On March 22, 1914, Mary “Mother” Jones was arrested on a train in southern Colorado for her work in fighting for the coal miners on strike that area. This was her second arrest in this conflict, as she had previously been detained by the state militia in Trinidad and then sent to Denver. Upon release in Denver, she immediately went back to the coal fields, daring the mine owners and their bought police forces to arrest her again. Her work here was typical of the sacrifices this iconic organizer made in the second half of her life as she fought for the miners so badly exploited in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.
Mother Jones is one of the most fascinating characters in American history. An Irish housewife who had little connection to political activism for much of her adult life, she emerged in middle age as a fiery agitator after her husband and all four of children died of yellow fever in Memphis and her dress shop burned in the Chicago fire of 1871. She quickly became the voice of the mineworkers, especially in the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She bridged generations of activism, being extremely close friends with Terence Powderly while also hailing the rise of the United Mine Workers and radical activists that Powderly could barely understand at his peak in the 1880s. She said she was much older than she actually was, which had both rhetorical powers and helped cement her in our historical memory, as she claimed to be 100 years old the year she died when she was probably 93.
By 1897, she was known as Mother Jones, wearing out of style Victorian black dresses and using the mantle of motherhood as central to her organizing prowess. Calling her “mother” both established her as a maternalistic figure among the miners but also centered her emphasis on childhood and motherhood in organizing. For instance, she opposed women’s suffrage and ultimately believed that women should be taking care of their children rather than getting involved in politics. Her own life story made this stance not hypocritical. She also used children in her organizing, including the 1903 Children’s Crusade, a march of miners’ children from Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York where the children carried signs reading, “We want to go to School and not the mines.” Roosevelt refused to meet with them. She worked for the UMWA but attended the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of World in 1905 and worked as an organizer for the Socialist Party in the late 1900s, returning to the UMWA as a paid organizer in 1911.
Though all of these actions, Mother Jones became known as “the most dangerous woman in America,” a title given to her by a district attorney in West Virginia by the name of Reese Blizzard. During a 1902 trial where she was charged with ignoring injunctions against miners’ union meetings (1st Amendment in the coal fields indeed!), Blizzard pointed at her, saying “There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.” That wasn’t true and served the interests of the owners to say that their employees were actually good people but stupid and easily led astray by outside agitators, instead of admitting their employees had a bloody good reason to go on strike. Anyway, the nickname stuck and this attitude from employers was something Jones reveled in.
In the fall of 1913, a 76 year old Mother Jones traveled to Colorado to participate in mine workers’ organizing in the coal fields in the southern part of that state. Conditions in the coal fields were all too typical of the time: complete industry control over a workforce that was polyglot and desperate. Working conditions were horribly dangerous. Between 1884 and 1912, 1708 workers died in Colorado coal mines (out of a total of over 42,000 nationwide). Companies controlled not only the mines but housing, stores, and education. Union organizing was met with brutality and murder. Effectively, the coal companies controlled workers’ lives in Colorado as they did in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. These were Mother Jones’ people.
Jones’ presence was not welcomed by the mine companies. She was thrown off company property several times. She was arrested twice. After the first arrest, she was placed in a comfortable hospital for a month. After all, she was an elderly woman and a bit harder to crack the whip on than the miners themselves. But on March 23, 1914, she was arrested again. This time, the companies were less kind. They threw her into the Huerfano County jail in Walsenburg. This was no nice hospital. She was forced to spend 23 days in the jail.
The United Mine Workers tried to capitalize on Jones’ arrest. They issued a pamphlet describing (and perhaps exaggerating a bit) the conditions this old woman had to suffer through as she lived her faith of defending the miners. The pamphlet discussed the filthy conditions, the rats in the cell, the snow pouring in a broken window, a guard jabbing her with a bayonet. On the other hand, the mine owners and their friends accused Mother Jones of having been a prostitute in a Denver brothel in 1904 and said her support for Coxey’s Army had consisted of procuring women for sex. On both sides, Mother Jones elicited strong opinions.
After her second release, Mother Jones went to Washington, DC to testify on the conditions in the coal country. A few days later, the Colorado coal wars would see their most violent incident, with the Ludlow Massacre. Between Ludlow and the aftermath when enraged miners went on a rampage against anyone associated with the coal companies, up to 200 people died in this strike, possibly the most deadly in American history. John D. Rockefeller Jr. agreed to meet with her about the conditions of the miners as part of his public relations effort when we was savagely attacked for his role at Ludlow.
Mary Jones died in 1930. Earlier that year, on the day she turned 100, Mother Jones was filmed with sound about workers’ rights.
The key book on Mother Jones is Elliott Gorn’s The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Read it. The most important history of the Colorado coal wars is Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Read it too.
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