With the decline of the influence of the Knights of Labour, the miners began to reorganise. Out of this arose the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA), founded on 23rd January 1890. It brought together the membership of the Knights mining district and the National Union of Miners under the UMWA structures. The new UMWA was allowed to join the craft union-dominated AFL, although it was a national mining industry union for all workers employed in the coalfields.
By then, coal was powering the American Industrial Revolution, and over 600,000 miners were working in the pits by 1900. Working, health and safety conditions were so bad that an estimated 50,000 miners died in the mines, by accidents, pit collapses and explosions or due to “miners’ lung” in the period between 1870 and 1914. Miners paid a considerable cost in blood and bone.
In Marion County, West Virginia, as late as 1907, at least 362 miners, some little more than boys, were killed in the Monongah mining explosions of 6th December, the worst mining disaster in American history. Some 3,200 miners were killed in mining accidents that year, mostly due to a lack of safety precautions.
A coalition of West Virginian politicians and pit operators such as the Fleming/Watson clan owned Fairmont Coal Company, later Consolidated Coal, had frustrated the unions and delayed the enactment or enforcement of Health and Safety laws for many years.
Through the 1890s, Mother Jones began to feature regularly on the picket lines of strikes. She organised miners in anthracite mines and coal mines. She worked with silk weavers and domestic servants across America.
The United Mineworkers of America employed tough union organisers, who went out and organised workers in their mines and workplaces. The organisers’ job was to convince workers to join a trade union, which was easier said than done! The UMWA organised unskilled workers and among the immigrants and blacks. The union organisers encouraged strikes across various mining operations by asking miners to support their fellow workers as a gesture of solidarity. This union placed a premium on solidarity among all workers.
The UMWA was different to other unions in that it concentrated solely on miners and their working conditions. It employed experienced and brave union organisers who worked on the ground and underground; this was hard and very dangerous work in sometimes lawless places.
Mary ‘Mother’ Jones was employed by the UMWA as a paid organiser from 1900. Many of the miner union organisers were Irish, but Mary Jones was unusual as a female organiser among miners. It suggests that she had to have developed a track record of union organising in the field. While many UMWA district officers carried Irish names if one looks at the UMWA records, Mary was almost unique as a union woman in the minefields.
By 1905, almost 700,000 men dug coal, but over 70% were now organised union members or received union rates of pay and some 300,000 were in the UMWA.
Although Mary quickly became the most effective and best known female union organiser, there had been many other brave Irish trade union women organisers active in the American trade union movement. One was Leonora O’Reilly (1870-1927) in New York was a founding member of the Woman’s Trade Union League in 1903 and remained on its executive committee. Health issues forced her to retire from union activities in 1914.
An earlier trade union organiser was Kate Mullany,(1841-1906) of Roscommon parents who had established the first all-women’s union, the Collar Laundry Union (CLU) in Troy, New York in 1864. Assisted by Esther Keegan, this union organised successful strikes against the local commercial laundries in 1864 and 1866. The Iron Moulders Union led by William Sylvis backed the women workers. Sylvis, himself of Irish origins had reorganised the National Union of Iron Moulders after the Civil War and had later paved the way for a union federation which led to the establishment of the short-lived National Labor Union in 1866.
Today, Kate’s house at 350 Eight Street, Troy has been restored and is now the HQ for the American Labor Studies Centre. A large Celtic Cross was erected over her grave in 1999.
Nearby at 447 Tenth Street and at 96 Ingalls Avenue were the houses where James Connolly, the Irish trade union leader, lived during his time in Troy 1903-1905, while a large bust and street sign were erected at Riverside Park in 1986.
Others Irish union organisers such as Sara Mc Laughlin of the Textile Mill Union, Julia O’Connor who became President of the Women’s Trade Union and Mary Kenney O’Sullivan from Missouri, who was appointed as the first female general organiser for the American Federation of Labour by Samuel Gompers in 1864, had also led the way.
Annie Fitzgerald was active in the Knights of Labor and became a general organiser in the AFL in 1904. Mary J Kelleher (b 1882) was an organiser for the United Textile Workers of America from 1912 to 1928 as well as an AFL organiser from 1914-1920. There were many others who deserve much wider recognition.
One such is Mary Kenney O’Sullivan (1864-1943) born in Hannibal, Missouri, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Michael and Mary Kenney who initially worked for 15 years as a bookbinder. In 1892, she was appointed as an AFL organiser in 1892 for women workers and later led several strikes. She co-founded the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903 and was its first secretary.
Mary Kenney was active in seeking equal rights and pay for women workers as well as safe conditions in factories. She married journalist and the sailor’s labour organiser, John O’Sullivan in 1894. They lived in Boston, had three children, however she became a widow in 1902. From 1914 to 1934 she worked as a factory inspector in Massachusetts and was deputy to chief inspector Florence Kelley at one stage
Mary Jones was just one of the post Famine generation of new Irish labour activist women who began to fight for workers rights in that period. She had no intention of working from an office or enjoying the trappings of some union officers, she was one of very few women prepared to take on the very dangerous role as a miners union organiser in the field among the miners. Some union organisers had already disappeared after being murdered in remote rural areas, where the mines were usually located and where the mine owners owned the land and were the law.
But Mary felt her public presence was her greatest protection and became notorious for her high profile activities around coal mines. This notoriety probably saved her life. She referred to the miners as “her boys” and stood in solidarity with them. They in turn developed a huge affection for their “Mother” and sought to protect her.
The union used strikes as a weapon and closed down coalfields effectively. In spite of early defeats, the union survived and developed. By 1894, Mother Jones appeared in Birmingham, Alabama during the coal strike and also heads to Georgia and South Carolina to agitate and expose dire conditions in the cotton mills.
She was active that year in the Pullman strike which began in Chicago due to the imposition of a reduction in wages. This strike was organised by the American Railway Union (ARU) founded and led by socialist Eugene Debs. Having spread to many other cities, Federal troops were called in to break the strike. At least thirty strikers were killed in widespread rioting. Debs was jailed afterwards.
Eugene Debs went on to become a towering figure in the Socialist Party of America and was a presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, receiving just over 900,000 votes in 1912 and 1920, although in prison in the latter year. He was involved also in the founding of the Wobblies (see 4.7)
Mary began to be mentioned in the media for one of the first times. In 1894, she received publicity for organising a contingent of unemployed men as part of a nationwide march known as Coxey’s Army.
4.1 The Persona of Mother Jones.
She often arrived at a mine on a pony and trap, dressed in a black or lavender coloured Victorian dress, wearing a bonnet and carrying a handbag and went straight down into the mines to talk to the miners directly, usually ignoring the amazed armed guards at the pits, who were reluctant to stop her. Mother Jones had a unique direct approach to organising, as she talked directly to the workers.
One miner described her as follows.
“She was in her late middle age, a woman of medium height, very sturdily built but not fat, She dressed conventionally and was not at all unusual in appearance. She would take a drink with the boys and speak their idiom, including some pretty rough language when she was talking about the bosses.”A description of Mother Jones by one miner
In his work on the available speeches of Mother Jones, Edward M Foner states,
“In print, Mother Jones’s speeches lack the force that her strong personality and skilful presentation gave to her actual performances. Observers over twenty-five years are remarkably consistent in their descriptions of her and her oratory.”
He refers to “small stature, snow-white hair, finely wrinkled face, bright blue eyes and fine complexion”
Her expression was kindly and benevolent. Her hat was trimmed with pansies or lavender ribbons.
Once she was on the stage, an utter transformation took place, gone was the appearance of fragility and demureness; her long speeches of an hour or more were full of emotion, energy and humour as she told stories. Jones ridiculed opponents, she lampooned judges, she lambasted mine owners, she exaggerated incidents and discussions with opponents, her language was colourful and she swore.
Her voice was clear, and contained more than a touch of the Cork lilt. She addressed thousands and be heard. The audiences of miners, union men and women and casual onlookers loved the performance as she spoke in their down to earth idiom. The different nationalities present had interpreters standing close by the platforms who translated her speeches to the groups of their fellow country people.
Her performing stages were the formal ones at union conventions and in union halls. On impromptu locations in town squares, from the steps of town halls, at the side of mountains, from the back of a car, from a church porch, on horses and carriages and even while standing in a river. She used recorded music to attract interest if union bands were not available.
Mother Jones talked of the struggle by workers everywhere, she compared the injustices of poverty and suffering of those who created the wealth with the intolerable and ostentatious excesses of the rich whom she labelled the pirates.
Her stark and vividly contrasting portraits of the brutal treatment of workers at the hands of the law and order system with its failure to do anything about the robbery of resources perpetrated by these pirates brought instant rapport, empathy and support from those who experienced the pain, powerlessness, hunger and hurt from this inhuman treatment in their everyday lives.
Mother Jones commanded the platform, she had lived these experiences in the world of mining work and she had stayed in the cabins among the miners and their families to listen to their experiences. She chastised inactive or lazy union leaderships, spoke directly to reporters present, and even addressed those spies and police who were busy taking notes. Her recurring themes were worker and union solidarity and the positive conclusion which had to be the eventual success of the working class.
Historian, Jim Green writes of one miner’s recollection, “she was the cussingest woman you have ever heard, but the miners loved her and they’d do what she said”, the miner added.
Later, as her fearless reputation grew in the coal fields, her legend grew also. One cannot feel that some of the male union leaders looked on with growing apprehension at this “self-appointed” (in their eyes!) leader of miners, usurping their own formal union positions.
Folksinger John Farrance told of seeing Mother Jones arriving into Monongahela;
“She was trying to organise the mines. She came down Pike Street in a buggy and horse. Two company thugs grabbed the horse by the bridle and told her to turn around and get back down the road. She wore a ginham apron and she reached under it and pulled out a special .38 pistol and told them to turn her horse loose, and they sure did. She continued on to the park and spoke to a large crowd of miners. She wasn’t afraid of the devil.”
Her bravery and ability to look after herself ensured she was to become an admired and respected woman among workers across America.
Another more personal, somewhat vulnerable, yet ultimately funny portrayal was provided by Ella Reeve Bloor, known as “Mother Bloor” in her 1940 autobiography ‘We Are Many’. Both Ella and Mother Jones were campaigning for the Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene Debs in 1912 in New York. Ella located Mother Jones lying sick in bed in a New York hotel room.
“I went down to see her and found her in bed in a fever and wearing a coarse woollen undershirt. I got a new nightdress for her, made up the bed and got her something to eat”.
Bloor then described how she went back again on the Saturday and found her sitting up in bed. She was getting ready to go to see her old socialist friends George and Margaret Goebels in Newark for a few days. This would involve a ferry trip across the Hudson River, yet stubborn as ever she was determined to go. When Bloor heard she was back in New York on the Sunday she called around and enquired as to why Mother Jones had come back.
Referring to George’s pious mother, a cranky Jones snapped in reply,
“Do you think I was going to stay and have George’s mother talk to me about Jesus all the time?”
4.2 Further influences.
She began to link up with Eugene Debs, campaigned for his release from prison and organised a huge welcome for him when he was released. Later she worked with Julius Wayland, who founded the socialist and labour magazine “Appeal to Reason“. This first appeared on 31st August 1895 and in the coming years, heavily influenced not just Mary Jones’s thinking, but helped to educate a whole generation of Labour leaders. Debs was a contributing editor.
Wayland, born on 26th April 1854, was the son of John Bennett Wayland and Micha Kelly of Kentucky, had earlier published the socialist paper The Coming Nation and founded the Ruskin Colony settlement in Tennessee. His father and four siblings had died in a cholera epidemic in Indiana just a few months after Wayland was born, possibly creating a shared experience of family loss also for Mother Jones. The Wayland family was beset with personal tragedy and Julius also lost his two wives (Etta in 1898 and Pearl in 1911) while his daughter Olive died in 1913.
Writers, such as Jack London, Helen Keller, and Joe Hill appeared on the pages of “Appeal to Reason” and it followed closely the activities of Mother Jones, who also wrote articles for it. She sold Appeal to Reason and collected subscriptions for it in many places and often argued and discussed the contents at meetings and in workplaces. Indeed she suggested in her autobiography (P28) that she along with Wayland and three others were involved in founding it. The paper became a very popular socialist journal and developed a circulation of in excess of half a million by 1912.
“Wayland”, commissioned the writer Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle, an account of immigrants in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, it was serialised in “Appeal to Reason in 1905 and became a worldwide bestseller. Wayland died by suicide on 10th November 1912, brought on by a smear campaign orchestrated by his enemies.
Mother Jones was still writing to his son Walter in 1918 on the sixth anniversary of Julius’s death (Foner letter 15th November 1918) and enquiring of news of his sisters Julia and Edith. Jones passes on her love to the girls and to Jon (the eldest brother)
“and tell tham I love them, I love them just as I did in days of old” .
She urged him to have “Appeal to Reason” properly edited “by men with the fight in them”.
Apparently, Walter was due to send books to Mother Jones, and she urged him to send them to Charleston in West Virginia where she was based at the time while organising there.
