Mother Jones

Mother Jones labor history

Mother Jones working at a desk. She wrote her autobiography in the 1920s.

Biographical Note

(American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives)

Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones in the latter half of her life, was an American activist well known for her fiery rhetoric and dedication to labor and union rights. Jones was born in Cork, Ireland, probably 1837, moved to Canada in the early 1850s, and made her way to the United States in 1860, where she lived and worked until her death on November 30, 1930.

Why exactly Mother Jones became so dedicated to the cause of labor is hard to say, but some motivation can be inferred from her early life. Before becoming a labor activist, Jones lived a relatively quiet life with her husband and four children in Memphis. Her husband, George Jones, was an iron worker and an active member in the International Iron Molders Union. In 1867 tragedy struck when the yellow fever epidemic came through Memphis and killed her entire family. George was honored posthumously by the local chapter of the International Iron Molders Union and soon after Mother Jones left for Chicago. In Chicago, Mother Jones worked as a dressmaker until tragedy struck again. On October 8, 1871, the great Chicago fire burned down almost four square miles of the city leaving Mother Jones with nothing. Much work would be required to rebuild Chicago, and with no more family or career to speak of, Jones began her involvement with labor activism.

In her long fight for labor, Mother Jones travelled the country to help wherever and however she could, never settling for long. She helped organize laborers in Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and even aided the labor movement in Mexico. One of Mother Jones’ special causes was coal miners, “the slaves of the caves”. Despite dangerous conditions, Jones returned to coal country time after time to help miners earn better wages, safer working conditions, and the right to organize. Coal strikes were especially dangerous to organize because remote locations meant companies often controlled whole towns and had their own militias. Considerable tension existed between miners and the mine operators militias, with strikes turning violent and deadly on occasion. Mother Jones came to help the miners despite threats of violence, direct and indirect, and was jailed repeatedly along with miners and other organizers.

Jones played Mother not only to miners but also to children in the mills, railway men, women in garment factories, street car boys, and other laborers. As an activist for labor, Jones gave speeches to educate and rally the workers but was much more than just a speaker. Jones raised funds and supplies and drew media attention to labor causes through public events and spectacle. On one occasion, in the summer of 1903, Jones set off on a march from Philadelphia to New York with a group of textile workers. To highlight the plight of child laborers, a hundred children were included in the group. The group stopped in towns along the way to stir up publicity with music, speeches, plays, and even sought to address President Roosevelt.

After several decades of organizing labor, Jones passed away and was given a funeral at St. Gabriel’s church in Washington D.C. Her body was taken on a special railcar to Illinois where she was buried at the Union Miner’s Cemetery, the only union owned cemetery in the United States.

Mother Jones with President Calvin Coolidge 1924

Mother Jones, labor organizer who also worked for child labor and other reforms, visited the White House in 1924 to meet with President Calvin Coolidge.

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