Surviving and Becoming Mother Jones

Mary has stated in her autobiography that she became very interested in the trade union ideals of her husband. Her personal experiences had obviously encouraged her to learn about radical ideas which were developing from the influx of European immigrants who were working side by side in railroads, mills and factories. She appears to have read widely, attended radical meetings, listening to speakers and quickly realised that those with power and money do not easily hand over control of society to others.

Among her reading materials, she has mentioned books by Wendell Philipps, Tolstoy, Robert Burns, Victor Hugo and Thomas Paine. Later on, she always insisted that labour activists and workers should educate themselves and stated that for the working class, education was the key to their emancipation.

(Right: Appeal to Reason)

3.1 Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labour.

Due to the union connections of George Jones, she joined the Knights of Labour in the early 1880s. It is likely that she was involved with various attempts to establish unions during the 1870s and although she says she attended meetings of the Knights, listening to their splendid speakers, this may have been so, but women were only admitted to full membership in 1881.

The Knights of Labour were then headed by Terence Powderly of Scranton, Pennsylvania, an Irish Catholic, whose family roots are in County Meath in Ireland, and with whom she had a lifelong friendship. Powderly, although a moderate who believed more in education than strikes as a source of labour change, managed to ensure that the Knights became the first nationwide organisation of Labour.

Philip J Foner in his 1983 book Mother Jones Speaks considered Powderly “an inconsistent and troubled leader” as the Knights of Labour had become too complex an organisation. On the other hand, Mother Jones stated in a 1907 letter to him “You were rocking the cradle of the movement, you made it possible for others to march on”

(Left: Mother Jones in 1909 with Terence Powderly)

Mary Harris admired Powderly who was much more conservative than her. She understood that despite the archaic and secretive workings of the Knights and the inclusion in its ranks of some employers that he was brave, loyal and progressive enough to seek the inclusion of women, black people, and immigrants as full members in the Knights. The very close personal bonds between the two of them continued until his death in June 1924.

The Labour movement was seeking a platform to negotiate for a place in the economy, and Powderly laid a framework for the Knights as the acceptable and recognized advocates and forum for advancing the workers class interests. The Knights attempted to unite all workers of an employer in an industrial union type structure and by their solidarity and public announcements created the opportunity for labour unions to become a united political force which the government and employers might one day have to deal with.

3.2 Growing Militancy of Labour.

Mary Jones certainly experienced the growing militancy of the unions and organised labour in the America of the 1870s when employers began to cut wages. America’s largest corporation at the time, Pennsylvania Railroad which employed 30,000, tried to cut wages by 10% and their workers went on strike in July 19th, 1877.

In Pittsburgh, state troops opened fire to disperse crowds of workers and 20 were killed including women and children. This was followed by a huge riot which almost destroyed the railway systems and led to a nationwide strike involving over 100,000 workers, during which at least 100 died and many others were wounded.

Mary claimed she played a part in this but author Elliott Gorn considers this most unlikely, she may have been involved but was more likely an observer rather than an active participant. Events left a huge impression on Mary Jones and one suspects her involvement in labour matters deepened and grew.

3.3 The Molly Maguires

Earlier, other incidents in the mining community in 1875-1877 would have raised the interest of Mary Jones. These involved attempts to organise strikes in the coal fields of Pennsylvania by the secretive organisation of Irishmen known as the Molly Maguires which resulted in the murder of a mine owner and foreman. 

The Irishmen involved had left Ireland in Famine times and went to work in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania, especially in Schuylkill County. Dozens of publications have discussed an organisation called the Molly Maguires, yet its actual existence remains largely shrouded in silence. One has to question; how much was it a creation of what Eugene Debs later called “the corporate press (which) howled like fiends incarnate for their blood”?

While it is likely that a secret society (one of many) originated along the Ulster/Connaught border region in Ireland and was later transplanted by emigration to mining communities where oppression continued, it remains difficult to establish its composition as an organised and cohesive entity. Due to its clandestine and secretive interactions; many of those Irish involved spoke the native Irish language among themselves, and with the erratic nature of the violent activities, it is difficult to precisely locate as a structured organisation.

It operated within the many layers of Irish organisations, some relatively open such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), while others such as Clan-na-Gael, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the old Fenians cells remained closed. The true extent, if any, of its activist cell framework will probably remain largely a matter of conjecture.      

Many miners had been joining the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) led by Irish born John Siney, to seek better wages, shorter hours and safer conditions. Failing to make any progress, and with a growing number of murders of Irish union activists, a group of Irish miners began to retaliate and shoot strike-breakers known as scabs, bomb mines and railroad infrastructure.