“I want Voltaire’s greatest work Candide, you know he is a very great writer, he and Victor Hugo and Tom Payne were my favourites, when your father and myself used to sit up at night and talk these over”
Mother Jones had continued to work with Fred Warren, who had come as an editorial writer to Girard, Kansas, where the paper was published. He was known as the ‘Fighting Editor’ of Appeal to Reason, and she often stayed in his home on her travels.
“If any place in America could be called my home, his home was mine. Whenever after a long dangerous fight, I was weary and felt the need of a rest, I went to the home of Fred Warren.”
Later on, she stayed with the Powderly family.
Warren was a Methodist and an ardent Republican, but as fellow journalist George Brewer (the author of “The Fighting Editor”) tells it, a chance meeting between an Irish socialist miner, Pat O’Neil and Warren in the late 90s resulted in his conversion to socialism. He worked for Appeal to Reason from 1900-1902, later became editor in 1904 and eventually left after a falling out with Walter Wayland in August 1913. His self conducted defence before the Supreme Court in 1910 against trumped-up criminal libel charges made national headlines.
The Appeal to Reason eventually ceased after the optimism of its early success and a huge readership. In her autobiography, Mother Jones with the wisdom of age and experience sadly gave an all too familiar explanation.
“Like all other things, “The Appeal to Reason had its youth of vigor, its later days of profound wisdom, and then it passed away. Disrupting influences, quarrels, divergent points of view, theories finally caused it to go out of business” (p29)
4.3 “The Most Dangerous Woman in America”
One exasperated judge, when Mother Jones appeared before him, advised her to do charity work instead. This admonition came from Judge John J. Jackson, who refused to jail her. He did not wish to create a martyr of Jones. The confrontation between the two took place during her trial at Parkersburg in West Virginia on July 24th 1902. She had earlier breached an injunction banning demonstrations within sight of local mines at Clarksburg in West Virginia and was arrested along with most of the union organisers and bailed to appear before the judge.
During her speech outside the mines, she had called the judge “a scab”.
“While you starve he plays golf. While you serve humanity, he serves injunctions for the money powers”
Judge Jackson was very angry and warned her forcefully that her utterances were the outgrowth of “the sentiments of those who believe in communism and anarchy”
As she was engaging the judge in a disrespectful manner and probably aware of her provocative comments about the American judiciary on the previous evening, the furious US District Attorney acting in court, Reese Blizzard, worried that the judge might actually be listening to her, allegedly pointed directly at Mother Jones and reminded the judge that she was “the most dangerous woman in America”….because on her word alone thousands of contented men laid down their tools.
Indeed District Attorney Blizzard may well have been correct in his view of Mother Jones, even if he understated somewhat her impact numerically on workers, but to call the miners contented men was surely overstating his point to the judge.
To this day he is remembered for his emotional outburst which ensured his words embellished the legend of the demure Irishwoman standing across the courtroom from him. Almost a hundred years later Elliott J. Gorn wrote “Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America” and Blizzard’s words are used regularly to complement his adversary.
Judge Jackson showed no sympathy for her union comrade Thomas Haggerty who was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Most of the other union organisers were sentenced to 60 days. Their absence effectively reduced the impact of the strike and cemented the links between mine operators and the legal institutions of the State, to the detriment of the workers.
The previous day, while on her way to meet Judge Jackson, Jones had attended a meeting of the Central Labour Council of Cincinnati on 23rd July 1902 and had provocatively commented on judges as follows;
“Thirty-nine years ago the black slaves were freed. Today we are the white slaves to a corrupt judiciary”.
An account of that speech in Mother Jones Speaks by Philip S Foner, describes the extraordinary oratorical power and impact of Mother Jones, which made her dangerous.
“She was greeted with a burst of applause as she walked to a seat beside the presiding officer. For an hour this quick-eyed, mobile faced woman sat as an interested auditor to the regular proceedings of the meeting. At 9 o’clock, by resolution of the members, the doors were thrown open to the public. The hallway had been crowded with those patiently waiting to hear and see this eloquent and most court-injuncted labour organiser in the world.
For ninety minutes she held her audience by the charm of a well-used voice in words that reached deep into the hearts and minds of the friends present. Humour and pathos, fact and fancy, chased each other in quick succession and were never without their instant response.”Philip S Foner
She was quickly becoming a fearless force of nature, a star attraction and orator of the labour movement.
If one reads her the reports of her speeches, many appear very dull to the reader, full of yarns, names, repetitive, meandering and not a little exaggerated. Many were transcribed by her enemies and political rivals, since apparently few if any of the originals if they ever existed survive, as she spoke without notes.
However when Jones was in full flow, listeners report that she was spell-binding, she captivated thousands of workers and their families of diverse nationalities and races. Anger, humour, irony, mockery, banter, scolding, praise and pleas for solidarity, voice rising and falling follow one after the other for an hour or two. A talk by Jones was a big event in the life of a district or at a union meeting.
Steel mentions her opening remarks to a miners union conference in Columbus Ohio on 21st Jan 1911, to a hall full of thousands of men….
”The time is short and I will not wear you out, I know a lot of here want to go out and get a drink.”.
One suspects they were gasping for a pint by the time she finished, rooted to their seats, afraid to attract her attention should she notice them slipping away, especially since she would have known most of them by name as she often did. It was likely she had a captivated audience!
She could be audacious, brave and bold in her oratory. She stood on the back of a dray wagon in Charleston on 1st August 1912 in front of an agitated and volatile crowd of miners. This was following a bloody shoot out between the miners and mine guards at Mucklow a few days earlier in which many were killed. Her opening remarks were brave in the circumstances.
“If you would just use your brains instead of your mouths, but you do not…..”
After firing up the crowd and called for the removal of the mine guards, even quoting a poem by Rudyard Kipling, she then calmed everything down with a series of proposals to support law and order under the local control of Major Charles Elliott.
Another time in a speech to tough miners who were reluctant to strike, she told them bluntly,
“You will never solve the problem until you let in the women. No nation is greater than its women… Women are fighters”.
A thoughtful Mother Jones once said “Labour must be its own religion”. The echoes of her Catholic upbringing were regularly reflected in her speeches as she used many religious terms, but she remained wary of religion.
4.4 Mother Jones in action.
She became involved in the UMWA strikes in 1897 and went to West Virginia with socialist leader Eugene Debs. John Mitchell, then Vice President of UMWA reported finding her in jail there.
Mitchell, the son of Irish immigrants Robert Mitchell and Martha Halley was born into poverty and was a former miner himself. He had married an Irish woman Catherine O’Rourke and had a quick rise through the union ranks, becoming President in 1898, where he remained for the next ten years. At this time Mitchell and Mother Jones worked closely together, Mitchell leaving Jones to get on with the organising on the ground. He addressed her as Mrs Mary Jones until August 1901, when he began using Mother Mary Jones, whereas she signed her letters to him with “Mother”.
At a large rally attended by thousands of miners in Charleston in West Virginia in July 1897 she shared a platform with Sam Gompers of the American Federation of Labour and Eugene V Debs.
She addressed meetings at Pittsburgh and at mines and pits wherever there was a strike or a possible strike, her roving career as a union agitator had begun. Following the Lattimer Massacre on September 10th 1897, when mine guards shot dead 19 miners who had engaged in a peaceful march in Pennsylvania, the unions became especially active in organising in the area over the next few years and as a well-regarded union organiser, Mother Jones was in the thick of the strikes and agitation which followed.
Her exploits at the Arnot mining strike added to her growing legend. By September 1899, a faltering strike was turned into victory following the arrival of Mother Jones. She found food, shelter for the miners and their families and organised the entire community to support them including marches of miners’ wives and children.
Organising broom and mop brigades of women became a tactic employed by her and she adopted it the following year also at Panther Creek and Lattimer. Her activities at Panther Creek in October 1900 where she organised and led a march of hundreds of women, mainly miner’s wives and daughters armed with brooms and mops across the mountains at night time to convince their menfolk to strike.
A report in the Washington Times of 17th October provides an account of these tumultuous events of 14th October which provided an account of a personal confrontation with Colonel O’Neill who was in charge of the State troops, at 3am between Mother Jones and 60 women in wagons at the head of an international band of several thousand striking miners from Hazleton, McAdoo and other local towns heading for Panther Creek.
After threatening to shoot the marchers, O’Neill ordered them to disperse, chaos then ensured on the mountain road. The mayhem convinced the non-strikers at the ten collieries in Panther Creek to stay out.
Following other several confrontations with the militia during the night and early morning, and the arrival of the union organisers in Panther Creek, thousands of men joined the strike and Mother Jones then audaciously led the hungry women into the local hotel where they ate the breakfasts prepared for the militia who were now dealing with the strike.
Later in October, she again tried to organise a strike in Lattimer, the scene of the massacre of miners, just three years earlier. Again leading a group of women, she prevented scabs from working and by arranging noisy demonstrations to deflect guards attention, they facilitated union miners to get access to the pits to convince the non-union miners to join.
In 1901, Mother Jones helped to organise the miners’ daughters who worked in the silk-weaving mills at Scranton in Pennsylvania, the home town of current US President Joe Biden.
In a statement for the St. Louis Labor on 13th April 1901, Mother Jones described the young girls working conditions that caused the Scranton silk mill strike;
“Most of them are little tots ranging from 8 to 14 years of age. The poverty of the parents compels them to swear that these babies are of the age when they can be legally worked by the master class. In one mill I found children who toiled twenty-four long, weary days of ten hours each; and at the end of that time received $2 apiece. The vampire who runs the plant felt deeply aggrieved because his little slaves went on strike.”Mother Jones
She concluded by calling it “capitalism with a vengeance” and a “robber system”
While active in the town, she also began organising the domestic servants and cleaners into a union, something which had not been attempted previously on a large scale.
She was familiar with this town as her friend, Terence Powderly had been elected Mayor of Scranton from 1878-1884 and lived there at 614 North Main Avenue for many years before moving to Washington.
Mother Jones stayed with the Powderly’s on occasions as their friendship grew. The Victorian-style house still stands, is owned privately and is listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1966.
During the Pennsylvanian anthracite strike of 1902, involving up to 150,000 miners and their families, the UMWA sought to unionise the mines in West Virginia. John Mitchell sent Mother Jones there along with dozens of other union organisers.
Around this time began the long connection between Mother Jones and the miners of Southern West Virginia. She visited the pits regularly and spent much of 1902 in the area helping with strikes at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek seeking union recognition.
She failed to achieve that and blamed the union leadership, especially John Mitchell for the failure. However, ironically it was the never-ending conflict in West Virginia which almost broke the spirit of Mother Jones following the battle of Blair Mountain in August 1921, two decades later where she was accused of betraying the miners.
She remained extremely active as an organiser during the bitter coal strikes in West Virginia and Colorado during 1902 and 1903. Her tactics of using mop and broom brigades were adopted regularly to drive out scabs and support the strikers. No place was too dangerous for her to organise. She regularly faced down the guns of the mine owner’s militias.
During 1903, she also went undercover to see for herself what the conditions were like in the Colorado mining areas during strikes, initially, she ensured that the northern and southern Colorado miners would work in solidarity and not sign separate agreements, however, the UMWA leadership under John Mitchell overturned this and it led to Mother Jones falling out badly with Mitchell, leaving the UMWA and linking up with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which was founded in Butte, Montana in 1893.
Mitchell always retained respect for Mother Jones and continued as President of the UMWA until 1908. He died in 1919 and is commemorated with a large statue in Scranton, which was dedicated on 30th May 1924 and which carries the proud inscription, “Champion of Labor, Defender of Human Rights”.
By this stage, the WFM union had taken on the mine owners in and around Cripple Creek in Teller County in Colorado. Over 30 people died in the violence and a state of insurrection existed in the county, while the area around Cripple Creek saw the suspension of civil rights and the forced deportation of union organisers. It became a battle between the right to have union representation and the “rights” of the mine owners to do what they wished. By mid-1904, the WFM had been defeated, but it would be back.
4.5 The March of the Mill Children.
In July/Aug 1903, she organised the now-famous March of the Mill Children from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York to highlight the exploitation of children in the mines, mills and factories of America.
In one of the most passionate sections of her 1924 autobiography, Mother Jones describes the evil of child labour, the stories of exploitation are stark, the descriptions painful and her anger is palpable and real. This section shows Jones at her most powerful and effective.
After acquiring a job in a Cottondale Mill, her accounts of the working children on hellish endless days and nights still shock:
“Little girls and boys, barefooted, walked up and down between the endless rows of spindles, reaching thin little hands into the machinery to repair cracked threads. They crawled under the machinery to oil it. They replaced spindles all day long; night through, night through. Tiny babies of six years old faces of sixty did an eight-hour shift for ten cents a day…………..at five-thirty in the morning, long lines of little grey children came out of the early dawn into the factory, into the maddening noise, into the lint filled rooms. Outside the birds sang and the blue sky shone……….after the lunch period, the hour-in grind, the ceaseless running up and down between the whirring spindles…….often the little one were afraid to go home alone in the night………”
Jones remained deeply upset at what she had witnessed in the south, she could scarcely eat, she lost interest in clothes as they seemed bought with the price of the children’s work, she criticised the use of the cotton mill’s dividends for charitable purposes.
