Mary Harris Jones, Labor's Advocate
Today, it not unusual to hear talk about labor unions. However, in the 1800s this practice was unheard of. But a woman named Mary Harris Jones helped change that. She dared to speak out during a time when capitalist exploitation gripped the working class.
The year Mary was born, 1830, Ireland was experiencing a revolution. She witnessed many terrifying events when poor Irish laborers were fighting for freedom. Her grandfather was killed, and her father barely escaped with his life. Her father fled to the United States and shortly afterward, Mary and her family followed. Within a short time, Mary's family moved to Canada. After many years, Mary returned to the states, eventually settling in Michigan, and then moving to Chicago, Illinois. Having trouble earning a living, she later moved to Memphis where she married and had four children. But in 1857 a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, taking the lives of her husband and four children. At the age of 37, Mary moved back to Chicago and opened a dressmaking shop.
However, by 1871 Mary had lost all her possessions in the Chicago Fire. Not knowing where to go or what to do, Mary attended a Knights of Labor meeting, and was so impressed she decided to dedicate her life to the labor cause. Mary, nicknamed Mother Jones, began working for the Knights of Labor full time, delivering speeches whenever labor problems arose.
Known for her creative plans, she once rallied a women's army during a strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania. Since the men had given up any
hope of winning their strike, Mary called upon the women to be at the mine at dawn and to bring anything they could find to use as a weapon. They gathered at the Drip Mouth Mine with Mother Jones leading the procession. Nearing the entrance, the outnumbered guards looked at the army in amazement and fled. Further on, they recognized a group of non-union men, and with "whoops of defiance," the women attacked. Hit on all sides, the scabs, or non-union men, ran away, terrified. The women's troops had won the battle.
In April 1903 Mary led several hundred children down Independence Square in Philadelphia, hoping to bring attention to child labor. The marching children, called "little gray ghosts," were mill children who had worked since the age of six. Many hobbled on crutches, had missing fingers, or were mutilated in some other way. The dangerous working conditions and air pollution made these children look old before their time.This demonstration caused a sensation in Philadelphia, where Mary had stopped to speak to the crowds, ending her speech with this short, moving message, "Stop sacrificing children upon the altar of profit!"
Burdened by the results of sickness and old age, Mary wrote her autobiography and retired to Silver Springs, Maryland, where she died November 30, 1930. Carried to Mt. Olive, Illinois, on a special train, she was laid to rest in Mt. Olive Miner's Cemetery. More than twenty thousand mourners came to pay homage to Mother Jones.—[From Linda Atkinson, Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America; Dale Fetherling, Mother Jones, the Miners' Angel, Christy Hooten, "Mary Harris Jones," Illinois History (March 1992); Mary Harris Jones, The Autobiography of Mother Jones; Jamie Oliver, "Mary Harris Jones, 1830-1930," Illinois History (May 1992); Irving Werstein, Labor's Defiant Lady.}