"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living! "- Mother Jones
Mary Harris was born on May 1, 1830 in a small town near County Cork, Ireland. She was the daughter of a Roman Catholic tenant farmer who got himself into trouble for his political activities and in 1838, made the decision to move the family to Toronto, Canada.
Mary graduated high school and became a school teacher and a dress maker in Michigan before settling down in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1861 she married George Jones, an iron molder and union organizer. . Like her father, Jones held left-wing political views and was an active member of the Iron Molders' Union. The couple had four children.
Then, in 1867 an epidemic of yellow fever swept through Memphis, killing Mary's husband and her four children. She returned to Chicago where she worked as a dressmaker until her shop was destroy in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Destitute and alone, Mary identified strongly with the working people who had no protection against low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. She now began to see the members of the labor movement as her family and committed herself to the labor struggle for humane wages and working conditions.
She reconstructed herself as “Mother Jones", a radical organizer. Specializing in helping miners in their fight for decent wages and and end to child labor, her work involved making speeches, recruiting members, and organizing soup kitchens. Standing only five-feet tall with snow-white hair, all black dress and confrontational style, she was indeed a fierce maternal presence, and from the late 1870s through the early 1920s, she participated in hundreds of strikes across the country. Living by the philosophy, “wherever there is a fight,” she supported workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, textile, and mining industries, and after the formation of the United Mine Workers Union in 1890, she became one of its officials. By now, she was in her sixties.
In 1905 she helped organize the Industrial Workers of the World and traveled across the country helping workers form themselves into unions. In 1912-1913, she played a leading role in the violent mine strike in Paint Creek, West Virginia, and when a company guard was murdered, Jones was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Now aged seventy-eight and suffering from pneumonia, Jones was found guilty sentenced to twenty years in prison. A senatorial investigation discovered she was innocent of the charges and the sentence was overturned.
In 1925 Jones published her autobiography, defiantly writing: "In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders the cause of the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowly his standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautiful things in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong, rough hands."
Soon after celebrating her 100th birthday, Mary Harris Jones died on November 30, 1930. After being celebrated in a mass attended by over 20,000 people, she was buried in the United Mine Union Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.
According to a West Virginia District Attorney named Reese Blizzard, Mother Jones was "the most dangerous woman in America", and according to Clarence Darrow, she was "one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor movement". Sixty-five years after her death, her name is still part of current culture, as the title of a magazine.