The agitator Mary Harris ‘‘Mother’’ Jones, a leader in the American labor movement from the 1890s until her death in 1930, made a profound impression on West Virginia.
An Irish immigrant, Mary Harris was born in probably 1837. Her family arrived at Boston in 1850, then followed her father’s work as a railroad construction laborer into Canada. She attended Toronto Normal School, leaving in 1859 to teach in a convent school in Michigan. She later taught in Memphis, where her husband, George, and four children died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867. Returning north, Jones operated a dressmaking business in Chicago until 1871 when the Great Fire burned up the business and her possessions.
Then she turned to the cause of labor, becoming a surrogate mother to the nation’s workers. In 1897, she joined Eugene Debs’s Social Democracy and the United Mine Workers of America national strike in the Pittsburgh district, the first UMWA victory. Jones joined the UMWA’s organizing drive in the Pennsylvania anthracite region, and was commissioned a national organizer. Sent to survey the West Virginia coalfields in December 1900, she reported that ‘‘conditions there were worse than those in Czarist Russia.’’
Jones returned to West Virginia the next May and many times afterward. Short and sturdy, silver-haired with glasses, she dressed in conventional black but wore boots on her feet. After a year in the New River coalfield, Jones was sent to the Fairmont field. Two weeks after a strike was called in June 1902, she was arrested and taken to Parkersburg for violating Judge John Jay Jackson Jr.’s injunction. When freed, she returned to New River, where the strike continued until the bloody Battle of Stanaford in February 1903.
After seeing UMWA locals established in the Kanawha Valley and the reorganization of the West Virginia Federation of Labor, Mother Jones answered a call from striking textile workers in Philadelphia. She returned to West Virginia in 1912 to aid union miners on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek. Jones was arrested in Charleston on February 13, 1913. After being taken to Pratt, she was court-martialed and held under house arrest until May, when she precipitated a congressional investigation.
After testifying before another congressional committee in 1915, and forsaking the Socialists, Mother Jones returned to West Virginia in 1917 where she held meetings and gained union recognition in the Fairmont and Winding Gulf coalfields. She joined the steelworkers’ organizing drive in Pittsburgh in 1919, then traveled back to the hills of West Virginia and on to Mexico City. She returned to West Virginia by 1921 when the miners rebuffed her attempt to block their 1921 March on Logan. She then went to Washington, sick in mind and body. She recovered enough to write her autobiography and in 1924 to call on Governor Ephraim Franklin Morgan, seeking pardons for miners imprisoned after the Logan March. Despite failing health, she tried to stop John L. Lewis’s takeover of the UMWA.
Among her other causes, Jones vigorously opposed child labor. She spoke in West Virginia and elsewhere against the employment of young boys in and around the coal mines, and in 1903 she led a protest march of mine and mill children to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home at Oyster Bay, New York.
On May 1, 1930, Mother Jones celebrated her birthday in Maryland. One hundred years old, by her count, she made her debut before newsreel cameras, condemning the Prohibition Act ‘‘as a curse upon the nation’’ that violated her right to have a beer instead of water.
Mother Jones died November 30, 1930, and is buried in Mount Olive, Illinois.
This Article was written by Lois C. McLean
Last Revised on November 20, 2010
Fetherling, Dale. Mother Jones: The Miners' Angel. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Hill & Wang, 2001.
Jones, Mary. The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1925.
Cite This Article
McLean, Lois C. "Mother Jones." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 November 2010. Web. 26 March 2015.