"I am not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser." -- Mary Harris Jones
American labor organizer Mary Harris Jones was a colorful advocate for radical union activism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Mary was also known as "Mother Jones" and sometimes as "The Miners' Angel." The first moniker has become more famous in the last thirty years since the publishers of a magazine called Mother Jones took her name, life, and work as inspiration for their mission when the publication was launched in 1976. Mary had strong admirers and critics in her own lifetime. While a West Virginia district attorney once branded Mary as "the most dangerous woman in America," Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow called Mary "one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor movement."
Mary Harris was born in County Cork, Ireland, either in 1830 or perhaps as late as 1837. Some researchers think she might have claimed to be a few years older than she really was late in her life and that could be the source of some confusion about her age. Most sources accept Mary's statements and list 1830 as her year of birth and as being seven months past her 100th birthday at the time of her death in late 1930. Her family emigrated to North America when she was young and she grew up in Toronto, Ontario where she graduated from normal school. Her father worked as a railroad construction laborer. Mary worked as a teacher in Monroe, Michigan and later got a job as a dressmaker in Chicago.
In 1861 at the start of the Civil War, Mary was teaching in Memphis, Tennessee when she met and married George E. Jones who was an active member of the Iron Molders Union. Mary learned a lot about the trade union movement from her husband. Tragedy struck her hard in 1867 when Mary lost her husband and all four of her children in just one week to a yellow fever epidemic. As a widow, Mary moved back to Chicago and worked at dressmaking again in her own shop that catered to wealthy Chicago socialites. Tragedy struck her a second time only four years later in October 1871 when the great Chicago fire destroyed her home, her dressmaking business, and everything she owned.
But Mary survived and remained in Chicago as a seamstress and making dresses for a few more years after the fire. Her wealthy customers also needed to replace clothes destroyed by the fire. But later in that decade, Mary became active in the Knights of Labor and went to Pittsburg to help railroad strikers in 1877. From that year forward, Mary devoted most of her life to working as a union organizer with miners. But she was also at various times an advocate for child laborers, textile workers, streetcar workers, steelworkers, and others. She remained active in labor affairs into her nineties. From 1867 to her death in 1830, Mary spent most of her life both in the railroad hub of Chicago and near the coal fields of southern Illinois. She lived whereever there was a hot spot for striking workers around the country. But Illinois was her base of operations. She often fought with other labor leaders accusing them of too much compromise with employers or of internal union corruption. Mary at different times joined or helped to organize but then later rejected various socialist organizations as she got into factional fights over personalities, principles, and tactics. She twice worked as a professional organizer for the United Mine Workers and was the special "Miners' Angel" to her friends in the coal mines of southern Illinois.
As late as 1924, Mary was back with her roots helping to organize dressmakers in Chicago. Mary died on Nov. 30, 1930. She was either 100 or age 93 depending on which scholar is correct about the actual year of her birth. She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois near the coalfields of Macoupin County. Her grave site is also not far from Virden, Illinois where many of her friends and victims of the Virden mine riot of 1898 are buried. On October 12, 1936, a Monument to Mother Jones was dedicated at the Union Miners Cemetery by Union Local 35 of the Progressive Mine Workers of America (AFL) and its Women's Auxiliary. To learn more about Mary Harris Jones, readers might want to visit her page on the web site of the Illinois Labor History Society.