Moving from Cottondale, to Tuscaloosa, later to Selma in Alabama and onto South Carolina, she lived the intimate lives of the children. Having travelled to tell her story in New York, neither press nor capitalists were interested. She wrote in scathing terms of the mass of Alabama politicians who allowed the “murder of the children” in the State.
Steeled by this anger and riled by the lack of official interest, she determined to confront New York with the reality of seeing and meeting the children.
She had also witnessed first-hand the sight of young children in the fabric mills in Pennsylvania working long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for a few cents an hour. From Pittsburgh to Brownsville, she observed the sufferings of the mining families and the treatment of the breaker boys. These children never saw sunlight and could not go to school and grew old, before their time. The State of Pennsylvania was especially bad, when it came to child labour, with some estimates (McFarland 1971) suggesting that over 20% of school-age children were working regularly in the mills. The law stated that no child under thirteen should be employed, however, it does not seem to have been enforced very well within the state.
There was an ongoing strike in Kensington, Pennsylvania involving 75,000 textile workers and Mother Jones had arrived to help in June. She decided to do something practical about it and announced that she was leading a march of the children to New York to expose in public the injustice of it all.
Professor C.K. McFarland contends that it was “perhaps the first protest of its kind in U.S. history” to dramatise the evils of child labour. The march began on 7thJuly 1903 with various estimates placing the numbers of marchers at between 200 and 400 and over the next few weeks, it slowly wound its way through the towns of Bristol, Trenton, Princeton and Metuchen, Rahway, Elizabeth, Jersey City and Hoboken. It crossed the Hudson River into New York City.
Marches, meetings, fundraising events and food kitchens were used at each location, crowds of up to 5,000 attended at Trenton while there were 3,000 at a meeting in Elizabeth. To a New York Tribune reporter who visited the “army camp” at Morrisville Point, Mother Jones gave a concise explanation:
“Our crusade is chiefly against child labor in mills; give the girls of the workingman’s family a chance to learn something and be something and half the vice and ignorance that make mill towns a hell will disappear”
Although beset with problems and with many of its original marchers returning home, the march itself continued through the sheer single-minded determination of Mother Jones and her assistant Marshal John Sweeny. The youngest marcher was Thomas McCarthy. A fellow called Kelly described himself as “the chief cook and tin cup washer”. No matter what the problems, not least the incessant rain, Mother Jones kept on going and worked herself to the bone to ensure progress.
It had its funny moments too as when Mother Jones was unable to find a campsite in Princeton and the Mayor was not too helpful. She noted that Ex-President Grover Cleveland, (the only American President to serve two non-consecutive terms in office) had an extensive estate and fine house, Westland Mansion on the outskirts so she gathered her army and visited.
Cleveland could not be described as a supporter of the trade union movement and Mother Jones was very aware of that. Boldly she knocked at the sumptuous grand entrance. His house butler was a little distracted at their presence but in the confusion, Mother Jones set up camp on his front lawn. On learning of the camp, the frantic Mayor of Princeton ran all the way from his own house to convince the army to stay in the town instead, which they duly did.
The following morning they went on their way fortified by a fine breakfast supplied by John O’Connor, steward of the Oriental Hotel in Princeton. Mother Jones had obviously struck a hard bargain!
Mother Jones and a few dozen children arrived in New York City on 22nd July and after being refused access to a speaking venue by the Mayor and Chief of Police, she eventually marched up Fourth Avenue with bands and flags. Huge crowds lined the sidewalks, many cheering the ragged band. Among the children on the platform was Eddie Dunphy who worked eleven hours a day surrounded by heavy machinery for 3 dollars a week.
Such was her reputation that several hundred rather edgy New York policemen were stationed along the route in case of trouble from a collection of exhausted pale children led by a 65-year-old woman in her dark Victorian dress, handbag and bonnet! The huge overreaction of the City authorities further highlighted the issue of child labour.
To garner further publicity she decided to visit President Roosevelt at his summer house at Oyster Bay, Long Island to ask him to ban child labour. He refused to see her and three children she had brought along and of course, the New York media publicised his refusal to meet with her and mocked him as a President on the run from an old lady and a few children.
Mother Jones had seen the wider picture, she had an interested media to hand and the huge publicity her march generated had placed child labour on the public and political agenda. She could dramatise events in a theatrical manner which attracted people and the media at the time and she knew how to generate interest, create colour and set the narrative.
In an article for the International Socialist Review in 1901, she had described in graphic detail the hellish daily lives of the “trap boys” in the mines.
“Then my mind turned to the thousands of trap boys, with no sunshine ever coming into their lives. These children of the miners put in fourteen hours a day beneath the ground for sixty cents, keeping their lone watch in the tombs of the earth with never a human soul to speak to them. The only sign of life around them is when the mules come down with the coal. Then as they open the trap doors to let the mules out a gush of cold air rushes in chilling their little bodies to the bone”.
They worked in wet mud, frozen, inhaling coal dust every day. They slept in shacks and their parents also knew only “endless toil”. Their imprisonment in the dark and dismal caverns of the earth was in the “interests of distant bond and stockbrokers”.
Later in a New York Times article dated 1st June 1913 Mother Jones recalled with some pride her role in highlighting the horror of child labour;
“The child labor business was about the first triumph of science in this country’s economic field. It was a startling triumph, and perhaps the pleasantest thing I have to think of is that it was through working for the mitigation of its horror that I found my entrance into the field of labor work”
The March of the Mill Children, now also referred to as the Children’s Crusade has gone down in history as a pivotal moment in the efforts to ban child labour, which in reality took many more decades. The Crusade’s key message was to get the children out of the mines and factories and into school……eventually Mother Jones achieved that!
It would eventually take until 1941 in the USA to get the effective legislation on the Statute books. Back at the strike in Kensington, the strikers failed and had to return to work.
Across the world, it is estimated that two hundred million children still work in sweatshop textile mills.
In a recent book for children, Mother Jones and her army of Mill Children, (2020), writer Jonah Winter stated in an Author’s Note;
“In her own way, Mother Jones is as important as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
By Law, American children now must go to school and are barred from working in factories – thanks in large part to Mother Jones”
On 31st July 2019, the Cork Mother Jones Committee organised an artistic re-enactment of the March of the Mill Children through the streets of Shandon to commemorate the achievement of Mother Jones and the children of the mills on the very streets that she as a child had walked.
4.6 Attacks on Mother Jones.
As a result of her high media profile in Colorado, Mother Jones made many enemies among mine owners and was increasingly the object of negative media attention also. One journalist, in particular, Leonel Ross “Nell” Campbell known as Polly Pry took a particular interest in Mother Jones and the union movement, especially the WFM. Working for the Denver Post, she was basically a gossip columnist, but for a period concentrated on anti-labour stories.
On January 3rd 1904, Campbell launched a crude personal and salacious attack on Mother Jones in her magazine Polly Pry, having been earlier given access to the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency files on trade union activists. She accused Mother Jones of having been a madam and a procuress of prostitutes during the 1870s as well as having issues with her union expenses. There was predictable outrage with pro and anti-union newspapers taking up the row.
It was a classic smear effort relying on information provided by an enemy of Mother Jones, the Pinkerton Agency. The fact that she was identified as Irish, Catholic, a union woman and a socialist for whom the threat of jail just added to her reputation ensured she had to be taken down by any means. As they could not shoot her, they tried to undermine her personal credibility using gossip from a detective agency in the employ of the mine owners.
During the furore which followed, on the 10th January 1904, shots were fired at or in the home of Campbell during a family party. Again union activists were blamed, yet many other newspapers such as the Rocky Mountain News suggested the shooting resulted from an internal family matter and named one of Campbell’s guests as being responsible. “Polly Pry” had become the news and again was accused of inventing rather than reporting the news. A classic tale of the “fake news” genre.
Mother Jones who was suffering from pneumonia at the time did not provide a defence on the basis of giving further publicity to the controversy. Others within the union movement accused John Mitchell of using the opportunity to finally expel her from the UMWA using the excuse of her union expenses, while Bill Haywood of the WFM later stated that he “was glad to get her as an organiser for the WFM”.
Mother Jones grew tired, her constant activism, especially in Colorado in 1903 and 1904, working with miners in Cripple Creek, being deported from Colorado, quarantined in Utah, having no place to call home to simply rest, she became ill for some time.
Having earlier had some involvement in the Social Democratic Party, Mother Jones later was very active for a number of years in the Socialist Party, which became America’s largest left-wing radical political party. She had become a well-known speaker for the cause at the time, but the petty factionalism and divisive circular firing squad arguments which bedevilled left-wing politics, as well as claims of socialism being un-American and not patriotic enough, ensured that the Socialist Party never became the real “third force” political power it had at one stage threatened to become.
By 1912 the Socialist Party had almost 120,000 members, 1,200 officeholders in 340 cities, and 70 mayors. Eugene Debs gained 6% of the votes in the 1912 Presidential election. However, a major dispute between the Debs and Haywood groups resulted in the expulsion of the more radical latter grouping, resulting in the gradual decline of the party fortunes. Mother Jones knew both leaders well, having been employed by both, however by 1911, she had returned to union activism rather than talking about politics.
4.7 The Founding of the Wobblies.
In early January 1905, Mother Jones also attended an invite-only meeting of radicals and activists in Chicago to try to organise an all-inclusive industrial union, the One Big Union (the OBU concept). Her name appeared first of twenty-six signatories on the manifesto issued seeking a convention to establish the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Later, she seemed to have played a somewhat minor role at that first convention of the IWW also held that year in Chicago in late June to early July.
Through the involvement of Bill Haywood, a former cowboy and a colourful Western Federation of Miners’ secretary at the IWW Chicago meeting, and Charles Moyer, the President of the WFM, Mother Jones became close to this more radical miners’ union, founded in 1893.
Indeed when Haywood and Moyer were later charged with conspiracy to murder in 1906, Mother Jones led a nationwide campaign for almost eighteen months and due to the united efforts of many unions, socialists, radicals and her own efforts, the defendants acquired the legal services of Clarence Darrow, the nation’s best trial lawyer and Haywood was eventually acquitted.
These legal services were expensive and Clarence Darrow later stated that he had received some $35,000 dollars for representing Haywood and Moyer, a significant portion of which was raised by Mother Jones. Darrow developed great respect and empathy for both Mother Jones and for John Mitchell.
Although he was often attacked in the media and was later called the “Defender of Dynamiters”, (following his efforts with the McNamara brothers of the Iron Workers Union who had bombed the Los Angeles Times offices on 1st October 1910), he continued to represent miners as “some of the fiercest combats in America have been fought by the miners”.
He wrote fulsomely in praise of her in the introduction to her autobiography “wherever the fight was at its fiercest and danger the greatest, Mother Jones was present to aid and cheer.”
Haywood, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, both Irish trade union agitators. James Connolly was an active member of the IWW and Haywood and himself were friends, they spoke on platforms together and “Big Bill” apparently reviewed a march of the Irish Citizen Army while on a visit to Dublin in 1913. Connolly would lead the Irish Citizen Army, which participated actively in the Easter Rising in 1916, was a signatory to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and was executed by the British Army on the 12th May 1916 in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.
However, Mary seems to have had little direct connection to the IWW organisation after that initial period, probably fearful of the endemic factionalism. Whether by accident or design (as she was also fully occupied in West Virginia and Colorado), she did not participate in the IWWs high profile strikes at Lawrence 1912, Paterson, New Jersey 1914 or Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota in 1916.
The IWW was an activist union and still remains so, but its influence declined during and after the First World War, it had almost a quarter of a million members at one stage.
It attracted numerous women activists of Irish descent, the best known was Margaret Higgins Sanger, born in 1879 to Michael “Marble” Higgins and Anne Purcell from County Cork, both immigrants after the Great Famine. Margaret was a nurse who advocated birth control, joined the Socialist Party and took part in the IWW Lawrence and Paterson strikes, but was later in life much criticised for her views on eugenics. She may have been the first to use the term “birth control”.
A key labour organiser in the International Workers of the World was Mortimer Downing, born in Washington. Mortimer became prominent national figures in the Industrial Workers of the World and was jailed during World War 1. An anarchist from Los Angeles he joined the IWW after the July formation meeting in Chicago in 1905. Downing later edited the Industrial Worker in the 1920s.
Mortimer was a son of Patrick Downing born in Skibbereen in West Cork in 1837, just before the Great Famine. Patrick was a cousin of Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Downing later emigrated to the USA, became an ally of John O’ Mahony the leader of the Fenian Brotherhood in America and fought in the Civil War. He was active in Fenian attempts to invade Canada.
