Mother Jones How Mary Harris Jones Became the Miner's
Angel and Grandmother of
By: John Shepler
On a warm sunny day in mid-September, I find myself drawn
off the rush of Interstate 55, down a stretch of two lane highway
that was once the Mother Road, Route 66. Then onto a gravel path
that leads to a small cemetery. In the fields of central Illinois,
this could be the sacred ground of a thousand settlements that
took root in the mid-1800's. But there is someone special here,
a woman whose likeness is guarded on each side by sturdy coal
miners, their sledge hammers at the ready. They are two of the
thousands of "her boys." Some are buried here in Mount
Olive Union Miners' Cemetery with the one they called their "mother,"
their protector, Mary Harris Jones. She was known by another
name in the U. S. Senate, "the grandmother of all agitators."
her 73rd year, Mary Jones began a march from Philadelphia to
New York City. She was at the head of her army, several hundred
textile workers, half of whom were under 16 years of age. They
were on the march to see President Theodore Roosevelt, to plead
for his support in ending the abominable work life of tens of
thousands of Philadelphia's children. They marched in their tattered
rags, many with fingers missing from a moment's carelessness
at the loom. Sixty hours a week, week in and week out with no
future. The grandmother of all agitators was on the move to fix
that, for them and the almost 2,000,000 other children working
in mills, mines and factories throughout the country.
She looked like such a sweet old lady, about five feet tall,
with silver white hair and simple dress. But behind her plain
wire spectacles were eyes that knew pain. Her husband was dead,
her four children all dead of yellow fever. These sad urchins
were her children and grandchildren now, and she meant to do
whatever it took to get decent child labor laws. If that meant
marching across New Jersey and calling out Teddy Roosevelt, well
then, that's what it would be. To those who doubted her fire,
she exclaimed "I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser."
She raised as much hell as she could muster in getting the
public behind her and her children. When New York Senator Thomas
Platt heard she was on the way to see him, he ducked out the
back door of his hotel and jumped a trolley. Roosevelt engaged
the Secret Service to scour the roads and rail lines to keep
the mob away from him. But Mother Jones pulled a fast one. She
dressed up three of the mill boys in Sunday attire and slipped
on a train like any sightseeing family. They made it to the Roosevelt
mansion, but were turned away with the shrug that there was nothing
the President could do. But the hundred mile march and the hell-raising
speeches of Mother Jones had already done the job. Public outcry
from the flurry of ongoing newspaper reports caused state after
state to pass child protection laws or enforce the ones they
When she was 83 and could have been rocking away on the front
porch, Mother Jones was thrown in jail. She was at it again,
but this time for the miners, her other children, who she rallied
to stand up for their rights. "Tell it, mamma. I can't",
called back the immigrant laborers and displaced farmers struggling
to eke out a subsistence living. So she did. From Colorado to
the Virginias she roused the miners, then rounded up their wives
and children to confront the authorities and strike-breaking
workers with pots and pans. Often even the gunmen ran off more
scared than the mules.
The charges against her were conspiracy to commit murder.
When the coal miner's contract expired with the operators along
Paint and Cabin Creeks in West Virginia, the negotiations degenerated
into a shooting war between miners and mine guards. The militia
was called out three times. Mother Jones, who'd been avoiding
coal company property by walking up creeks to give her speeches,
was summoned, convicted with the rest, and given a twenty year
sentence by a military judge.
Not deterred in the least, Mother Jones discovered a hole
under the rug of the shack where she was confined, and she used
it to pass letters to newspapers and congressmen about the plight
of the miners and injustice of the military courts. A sympathetic
soldier would crawl under the hut to retrieve the messages whenever
she banged two beer bottles as a signal.
Within the month, though, she contracted pneumonia, which
ironically proved to be her salvation. She was attended by Dr.
Henry D. Hatfield, a practicing physician who also just happened
to be the newly elected Governor of West Virginia. He quickly
moved her to a private home under doctor's care until the military
court's judgment was rescinded.
Some denounced her as "the most dangerous woman in America.",
but to her "boys" she would always be the "Miner's
Angel." She stayed with their cause until seven months after
her 100th birthday. Then she was laid to rest in the place she
earlier requested, next to miners who had died in the Virden,
Illinois mine riot of 1898. "I hope it will be my consolation
when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave
The monument in Mount Olive's Union Miners' Cemetery, 80 tons
of Minnesota granite, was erected in 1936. It was dedicated before
a crowd of 50,000, including 32,000 in the line of march. All
were there to honor Mary "Mother" Jones, a woman who
had listened to President Lincoln as he spoke, and then went
on to wage her own campaign for the rights of those whom she
saw as oppressed. Her headstone reads simply, "She gave
her life to the world of labor, her blessed soul to heaven. God's
finger touches her, and now she sleeps."
Books of Interest:
The Autobiography of Mother Jones by Mary Harris Jones
Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America by
We Have Marched Together: The Working Children's Crusade
by Stephen Currie. Examines the problem of child labor during
the early twentieth century, focusing on a protest march from
Philadelphia to New York City in 1903 by a group of child textile
workers led by Mother Jones. An excellent book for children.
- "A legacy of raising hell, a commitment to journalism."
That's Mother Jones Magazine.
Route 66 - A collection of resources, including museums,
websites, songs and associations, related to the historic Route
66. Presented by The Trucker's Report. (Thanks to Cate Emerson
for this resource)