"I'm Not a Humanitarian... I'm a Hellraiser"

At first glance she would appear just like your typical grandmother. Thin and frail, you would never guess that the name Mary Harris Jones left powerful mine owners trembling in their boots. As one of America's first socialists and greatest union organizers, Mother Jones, as her followers called her, would become a hero to the thousands of miners in the coalfields of Illinois and West Virginia.

But the journey from Irish-born Mary Harris to the fiesty Mother Jones was neither a short nor easy transition. She was born just 50 years after the American Revolution, daughter of a long line of Irish rebels. She recounted in her speeches seeing British soldiers march through the streets of County Cork with the heads of rebels mounted on their bayonets. Indeed, after her grandfather was hanged for rebellion her family was forced to flee to Toronto, Canada.

Working as both a teacher and a seamstreses, she moved around the eastern US for many years. In 1861 she married George Jones, who as an active member in the early Iron Molder's Union gave Mary Jones her first taste of leftist organization.

In 1867 tragedy struck. Her husband and her four children died in the yellow fever epidemic. She returned to life as a seamstress. Often she sewed for rich clients, and it was here that she was able to see the discrepancies between the rich and the poor firsthand.

"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."

In 1871 a fire destroyed her home and all of her belongings. Mary Harris Jones would never return to a normal life. Shortly after these events, she began to work with a new group called the Knights of Labor. Jones no longer stayed in Chicago, though it still functioned as her base of operations. Instead she traveled across the country from one labor dispute to the other, making her home "Wherever there is a fight." She became close to the workers, a feisty old woman who shared their tents and shantytowns. From now until age 93 she continued to live with the mine workers, defending and educating them.

One tactic Mother Jones, as she was now called, frequently used in fighting mine owners was to involve women and children in the protests. She was imprisoned several times, but each time the public furor over her conviction led to pardons. Still, she frequently spent extended periods in jails or prisons, often under terrible conditions.

Jones continued to protest and educate for the rest of her life and was one of America's first Socialists. The woman who had been born 1830 just as America was taking its first baby steps as a republic gave celebrated her 100th birthday by giving a speech in Silver Spring, Maryland for a small crowd, and a new device, the motion picture camera.


Autobiography available at:

As noted by Sylvar, Mother Jones is also the name of a small left-wing magazine. Mother Jones magazine was first published by the non-profit Foundation for National Progress in 1976. You can find them on the web at http://www.motherjones.com .

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