The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and American Labor Union (ALU) member John Riordan of Phoenix, British Columbia was elected to the General Executive Board of the IWW in 1905 and was initially very influential. He was the foremost advocate in urging the name ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ rather than The Industrial Union of America. John Riordan’s people were among those emigrating from Co Cork who went to Canada and settled there after the Famine.
Dr. Marie Equi born 1872, whose mother was Sarah Mullins, born 1847 in Ireland, became aligned with the radical labour movement, the IWW and anarchists and supported birth control and abortion. She openly lived in a lesbian relationship, served ten months in San Quentin for her opposition to the First World War. Others such as Katherine O’Brennan participated in labour organising for a while although this Dublin born journalist (1886) became more involved in American Irish Republican politics.
Mother Jones worked for the WFM as the then leadership was far more radical than the UMWA, however, she retained her affinity for the Illinois UMWA district and when she resigned from her job as a Socialist Party speechmaker, she later re-joined the UMWA at the request of new president John P. White in 1911.
IWW agitator Patrick L Quinlan, born in Kilmallock, Co Limerick in 1883, later a respected journalist, was wrongly jailed for his part in the Paterson strike. Also very active in the IWW was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, of Irish parents, who was close to James Connolly during his time in America and whose family provided refuge to Jim Larkin in New York when he stayed in America. In her autobiography, “Rebel Girl”, Flynn describes the young Flynn children playing with the Connolly children in Elton Avenue in the Bronx and the toys for their play were the books of Pat Quinlan.
She also describes her first embarrassing encounter with Mother Jones during the summer of 1908 in the Bronx when she fainted in the crowd attending a meeting being addressed by Mother Jones who stopped in the middle of a fiery appeal and said “get the poor child some water”. James Connolly caught Flynn before she fell and later accompanied her along with her husband back to their home.
James Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910, and along with Jim Larkin took an active part in the Dublin 1913 Lockout of workers, which led to the founding of the Irish Citizen Army, a volunteer army of workers to protect workers. Larkin fled to America in 1914, spending some time in New York.
The IWW was subjected to extreme repression by the authorities throughout the war years 1914-1918, yet it did manage to unite many thousands of unskilled workers into a formidable fighting organisation that took the fight to employers. In the patriotic fervour of the war years, even Eugene Debs, the Socialist party leader received a sentence of 10 years in jail for a treasonous speech. Mother Jones eventually supported the war effort.
For a considerable time, she supported and campaigned for Mexican revolutionaries in their attempts to overthrow the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. When Madero eventually overcame Diaz, she travelled in October 1911 with Frank Hayes, President of the UMWA and Joseph Cannon of the WFM to organise Mexican workers, and met with Francisco “Pancho” Villa while she was there.
Mother Jones travelled across America, supporting shirt factory workers in New York City, copper miners in Arizona, women bottlers in Milwaukee breweries, strikes in Pennsylvania, she was everywhere!
Everywhere she urges workers to “organise, organise, organise.”
4.9 The Mine Wars.
Mother Jones is probably best remembered in America for her involvement in the infamous Mine Wars in West Virginia and Colorado during which she was imprisoned many times in the 1912-1914 period. She was extremely active in the period from February to September 1912 in West Virginia and her actions brought into public focus the shocking working conditions and exploitation, which were rife in that State.
Wages were traditionally lower in West Virginia than in other states making coal sales more competitive and profitable for the operators, and they wished to keep it that way. The coal companies controlled every aspect of the miners’ lives and owned the communities. The UMWA sought a wage increase in the 1912 contract for the Kanawha River Valley, the mine operators refused and withdrew union recognition. A strike commenced in early April, hundreds of families were evicted from the company-owned cabins, strikebreakers and armed guards arrived and began to shoot up the tent colony at Holly Grove.
Paint Creek and Cabin Creek are adjacent deep narrow river valleys that flow northwards towards the larger Kanawha River. Just over 40 miles (67kms) and 23 miles (36kms) in length respectively, the Paint Creek and shorter Cabin Creek rivers and streams became the blazing fulcrum of the battle between impoverished miners and mine operators. There was a tradition of union activism in the area and the Paint Creek valley miners had an existing UMWA presence. Cabin Creek was not unionised.
In early clashes between miners and Baldwin-Felts agents, a young Italian miner Donato Di Pietro was killed. This caused a major diplomatic furore with the Italian consul. Sporadic attacks took place over the next months across the valleys. On 25/26th July 1912 upwards of 300 armed miners launched an attack on the guard’s camp at Mucklow in a battle that lasted several hours. Newspaper reports at the time stated that four guards and six miners were killed in this incident, battle lines had been drawn, but no evidence was produced to verify these figures. On the 27th July 1912, Governor Glasscock sent in the National Guard.
Mother Jones and other union organisers, especially Frank Keeney, then focused on non-union Cabin Creek and after a tour of mining camps by Jones, and listening to her speeches, many miners walked out of the pits and joined their neighbours on strike at Paint Creek. She gave a series of tough speeches in Charleston, Montgomery and three more in Charleston during August and September 1912.
These were savage times as industrial relations and strikes involved thousands of armed men on both sides. It is quite extraordinary that most of these events took place about 350 miles (560 kms ) from the capital, Washington DC.
It is where the legend that became Mother Jones was constructed, she organised fearlessly in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, she did face down guards at a machine gun emplacement, near Decota, and she hitched her skirt, walked up a river and held meetings with miners joining her in the flowing waters as the mine companies declared their muddy tracks as private property. She helped to establish the union tent colonies, she advised miners to bury their guns as martial law was declared.
Mother Jones is still remembered in these communities as a woman who could instil a fight spirit in the coal miners and their families. Today in the Paint Creek Scenic Trails, (www.paintcreekwv.org), the stories of the mine wars are still told. The new activist leaders of the miners union were born and grew up in these communities and learned their lessons in how to fight for their communities from Mother Jones.
There remain many nameless miner activists, which will never make it into history books, but the stories of four of these men with probable Irish connections demonstrate the difficult organisational conditions under which the miners’ unions had to operate. The sad outcome, later following the events at Blair Mountain was a breakdown of the working and comradely relationships between Mother Jones and all four of “her boys”.
Frank Keeney was born in Cabin Creek and was just eight when he began work in the mines. “Of Irish stock”, he was described as “muscular, squat and square-jawed, but possessed the eloquence of an Irish rebel, a powerful orator”. In a later speech on 16th September 1919 by Mother Jones at the UMWA convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, (Foner) she looked over at Keeney,
“I remember when that boy there (President Keeney) was a little fellow. I gave him a book one Sunday and said to him and a few more: “Go up under the trees and read. Leave the pool room alone. Read and study and find out how to help your fellow miners.” And he did it.”
Keeney, even carried a book of poetry in his pocket wherever he went; this book is on display at the Matewan Museum.
Bill Blizzard was also born in Cabin Creek on 19th September 1892 to a family of immigrants from Ireland and was only ten years old when he began working in the local mines. His father was Tim Cummings (some of his relatives say Cummins) Blizzard (1858-1941) and his grandmother was Nancy Ellen Cummins Morrison. (The Cummins and Morrison family names are popular in Co Cork!)
Tim, an old UMWA activist from the 1902 miners conflict, married Sarah Rogers (1865-1955) in 1880 and their second son William Blizzard (1892-1958) was born twelve years later. Sarah Blizzard, known as Mother or Ma Blizzard, always supported her miner husband and the efforts to unionise the local mines. The family-owned land and allowed the construction of a union tent colony on this land. Encouraged by Mother Jones, the miner’s wives and daughters effectively ran these colonies at Holly Grove, Eskdale and Mossy.
Bill Blizzard went on to become a brave and fearless leader of miners and the real leader in the Battle of Blair Mountain. One wonders what his step-uncle thought of him? This step-uncle was the District Attorney, Reese Blizzard who had accused Mother Jones of being “the most dangerous woman in America” in 1903!
Nancy Cummins Morrison was the first wife of James Blizzard, a Methodist minister and she died soon after Tim was born. The available information shows that James Blizzard remarried, his second wife Elizabeth raised Tim Blizzard and Reese Blizzard was born in either 1863 or 1864, so both boys were reared together as part of a large family comprising the children of both wives.
Mother Jones and Mother Blizzard were great friends and Jones often called in during her time organising the miners in West Virginia.
Author Priscilla Long, who interviewed Mrs Lana Blizzard Harlow, daughter of Mother Blizzard and then detailed in a note to her publication, Mother Jones, Woman Organizer, refers to hearing Mother Jones telling stories in their home in Cabin Creek. These accounts include Jones telling the story of her only son who died when he was nine or ten years old. Lana also “insisted on the truth of the recurring story that Mother Jones’ husband was a coal miner, killed in the mines”.
Fred Mooney was born in a log cabin in 1888 in rural Kanawha County. He began in the mines as a trapper boy at 13 years and took an active part in the later wars. He was regarded as “a radical leader, well-read, complex and hot-tempered.”
Frank, Bill and Fred became President, Vice President and Secretary/Treasurer of the West Virginia District 17 UMWA by November 1916.
However, the activities of a miner, Lawrence Dwyer, one of Mother Jones’ boys who shunned the limelight is even more interesting and his elusive role gives an insight into the war zone of the time. Mentioned in her speeches at UMWA conventions in 1919 and 1921, his contribution to the struggles have largely gone under the radar. Dwyer grew up in Louisiana, married Lilian Shorter and worked as a coal miner in West Virginia. In 1901, he lost his leg in an underground slate collapse. No longer able to work, the Raleigh Creek Coal company then evicted Lawrence and the entire family of five from the company-owned shack.
Now known as “Peggy” Dwyer, Lawrence became a union organiser and never forgave the coal operators. Living in Eskdale, along Cabin Creek, Dwyer worked alongside Mother Jones when she repeatedly tried to organise there. He was very adept at smuggling guns, ammunition and dynamite into the war zone. Knowing the local hills and valleys, he became a feared organiser. In 1912, the first ambush on his life failed and when his vehicle was attacked (he found it difficult to drive himself due to his leg), his driver in the front of the car was killed.
His name appears briefly in testimony during the 1913 court-martial of Mother Jones when a witness Major Davis of the 2nd Infantry stated that he had seen Lawrence Dwyer accompany Jones on the way to Kayford in August 1912 when she had to wade in the stream as the company gunmen would not allow her to walk on company property. Significantly, Dwyer was the only miner he recognised with Mother Jones.
It emerged in evidence that Dwyer who had become a leader in Cabin Creek was detained in custody by the Raleigh County sheriff during the imposition of martial law in February 1913 for other reasons and was only released on 22nd April of that year.
By 1917 he had become an aggressive president of the VW UMWA District 29 and again sought the assistance of his old friend Mother Jones during a further union organising campaign in the New River and the Pocahontas coalfields. ‘Peggy’ later ignored Jones’ advice in 1921 and took an active part in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Author, Howard B. Lee (Bloodletting in Appalachia, 1969) states that Dwyer personally smuggled a machine gun and thousands of rounds of ammunition to the mountain and the sounds of the weapon could be heard in the days of fighting which followed. Charged afterwards with treason, he decided to get out of West Virginia, bought a farm in Indiana and sent his family there.
He took an active part in the Harlan County Labour Wars during the early 1930s. The Baldwin Felts gunmen hated him and may have been responsible for two attempts in Kentucky to kill him in his bed using dynamite. They failed, Lawrence retired around 1936 and died of a heart attack in 1939.
His fascinating and mostly unknown story was told by Dwyer family members in 2016 to Dr Charles ‘Chuck’ Keeney, the great-grandson of Frank Keeney at the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan. Dwyer’s great-granddaughter, Rachel Dwyer Field informed author Keeney that her ancestor “didn’t kill anybody who wasn’t trying to kill him”. The origins of the Dwyer and O’ Dwyer clan name can be located around Co. Tipperary in Ireland. There is a remarkable historical resonance between Lawrence Dwyer battling in the mountains of West Virginia and ‘Sean Dwyer of the Glen’ in the folklore of Ireland. (Seān O Duíbhir a Ghleanna is one of the best known and haunting Gaelic songs). Following the defeat of Jacobite/Irish forces at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, the Irish fighters known as the ‘Wild Geese’ fled to Europe, but Sean Dwyer and his family became rapparees and outlaws and fought a guerrilla war against the English in the mountains and glens of Ireland.
During a speech reported by a military intelligence agent on 20th June 1920 (Foner) at Williamson in West Virginia, Mother Jones who was still organising in this non-union area was in full oratorical flow from a car in the public square in front of the courthouse, when she felt able to comment about her Irish boys,
“They are striking everywhere. They are striking over there in Ireland, and the Irish are raising Hell in America, too” (Laughter and applause).
Many stories are told of the exploits of the brave women of the Creeks. One such was Nellie Bowles who had grown up in Cabin Creek and was a great admirer of the blunt and colourful language of Mother Jones. Nellie was born on 14th February 1890 and had married Rocco Spinelli from Calabria in Italy.
When efforts were made to import Italian strike-breakers, Nellie and Rocco met them off trains and convinced them not to cross the picket lines, in one incident she turned around fifty-four Italian coal miners who arrived and sent them back to Charleston.