However the Wiggins Patch massacre of members of the O’Donnell family on December 10th 1875 allegedly by elements of the local State militia brought things to a head. Mary Ann O’Donnell who survived the attack was married to John Kehoe, a bar owner who it was claimed to be a leader of the Molly Maguires.

Following an outcry from the mine owners, the authorities decided to make an example of these Irishmen, using their fellow countrymen to betray them. Franklin Benjamin Gowan, of Irish descent, who represented the railroad and anthracite mining interests as a prosecuting lawyer brought charges of murder against dozens of Irish miners, including Jack Kehoe.

His star witness was a Pinkerton agent James McParlan, (later McParland) an Irish Catholic from Co Armagh, who claimed to have infiltrated the secret band of miners and gave testimony which resulted in the execution of 20 of the Irish miners with names such as Doyle, Donahue, Munley, Duffy, Carroll, Boyle and Jack Kehoe on 21st June 1877 and later on 9th October 1879.

The evidence in many cases was very questionable, in some instances false, and the trial and public executions raised considerable bitterness in Irish communities which regarded those who were hanged at the behest and connivance of private corporations as martyrs for Ireland and the labour movement. (Kehoe was eventually pardoned by the Pennsylvania State governor in 1979).

(Left: the death warrant of Jack Keogh of the Molly Maguires)

Some of the miners were certainly members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which was a conservative Catholic fraternal organisation, but was far removed from the criminality and murder with which Gowan smeared many of those men.  

Gowan succeeded also in smashing the existing labour organisations as he managed to link and associate the terrorism of the Molly Maguires to the peaceful Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in the media. The WBA disintegrated and became ineffectual adding to the despair of the miners, curtailing their attempts to organise and effectively silencing the most active union agitators.

It showed the total power of the industrial companies and facilitated the mine owners to do as they pleased in the poor mining communities of Pennsylvania. These hangings served as a threat to miners who were attempting to organise.

Eugene Debs in an article on Appeal to Reason of 23rd November 1907, called those “ who perished upon the scaffold as felons were labour leaders, the first martyrs to the class struggle in the United States.”, They were “a link in the chain of the labor movement”  

(Molly Maguires Banner Cork No 3 Branch ITGWU). Made by Jer. O’Leary.

This case attracted enormous attention at the time and the sense of anger and injustice was widely remembered in Irish community folklore. The Molly Maguires may have been spoken about in whispers and with a fearful fear of reviving the past, but these men are commemorated in story and song within mining communities and in the public consciousness in Irish circles down to the present day.

Unlike some of her later Irish male union organisers, Mother Jones was not going to be silenced by the tale of the hangings of the Molly Maguires and she found a very receptive audience among their sons and daughters, when she tramped the roads, as she arrived to speak in their mining communities’ less than a generation later. 

3.4 The Haymarket.

Chicago became the epicentre of the growing Labour movement and the campaign for the 8-hour day grew. The moderate Knights of Labour founded in 1869, had become less secretive and had increased its influence achieving close to a million members by the mid-80s. The Socialist Labour Party also developed a platform for working people increasingly influenced by immigrants who preached for the over throw of Capitalism.

Chicago became a magnet for working class people attempting to make sense of their dire economic circumstances. Many radical anarchists, socialists, communist and trade unionist leaning immigrants had arrived from Europe and the cyclical nature of economic boom and bust gave them a ready audience among a growing disaffected and impoverished section of working class people.  

 “From 1880 on, I became wholly engrossed in the labour movement……..The workers asked only for bread and a shortening of the long hours of toil. The agitators gave them visions. The police gave them clubs”

Mary Harris – Mother Jones

May Day 1886 saw 300,000 walk off their jobs across America to support the campaign for an eight hour work day. Events initially escalated outside the McCormick Reaper factory in Chicago on May 3rd when demonstrators who were supporting striking workers attempted to block strike-breakers and were attacked by the police resulted in two deaths. The anarchist organisations then called for a public meeting for May 4th at Haymarket Square in Chicago. 

The Haymarket Affair

Only a few thousand turned up and everything was calm until near the close of the meeting when a bomb was thrown at nearby policemen from an upstairs window which killed a policeman and led to wild shooting by the group of police present. (Some witnesses contended that it was this wild shooting which caused the deaths of six more policemen and several people in the crowd.) Mother Jones claimed it was thrown by Rudolph Schnaubelt, a German anarchist, but in recent years Professor Paul Avrich, author of The Haymarket Tragedy (1984) along with Dr. Adah Maurer both have suggested that it was probably the latter’s grandfather, another German born anarchist named George Meng who threw the bomb.   

 The outcry and State crackdown on the organising anarchists led to the subsequent execution of Albert Parsons, George Engels, Adolph Fischer and August Spies in retaliation on the 11th November 1886, although it was clear to most observers that they were not responsible.

