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. Decades of no fixed abode and endless travelling to remote places, often staying in poor standard accommodation, where food and shelter was 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!

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.

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.

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 story telling 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 and later president of the Illinois Federation of Labour. He 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 is a mutual trust and friendship between the two old comrades.

She corresponded regularly with John Fitzpatrick, President of the Chicago Federation of Labour, as she continued to campaign for the release from jail for people such as Tom Mooney, J.P MacNamara and other union leaders imprisoned due to labour activities. Her interventions with presidents and other people in power often revolved around trying to secure the release of union activists wrongly jailed.

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

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. Terence Powderly died in 1924, but she continued to visit his wife Emma and stay with her. 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.

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” 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 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 with her large birthday cake)

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 Baptist Church and the historic old house itself was demolished in the 1950s. 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 was located. A road marker was erected nearby on 30th November 2000 again by his efforts and was unveiled on the seventieth anniversary of the death of Mother Jones.

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

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 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.”

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.

(Mother Jones Funeral Outside Church in Mount Olive)

Tens of thousands of miners and union men and woman 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.

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 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 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.

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