As a result of their impact, both were jailed for “harassing strikebreakers” but once it was discovered that Nellie was pregnant she was released. Famous for her sharp tongue, and no-nonsense approach when it came to dealing with strike-breakers and scabs, she became known as “Dirty Nellie Spinelli” throughout the mining communities. Nellie and Rocco Spinelli had six children, lived all their lives in Kanawha. She passed away in 1966 and is buried at Red Warrior.
Women of the tent colony refused to be cowed and several including Mother Blizzard and Nellie Spinelli took an active part in the destruction of the railway line which had facilitated an armed train known as the Bull Moose Special from which armed guards could travel through the tent colony and shoot up the residents. Union organiser, George Edmunds called on the black miners to join the union and to support their fellow miners on strike. Another tough African American union organiser, Dan Chain, known as “Few Clothes Johnson” participated actively in the struggle.
Just because Mother Jones was a woman guaranteed her no protection in these times. Another UMWA organiser, Fanny Sellins (born Fanny Mooney with Irish roots) was targeted, bludgeoned and shot dead later on a picket line during the Steel strike in 1919. Fanny had been as active as Mother Jones for many years in union organising, yet she was murdered. Later in 1929, Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered while trying to attend a union meeting at Gastonia in North Carolina. Countless women strikers were mistreated by both private guards, Baldwin-Felts operators and State police. Very few of the mine operators, militia members or private guards were ever charged or convicted of the murders of hundreds of strikers or union organisers over the decades of the labour conflict.
Following the shooting on 30th August of Thomas Hinds, who commanded the mine guards on Cabin Creek and who had evicted miners from their cabins, a state of insurrection existed in the region. Martial law was declared and a general round-up of thousands of weapons from all sides were conducted by the National Guard.
The elections showed growing support for the Socialist Party in West Virginia especially in the mining regions and a Socialist Mayor was elected in Eskdale. Trouble festered as the National Guard then began arresting activists and lodging them in jail without trial. Sporadic ambushes of strike-breakers took place in both valleys.
The classic photo of Mother Jones helping little children in a miner’s tent colony was taken at the Eskdale camp near Holly Grove at Christmas 1912 when she arrived in a buggy loaded with clothes, shoes and presents for the miner’s children.
During the harsh winter of 1912, socialist writer Ralph Chaplin travelled through these miner tent colonies, witnessing the hardship, seeing starving women and children who had been evicted from the company cabins, noticing hungry, desperate and emaciated men wandering in the snow. He saw and felt the extraordinary solidarity of these men, women and children who had nothing, but the unbreakable strength of their loyalty to the union. He felt inspired and the words of the well-known union anthem Solidarity Forever began to flow.
After Christmas, the trouble continued, Mother Jones gave an impassioned speech at the burial on 9th February 1913 of a local miner, Cesco Esteps in Holly Grove, where a few days earlier he had been shot through the face outside his family cabin by bullets fired from an armoured rail car, full of mine guards nicknamed “the Bull Moose Special”.
She urged the miners to get their guns, find the culprits and shoot them to hell. The sheer anger of the miners at this murder, the latest in a series of shootings, would have resulted in massive retaliation by the miners anyway, whether Mother Jones was there or not.
4.10 Mother Jones Arrested Again.
Mother Jones was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia on 12th February 1913 and was incarcerated without trial. Then on March 7th she was court-martialled. Interestingly, she refused legal representation and also refused to plead as she claimed she was being tried as a subject rather than as a citizen under the protection of the American Constitution. Some of her co-defendants such as John W Brown, a socialist leader, George F Parsons, Charles H Boswell and Charles Batley also denied the jurisdiction of the military court.
Earlier on the morning of Monday 10th Feb, a group of fifty armed and angry miners had launched an attack on mine guards from the hills behind Mucklow. Two defenders were killed (Vance and Bobbitt) and several wounded (Crocket and Nesbitt) and a machine gun captured by the miners. There were allegations that Bobbitt may have been involved in Esteps’ earlier murder for which no one was charged by the authorities. Martial law was imposed for the third time by Governor Glasscock. The National Guard returned and arrested a large number of miners.
Mother Jones and some women including Maggie Ombler and Mrs. Lee Harold, who were trying to calm things down were lodged in a boarding house in the town of Platt which was run by the landlady, Isabel Carney, who was required to feed her. Several guards were assigned to provide security. Mother Jones was charged with complicity to murder after the skirmishes at Mucklow. The case was to be tried by court-martial.
Despite efforts to keep her incommunicado, Jones set up a system for getting out and receiving messages, it transpired that both guards and Ms Carney were discreetly assisting her. Unusual for the time, the head of National Guard, General Charles Elliott openly admitted his sympathy for the miners and Mother Jones. This did not impress Jones who refused him a letter of endorsement when he decided to run for Congress later on.
Later, Sergeant, Dallas Stotts, one of her guards admitted that she had taken him for a pint one night to the nearby village of Hansford. They even brought back some beer to the boarding house.
The court-martial began on the 7th March, adopting a curious hybrid of US Army procedures and civil law rules. A military commission replaced the jury and made all decisions. In the testimony, none of the defendants, bar one, could be identified in the Mucklow attack and the evidence against Mother Jones was based on newspaper accounts and notes of her speeches in August and September 1912. Apparently, no reliable witnesses could be found who heard exactly what she had said at the funeral of Cesco Esteps!
No official verdicts were given, but about 25 defendants were released immediately and it appears that they had not been found guilty. A further 19 had conditions of release attached. Eleven defendants including Mother Jones were not released. Later from the prosecutor’s notes alongside the name of Mother Jones was “3 years”, which inferred she had received that sentence.
Her case received much publicity nationally and the public began to ask questions as to what was going on in West Virginia. The newly appointed Secretary of Labor and her old UMWA friend William B Wilson was under pressure as a wave of letters of protest began to arrive. She had managed to befriend a guard, who agreed to smuggle out a letter to Senator John Kern of Indiana. Having read her account of conditions, which exposed much of the hidden abuses and exploitation of workers taking place, Kern sought a congressional investigation into conditions in the State of West Virginia.
A writer and journalist, Cora Older visited Mother Jones and she witnessed the prevailing conditions for herself, her resultant articles describing the detention of Mother Jones were published in the San Francisco Bulletin from 21st March to 3rd April and caused a storm of publicity and outrage.
Another intrepid reporter, Bill Reid from the local Charleston Citizen, got access for an interview and was later arrested. She got out statements to a socialist paper in New York and to a newspaper in Philadelphia.
However behind the scenes, a tired, sick and worried Mother Jones wrote to Powderly several times from the Military Bastile at Pratt where she was detained; her frantic letter of 1st May 1913 survives. She complains of being locked up with eleven others for 11 weeks by the military “sewer rats”
Describing the grim circumstances;
“Men have been shot down in cold blood. The children have been starved to death, some of them. About four weeks ago they took 11 of the boys away from here. You should have heard the wails of their children and their wives. But it did not pierce the heart of the cold blooded pirates of the ruling class.”
Governor Hatfield, later stated that he had not signed the military court’s findings on any of the cases and effectively ignored the decision of the court-martial, however his politician shrewdness meant he could keep the principal miner activists in jail pending a “settlement”.
Hatfield closed down the ‘Labor Argus’, a socialist run newspaper which had reported throughout the mine wars from Paint and Cabin Creek and arrested its editors.
When following protracted discussions, a settlement was finally reached (delayed due to a massive Ohio River Basin flood) between the UMWA and the mine owners, she was one of the final defendants released by Governor Hatfield on 7th May 1913.
She was taken to Fleetwood Hotel in Charleston where she met with the Governor who had been somewhat tardy in releasing her.
One has to wonder whether Governor Hatfield colluded with some senior officers of the UMWA to keep Mother Jones and other activists out of the way during the talks, in order to hammer out a solution. What was said at a private meeting in Charleston between Mother Jones and the Governor after her release remains unknown. From a description (autobiography P166) Jones told Hatfield that the money wasted on the cost of the militia would have been better spent on playgrounds and libraries as West Virginia might have fewer children in mines, factories, jails and penitentiaries.
Perhaps in a quieter moment, she herself may have reconsidered the fiery tones of some of her verbals during earlier miners’ rallies. She accepted this West Virginia solution on the pragmatic basis of union negotiation advice “take what you are offered and look for more, it may be all you can get rather than what you want”.
As a result of her prolonged incarceration at Platt, in the outside world, she had become probably the most famous woman in America in her absence. Hundreds of articles appeared in dozens of newspapers and she was in huge demand as a speaker. Many of the liberal lobby had taken up her cause and it had united the socialists of all brands. She had gained political credibility due to the unfairness of her jailing. Most importantly of all, she was seen by the miners to have stood by “her boys” and they did not forget.
She attended this investigation on Conditions of the Coal Mining District on 15th May and told her story to shocked senators and reporters. Even the Washington Times of the following day admitted that her accounts as revealed to Senator Kern greatly heightened the demand for an inquiry.
She told a story of the Baldwin Felts gunmen surrounding a miners cabin at Stanford Mountain in the New River Field in 1904. When they had finished firing, seven miners were dead and many wounded. While explaining the indescribable grief of their widows and children she witnessed afterwards at their graves to silent senators was even more striking when she pointed out that none of the murderers was ever punished.
“It is an American problem with feudal greed and feudal savagery in control in West Virginia and the age of electricity ruling the country outside. West Virginia is out of life with this century and must be brought up to it”.
As a matter of fact, very few if any of the murderers of hundreds of miners and their families over 30/40 years of conflict were even investigated or charged with many heinous crimes.
At least 50 people had lost their lives in this opening stage of the Mine Wars, many more were wounded, huge human suffering, miners had suffered loss of wages, loss of homes and had lived for endless months in tents in bad winter weather, endured three martial law declarations and effective military occupation.
It was a high price to pay for a partial official recognition of the right to organise and minor improvements in working conditions and wages. The suffering of the small communities of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek still resonate across history over a hundred years later.
For the coal operators and their political allies and what Edward Steel called “the entrenched elite”, the imposition of military justice in West Virginia brought notoriety to their exploitation of miners, their families and communities and opened the door to investigations and probing questions from serious politicians at a national level. The jailing of a woman by a military tribunal in a democracy was a tipping point for many who believed in freedom and democratic politics and raised a countrywide media storm.
Military tribunals run by soldiers were not used to silence the Labour movement again, even if the legal, constitutional and political bases for its introduction to disputes or unrest within civil society such as against Mother Jones and trade unions still remains to be clarified in the US.
Yet the legacy of human solidarity and the community spirit among diverse international immigrant and racial communities remains a cause of celebration in union organisations to this day.
A poster proclaimed “Mother Jones just out of jail in West Virginia speaks at Carnegie Hall”, New York on Tuesday evening 27th May 1913 at 8 pm. She travelled to many meetings, Boston, Washington to publicise the working conditions in West Virginia, some of the texts of these speeches survive.
The Wednesday New York Tribune reported on the much-publicised meeting as follows: ‘Seldom have the walls of Carnegie rocked to such applause as greeted this eighty-one- year old Jeanne d’Arc of labor’. She didn’t mince her words when she looked down at the attendance at the packed hall. The attendance included her old friend, Big Bill Haywood and many New York socialists, artists and suffrage campaigners.
“Oh you women, you sentimental women who think you’ve done your duty when you subscribe to temperance society – you women who nurse cats and dogs and parrots and let little children come to the horrors I’ve told you about – what do you think of yourselves?”
She gave numerous interviews to the New York media while passing through the city. In a June 1913 full-page wide-ranging interview that appeared in the New York Times, a headline proclaimed Jones as the “incendiary labor leader who terrorised West Virginia.”
Paradoxically she appeared as moderate and “mild-mannered” and raised a rare personal recollection about the death of her family in the yellow fever epidemic almost fifty years earlier. Comparing the cesspits of yellow fever to the mess of industrial relations, Mother Jones urged people to search for the ‘mosquito’ as the source of the disease-causing both.
She then metaphorically compared her role in the labour movement as her attempts to “drain the industrial swamps” to locate the sources of the disease which gives rise to industrial disputes. She specifically included her role in finding legislative solutions to the exploitation of children in industry.
Author Elliott Gorn suggests that she was in fact announcing that “her mission was to conquer yellow fever, Mother Jones would do the work Mary Jones could not; she would save the children.”
Various agreements came and went in the coalfields, but the tensions and strife, wildcat strikes and violence continued for several more months under the local leadership of Keeney and Mooney before eventual de facto union recognition was granted by the coal operators under pressure from the State and the use of the private mine guard as deputies was declared illegal.
The conflict had cost many lives, witnessed open warfare, murder and brutality, dozens had died, hundreds were imprisoned, and it had led to the suspension of normal civil and human rights in this corner of the United States.
The special Senate sub-committee in Washington later examined the suspension of civil liberties in West Virginia and strongly criticised Quinn Morton and Charles Cabell, the coal bosses of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek and the actions of the Baldwin-Felts.
