Mother Jones, ‘the most dangerous woman in America’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), News, Volume 21

Mother JonesMary Harris was born in Cork in 1837 and baptised in the North Cathedral on 1 August 1837. (The baptismal font remains in use at the famous ‘North Chapel’ today.) Her parents were Ellen Cotter from Inchigeelagh and Richard Harris from Cork city. The Harris family, eventually consisting of five children, endured the Famine, which ravaged the city, but departed for Canada and by the mid-1850s lived at 210 Bathurst Street in Toronto. By 1860 Mary had become a seamstress and a teacher and obtained a teaching post at Monroe, Michigan.

She later moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she married George Jones, who was very active in the International Iron Moulders’ Union. Having survived the American Civil War, the family settled in Winchester Street and Mary had four children in quick succession from 1862. Tragedy struck the family in the winter of 1867, when George and the four young children died in the yellow fever epidemic that spread through the Bayou Gayoso neighbourhood of Memphis. In a moving passage from her autobiography, first published in 1925, which resonates with the Great Hunger in Cork in 1846–7, she recounts her distress:

‘All about my house I could hear the weeping and the cries of delirium. One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief.’

She then opened a dressmaking business in Chicago, but her home at 174 Jackson Street and her business burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So at the early age of just 34 Mary had lost her family and her business.

After travelling for a few years, Mary Harris became active in the Knights of Labour in Chicago, which was a hotbed of labour agitation. She was in the vicinity of the Haymarket incident in 1886 after which four men, including Albert Parsons and August Spiers, were hanged. She assisted with the march of the unemployed, known as Coxey’s Army, on Washington in 1894. Soon afterwards she became a full-time organiser with the United Mine Workers’ Union of America.

On 1 August 2012 over 500 people gathered at John Redmond Street in the heart of Shandon, Cork, to witness the unveiling of a plaque to a long-forgotten Cork woman. Gerard O’Mahony tells the story of Mary Harris, better known as the Irish/American labour activist Mother Jones.

On 1 August 2012 over 500 people gathered at John Redmond Street in the heart of Shandon, Cork, to witness the unveiling of a plaque to a long-forgotten Cork woman. Gerard O’Mahony tells the story of Mary Harris, better known as the Irish/American labour activist Mother Jones.

Mary Harris adopted the persona, the attire and the fiery personality that became known as ‘Mother Jones’. She led the ‘march of the mill children’ in 1903, demanding proper education for the thousands of young children who worked long hours in the mines, mills and factories. She attended the founding of the International Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’) in Chicago in 1905, and later became an organiser for the Socialist Party of America.


She quickly established herself as a tough union organiser and operated effectively in the man’s world of union/mining politics. She participated actively in the mining wars that regularly erupted in the coalfields of Colorado, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee in the early decades of the twentieth century. The names of Paint Creek, Cabin Creek, Latimer, Cripple Creek, Ludlow, Logan County, Bloody Mingo County and Blair Mountain are indelibly printed on the violent canvas of American labour and union history at that time.


She was by then in her seventies and became known as the ‘most dangerous woman in America’. She was utterly fearless in her Victorian-style dresses, complete with bonnet and handbag. She was regularly jailed, deported from states, shot at, threatened, court-martialled and arraigned before courts but her spirit was never broken.


Mother Jones eventually passed away on 30 November 1930 and was buried in Mount Olive Union cemetery, Illinois. Many thousands attended her burial and over 50,000 attended the unveiling of her monument in 1936. She was revered among miners and their families.


Several prominent American academics, such as Prof. Elliott J. Gorn, author of Mother Jones, the most dangerous woman in America, attended last year’s inaugural Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in Cork. Other contributors included historian, writer and filmmaker Rosemary Feurer, former miner and author Marat Moore and actress Kaiulani Lee. The forthcoming 2013 event, with speakers from Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, will be held at Shandon from Tuesday 30 July to Thursday 1 August. The event is sponsored by the SIPTU/ICTU 1913 Committee, the Gathering and the Shandon community. For details visit www.corkmotherjones.com. HI

Gerard O’Mahony is coordinator of the Cork Mother Jones Committee.

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