Friday, April 12, 2013

Mother Jones: "The Most Dangerous Woman in America"

Mother Jones, social warrior for the poor working class of America. 

Mother Harris, more popularly known as Mother Jones (cMay 1, 1830-November 30, 1930) was probably known by many names in her lifetime. She was loved and revered by the working class of America and hated by the corporate rulers who she dedicated a lifetime fighting against. A West Virginia District Attorney, Reese Blizzard, referred to her as "the most dangerous woman in America." On the other hand, Clarence Darrow called her "one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor Movement," and Darrow was right. She had power, she had influence, and she had an inner strength that terrified the men she fought against. Her name, Mother Jones, is still used at the title of a political magazine 83 years after her death, a magazine whose reporters are still mentioned in the daily news for their bold political activism.

Mary Harris Meets the Love of her Life

Mary Harris-Jones was the daughter of Irish Roman Catholic tenant farmers. Her grandfather was hanged as an Irish freedom fighter and her family escaped to America in the 1830s. Perhaps this is why I relate to her so well--my family also moved to America in the 1800s and one of my ancestors was hung in Texas by a lynch mob because he was from the North. There is something about having a background of social injustice in your family that makes you want to fight for those who are less fortunate in this world. 

The Harris family moved to Michigan where Jones was educated and trained as a teacher. She moved to Tennessee in 1862 and married a member of the Iron Workers Union, George Jones. This was one of the most important, character-building moments of her life. She adored her husband, but more than that, he respected her. He treated her as an equal, and taught her that everyone in America should be seen as an equal. In perhaps his most important educational lesson, George Jones taught Mary the importance of unions and the positive aspects of uniting workers.

The Death of her Beloved Family

Five short years after her marriage to George Jones yellow fever ravaged the state of Tennessee. Mary's entire family became sick with the disease. For some reason, Mary was spared, perhaps because she was meant to serve a greater purpose in this world. 

Mary Harris Jones tried desperately to nurse her husband and children back to health. She did all she could, but they were so sick, and the living conditions of the working class were horrendous. As she struggled to save her precious family, she gradually began to notice that the wealthier families in the community were not sick and dying. She realized this was because most of them had the means to leave the area when the epidemic first reached their town. Those who remained had money to pay for health care. This angered Mary Jones, who felt as if she could do more to help the sick and dying around her. She felt as if she should do more, but she also felt helpless without money and medical training or supplies. She was literally surrounded by the sick and dying--her husband, children, friends, neighbors. She fought to save them all. 

In spite of everything she did to keep them alive, eventually Mary Jones lost her husband and all four of her beloved children to the yellow fever. However, Mary Jones found a different way to mourn the loss of her children and loving husband. Instead of wasting her time mourning, she buried her pain and replaced it with a fierce drive to fight for the lives of others. She applied for a permit to nurse the remaining sufferers and as the epidemic raged on she stayed by the sides of the poor and destitute, nursing them, caring for them, holding their hands and holding them in her arms as they died. 

Mary Seeks a Change of Atmosphere to Heal her Pain 

When the epidemic began to wane, Mary Harris Jones was faced with the realization that she had no money, no husband, and no means of support. She decided to move to Chicago and work as a dressmaker. She worked hard at her job and eventually earned enough to pay for her own home, and yet, she continued to feel empathy for the sufferings of the working class. In her autobiography, (which is available free, online, through numerous sources) Jones explains her continued frustration over her observations of the behavior of the wealthy. She spent her time in the homes of the local socialites sewing expensive clothing while she stared out the windows at barely-clothed children of the working class poor who begged on the streets. 

The contrast in lifestyles left Mary Jones feeling disgusted and angry, and thinking often of the teachings of her husband, the late George Jones. I often wonder what might have happened if he had survived and the two of them worked together to fight against the oppression of the working class in America. 

The Great Chicago Fire Sparks a Life Decision

In 1871, tragedy once again struck the life of Mary Jones when the Great Chicago Fire raged through the city destroying everything--and everyone--in its path. Jones lost her home, business, and all of her possessions. She took refuge in St. Mary’s Church, one of the few surviving buildings and a place of refuge for many after the fire. 

