Mary Harris: The Cork girl who grew up to become 'the most dangerous woman in America'

In 2015 The Guardian named Cork's Mary Harris, or “Mother Jones”, among the world's all-time top ten revolutionaries – alongside the likes of Che Guevara, Robespierre, Trotsky and Gandhi. But who was Mother Jones, asks Robert Hume, and what made her such a threat?

Mary Harris: The Cork girl who grew up to become 'the most dangerous woman in America'

In 2015 The Guardian named Cork's Mary Harris, or “Mother Jones”, among the world's all-time top ten revolutionaries – alongside the likes of Che Guevara, Robespierre, Trotsky and Gandhi. But who was Mother Jones, asks Robert Hume, and what made her such a threat?

It’s ‘Mother Jones Day’ today, October 12 — well, if you happen to be living in Illinois, where you may also have savoured last Sunday’s Mother Jones Foundation dinner.

Here in Ireland, Cork City Council declared August 1 as ‘Mother Jones Day’, to commemorate her baptism in 1837 at St Mary’s Cathedral. The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival is held shortly afterwards in Shandon, where a plaque is dedicated to her in John Redmond Street.

Irish roots

“I was born in the city of Cork, Ireland... My people were poor”, wrote Mary in her autobiography.

Her family had migrated from the country parish of Inchigeelagh in search of work.

She grew up in the lanes and twisting alleys close to the noisy Butter Market and a foul-smelling tannery.

Perhaps she learned to read and write at the North Presentation Convent, where nuns offered poor girls free education.

Hunger and emigration

In late summer 1845, the potato blight arrived in Cork; and by winter little food was left. Workers could not feed their families. In 1847, aged 10, her father and older brother fled to Canada.

Somehow her mother kept the rest of the family together.

Mary saw starved corpses being carted away. She lay in constant fear of being sent to the workhouse.

In 1851, following a difficult five-week sea passage from Cobh, the family was reunited in Toronto, where Mr Harris had found work as a railway labourer.

Mary learned how to make dresses, before training as a teacher — one of the few careers open to women. In 1860 she left Toronto to take a teaching post at a convent in Monroe, Michigan. She found the school a depressing place.

Moving to Chicago, she opened a dressmaking business: “I preferred sewing to bossing little children”, she explained.

During another brief spell of teaching in Memphis, Tennessee, she met and married George Jones, an iron moulder and staunch trade unionist.

As schools would not employ mothers, Mary gave up teaching for good, and spent her time taking care of the home and her four children.

Fever and fire

In 1867 yellow fever struck Memphis. “One by one, my four little children sickened and died”, recorded Mary. “I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died”.

After staying to help nurse the sufferers, she left Memphis and returned to Chicago where she opened a dressmaker’s shop with a partner.

She found herself sewing for wealthy men and women who lived in magnificent houses on Lake Shore Drive, while poor wretches, “jobless and hungry”, shivered outside. It didn’t seem right, but “my employers seemed neither to notice nor to care”.

On the night of October 8, 1871, fire swept through Chicago. Thousands of people became homeless. Mary lost her house, all her possessions, and the dressmaking business.

Reinventing herself

Many people might have caved in. But not Mary.

Amid the smouldering ruins of the fire, she attended lectures by the Knights of Labor and became so “engrossed” in the labour movement that she even claimed her birthday was May 1, Labour Day.

Tragedy had freed her. Unencumbered by family commitments, Mary reinvented herself as “Mother Jones”.

By donning long black dresses, whitening her hair, and carrying a handbag, she transformed herself into a wise but harmless-looking old woman — perhaps on her way to a missionary meeting to knit mittens.

Raising hell

While other women were discussing Shakespeare, Mary began talking with streetcar conductors, miners and mill girls, getting them to form unions to agitate for an eight-hour day.

She tramped dusty back roads, spoke from a farmer’s wagon in an open field, and crossed mountain ridges from one rally to the next.

When introduced as a “humanitarian” at one meeting, she replied: “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser”.

Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs hailed her as a “modern Joan of Arc”.

“Thou shalt not steal”

Like a good mother, she knew how to make her union “boys” behave. Although barely five foot tall, she controlled them with her sharp, steel-grey eyes. She told striking miners and railwaymen “that capitalists had broken the commandment: Thou shalt not steal”.

During the depression of the 1870s she campaigned in Kansas for the government to create jobs for the unemployed. In Alabama she encouraged women to form unions in the silk mills.

She spoke with passion and engaged workers by telling stories about herself. United Mine Workers official John Brophy recalled: “She would take a drink with the boys and spoke their idiom… she didn’t become shrill when she got excited, instead her voice dropped in pitch”.

With her famous slogan: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” she whipped up audiences into frenzy: “My father was an Irish refugee”, she told them, “and I think some of his rebellious blood must linger in my veins”.

In later years her speeches regularly got her arrested and imprisoned.

Inspired by Mother Jones, on October 12, 1898 — ‘Mother Jones Day’ — miners in Illinois, went on strike. Seven died in a bloody showdown with guards and strikebreakers. During a strike in Pennsylvania, she led a “broom and mop” march of miners’ wives to shame scabs.

Child slavery

Going undercover as a mill worker, Mary witnessed firsthand six-year-olds working dangerous looms from 5.30am until 7pm — some with missing thumbs, others with mangled hands.

In the mines, trap boys, knee-deep in mud, opened and closed doors for 14 hours a day, “keeping their lone watch in the tombs of the earth”.

Slavery had been abolished in 1865 but child slavery was still very much in evidence.

“I’ll arrange a little publicity”, she announced. In July 1903 she convinced 100 striking textile workers and 200 children to march from Philadelphia to New York City.

Her “army” of crusaders carried banners reading: “We want to go to school”.

The newspapers were sympathetic to the children but some described their leader as “a crank”.

After marching some 160km, on July 29 Mother Jones and several dozen children arrived at President Teddy Roosevelt’s home.

Roosevelt refused to see them. But the mayor of New York let her hold two parades. Tens of thousands came out to see the children and hear Mother Jones denounce the “cannibalistic plutocrats” who used the hands and feet of little children to work their “wheels of gold”.

By this time, West Virginian attorney Reese Blizzard had labelled her: “the most dangerous woman in America”, and his fears were born out in 1905 when she helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World.

A legend dies

Mary Harris Jones died in 1930, six months after celebrating her 100th birthday, though she was, of course, only 93.

Over 40,000 people attended her funeral at Mount Olivet, Chicago.

The priest said that strong men wept when they heard of her death. Many had pictures of her at home.

Meanwhile, “in mahogany furnished offices in distant capitals, wealthy mine owners are breathing a sigh of relief”.


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