The key to the victory of sorts had been the ability of Mother Jones to encourage the miners and the mining communities to stand up and fight initially by her display of raw courage and then subsequently through her imprisonment to ensure that a local dispute and the terrible working conditions which led to it were exposed to a national audience. By alerting some politicians such as John Kern and William Borah who had the courage to investigate these conditions and the abandonment of the normal rules of democracy, a spotlight was briefly shone on medieval West Virginia.
However Mother Jones had to sadly conclude a few years later that there is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice,
“With its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia.”
Mother Jones visits Calumet, Michigan in August 1913 | The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival (motherjonescork.com)
The new miners’ leaders of Keeney, Mooney and Blizzard, veterans of the Mine War now moved to take over District 17 of the UMWA and the seeds were sown for a further insurrection of labour. Mother Jones tells the story of Cabin Creek and Paint Creek in the chapter ‘Victory in West Virginia’ in her autobiography.
4.11 And Then Came Ludlow and the Nation Heard!
Following a brief visit to Calumet in Michigan to support a Copper miners strike Mother Jones then moved on to Colorado, where miners were on strike since 23rd September 1913 against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) owned by the Rockefeller family. Again union recognition, eight-hour day, end of company scrip, wage increases and the end to unfair practices were the triggers for the dispute.
Mother Jones had been travelling around the mining communities for several months and the conflict had grown extremely bitter. There were regular pitched battles between groups of miners and Baldwin Felts throughout September and October and around 20 people had lost their lives.
On 24th September, Bob Lee, a notorious Baldwin Felts operator was killed, and the coal operators blamed the “incendiary utterances” of Mother Jones. Miners pointed to the brutality of Lee who they accused of multiple rapes and countered that he deserved it.
The 21st October saw Mother Jones lead a march of several thousand miners, their wives and families through the streets of Trinidad, past Governor Ammons, calling for action to solve the strike……the Denver Post called it remarkable and the “largest ever seen in the district”. The National Guard was sent into the strike zones by Ammons.
On 4th January 1914, she was arrested in Trinidad, Colorado and deported to Denver.
This deportation was covered in the local media as follows “Old Woman Deported From Strike Region”. John McLennon, President of the Colorado State Federation of Labour is quoted as saying “The deportation of Mother Jones is the most disgraceful act ever perpetrated by supposed police officers in any State”
“I’ll go back; they can’t keep me from my boys, I am not afraid of all the troops in the State” …
declared Mother Jones when she was interviewed.
The New York Times on the other hand reported that further violence was feared if Mother Jones returned following emotional statements from union leaders for miners to arm themselves to prevent further arrests.
The UMWA was so concerned by the deportation of Mother Jones and the miners’ reaction to it that union President John White and Vice-President Frank Hayes telegraphed President Woodrow Wilson seeking his presidential intervention to protect constitutional and personal liberty.
She returned to Denver, eight days later and was again arrested by the militia and imprisoned illegally under armed guard in the Mount San Rafael Hospital on the outskirts of the city for the next two months. She was released on 15th March to avoid an order of Habeas Corpus which had been filed by her Attorney, Horace Hawkins on 11th February 1914 asking the court to order General Chase head of the Colorado National Guard to appear and bring Mother Jones and to order him “to set her at liberty”. The application for the writ of Habeas Corpus was being sought by her lawyers on the following morning in the Colorado Supreme Court.
The application stated “the said Chase has pursued and is pursuing a course of military despotism unparalleled in the history of the country. That he has seized and is seizing and detaining people at his pleasure, without warrant or writ, and is confining them for unreasonable periods of time in prison”
During a demonstration by a thousand women in support of Mother Jones, which demanded her release in Trinidad, Colorado on January 21st, General Chase at the head of one hundred mounted troops fell off his horse and then ordered his troops armed with guns and sabres to charge and disperse the women’s demonstration. Many women were hurt in this reckless charge.
The protest march was organised by Mary Thomas and consisted of the wives, daughters and friends of the striking miners. Thomas was herself pushed around by Chase during the protest and later jailed. Geltrude Verna, who carried the American flag at the head of the parade, was wounded in the leg by a guard using a bayonet. Mrs Hammond received a gash on her forehead from a swinging sabre. The march and the attack by Chase, received widespread coverage in the media, adding to the growing national concerns.
Unwilling to give up, Mother Jones again tried to return to Trinidad on March 22nd, by train, was arrested a third time by the militia in Walsenburg on the way and was imprisoned in the rat-infested cell in the Huerfano County Courthouse for a further 26 days. When she was finally released on April 17th, she went immediately to Washington to testify as to the breakdown of law in Colorado.
Huge storms of protest all over America arose as a result of what was widely seen as the persecution of Mother Jones, although dozens of other union activists had also been detained as well. From Florence Kelley, to Helen Todd, to Pancho Villa to Trade Unions across America, came condemnation of her treatment.
Tent colonies had been established by the UMWA at Forbes, Walsenberg and Ludlow. The largest union tent colony was established at Ludlow, located strategically at a railroad intersection junction where scabs arrived. Some 1200 people who spoke 24 languages with a huge sharing of cultures lived in harmony and solidarity with the union in this tent town, children were born, people helped each other, women ran the town as the men fought the strike-breakers. All agreed, that the winter of 1913/14 tested their resolve due to the heavy falls of snow.
The miners at Ludlow celebrated Greek Orthodox Easter on Sunday 19th April 1914, they enjoyed baseball games and held a dance. The camp was well organised and run by Greek-born union organiser Louis Tikas.
Co. Sligo born, Major Patrick Hamrock, a bar owner in Denver, who commanded the detachment of the Colorado National Guard overlooking the miners camp, was in charge. His military career included the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890, while he had also fought in the blood-soaked American/Filipino war at the turn of the century.
A dispute arose over the whereabouts of a missing Italian miner. Hamrock and Tikas who knew each other met up to try to find a solution on the Sunday evening. Earlier, Hamrock had ordered a machine gun to be put in place on the hill above the tent colony. If he was intent on finding a solution with Tikas, this was an inexplicable move by Hamrock! Trust disappeared, tension increased and the talks broke down as armed men on both sides took up positions.
The Major then ordered a search of the tent colony and a gun battle commenced lasting all day Monday 20th April. The Major turned the machine gun on the tents and some reports indicate that initially, he used this gun to spray the nearest tents with bullets.
Mother Jones name-checked Pat Hamrock for his role at Ludlow and while he was later cleared of all charges following a court-martial, many consider he was directly responsible for placing the machine gun where it would do the most damage.
In her autobiography, Jones also blamed Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, for the later slaughter of tiny babies and defenceless women and “a savage brutal executioner of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company”. Linderfelt had also served in the US Army in the Philippines war.
Seven-year-old Helen Korich, of Yugoslavian parents, lived in Ludlow. Her mother sowed rifle belts for the union men and looked after her six children. She remembered Mother Jones handing out clothing, diapers and food and Helen herself received a pair of shoes from her. She talked of dances, singing and baseball games taking place at Ludlow.
She reminisced in a chapter entitled “Barbed Wire and Easter Lace: The Ludlow Massacre from “Women in the Mines” by Marat Moore.
“Union people would come to Ludlow from back east and give speeches from the platform in the big meeting tent. Mother Jones would come. She really made the speeches, I’m telling you! We loved her. We clapped and clapped until our hands hurt. We wanted to be as strong as she was. She was like an old schoolteacher. When she was there we felt safe”
However, that sense of safety did not last for Helen. The shocking events which became known around the world as the Ludlow Massacre took place when some 20 people mainly women and children were murdered as a result of elements of the National Guard, setting fire to union tent colonies near the village of Ludlow.
The Colorado National Guard detachment, which now included many former mine guards began raking the tent town with gunfire, shredded the tents from early on that day and later some elements of the National Guard poured oil on the tents and set them on fire.
Earlier the mainly Greek miners had excavated pits under the tents to protect their families from the regular sniper attacks of the mine guards located on the hills. After one attack and following the burning of the tent colony by the guard, the charred bodies of two women and eleven children were located in the pits.
Patria Valdez and four of her children including Elvira, just three months old died, along with the Costa family Cerdelina and Charlie and two children aged 4 and 6 years. An eleven-year-old boy Frank Snyder was killed by a bullet through the head.
Several miners including UMWA organiser, the legendary Louis Tikas, were also shot and murdered by the Colorado National Guard. Tikas, a Greek union leader was brutally murdered by Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, while he was a prisoner. Linderfelt was charged and found guilty of an assault on Tikas! Two other union men James Fyler (43), the local union branch treasurer and John Bartoloti (45) were murdered in the same incident.
Some of the guards even robbed the few possessions of the miners from the silent tents afterwards, thus the Colorado National Guard, in reality, a strike-breaking army of men used to defend the power of the coal operators of the State of Colorado had finally achieved lasting infamy.
For three days the bodies of Louis Tikas and his two comrades were left to lie near the railway line in full view of train passengers in a further display of gross insensitivity on the part of the authorities.
The smouldering remains of the tent colony along with the bodies of the women and children remained in the pit until a local pastor, Reverend John O. Ferris of Trinidad and a small Church group, in spite of the open hostility of the armed guards acting under the protection of the Red Cross flag, went to the ghostly camp, located and removed the charred bodies of those who had died and arranged the funerals.
While not physically present when the massacre took place, Jones was active throughout the area prior to the events at Ludlow and was passionately involved in publicising the atrocity, as the authorities were attempting a cover-up.
Mother Jones wrote in her autobiography.
“No one listened. No one cared. The tickers in the offices of 26 Broadway sounded louder than the sobs of women and children. Men in the steam heated luxury of Broadway offices could not feel the stinging cold of Colorado hillsides where families lived in tents.”
There was an outpouring of newspaper headlines all across the country. The Seattle Star of Tuesday 29th April carried across its front page ‘War in Colorado! Women and Babies Slaughtered” was reflective of the general coverage.
John Lawson, president of District 15, Colorado of the UMWA, also commented angrily about the legacy of John D. Rockefeller,
“he may ease his conscience by attending Sunday school regularly in New York, but he will never be acquitted of committing these horrible atrocities”.
Author and socialist, Upton Sinclair along with a number of women were arrested for picketing on the street outside 26 Broadway in New York. He claimed the offices of John D Rockefeller were “the very headquarters of the invisible government”.
Mary Thomas, Pearl Jolly, a nurse in the Ludlow camp, and Mary Petrucci spoke at emotional public engagements in Chicago, New York and Washington and gave evidence at the CIR investigation on 18th May. Mary was one of two women who survived the horror pit at Ludlow. Just 24 years old, she had lost her three children, Frank, Joe and Lucy. She was overcome with grief and had to return to Ludlow.
District 15, UMWA Secretary, Ed Doyle, echoing his earlier calls for Colorado Governor Ammons to order the coal operators to negotiate now demanded that President Wilson immediately introduce the US Army to Colorado.
“His Excellency Governor Elias M. Ammons” in an article written a few months afterwards in 1914 in the University of Northern Iowa’s North American Review, stated “there was no massacre” at Ludlow. Rockefeller used the exact same words in a June 1914 statement.
Ammons blamed the “call to arms” made by District 15 of the UMWA which had issued a statement for the formation of companies of volunteers and the collection of weapons to protect themselves from the violence. The details of each company of miners formed were requested to be sent to W.T Hickey, the secretary of the State Federation of Labor.
Neither did Ammons comment on the stupidity of his incarceration of Mother Jones, thereby replicating the previous outcry at her imprisonment in West Virginia a year earlier. Ammons estimated some 50 people had died within a few days of Ludlow.
Following the Ludlow Massacre, hundreds of angry well-armed, mainly Greek miners attacked the militias and mine-guards and the mining infrastructure across Colorado. Some estimates put the total number of deaths in this brutal conflict as at least seventy-five. By the end of April, President Woodrow Wilson had sent in federal troops to maintain the peace and enforced a settlement on the strike which over time improved working conditions.
The UMWA ‘Director of Publicity’, Walter Fink delivered and published a ninety-one-page account of the “Ludlow Massacre”, incorporating eye-witness accounts, blunt language, vivid photographs and stark graphics. Governor Ammon was mocked in a pointed cartoon. Over a hundred years later these photos and graphics retain the ability to shock. The publication’s powerful narrative undermined completely the official attempts to frame a cover-up.
At the Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) hearings on 12th December 1912, when questioned by Chairman Walsh, Ed Doyle of the UMWA claimed that Fink had written the book and sold it himself for 25 cents a copy. Doyle added that it was not an official UMWA publication. The photos used had been purchased by John McLennan, District 15 President from a newspaper photographer.
The front cover displayed the bodies of Tikas and Fyler lying close by the railway track along with guards standing around. A full-page photo of Mother Jones appeared before the first page. Doyle, however stood by Fink’s account and declared the book to be the first complete and authentic account.
