To most twenty-first century readers, the name “Mother Jones” refers to a magazine, if it means anything at all. In the early part of the twentieth century, however, the name Mother Jones was well-known and beloved by the laboring class, and well-known and reviled by many corporate capitalists and government officials. Elliott J. Gorn’s book brings alive the life and times of the elderly woman who transcended societal expectations for her gender and class and became an early and influential labor radical.
Mother Jones began life as Mary Harris, second child in a poor family in County Cork, Ireland. As the potato famine that began in Ireland in 1845 spread and worsened, her family joined tens of thousands of others who journeyed on the “death ships” to the United States and Canada. Although they became United States citizens, the Harris family lived mostly in Toronto, which was known as the Belfast of North America for the hostility the majority Protestants showed toward the poor Irish Catholic immigrants. Mary went to normal school (teachers’ college), where she was one of only a few Irish students. In her early twenties, she moved to the United States and taught briefly in Michigan, moved to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker, then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to teach again. There, she married George Jones, a member of the International Iron Molders Union, in 1861. They had four children in five years, but George and the children died in the yellow fever epidemic that decimated Memphis in 1867.
Few details of Mary Harris Jones’s life in the next decades are known. It appears that she spent several years in California and perhaps even traveled to Europe. For reasons lost to history, Mary Harris became radicalized and reinvented herself in the persona of Mother Jones around the turn of the century. There had been another public figure known by that name in the 1880’s—the editor of the Ladies Department of the Railroad Brakemen’s Journal. By the end of the decade, that Mother Jones had disappeared from the public eye.
The new Mother Jones did not confine herself to writing poetry and articles for wives of railroad men. She spent the last decades of her life recruiting union members, especially in the coal mines, advocating for socialist and other radical causes, electrifying crowds with her speeches, organizing marches and demonstrations, and challenging corporate capitalists and government leaders on issues of social injustice.
Although her autobiography claims that Mother Jones first “appeared” in 1877, and at times she claimed to have been an activist even earlier, there is no outside confirmation of that persona prior to the 1890’s. The first newspaper mention of Mary Jones’s involvement in a labor action was with Coxey’s Army in 1894; the first newspaper reference to her as Mother Jones came in a Chicago Evening Journal article on the American Railway Union convention in June 1897.
Coxey’s Army was a group of unemployed men who were marching from the Midwest to Washington, D.C., to petition the government to create jobs for the unemployed. Although the marchers were utterly unsuccessful, Mary Jones provided an effective and inspiring support system, giving speeches, raising money and collecting food, bolstering morale, and—perhaps most important—bringing the men and their cause to the attention of the public. Mary Jones had found her calling and spent most of the rest of her life on the road.
Mary Jones’s new persona involved not just a new name but a unique identity. To make herself seem even more grandmotherly, Mary Harris made her Mother Jones persona several years older than she really was; to reinforce her solidarity with the labor movement, she claimed her birthday was May 1, which had been the international worker’s holiday since 1886. While she always wore old-fashioned, long, black dresses and had her white hair in a grandmotherly bun, her speeches were laced with profanities (although mild by today’s standards) and she was more than happy to join the men in a beer or whiskey, enlivening gatherings with off-color jokes and diatribes against the industrial robber barons. Her appearance often enabled her to enter areas where she had been banned; as she said in her autobiography, she could slip past soldiers because she looked like “just an old woman going to a missionary meeting to knit mittens for the heathens of Africa.” Strong and unfazed by physical challenges, she hiked through the hills to coal miners’ camps to organize the men, slept wherever a family could put her up, and was arrested more than once....
(The entire section is 1891 words.)