The Arrival of Mother Jones

“About 1891 when I was down in Virginia” , and “when I got off the train at Norton a fellow walked up to me and asked me if I were Mother Jones. Yes, I am Mother Jones”

Mother Jones: The Autobiography

With the decline of the influence of the Knights of Labour, the miners began to reorganise and out of this arose the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) which was founded on 23rd January 1890. By then, coal was powering the American Industrial Revolution and there were over 600,000 miners, 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 as a result of miners’ lung in the period between 1870 and 1914. Mining brought a huge cost in blood and bone.

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 the mines and work places. The organisers’ job was to convince workers to join a trade union, which was easier said than done! The UMWA was different in, that it organised unskilled workers and it organised among the immigrants and blacks. The UNWA encouraged strikes, across various mining operations by asking miners. to support their fellow workers as a gesture of solidarity. The 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 under the ground, this was hard and very dangerous work in sometimes lawless places.

Mary ‘Mother’ Jones was employed by the UMWA as a paid organiser. Many of the union organisers were Irishmen. 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.

While Mary became the most effective and best known female union organiser, there had been other brave Irish trade union women organisers active in the American trade union movement, such as Leonora O’Reilly in New York, who was a founding member of the Woman’s Trade Union League in 1870.

Leonora O’Reilly Poster

Others like Sara Mc Laughlin of the Textile Mill Union, Julia O’Connor who became President of the Women’s Trade Union, 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 became a general organiser in the AFL in 1904 and there were many others who deserve much wider recognition for their work.

Mary 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 union organiser, in the field. Some union organisers simply disappeared after being murdered in remote rural areas, where the mines were located and where the mine owners were the law. But, Mary became notorious for her high profile activities around coal mines. She referred to the miners as “her boys” and stood in solidarity with them. They in turn had a huge affection for their “Mother” and sought to protect her.

The union used strikes as a weapon and closed down coalfields effectively and 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 towards exposing conditions in the Cotton Mills.

She was active that year in the Pullman strike which began in Chicago, over reduction in wages and involved 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, during which 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 was mentioned in the media for one of the first times, as organising a contingent of unemployed men as part of a nationwide march known as Coxey’s Army in 1894.

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
Mother Jones in 1901

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, which first appeared on 31st August 1895 and in the coming years heavily influenced, not just Mary Jones’s thinking, but a whole generation of Labour leaders. Debs was a contributing editor. Wayland had earlier published the socialist paper The Coming Nation and founded the Ruskin Colony settlement in Tennessee.

Writers such as Jack London, Helen Keller, and Joe Hill appeared on the pages of Appeal to Reason and it followed the activities of Mother Jones who also wrote for it. She sold the newspaper and collected subscription for it in many places and often argued and discussed the contents at meetings and in workplaces. It became a very popular socialist journal with a circulation in excess of half a million by 1912.

Wayland, commissioned the writer Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle, an account of immigrants in the meat packing industry in Chicago, it was serialised in Appeal to Reason in 1905 and became a worldwide best seller. Wayland died by suicide in 1912, brought on by a smear campaign by his enemies.

Mother Jones continued to work with Fred Warren, known as the ‘Fighting Editor’ of Appeal to Reason, and often stayed in his home on her travels.

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, as he did not wish to create a martyr and it took place during her trial at Parkensburg in West Virginia on July 24th 1902. As she was engaging the judge in a disrespectful manner, a furious US District Attorney Reese Blizzard, worried that the judge might actually be listening to her, allegedly pointed to Mother Jones and called her “the most dangerous woman in America”….because on her word alone thousands of contented men laid down their tools.

Blizzard may well have understated her impact numerically on workers, but to call the men contented was surely exaggerating his case!

While on her way to meet Judge Jackson, she attended a meeting of the Central Labour Council of Cincinnati on 23rd July 1902 and had 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 shows the extraordinary oratorical power and impact of Mother Jones.

“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 becoming a fearless force of nature, a star attraction and orator of the labour movement.

“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.

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.   

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. She was familiar with this town as her friend, Terence Powderly had been elected Mayor of Scranton from 1878-1884 and lived there for many years before moving to Washington. Mother Jones stayed in Scranton with the Powderly family, when she was in the area.

(Mother Jones meeting in Scranton Silk Strikers Feb 14 1901)

Around this time also 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 where miners sought 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).

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.

She had 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. 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. Official laws stated that no child under thirteen should be employed, however it does not seem to have been enforced very well.

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, fund raising 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.

(Joan Goggin as Mother Jones at the re-enactment of the March of the Mill Children in Shandon on July 31st 2019)

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. No matter what the problems, not least the incessant rain, Mother Jones kept on going and worked herself to the bone to ensure progress.

Mother Jones and a few dozen children arrived in New York City on July 22nd 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 over reaction 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.

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!

