Mary Harris Jones (1837 - 1930)

Mary Harris was born on May 1, 1837 in Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork, Ireland to tenant farmer Richard Harris and his wife Ellen Cotter. It is believed that Mary had three siblings although there is scant evidence to support the existence of any siblings. Many accounts have her born in 1830, however, 1837 as the year of her birth is supported by documented evidence including that of her baptism in 1837 and her graduation from in high school in 1854.

The Harris family had a long history of resistance to the British occupation of Ireland. Mary's paternal grandfather was hanged by the British for his opposition to their oppressive rule. It is likely that during the Tithe War of 1830 to 1836, when Irish tenant farmers were taxed to support the Anglican church in Ireland that he became a victim of British retribution for physically opposing such an unjust and oppressive levy.

 When Mary was five years old her father emigrated to the United States to avoid the same fate meted out to his father.  After he found employment, housing and sufficient funds he send for his family. His job as a construction worker took him to Toronto where Mary spent her childhood years.

Mary attended public schools in Toronto. She was studious and ambitious and graduated from high school in 1854 with high honor. The next year, she began working as a private tutor in Maine. From there she moved to Michigan where she received a teaching certificate. After becoming a certified teacher she taught at St. Mary's Convent school in Monroe, Michigan. Her next move was to Chicago where she took up dressmaking. 

Her dressmaking career in Chicago did not last too long for in 1861 she moved to Memphis to resume her teaching career. It was there  that she met and married George E. Jones, an ironmolder who was a member of the Iron Molders' Union. The next four years were probably the happiest in Mary's long life. She and George had four children. As work was plentiful in Tennessee they were reasonably well off not wanting for the basic needs to raise a family. However, in 1867 a sudden yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, taking the lives of Mary's husband and her four children. At 37, the happiest years of Marys' came to an end leaving her devastated and completely on her own.

Unable to stay in Memphis after the loss of her family  Mary returned to Chicago where she established a dressmaking business. Bad luck continued to haunt her her for in 1871 the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed her home and business leaving her homeless and penniless. Alone and desperate she turned to her deceased husband's fellow union members for help. The kindness extended to her by the union workers was in start contrast to the indifference shown by her wealthy employers for the wretched homeless and poor souls who aimlessly wandered the streets in search of employment or food to feed their families.

In her biography she expressed her revulsion to such wanton indifference when recalling earlier experiences.   Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me.”  My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care".

The compassion of the exploited in contrast to the callousness and indifference of the exploiters galvanized Marys' resolve to dedicate the rest of her life to the pursuit of a better life and working conditions for the ordinary working man, woman and child.

For the next number of years Mary made Chicago her base as she traveled from industrial area to industrial area working as a union activist with the Knights of Labor whose purpose was "to unite all workers under a single organization". She had a real talent for inspiring others with her speeches.  During critical periods in labor strikes she would convince workers to stay the course when the management brought in strike-breakers and militias.

In 1873, during a coal miners strike in Pennsylvania she came face to face with Irish coal miners many of whom were veterans of the Civil War. The conditions she witnessed bordered on slavery with women and children near starvation. It was her efforts on their behalf coupled with her concern for their welfare that earned her the nickname "Mother Jones."

Mary continued to travel the country in support of striking workers. In 1877 she was involved in the nationwide walkout for better conditions by railroad workers. In 1880 she was in Chicago on behalf of workers trying to obtain an eight-hour day. She also took part in the strike at the McCormick-Harvester works, where a bomb killed several policemen. The police retaliated by firing randomly into a crowd of union workers, killing 11 and wounding dozens of others.

Apart from her involvement as an organizer and educator in striker tactics she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf. She became known as "the most dangerous woman in America," a phrase coined by a West Virginia district attorney, Reese Blizzard, in 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. According to Clarence Darrow, she was "one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor movement".

One of her best-known activities was leading a march of miners' wives "who routed strikebreakers with brooms and mops in the Pennsylvania coalfields in 1902.". Another was leading the "children's crusade," a caravan of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in Long Island, New York, in 1903, to dramatize the case for abolishing child labor.

In her later years she was arrested during a violent strike in West Virginia and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Public outcry was so loud that she was pardoned by the governor and released. In 1913 she participated in the yearlong strike by miners in Colorado. She was arrested and imprisoned  twice for a total of three months for trespassing on the mine owners property.  After the "machine-gun massacre" of miners and their families in a tent colony at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914, when 20 people were killed, she traveled the country informing the public as to what happened. As a result of her efforts the  government of Woodrow Wilson was forced to intervene forcing the union and the owners to agree to a truce and create a grievance committee at each mine.

Mary went on to participate in 1915 and 1916 in the strikes of garment workers and streetcar workers in New York, and in the strike of steel workers in Pittsburgh in 1919. In January 1921 she traveled to Mexico as a guest of the Mexican government to attend the Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting. According to one writer, "It was the high point of recognition in her role in the labor movement."

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones died in Silver Spring on November 30, 1930. She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois, in the coalfields of southern Illinois. Her grave is near those of the victims of the Virden, Illinois, mine riot of 1898.

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

cemetery AND grave location

Name:    Union Miners Cemetery                  PHONE NO.  (217) 999-4261

ADDRESS:   North Lake Street, Mount Olive, IL 62069 



Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                         Posted  03/01/2011