In spite of huge political differences between “the small groups” of anarchists in Chicago and the wider labour movement represented by the Knights of Labour, scare tactics of the State authorities, organised industrial corporations, businessmen and sections of the media seized the opportunity to attack all organised labour.

(Left: Haymarket meeting poster – English and German)

Even Mother Jones in her autobiography stated the obvious

“The employers used the cry of anarchism to kill the movement, a person who believed in the eight hour working day was, they said, an enemy to his country, a traitor, an anarchist”.

Mother Jones

The Haymarket affair contributed to the demise of old style no strike trade unionism as practiced by the Knights of Labour. By 1890, membership was under 100,000 mainly older men. The American Federation of Labour (AFL) founded in 1886 created a confederation of craft unions under Samuel Gompers then filled some of the Labour vacuum and grew more powerful as union militancy grew. It created a more centralised control structure by the national union officials and represented a different approach to worker representation and solidarity in strike situations.

The Haymarket marked a turning point for Mary Jones and the American Labour movement who had seen the execution of four innocent men. It is unclear whether she was at the Haymarket but she certainly campaigned for those convicted.

“In the cemetery of Waldheim, the dead were buried. But with them was not buried their cause. The struggle for the eight hour day, for more human conditions and relations between man and man lived on, and still lives on.”

Mary Jones: determined to continue the struggle.

SIPTU, the Irish Trade union, formerly the Irish Transport and General Workers Union founded by Jim Larkin added a commemorative plaque to the monument at the Haymarket in May 2019.

Plaque presented at the Haymarket site by Teresa Hannick of SIPTU May 2019

3.5 Where was Mary?

From 1871 until the early 1890s Mary Jones disappears from the recorded history available to date. If one is to read the autobiography of Mother Jones she spends just two pages on the life of Mary Harris and Mary Jones, so effectively we are missing much of the story of Mary Harris Jones. Her chapters on the events of 1877 and 1886 are written as a commentator rather than as an active participant.

She was just a thirty four year old woman, alone in the world, with her belongings burned after the fire in Chicago. In spite of the traumatic events in her early life did she just get on with living, trying to retain her economic independence through dress making, travelling, further educating herself, studying?……….she was just one of many millions of a poor unknown unrecorded underclass, anonymous, transient, trying to survive, experiencing the ups and downs of life in a working world that was experiencing unprecedented change.

Dale Fetherling suspected that Mary Jones visited Europe in the 1870s and 1880s to study labour syndicalist ideas. He mentioned countries such as England, Germany, France and Ireland as destinations she may have visited. No evidence of this has been found to date.

She probably did travel widely in America. Some newspaper reports state that she spent some time in San Francisco and in later years she regularly came and went to that city, which had a large Irish working class community.

She would certainly have come across Cork born Denis Kearney, born in 1847 at Oakmount, (near Kilmeen in West Cork?).  By 1877, Kearney had been elected secretary of the Workingman’s Party of California, made up mainly of Irish and German immigrants. However, Kearney’s oratory descended into populist racist attacks on the Chinese workers. Known as the Sand-Lots agitator, his often hysterical and violent racist language alienated many in mainstream Labour and the unions.  Kearney’s influence waned by the early 1880s, he left public life and eventually ran an employment agency.   

Opposition to Kearney in San Francisco was led by a former Belfast born Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) organiser Frank Roney, a moulder by trade and a committed socialist and a radical left-wing Fenian. He was opposed to the Chinese also, but he regarded them more as strike-breakers and non-union.

The exiled Roney had embraced the cause of labour in the city and in Omaha and Salt Lake City earlier, originally influenced by Chartism and the anti-slavery movement. Roney who died in January 1925 is a much undervalued labour activist.  Dr. Ira B. Cross allows Roney to tell his own life story in a 1931 publication “Frank Roney, Irish Rebel & California Labor Leader, An Autobiography. University of California Press.”

In her later activist years, she claimed that she lived in the U.S., “but I don’t know exactly where”. She continued “My address is like my shoes; it travels with me”. She had few possessions, it is difficult to locate her whereabouts. It’s safe to assume she became experienced at travelling, observing, learning and witnessing the realities of life. In her survival years she used this experience and her skills as a seamstress to earn her living. Mary rarely mentioned the period and this gap in her life, later became the basis for the classic Polly Pry smear attempts to destroy her reputation.

However, she did survive and the lessons and experiences of that survival period ensured Mary Jones reappeared a generation later having embraced the new persona of Mother Jones. That she managed to adopt this new image and exist without a permanent home base for the final four decades of her life when her reputation and fame became known to millions as her many friends looked after and protected her is a tribute to her ability to survive, adapt and be willing to sacrifice everything for her crusade on behalf of workers.