Photo of the 2019 re-enactment of the March of the Mill Children in Shandon (courtesy of Claire Stack)

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 sweat shop 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”  

Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children

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 she walked on as a child herself.

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 the 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.

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.

(The IWW Pyramid of the Capitalist System)

Haywood, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, himself an active members of the IWW were well known to each other, 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.

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.    

IWW agitator Patrick L Quinlan, born in Killmallock, Co Limerick in 1883, later a respected journalist, was wrongly jailed for his part in the Paterson strike. Also very active 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.

(Elizabeth Gurley Flynn)

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 which 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.

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 her job as a Socialist Party speechmaker, she later re-joined the UMWA at the request of new president John P. White in 1911.

4.8 Mother Jones is Everywhere.

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.”

Mother Jones

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.

These were savage times as industrial relations and strikes involved thousands of armed men on both sides. 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, she helped to establish the union tent colonies, she advised miners to bury their guns as martial law was declared.

Just because Mother Jones was a women guaranteed no protection. 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 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.  

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. 

(Mother Jones visiting a tent colony)

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.

After Christmas, the trouble continued, Mother Jones gave an impassioned speech at the burial on February 9th 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.

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 February 12th 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. She was sentenced to three years in a State penitentiary.

Her case received much publicity nationally and the public began to ask questions as to what was going on in West Virginia and when a settlement was reached between the UMWA and the mine owners, she was released by Governor Hatfield on May 8th. The furore created led to a Senate investigation of the working conditions in West Virginia.

A poster at the time proclaimed “Mother Jones just out of jail in West Virginia speaks at Carnegie Hall”, New York on Tuesday evening May 27th 1913 at 8.00 pm. She travelled to many meetings, Boston, Washington to publicise the working conditions in West Virginia, some of the texts of these speeches still survive. Various agreements came and went in the coalfields, but the labour tensions and strife continued over a wide area.

Mother Jones Arrested

4.11 And Then Came Ludlow!

Mother Jones then moved on to Colorado, where miners were on strike since September 1913 against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company owned by the Rockefeller family. On January 4th 1914, she was arrested in Trinidad, Colorado and deported to Denver. 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 was being sought by her lawyers on the following morning in the Colorado Supreme Court.

During a demonstration by a thousand women in support of Mother Jones 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.

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.

Mother Jones in Prison from Walter H Fink

Huge storms of protest all over America arose as a result of 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.

Among the shocking events to come was the infamous Ludlow Massacre of April 20th 1914, when some 20 people mainly women and children died as a result of elements of the National Guard, setting fire to union tent colonies near the village of Ludlow in Colorado. 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.  

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.

(Louis Tikas from Ludlow by Walter H Fink)

While not there, when the massacre took place, Jones was active throughout the area prior to the events at Ludlow and was passionately involved in publicising what had occurred in the aftermath as the authorities had attempted a cover up.

Just three days later 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.


Following the Ludlow Massacre, hundreds of angry well-armed, mainly Greek miners attacked the militias and mine guards and killed many, some estimates put the total number of deaths in this savage conflict as at least seventy five. President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to maintain the peace while the President enforced a settlement on the strike which over time improved working conditions.

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 aggressive 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.

Machine Gun at Ludlow Massacre (Walter H Fink)

Of interest to Irish readers, 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.

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 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 profession public relations and personal plamās to dress up his tarnished image following Ludlow. Her later public defences of his humanity were not among her finest moments.

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, they needed trusted leadership and they trusted Mother Jones. She was able to expose the exploitation and pettiness of brutal mine owners which lay hidden in the remote hills.

One stark example from 1912 of the mine owner’s stubborn and even petty 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.

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 and goverance in these States.

The owners private armies of gunmen or the Baldwin-Felts “detective” agency, founded in 1900 by two unscrupulous bounty hunters, W.G Baldwin and Thomas Felts were repeatedly responsible for conducting a reign of terror against mining communities over the next 20 years. It represented Capitalism at its very worst!

Historian, Jim Green in his 2015 book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, which details in 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.    

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.

1908 Tom Mooney (right) campaigning alongside Eugene Debs.

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.

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.  

Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington April 16th Meeting

4.14 The Battle of Blair Mountain in August 1921.

However, trouble was again brewing in West Virginia with 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 and Fred Mooney, 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 tensions within the union.

(Death special (Fink))

Shootings, strikes, protests and jailing’s 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.

Mother Jones at Matewan

The leadership of the UMWA were warned from Washington that they would be arrested for treason if the march went ahead. 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 which 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 powerful challenge to the corporate power of the mining industry. Yet, when the hundreds of miners were subsequently arrested and hauled before the courts, it added to the sense of defeat.

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.

In the present day there has been an Appalachian wide campaign to prevent Blair Mountain 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 are seeking to have the mountain relisted on the National Register of Historic Places and as a historic battle site, which should be preserved and protected forever, as testament to the brave miners, who simply fought for justice.