Mother Jones and union leaders in Washington provided detailed accounts of events at Ludlow and the impact of the deaths forced some reluctant politicians to take the question of labour exploitation more seriously.
Just three days later, on 23rd April 1914, Mother Jones testified before the House Committee on Mines and Mining on the terrible condition in West Virginia and Colorado and demanded that the Government take over control of the mines.
She was very angry at the failure of the politicians to ‘understand the psychology of the industrial troubles there’
“The labouring man is the basis of everything,’ she observed ‘and he is getting tired of working to pile up millions so that the millionaires and their wives may wear diamonds. It is awful when you think of decorating women with diamonds representing the blood of children”.
Later the US government’s Commission on Industrial Relations, (CIR) appointed by US President Woodrow Wilson held hearings on Ludlow. It was chaired by Frank P. Walsh, a noted lawyer of Irish descent. During the examination of John D Rockefeller, Walsh grilled him forensically and it transpired that the witness was well aware of his company’s confrontational policy towards the miners and the lethal tactics employed by his guards. Furthermore, Rockefeller made no apology for his actions and spent huge amounts of money in a PR effort to remove the bloodstains of Ludlow from the Rockefeller name. In its findings, the CIR supported the union accounts of the massacre.
Frank Walsh had originally been born in poverty to Irish parents in St. Louis’s “Kerry Patch”. He had worked in many manual jobs and later studied law at night, becoming a tough corporate lawyer in Kansas. He married Katie O’Flaherty, a local church organist, they had eight children.
Walsh gradually gained a reputation as an outspoken and progressive advocate, being equally comfortable among agitators and the conservative Catholic Church. He had actively supported along with many unions and Sam Gompers’ AFL the campaign and subsequent election of Woodrow Wilson as President in 1912.
Walsh’s payback was his appointment as chairman of the CIR. It is worth noting former miner, union organizer, a founder of the UMWA and friend of Mother Jones, from Arnot, William B Wilson of Scottish origins had been also appointed as Secretary of Labor in the Wilson Administration.
From 1913-15, the CIR examined all the major labour disputes and issues, heard 740 witnesses over 154 days of hearings. Walsh paid special attention to investigating the events at Ludlow. During the examination of John D Rockefeller, Walsh grilled him forensically over three days and it transpired that the witness was well aware of his company’s confrontational policy towards the miners and the lethal tactics employed by his guards at Ludlow and elsewhere. Furthermore, Rockefeller made no apology for his actions or indeed his inaction.
By mid-1914, Rockefeller had to engage PR consultant Ivy Lee to deal with the bad publicity and he appointed William Lyon Mackenzie King as a “Labour Relations Consultant” to try to salvage his reputation. Lee was reputedly on $12000 a year retainer. However, when he issued inflated salary figures for the Union officers in early 1915, a local newspaper the “Day Book” in Chicago carried on a banner headline on Saturday evening 30th January proclaiming
“US Report Shows Rockefeller Agent gave out Fake News.”
Mother Jones appeared before the Commission on 13th May 1915 in relation to the mine wars and when queried by Chairman Walsh as to where she lived, her much-quoted reply was:
“I reside wherever there is a good fight against wrong, I live wherever the workers are fighting the robbers”.
She gave full, colourful and graphic accounts to the Commission of her time in the labour front lines, especially about the Ludlow massacre.
The members of the Commission was divided and eventually agreed to issue three reports based on agreements among different members. The main report promoted the concept of industrial democracy and freedom as integral to real political freedom and democracy. It was praised by the unions and the political Left and castigated by business groups and the Right.
The New York Herald attacked Walsh, calling him as nothing more than “a Mother Jones in trousers”. The Commission condemned the policies of mine operators and described the mining towns as containing every aspect of feudalism.
Many of the Walsh Report findings found their way into legislation as its recommendations had placed workers’ rights centre stage towards providing essential answers to resolving industrial conflict for the very first time.
As workers and unions had been listened to by a federal institution, it opened opportunities for negotiation, dialogue, and a place at the table for trade unionists instead of abrasive political conflict, strikes, violence, injury and death.
Not that political class politics, revolution and union solidarity became in any way redundant immediately as the ongoing activities of Mother Jones demonstrate.
Sections of industrial capitalism too discovered advantages in well organised predictable unions. rather than unstable revolution and the upheavals of strikes bringing financial uncertainty to their plans as well as public opprobrium.
Ludlow may have marked the beginnings of an emotional turning point in the history of labour/business industrial relations in America, although it took some time for legislative impacts to work through, and that change of approach did not appear so obvious at the time, with serious labour uprisings coming down the tracks.
Of interest to Irish readers, Frank Walsh later chaired the American Commission on Irish Independence and advocated American support for an Irish Republic. He acted as counsel in the proceedings when Muriel MacSwiney, widow of Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney who had died on hunger strike on 25th October 1920, attended and gave detailed evidence and answers to his relevant questions before the American Commission Of Inquiry On Conditions in Ireland, on the 9th December 1920 held in Washington DC.
In a broader context, the story of the Ludlow Massacre received widespread publicity in popular culture. After reading labour activist Mother Bloor’s account of the deaths of the women and children at Ludlow in her autobiography ‘We Are Many’ published in 1940, legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie later penned the words of the Ludlow Massacre in 1944. This poignant folk song describes an angry miner mourning the loss of the children and concludes sadly with “I thanked God for the Mine Workers Union and then I hung my head and cried”.
This powerful Ludlow Massacre song appeared on the popular 1972 Irish LP album “Prosperous” by well-known Irish folk singer Christy Moore. Christy has said it was “his favourite Woody song” and 50 years later, it retains the ability to shock listeners.
Among those involved in this Prosperous recording was folk singer Andy Irvine. Andy wrote a tribute to the dead at Ludlow when he visited the Ludlow Monument. He recorded “The Monument (Lest We Forget)” from the Rain in the Roof album recorded in Co Cork in 1995.
“In the corner of a quiet field, there’s a monument today
Put up by the mine workers at the UMWA
To mark the spot where children had their lives taken away
And its standing there in case we might forget”
Andy also wrote and sings “The Spirit of Mother Jones.” 2010.
The land occupied by the tent colony, where the Ludlow Massacre took place was purchased by the UMWA to construct a memorial. On the 22nd of April 1917, the historic site itself was formally dedicated to the memory of those who were killed during the Colorado Mine Wars. The monument itself was erected during the following year.
The ceremony that day was impressive with several thousand miners and their families of many nationalities marching past the site and enjoying a day out in which they wore red bandanas to commemorate fallen comrades and neighbours. Hundreds of men, women and children from the nearby mining town of Hastings, just three miles to the east of Ludlow, many of whom had been in the tent colony itself just over three years earlier joined their neighbours for the day.
While many of those attending played baseball or chatted with friends, union leaders spoke of support for the war effort, as the United States government had just declared war on Germany a couple of weeks earlier. There was a general mood of optimism among the miners however as the Victor Coal & Fuel company had signed a new deal with the UMWA in March so industrial peace in the mines was in prospect.
Five days later on the morning of 27th April 1917, 122 men went underground to work in the Hastings pit, at mid-morning a massive explosion shattered the mine and 121 of them died that day. It was the worst single mining disaster in the history of the State of Colorado. Mining in the area never recovered after Hastings. Some miners and their families continued to live in the company shacks in the towns of Hastings and Ludlow.
These were company-owned towns and property. Instead of allowing some of their employees an opportunity to purchase the properties in which they lived, the mining companies sold off the entire area. The remaining inhabitants had no option, but to leave. The cabins were demolished. Today only the now crumbling concrete foundations remain exposed, the pits are sealed up with concrete and the lands have returned to nature and silence, although some old rusting and decaying mining infrastructure such as coke ovens remain.
Dozens of old mining villages and towns have vanished and with them the stories of their working-class communities and the immigrants who died in their thousands to serve the interests of those in power.
The towns of Ludlow and Hastings no longer exist today.
4.12 Mother Jones, the Oxygen of Publicity.
Mother Jones always did her best to spread information about the events, taking place in the these remote mines and mills and spoke in the most passionate and profane terms against the exploitation of workers and their children. Her colourful language continued to attract the interest of newspaper reporters; she was different to the “suits” of many other union leaders, her language was blunt and earthy, so she was able to promote nationwide awareness of the reasons for strikes and provide a graphic account of the exploitative working conditions. As a result, her name appeared in hundreds of articles and newspaper reports during the early twentieth century.
However, it has to be said that she seemed far too impressed with the flattery she received directly from John D. Rockefeller at the time who was well able to use professional public relations and personal plamás to dress up his tarnished image following Ludlow.
Her later public defences of his humanity were not among her finest moments, yet the relationship with Rockefeller attracted absolutely enormous interest from a fascinated media.
Mother Jones received an urgent telegram from Upton Sinclair warning her not to let herself be “overcome by the sweet odour of the American Beauty rose”
While Rockefeller tried to rehabilitate the family name after Ludlow, the just cause of the miners remained in the headlines as he mixed with the great unwashed of the labor movement.
It is very evident that Mother Jones knew exactly how to use the shock effect of media reports. The sheer number of colourful accounts of the progress of her “army of mill children” which appeared in the media during July and August 1903 is incalculable, some updates coming in by the hour from “the front line”.
Some reporters initially make a mockery of her ‘army’, but her charm offensive, humour and availability allowed the media to target instead the overreaction of the New York police, the apprehension of the town administrations through which she passed and the excuses of President Roosevelt and most of all posed the questions of the mill owners, the children’s parents and the State authorities as to what these children were doing in the mills and mines.
The reality was, there was no army, march logistics were a nightmare, and many of the events were chaotic, yet the casual reader had to wonder if New York would ever survive “her army”, but this did not bother her! To an extent, elements of the media were happy to hype up the march and to collude with her to expose the injustice to the children.
In a telling interview with the New York Tribune, when asked by the reporter if it were true that she intended to visit J. Pierpont Morgan and President Roosevelt with her army, her perceptive answer was:
“Oh, that’s only a joke, sometimes it takes extraordinary means to attract ordinary interest, Morgan and Roosevelt are names that attract attention at once and I guess that is why I used them in talking to some reporters. Don’t you think they could be put to a worse use than to get people to oppose child labor?”
While Mother Jones has also been accused by some authorities of stirring up the anger of the miners which forced the authorities to respond in kind, the reality was that many mine operators were extracting as much profit as they could out of these unsafe pits and the miners needed no excuse to strike. The miners needed trusted leadership and they trusted Mother Jones. She was able to expose the exploitation and pettiness of brutal mine owners who lay hidden in the remote hills.
One stark example from 1912 of the mine owner’s stubborn intransigence was at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek in West Virginia, when a union peace settlement broke down and strikes costing many lives continued due to the mine owners refusing to pay just an extra two and a half cents per long ton of coal to the miners. By using outrageous and colourful attacks on the mining companies as a result of their mean-spirited approach, she attracted media attention to the exploitation taking place.
Repeatedly, American Presidents and State governors had to invoke laws, to bring about peace due to the blatant and ugly treatment of workers and their families by mine operators. Mother Jones met several US Presidents to explain what was taking place out of public sight in parts of America and she explained the lack of normal civil and democratic governance in these States.
A particular target of hers was the presence of the private armies of gunmen or the Baldwin-Felts “detective” agency, in the strike flashpoints. Founded in 1900 by two unscrupulous bounty hunters, W.G Baldwin and Thomas Felts, this agency was repeatedly responsible for conducting a reign of terror against mining communities over the next 20 years. It represented capitalism at its very worst!
This private army was effectively operating outside the law. In a letter from Thomas I. Felts to Justus Collins of the Winding Gulf Coal Operators Association on 10th January 1910, Felts pointed out the excellent job that they had done for the coal operators during the 1902-03 strikes and goes on to say…
“Our work is of such a nature that the public knows very little about it and, in fact the majority of coal operators have but very little knowledge of the inside working of the organisations, as the work has been handled through its officers and executive committees and the policy has been to give the operators as little light on the subject as possible, except to let them know that their interests were being protected.”(Extract from a talk by Lois Clements McLean in May 1972 at the Raleigh County Historical Society).
On 26th August 1926, a few days before the Battle of Blair Mountain, Mother Jones explained in the Washington Times that
“There is an ulcer in West Virginia that must be removed. If the Baldwin Felts were removed bloodshed could be prevented.”
The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was finally dissolved in 1937 and its files are believed to have been destroyed.
Historian, Jim Green in his 2015 book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, which details in a graphic narrative the history of the coal wars in West Virginia points out that there were two thousand five hundred work stoppages in America during the first nine years of the 20th Century, some of which ended in bloody confrontations. Several thousand more strikes occurred during the second decade, the most dramatic of which in West Virginia and Colorado resulted in virtual civil war between miners and the mine owners’ private armies over the two decades.
The raw and powerful history of American trade unionism was forged forever in those hills of Colorado, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Mother Jones was there. Mother Jones was actively involved in all three states. And in all three states, she took every opportunity to expose “the feudal greed and the feudal savagery” by attracting and then directing the media spotlight of publicity on the cruel exploitation of many thousands of poor working-class citizens of the United States.
