How Cork woman Mary Harris was once the most 'dangerous woman' in America

In a new monthly series, NICOLA DEPUIS shines a light on inspirational Cork women. The series continues throughout 2022 and includes women from all walks of life
How Cork woman Mary Harris was once the most 'dangerous woman' in America

Mother Jones made such an impact on the labour movement in America that she was once denounced in the U.S. Senate as ‘the grandmother of all agitators’.

“I’M not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.”

There is no better introduction to Cork’s own Mother Mary Jones than her own above.

During the 50 years she spent campaigning to improve the working conditions of children, miners and textile workers, Mother Jones was frequently imprisoned, and made such an impact on the labour movement in America that she was once denounced in the U.S. Senate as ‘the grandmother of all agitators’.

Born Mary Harris on May 1, 1830, in the northside of Cork, Mary’s father Richard Harris, a Catholic tenant farmer, was forced to emigrate to Toronto, Canada, with his wife Ellen Jones, née Cotter, and their young family in 1835 to escape their impoverished circumstances.

Here, Mary’s father worked as a labourer in railroad construction and made enough money to put his daughter through school. When she graduated at 17, Mary went to work as a schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee where she met her husband George E. Jones, an iron-moulder and organiser of the Iron Moulders’ Union, who taught her a great deal about the workings of unions.

However, tragedy befell Mary and her family in 1867 when a yellow fever epidemic washed through Memphis, killing her husband and their four young children within the space of a week. The devastated Mary laid her family to rest before going out to help in the homes of others who had been affected by the fever.

She then returned to Chicago where she ran a successful dress-making business.

Tragedy struck again in 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed both her home and her business, forcing her to camp beside the lake with all of the other homeless citizens.

It was during this ordeal that Mary decided to devote her life to a greater cause. She joined the newly-formed Knights of Labor, a secret society that was organising textile workers in Chicago. Her rousing speeches soon attracted the attention of labour leaders and she was called to speak in different states across America.

Over the next 50 years, Mary travelled the length and breadth of the country, living alongside the workers in tents and shacks, and showing up ‘wherever there is a fight’. 

The song She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain is said to have been written about Mary’s travels through the Appalachian mountain camps.

In the 1890s, Mary became an organiser for the United Mine Workers Union. By now in her sixties and sporting a head of bushy white hair, she was affectionately known as ‘Mother Jones’ by union leaders.

In 1898, she helped found the Social Democratic Party, and in 1899 she mobilised the miners’ wives to march with brooms and mops to block strike-breakers from entering mines during the United Mine Workers’ strike in Pennsylvania.

This was a time when unionisation was regularly suppressed by the brute force of the police, federal troops and armed militia, but Mary held fast to her maxim: ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’

When she faced trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners, the West Virginia district attorney Reese Blizzard said of her, ‘There sits the most dangerous woman in America.’

Incensed by the recruitment of child labour, Mary went to work in a number of textile mills where she was able to witness for herself the extent of the damage being done to children as young as six, who were routinely losing limbs to machinery. One textile mill she worked in employed 75,000 workers, 10,000 of whom were children under the age of ten. In 1903, Mary led the ‘March of the Mill Children’ from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Long Island, New York, brandishing banners that declared, ‘We want to go to school and not the mines!’

Although the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labour to the forefront of the public agenda and, as a result, a child labour law was passed that raised the minimum age of workers from 12 to 14.

The one right Mary had no interest in agitating for was the right of women to work. ‘I am not a suffragist,’ she once said, ‘nor do I believe in “careers” for women, especially a “career” in a factory and mill where most working women have their “careers”. A great responsibility rests upon women – the training of the children. This is her most beautiful task.’

Mary played a major role in a miners’ strike in Paint Creek, West Virginia, in 1912. During the strike, men employed by the mill-owners released machine-gun fire on strikers and their families. When a company guard was murdered, Mary was arrested and, at the age of 78, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. This decision was subsequently overturned when a senatorial investigation found proof of her innocence.

Five years later, Mary was again sentenced to 20 years in prison for leading a protest against the conditions in place at the West Virginia coalfields.

In 1914, a dispute about membership of the United Mine Workers Union erupted in Ludlow, Colorado, and soldiers opened fire on a tent colony, killing miners and their wives and children. Horrified, Mary persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to insist that the owners and workers negotiate a truce.

Mary’s meeting with Colorado mine-owner John D. Rockefeller Jr prompted Rockefeller to visit his mines and to introduce much-needed reforms.

In 1924, she had her last labour dispute, which was fittingly a dressmakers’ strike in Chicago, where she had run her own dress-making business many years earlier.

Shortly after celebrating her 100th birthday, Mary Harris Jones died on November 30, 1930. She continues to be a source of inspiration and strength to many across the world today.

NEXT MONTH

Nicola will write about Nora Herlihy - Pioneer of the Credit Union movement in Ireland, in WoW! on Wednesday, February 23.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Depuis, a regular contributor to The Echo, is the author of In Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland , in which she sets out to highlight the ignored or forgotten achievements of Irish women.

The book is published by Lemon Whippet Books and is available to purchase on Amazon in both e-book (€11.84) and print format €17.78.

A Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland calendar (€16) is also available at lulu.com

The incident brought the issue of child labour to the forefront of the public agenda and, as a result, a child labour law was passed that raised the minimum age of workers from 12 to 14.

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