The Chicago Fire of 1871. Harpers Weekly.

The Knights of Labor held its meetings in a nearby building that also survived the fire. Jones would sit outside and listen to the discussions of these men as they tried to find solutions to the disaster facing the poor who survived the fire. Mary Jones eventually decided to travel with the Knights of Labor and vowed to dedicate her life to helping the working class poor organize their fight for better pay and safer working conditions.

For many years Mother Jones worked in silence and anonymity alongside other social activists. She traveled around the country, educating herself, watching and learning about social protest and the most effective ways to bring change. In her autobiography she explains, “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.” 

During this time of education in activism, Jones worked on perfecting her public speaking skills. The brother of Mary Jones, Father William Richard Harris, was a Roman Catholic teacher, writer, and pastor in Toronto, Canada where the family lived when Jones was a child. Jones learned from her brother’s fiery orations how to hold the attentions of the masses with inspiring speeches. She kept her voice steady, using logic and persuasion, and once she had the full attention of her audience, her voice grew deep and haunting. Sadly, she rarely communicated with her brother. Jones turned against her religion in her anger over the death of her children. Her brother continued to reach out to her, but her heart was still consumed with pain. 

Participation in First Major Strike Effort

In 1877, Mother Jones participated in her first major railroad strike, one of many to come. The strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and quickly inspired additional strikes in Pennsylvania and Illinois. Eventually, the cry to strike went out to the coal miners, as well, and they responded in force. These initial strikes may not have accomplished much in the way of an actual change in labor relations, but what they did inspire was far more important. Through an effective use of the media, the strikers began to open the eyes and minds of the American public to the plight of the working class poor. 

The strikes also created a name for Mary Jones as the young men and women protesting alongside her began to refer to her as "Mother." 

In addition, the strikes inspired Jones to continue working to establish trade unions. She also joined socialist organizations and in the 1890s started writing for the International Socialist Review, signing her name “Mother Jones.” Soon after, Jones led a series of marches by women showing support for their striking husbands. In 1901 she also began to focus on the plight of women workers and helped organize a strike of miner’s daughters working as silk weavers. She then assisted in forming a union of domestic servants.

The Plight of the Miners Moves Mother Jones Closer to Disaster in the American West 

In 1903, Jones used her grandmotherly personality to persuade the children who worked in mills and mines to march from Pennsylvania to New York in protest of the lack of child labor laws. This must have been a tremendously difficult decision for these children who knew they risked, at the very least, a vengeful dock in pay, and possibly their jobs, but Mother Jones was remarkably persuasive. She knew how to speak to children, women, and men, to convince them that a loss now could men saving their lives in the future. 

Jones then made her most famous activist move when she joined forces with the United Mine Workers of America to organize America’s coal miners. Mother Jones was fearless in her criticism of mining companies, and equally critical of their churches for encouraging miners to sacrifice their own safety in order to show obedience to their employers, which certainly did not help her relations with her brother, but she was right! the miners were forced to worship at the churches provided by the mining companies, and the ministers of these churches did not preach from the Bible, they lectured the miners on obedience to the Company. Mother Jones was outspoken in her criticism, often attacking these same churches for sending their funds overseas instead of helping the working class poor and destitute families in America, but she steadfastly maintained that the work she did in organizing miners and their families was “God’s work.”

Colorado Mining and Unions

A valuable cache of high-grade, bituminous coal runs through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado and this seam of coal caught the attention of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company whose largest steel mill operated in Pueblo, Colorado from 1901 to 1982 and was once part of the Dow Jones Industrials. Coking coal was vital to the steel industry, which in turn supplied rails for the ever-expanding American railroad network. It was part of the Rockefeller Corporation’s vast financial portfolio, but the mining industry was rife with scandal, scandal so severe it nearly destroyed the Rockefeller empire. 

