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Mother Mary Jones: dangerous labor activist

During Women’s History Month, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, it seems fitting to honor “Mother” Mary Jones, aka “Mother of All Agitators,” born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland in 1837, who became one of the most prominent and formidable members of the U.S. labor movement. She also happens to be my namesake, although there’s no relation. (See

Mother Mary Jones with President Calvin Coolidge, 1924
Courtesy Library of Congress

She and her family moved to the U.S. when she was a child. Her father, who worked with railway construction crews, was moved to Toronto, Canada for awhile. She earned a teaching certificate and was a teacher in a convent in Monroe, Michigan, then moved to Chicago to become a dressmaker. She returned to teaching in Memphis, Tennesee, where she married George Jones, an iron moulder and member of the Iron Moulder’s Union, in 1861. They had four children.

In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic killed her husband and all four of her children. She got a permit to nurse the sufferers until the plague was stamped out, then returned to Chicago and the dressmaking business with a shop on Washington Street near Lake Michigan. In October, 1871, the Chicago fire destroyed her establishment and everything she owned. She camped with other refugees at St. Mary’s Church until she reestablished herself.

She began to attend meetings of the Knights of Labor and soon went on strike for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad employees. By her own account, during the panic of 1873, the mayor of Pittsburg hired lawless men as deputy sheriffs, who pillaged, burned, and looted the city. One night, during a riot, hundreds of boxcars were soaked with oil, set on fire, and sent down the tracks to the roundhouse. Although the striking railroad employees were innocent, they were charged for the crimes. (See The Autobiography of Mother Jones at

The famous Haymarket Square Massacre, an outbreak of violence in Chicago on May 4, 1886, was largely staged by a large group of anarchists. When policemen attempted to break up the meeting, a bomb exploded and police opened fire on the crowd. Dozens were injured and some were killed, including police. The incident was used by organized labor adversaries to discredit the Knights of Labor movement. Jones’s political views were strongly influenced by this event. (See

In 1901, workers employed in the Pennsylvania silk mills went on strike. John Mitchell, UMWA president, brought Jones to PA to encourage unity among the strikers. She made clams that the young girls working in the mills were being “robbed and demoralized.“

In 1903, Jones organized children who were working in mines and mills to participate in the “Childrens’ Crusade,” carrying banners that read, “We want to go to school and not the mines!” in a march from Kensington, PA, to Oyster Bay New York, home of President Theodore Roosevelt. She continued to fight child labor for the rest of her life. (See

Jones is quoted saying,” The employment of children is doing more to fill prisons, insane asylums, almshouses, reformatories, slums, and gin shops than all the efforts of reformers to improve society.” (See

In March, 1913, Jones and 47 other civilians were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder by a military court. These charges stemmed from violence that erupted during the coalminers’ strike in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Mother Jones and 11 others were kept in custody. Eighty-one years of age when she was arrested and convicted, she focused national attention on the miners’ cause. National outrage over her imprisonment led to the first Senate subcommittee ever appointed to investigate a labor dispute. Public sentiment eventually forced a release of Jones and the other prisoners and brought about a strike settlement. She became known as the Miner’s Angel. (See The Court Martial of Mother Jones, by Edward M. Steele, at

Author Elliott Gorn wrote a book about Jones, published in 2001 and titled, The Most Dangerous Woman in America. She began writing her own autobiography, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, around 1922. In 1924, Jones visited President Calvin Coolidge at the White House to discuss child labor and other labor reforms.

Jones died on November 30, 1930, and is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois. Her legacy as a courageous leader and freethinker lives on.

However, despite the valorous efforts of Jones and other labor rights activists, child labor is still prevalent in virtually every state in the U.S. where fruits and vegetable are harvested. Last year, Walmart, Meier, and Kroger joined in boycotting the Adkins Blueberry Company, because children as young as five were found to be employed by the Adkins Blueberry Packing Company in Southhaven, Michigan. See and

Jones’s courageous actions can still serve to inspire citizens throughout the world to stand up against unfair labor practices, in particular those which exploit children. To learn more about global child labor atrocities, watch this eye-opening segment with commentator Katty Kay on BBC World News from Youtube:


  • Marcia 5 years ago

    Very interesting article. Wonder if she was related to any of my Jones'.

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