union leaders and hundreds of messages of congratulations were received. It was a huge media event and the only known video recording located to date of Mother Jones speaking was recorded on this occasion along with the iconic photograph of Mother Jones sitting under an apple tree with her birthday cake.

Mother Jones spent most days in bed in her room from that day onwards, the strain of looking after her eventually resulted in Lillie becoming very ill in early October and she was ordered to rest by her own doctor, leaving her sister Maud Fowler to look after both of them. 

Mother Jones in her bed (courtesy of Saul Schniderman)

Walter Burgess died in 1932, and the house was run for years as the Mother Jones Rest Home. After Lillie’s death, the farm was sold to the Hillandale Baptist Church and the historic old house itself was demolished in the 1950s. June Levine, a Washington Post Staff writer in a September 2000 article refers to the Baptist minister, William Moyer mentioning that the original foundations of the Burgess farmhouse had been located during sewer works under the church parking lot, now considered part of the Adelphi district of Washington.

Hillendale Baptist Church today.

Through the dedicated work of Saul Schniderman, a union activist, who worked in the Library of Congress and lived close by, the exact location of the Burgess farm, now overtaken by suburbia was located. A road marker was erected near the intersection of the Riggs and Powder Mill roads by Saul Schniderman. With the support of Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America, the marker was unveiled on the seventieth anniversary of the death of Mother Jones on 30th November 2000.

Saul Schniderman at Mother Jones marker (Photo: Rosemary Feurer)

Just two years later and two miles to the south of the site of the Burgess farmhouse, an elementary school opened its doors for the first time. The Mary Harris “Mother Jones” Elementary School today has close to 1000 students. At its dedication ceremony on May 16 2003, Richard Trumka, then Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO mentioned the old farmhouse which no longer existed and continued

“The site on Powder Mill Road is marked by a State of Maryland historical roadside marker but nothing else. But we can welcome the spirit of Mother Jones to this school. This can be her new home”.

5.3 Mother Jones dies.

Mother Jones died at the Burgess farm at 11.55pm on November 30th 1930.

Mother Jones and Lillie Burgess on Sept 16th 1930

Her funeral was attended by tens of thousands of union workers. Father William Sweeney celebrated mass in the repose of her soul at St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church in Washington on Wednesday, 3rd December. The casket was then placed on the Baltimore and Ohio train and was transported by rail following the route taken by the train bearing the remains of Abraham Lincoln to Springfield in 1866. From St Louis’s Union Station, the casket bearing Mother Jones was placed on the Wabash train to Mount Olive. It was taken to the Odd Fellows Hall in the town where it lay in state for a further three days, with thousands of miners and their families calling to pay their respects.   

The funeral notice stated, “The body will arrive in Mt. Olive Illinois on the Wabash R.R. at 7.37pm Thursday, Dec 4th 1930 and will lie in state until Monday morning at the Odd Fellows Temple, where Rev. Father Maguire, of Kankakee, President of St Viator College, will deliver a Panegyric on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 o’clock.”

It added that “the funeral services would take place at 10 o’clock on Monday, December 8th at the Church of the Ascension after which interment would be Mt. Olive Union Miners’ Cemetery, All members and friends of organised labour invited to attend.”

Union Banner of the Progressive Mine Workers Union.

Back in 1898, she had spoken at the memorial service for the four Mount Olive miners killed in the Virden Massacre in Illinois. The union had purchased land outside the town of Mount Olive, where these miners were buried which became known as the Union Cemetery.

On November 12th 1923, she wrote to Mount Olive cemetery wishing “to get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden, Illinois, on the morning of October 12th 1898.”  This is where Mother Jones wished to be buried in December 1930 and she was granted her wish.

Tens of thousands of miners and union men and women poured into the town for her funeral and photographs show the massed ranks of union marchers parading through the town in an impressive display for a woman who had never held elective office in any organisation.

(Mother Jones Funeral Outside Church in Mount Olive)

Tributes flooded in from all over America…..and her death notice was carried in hundreds of American newspapers and in many British newspapers at the time.

In Ireland, a very brief report from the Evening News appeared on the local Cork daily newspaper, the Cork Examiner of Tuesday, December 2nd, 1930, under the heading “Cork Centenarian Dies in the USA. Nurse in Civil War.

Cork Examiner, December 2nd 1930

” “Mother” Mary Jones one of the most picturesque figures that Ireland and America between them have ever produced, died during the weekend at Silver Springs, Maryland, at the age of 100, says the “Evening News”. When the great fire at Chicago happened, Mary was in Chicago and the sight of hungry and out-of-work men walking in the shores of Lake Michigan that winter turned her into an apostle of the Labour cause”

(Mother Jones taken on Christmas Eve 1929.)

5.4 The Funeral Oration.

Father John Maguire, a labour activist in his oration at the funeral of Mother Jones.

“Sometimes, she used language that a polite family journal could not print, sometimes she used methods that made the righteous grieve……But let it be remembered that she was after all, human. Her faults were the excesses of her courage, her love of justice, the love in her mother’s heart.

Today in gorgeous mahogany furnished and carefully guarded offices in distant capitals, wealthy mine owners and capitalists are breathing sighs of relief. Today among 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 reason for this contrasting relief and sorrow is the same.

Mother Jones is dead!”

Fr John Maguire

5.5 The Mount Olive Monument

By 1932, the patience of miners in the State of Illinois in the leadership of the UMWA, President John L. Lewis gave out and they formed a new union called the Progressive Mine Workers of America. The PMWA claimed to be operating in the Spirit of Mother Jones and proceeded to raise the finance and erect the iconic monument which today stands over the grave of Mother Jones in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive.

The entrance for Real Union people at Mount Olive (Courtesy James Goltz)

On the 11th October 1936, between 40,000 to 50,000 union workers attended the unveiling of her impressive grave monument. Photographs of the event, show a huge concourse of people packing the large cemetery. Lilly Burgess was the final speaker at this meeting.

Entrance to Mount Olive Cemetery, Illinois. (Courtesy of Pat Schmeder).

Miners Day is celebrated annually at the Mount Olive Cemetery on 12th October, to commemorate the Virden Massacre.

A group at Mount Olive Monument in 1936.

Among those buried there is Alexander Bradley who worked in the local coal mines, marched with Jacob Coxey’s Army of the Unemployed and later organised the UMWA in the district. Bradley organised strikes throughout southern Illinois and led the men from Mount Olive at Virden in their efforts to block non-union strike-breakers in 1898. Following this armed battle, seven miners were killed and forty wounded along with five guards. ‘General’ Alexander Bradley passed away in 1918.

The Irish Ambassador to the United States, Mr Daniel Mulhall visits the grave of Mother Jones in Mount Olive in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Rosemary Feurer)