For 30 years preceding the Ludlow strike nearly 43,000 coal miners died in the United States, and the average in Colorado mines was twice that of the rest of the country. Miners did not take these deaths easily. With the backing of the United Mine Workers of America they began to strike and riot. In November of 1903, troops were dispatched to Cripple Creek, Colorado, then later the State Militia was sent to Dunnville, Colorado, to control striking miners. 

List of Grievances

The miners were striking for many reasons and their list was drawn up with the help of activists like Mother Jones who studied activism and labor laws, and understood what was needed to create change. First, miners and their families were forced to live in company houses in company towns that were heavily guarded by armed men. The second reason, as I already discussed, was that they were forced to worship in company churches regardless of their religion and many of the miners in southern Colorado were Greek Orthodox. They did not understand or agree with the company church services. Third, the workers and their families were treated by company doctors and charged company rates. Their fourth reason of protest was the fact that they were forced to shop at company stores were supplies could only be purchased with company-issued money called “scrip.” Company stores grossly inflated the cost of goods. Just as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in his most famous song, the miners owed their souls to the company stores. They were often forced to send their children to work in the mines in order to reduce the family debt. 

The United Mine Workers Make Their First Attempt to Unionize Colorado Mines

The United Mine Workers of America first tried to unionize Colorado coal miners in 1903. They were successful in towns such as Boulder and Louisville, Colorado, but failed in places such as Ludlow and Trinidad. Ten years later, the mining companies reneged on their earlier promises in Boulder and Louisville and the UMWA once again organized strikes. This time they concentrated their efforts and financial backing on persuading the southern miners to get involved. They leased large plots of land and provided tents, cook stoves, and guidance for the establishment of strike towns. They positioned the tent towns close to the mouths of the canyons so strikers and union officials could monitor and harass strikebreakers, or “scabs.” 

The official call to strike was issued to all coal miners and coke oven workers in Southern Colorado on September 17, 1913. “We are sure to win!” the notice read. The strikers refused to give in. The company men refused to give in, as well. There was violence on both sides. Then, on October 28, 1913, Colorado governor Elias M. Ammons decided he’d had enough of the strike. He called out the Colorado National Guard to keep the peace, but this act only seemed to fuel the conflict. 

Mother Jones, date and photographer unknown.

Mother Jones Comes to Town

It was time for the unions to bring in their toughest fighters. They called on Mother Jones to organize continued strikes, which had become her specialty. Few could resist the call to action of Mother Jones. On January 22, 1914, Mother Jones held a rally in Trinidad, Colorado. By this time she was so famous that her presence alone attracted national attention to the strike. 

Unfortunately, it attracted too much attention. She was a powerful woman, so powerful that she frightened the company men. Mother Jones, at 84 years of age, was arrested. Her lawyer arranged for her release, then she was arrested again and sent to an asylum in Walsenburg, Colorado for three months. The company men were trying desperately to keep Mother Jones separated from the workers, who she referred to as "her boys," and to keep them from hearing her powerful, persuasive speeches. She was held in the basement of a Trinidad prison for another two weeks before her lawyer arranged for her release. 

Heurfano County Courthouse and Jail in Walsenburg, CO. Photo by Jeffrey Beall.

When she was released, she had lost a great deal of weight, but she was as strong and determined as ever. In her lifetime, Mother Jones was often imprisoned simply for having the audacity to protest on behalf of the oppressed, and she spent her time in prison with pride.

The Ludlow Massacre and Southern Coalfield War

On March 10, 1914, the body of a replacement worker was found on nearby railroad tracks and tensions grew in both the tent camps and company towns. The tension was unbearable. The men and boys in the camps patrolled the area with guns at all times, as did the militia positioned on the outer perimeters of the camp. 