Mother Jones False Yarns.
One of the more amusing if exasperating elements of following the life of Mother Jones is the amount of conflicting and simply false ‘yarns’ which she spun to the media about her birth and background.
The year 1830, which she gave as the date of her birth in her autobiography ensured she could not be located in Cork, later she began to say that this was the 1st May 1830 to coincide with the May Day workers holiday following the Haymarket.
By 1995, historian Lois McLean, Secretary of West Virginia Labour History Society, had arrived at the conclusion that she was born in 1837 following some research carried out in Cork. Elliott Gorn in his publication in 2001 confirmed that indeed she was baptised on 1st August 1837.
Gorn also stated in the notes to Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America that it is impossible to trace the ancestry of Richard Harris or Ellen Cotter with any certainty because their names were so common. However, he goes on to link conclusively the members of the Harris family baptised in the Catholic Church of the North Cathedral in Cork to the later Canadian records.
Meanwhile, Mother Jones had given a wide range of dates, especially 1843, there was little consistency in her recollections. The paucity of information in her autobiography, consisting of her few opening lines ensured Mary Harris remains elusive. It is possible she simply did not know when she was born.
Yet, she deliberately created confusion, even about where she was born when at one stage she claimed to have been born in Canada (interview in New York Times 1st June 1913), “I was born in Canada, a good many years ago”.
On the very same day, 1st June 1913 in an interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it states “Mother Jones was born in Ireland. She came to Canada when an infant”.
Back in July 1903, she completely obscured the issue in an interview entitled ‘A chat with Mother Jones, the leader of a dwindling army’ published in the New York Herald magazine of Sunday 16th August 1903. Interviewed at the side of a New Jersey road while she waited for her “army” to appear during the March of the Mill Children, she obviously charmed the reporter who wrote:
“Mother Jones is the daughter of an Irish soldier stationed at Cork at the time of her birth, she left school and married at seventeen, a young physician. A few years of happiness followed and then a disaster that swept husband and children away in three days”.
Mother Jones was 66 years old at this point, relaxed and in good health, when she gave the interview, yet she knew this story was untrue.
What was she trying to achieve? Was it self-protection? Was it self-publicity? Was she trying to hide something? For someone who understood how the media operated, was she just trying to add colour and embellish the creation of her legendary status? The grandmotherly attire, the tragedy, the humour, the apparent vulnerability, the whiff of danger all convinced the reporter whose introduction to her article is effusive in praise of Mother Jones.
The New York Herald concluded:
“Mother Jones and her exploits would fill a good-sized book, there would not be a dull paragraph from cover to cover. The story of this little old woman’s life would cover 62 years, picturesque and strenuous and tragic to a degree, unparalleled perhaps by the example of any other woman since the days of the French revolution”.
Did Mother Jones use the media to engineer the foundations of her own legend by making her real-life and origins almost inaccessible to historians trying to trace her real story?
4.13 Mother Jones Continues to Agitate.
From the streetcar workers in El Paso, Texas to the garment workers in New York City in 1916, to West Virginia in 1917, to the Steel strikes in 1919, where she was again arrested for speaking without permits, and then onwards to the meetings with striking shipyard workers in San Francisco, Mother Jones kept on agitating for better working conditions.
Mother Jones was now quite famous, she appeared on the media with regularity and she kept on supporting striking workers. On 5th March 1916, she called into a meeting of striking streetcar workers in Washington. She was identified in the audience by the Chairman and to standing ovation from the packed hall, she took the stage to the thunderous acclaim from the overflow crowd. In the end, she donated $10 dollars to the funds.
Her oratory, impact and fame ensured she was in great demand. A strike later in 1916 by the streetcar workers in New York was in stalemate, many strikebreakers were driving the trams. On 5th October, in the Mozart Hall on East 86th Street and Second Ave, at a meeting to support the strikers chaired by PJ O’Shea the union boss, and attended by almost 500 women, mainly relatives of the strikers, Mother Jones was fired up.
She criticised the Sunday school methods of the union leaders and exhorted the women to “get the scabs off the cars”. Eyewitnesses reported that the women, many carrying babies and children poured out of the hall and within minutes had wrecked a streetcar and chased the scab drivers at the corner of East 86th. A full-scale riot erupted around the busy streets, as strikers and women attacked the police under the command of Captain O’Neill of the 126th Street station. The police responded and the general melee only ceased when a woman participating reported her child as missing.
The following day brought condemnation and two women Mrs Honorah Herlihy and Ms Theresa Healy were arrested. Later at a further meeting and although Mother Jones had called the police “uniformed murderers” due to the violence, Captain O’Neill and Mother Jones shook hands and a truce of sorts took hold until the strike was resolved.
She was reported in the New York Tribune on Saturday 7th October as saying;
“This is not a Sunday school picnic, this is something more fearful than civil war – it is a war for bread!”
As she prepared to address striking garment workers in Chicago on 26th February 1917, the police served her with a copy of the injunction prohibiting picketing.
She exclaimed: “Imagine such a thing in the 20th Century” and continued on with her speech.
In early July 1917, she was in Chicago again addressing streetcar workers. After her departure, a riot erupted in which a man was seriously wounded.
Jones also strongly supported the huge international campaign to free Tom Mooney, a union leader wrongly convicted of the bombing of the Preparedness Day Parade in July 1916 In San Francisco in which ten people were killed. Of Irish descent, his mother was Mary Heffernan from Belmullet, Co Mayo, known as “Mother Mooney” who died in 1934 after campaigning for many years for the release of her son. He was a victim of the systematic and coordinated attacks on socialists and the IWW at the time.
Writing to Mooney from Washington in a letter dated 15th December 1916, while accepting his innocence of the charges, Mother Jones took the opportunity to state her position on the use of violence very clearly and unambiguously;
“I am opposed to violence because violence produces violence and what is won by violence will be lost tomorrow. We must ever and always appeal to reason… the taking of life has never settled any question… I am not afraid to say that I probably in the great industrial struggles that I have been in have prevented more bloodshed than any other person in America”
In a unique public meeting held at the San Francisco Civic Building on the evening of 16th April 1918, in front of many thousands of supporters, two Cork born women spoke in passionate terms calling on the authorities to release Tom Mooney. Mother Jones was accompanied as a speaker on the platform by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, whose husband Francis had been murdered during the Easter Rising on 26th April 1916. Mooney was finally released in 1939 from San Quentin. Just months before she died, Mother Jones still spoke of the injustice done to him.
Mother Jones, although over 80 years old at this stage set a frantic pace. Writing to her friend Powderly in June 1919 from the offices of the United Mine Workers of America District no 17 in Charleston, West Virginia she described her travels,
“I came back a week ago from Illinois……….Went to Ziegler…….next morning I left and got the truck car and went to Christopher and there I got the train for Sentralia, where I also had a tremendous meeting. Then I came back to Fairmont, West Virginia and had a parade of 14,000 miners…………but I had to leave there that night for Pittsburgh……and from Pittsburgh I went back to Herin, Illinois, then came into Chicago and held three big meetings there with the cigar and show workers, I have not had a moments rest until the last week”.
4.14 The Battle of Blair Mountain in August 1921.
However, trouble was again brewing in West Virginia with the growing conflict between the UMWA and the mine owners and Sheriff Don Chafin of Logan County who were determined to keep out the union. Led by socialist activists Frank Keeney, Bill Blizzard and Fred Mooney, the leaders of UMWA District 17 sought a collective bargaining agreement with the mine owners. When this was rejected in early 1920, a strike commenced all across the Logan, Mingo and the Williamson coal fields.
The mine owners began to evict the miners from the company houses and were met with fierce resistance. It came to a head on the 19th May 1920, when Baldwin-Felts gunmen arrived in the small “free town” of Matewan in Mingo County to evict some families. The Sheriff of Matewan, Sid Hatfield along with Mayor Cabell Testerman and a local group of armed miners challenged and confronted the Baldwin-Felts gunmen on the street in the middle of the town.
The Baldwin-Felts group included Arthur Felts and C. B Cunningham, both of whom had used a machine gun placed on what became known as the “Death Special” on a union encampment in Ludlow in April 1914 in which miners were killed and wounded. In the showdown which followed, ten people lay dead on the street. Mayor Testerman and two miners along with two Baldwin Felts brothers and five of their guards/detectives were shot dead.
Martial law was declared by Governor Morgan and the US Army patrolled the streets. The entire of Southern West Virginia along the ridges and valleys of the rivers such as the Kanawha, Tug Fork and Big Sandy was in virtual revolt at the intimidatory tactics employed by the mine owners.
Mother Jones, still employed by the UMWA under John L. Lewis, travelled around the counties of West Virginia during this period but remained based, towards the north of the region in Charleston on the Kanawha River. She despised John L. Lewis the dictatorial leader of the UMWA so there was a lot of tension within the union.
Shootings, strikes, protests and jailings grew and things came to a head when on 1st August 1921, Sid Hatfield, a local hero to the miners and a former union miner himself was murdered (along with Ed Chambers, former deputy sheriff and family friend) in broad daylight on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in the town of Welch by Baldwin Felts gunmen.
Miners throughout West Virginia were incensed, thousands of armed miners gathered in Marmet, just south of Charleston in Kanawha County and decided to march on Mingo County and release their colleagues who had been jailed there. To get there, they would have to go through Logan County where Sherriff Chafin ruled with the aid of well-armed militias, hired guards and Baldwin Felts operatives.
Mother Jones, spoke to this new miner citizen’s army (upwards of 10,000 strong) at Marmet on 24th August 1921 and implored them to go home. She feared a bloodbath as lightly armed miners, no matter how brave and courageous, and even with a just cause, were no match for machine guns. She had been around a long time and she feared the authorities, had in fact set a trap for the union and were deliberately provoking a response to defeat it. Many of the miners ignored her wise advice and marched for Mingo County.
The leadership of the UMWA were warned by Washington that they would be arrested for treason if the march went ahead. Led by former Cabin Creek miner, Bill Blizzard, the largest battle fought on American soil to this day, since the conclusion of the American Civil War thus began on Blair Mountain and Crooked Creek Gap in Logan County. It raged up and down the mountain for three days in late August, early September involving thousands of miners wearing red neck scarves (Rednecks) and the miners gave as good as they got. At one point the miners were bombed from a plane.
On September 1st 1921, the President of the United States, Warren Harding issued a proclamation ordering the miners to go home and sent in the US Army. The miners would not fire on the army, some were ex-army men themselves, and many handed over their weapons and did go home bringing to an end of a battle that cost dozens of lives on both sides.
The end result was a defeat for the UMWA, the union in West Virginia was smashed, it was broke, although the union had made a historic and yet it had presented a powerful and historic challenge to the corporate power of the mining industry. Although, when hundreds of miners were subsequently arrested, over a thousand indictments were issued and many miners were hauled before the courts, it added to the sense of defeat.
The so-called “Treason Trials followed and the much-respected leader of the miners, Blizzard was arrested, held in jail and charged with treason, however, he was finally acquitted of the charge in May 1922. Keeney and Mooney who had been charged with murder were not present on the mountain during the actual battle, were finally cleared of the charge also. Effectively the union had been destroyed and it took some time before it functioned again.
Mother Jones was blamed by some miners for the defeat, as on August 24th, she attempted to dupe them by means of a non-existent telegram from President Harding advising them to go home from which she apparently quoted extracts. When challenged, she was unable to produce the actual telegram. However, she had pre-empted the President as that is exactly what he said in his proclamation just a week later.
Although Mother Jones may well have been correct in her analysis, she was deeply hurt by the failure of the miners to listen to her and devastated at union talk of her betrayal of them. This stung Mother Jones deeply as she had fought alongside them and often led them for nearly 30 years.
The debate about the rights and wrongs of her advice at that time continues. She left West Virginia. but continued in spite of serious illness to work and campaigned for the release of the arrested miners. Mooney eventually wrote an account of the events ‘Struggle in the Coalfields’ published by Cambridge University Press, which was one of the few first-hand accounts of the Mine Wars. He died by suicide on February 24th 1952.
In the present day, there has been an Appalachian wide campaign to prevent Blair Mountain from being destroyed by mountain top removal coal mining. This campaign included re-enactment marches, along the original miners’ citizen army route to the mountain in 1999 and 2011. Several campaigning groups including the Sierra Club and the Friends of Blair Mountain under the leadership of Charles Keeney have succeeded in having the mountain relisted on the National Register of Historic Places and as a historic battle site, which should be preserved and protected forever, as a testament to the brave miners, who simply fought for justice.
- Chapter 1: Mary Harris
- Chapter 2: Mary Jones
- Chapter 3: Surviving and Becoming Mother Jones
- Chapter 4: The Arrival of Mother Jones
- Chapter 5: Mother Jones: the Declining Years
- Chapter 6: Mother Jones Remembered and Celebrated
- Chapter 7: Mother Jones Some Observations
- Chapter 8: About Mother Jones