On April 20, 1914, the day after Greek Orthodox Easter, three guards from the company town arrived at the camp demanding the release of a man they claimed was held against his will. The camp leader, Louis Tikas, agreed to meet with the leader of the militia at a nearby train station to discuss the matter. While they were talking, Tikas noticed two groups of militia men mounting a machine gun on a ridge called Water Tank Hill and raced back to the camp to warn the miners and their families to take cover. The first shots were fired around 10 a.m., and this led to a fourteen hour gun battle with men and boys running for safety and women and children huddled in shelters carved out beneath the tents. 

Train tracks separated the tent camp from the militia and at dusk a passing train provided shelter for miners and their families who left the camp and took cover behind the cars then escaped into the nearby hills. Four women and eleven children were left behind in one of the underground shelters. Louis Tikas and a few other strike leaders also remained in the camp. As the militia entered the town, Tikas was confronted by Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of the militia companies. Witnesses reported seeing men hold Tikas by the arms while Linderfelt broke a rifle over his head. Tikas and two others were then shot to death and their bodies were left beside the train tracks as a warning to the strikers.

Van Cise exhibits to the Commision on Industrial Relations regarding Colorado coal miner's strike

By 7 p.m. the camp was filled with militia men looting the tents and starting fires with oil-soaked torches. After the camp was reduced to ashes the bodies of the women and children were discovered beneath one of the tents. Three company guards and one militiaman were also killed in the day’s gun battle. The victims of the massacre were buried in Trinidad following a large, well-publicized funeral service. The bodies of Louis Tikas and the other two men remained near the tracks for days. Militia leaders refused to allow the strikers to bury the men until railroad officials finally insisted that they be removed from the view of passing trains.

The gun battle did not end at Ludlow. From April 20 to April 30, 1914, more than 1000 miners, militia men and company guards fought a guerilla war along a forty mile front from Walsenburg to Trinidad as miners set fire to company buildings and killed or simply frightened off remaining company employees. President Woodrow Wilson was forced to send federal troops to disarm both sides, ending the battle with a death toll estimated to be as high as 199 men, women and children.

Ludlow Massacre Monument, Ludlow, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The funerals were held in downtown Trinidad. As the long procession of caskets moved through the winding streets of this mountain town journalists from around the country photographed the grieving families, terrified mine workers, angry and outraged citizens, and Mother Jones. Mother Jones was heartbroken. She viewed the Ludlow Massacre as a failure in many respects due to the great loss of lives, in spite of the fact that the incident succeeded in drawing much-needed attention to the poor working conditions in the mines. 

Funeral in downtown Trinidad, Colorado for the victims of the Ludlow Massacre.

Until the day she died...

She continued her work with the miners until her death in 1930, and although it took years for changes to be made, Jones did live long enough to see laws regulating safety for miners and restricting child labor enacted and enforced across the country. At her request, she was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside the men who died during the strikes, the men she referred to as “my boys.”



Misha Gerrick said...

She sounds like she was an amazing woman.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I believe she was. She lost everything, more than once, and decided to turn her pain into personal gain by dedicating her life to helping others. I'm a big fan of Mother Jones! I wish there was more room to tell her entire story--it is amazing, but this post is already so long! Lol! I highly recommend reading her autobiography.

Shane Joseph said...

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Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hi Joe! Thank you for the supportive comments. Yes, it was a strange and difficult situation, but I have a girlfriend who is a computer whiz kid and she was able to connect the comments with the problem. Now I have to start over and re-type five blog posts--it's going to be a long night! Lol! I appreciate the information about Spyhunter. I will have my husband install it as soon as he gets home. With the amount of online writing I do, I think I need the best products on the market. Thanks, once again, for your help and support. It means a lot to me. Darla Sue

doberman said...

She was one in a million, fighting the big companies and wealthy businesses that were exploiting the working people, paying them poverty wages, while they were getting wealthier and wealthier from their sweat and tears. Poverty, lack of medical care, lack of proper housing, no education and the lack of decent food, she brought better conditions and wages to millions, gave them hope and a better life, and for this she was called the most dangerous Woman in America, and this was said by the biggest lying Capitalist wimp in America

Darla Sue Dollman said...

She's my hero! I think she was wonderful! (And thank you for reading!)

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...