Mother Jones Prison and portrait of Mother Mary Harris Jones.
National Historic Landmarks photograph.
From 1912-1913, some of the most violent
labor battles in American history took place in the Kanawha-New
River coalfield of West Virginia. The most forceful strike leader
was eighty-four year old Mother Jones, a veteran labor leader
who had worked on behalf of all kinds of industrial workers in
the United States. She was especially known for her work on behalf
of coal miners; in West Virginia, she worked during five major
strikes, the most significant of these being the Paint Creek-Cabin
Creek strikes. Her three month imprisonment during these strikes
focused national attention on the working conditions of coal miners
and helped elicit public support for their cause.
The Kanawha Valley miners had been organized
during a 1902 strike with the assistance of Mother Jones, but
in the intervening years the union had been driven out of Cabin
Creek. On April 1, 1912, the contract for the union Kanawha
miners expired, and they tried to negotiate a new contract to
improve their working conditions. Their demands were rejected
and union miners throughout the Kanawha district went on strike
on April 18th; eventually all the demands were met, except those
of the Paint Creek miners who wanted wages equal to those paid
in other area mines. Rejecting this, the Paint Creek operators
instead began hiring guards from the Baldwin-Felts Detective
Agency to intimidate, harass, and even physically assault miners
and their families. As large contingents of these hired gunmen
began to arrive in May, and violence between miners and guards
became a daily occurrence.
The guards evicted miners from their
rented houses and began to fortify coal company property,
in preparation for the arrival of replacement or "scab"
miners. Living in tent camps, hunger and sickness became endemic
among the miners and their families. Mother Jones arrived
in June and began to rouse the miners to act against the guards
and the operators. Late in July, the union turned towards
the non-union miners on Cabin Creek, attempting to persuade
them to join the strike. Mother Jones made her way through
armed guards to speak to the Cabin Creek miners at the town
of Eskdale, and they went on strike shortly thereafter. They
demanded that the mine operators recognize basic rights such
as the right to organize and the right to free speech and
assembly, as well as an end to the blacklisting of discharged
miners, safeguards against cheating of the miners by the companies,
and the removal of the mine guards.
As pitched gun battles between miners
and guards broke out, Mother Jones' verbal attacks on
the operators and the guards became ever more virulent and militant
and she soon brought strikers to the state capitol. As Jones
recounted in her autobiography, she "got three thousand
armed miners to march over the hills secretly to Charleston,
where we read a declaration of war to Governor Glasscock who,
scared as a rabbit, met us on the steps of the state house.
We gave him just twenty-four hours to get rid of the gunmen,
promising him that hell would break loose if he didn't. He did.
He sent the state militia in, who at least were responsible
to society and not to the operators alone." Governor Glasscock
did not send in the militia until two weeks later, however,
when violence on a massive scale was imminent.
On September 1st, union miners from the
north side of the Kanawha crossed over to join the Paint Creek
and Cabin Creek strikers. Estimated to be as many as 6,000 strong,
they were rumored to be planning a violent sweep down Cabin
Creek to rout the mine guards and drive out any scab miners.
Governor Glasscock declared martial law on September 2nd and
sent in the state militia. The militia began to disarm both
sides, confiscating large numbers of guns and stores of ammunition.
The intervention of the state militia at first appeared to benefit
the miners, but martial law prevented miners from congregating
and the military court that was convened handed out speedy and
often egregious sentences for striking miners. By October 15th,
some calm had been restored and martial law was lifted; many
militia members stayed in the area and became hired mine guards.
As the mine operators brought more trainloads of scab workers
into the area, however, the striking miners responded by attacking
the trains. On November 15th, martial law was declared for a
second time and a second military court was convened. This court
not only presided over offenses committed within the strike
district during martial law, but also offenses committed when
martial law had been lifted, thus usurping the jurisdiction
of civilian courts and denying the miners' right to civilian
trials. Protections of both the West Virginia Constitution and
the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were ignored by
the military court and this position was upheld by the Supreme
Court of West Virginia.
On January 10th, martial law was again
lifted, but the imposed calm did not last very long. On the
morning of February 7th, Mucklow was again attacked by miners,
and a bookkeeper was killed. In response, with an arrest warrant
for "John Doe", the county sheriff and his deputies,
as well as a mine operator and guards boarded the "Bull
Moose Special" on the night of the 7th. This armored train
fitted with machine guns was ostensibly for defending against
the miners, but it was used on this night to attack the miners'
tent colony at Holly Grove. Under the direction of the mine
operator, guards fired into the miners' tents; Cesco Estep was
killed while getting his wife and child to safety. Miners attacked
Mucklow two days later and on February 10th, martial law was
again declared. Many mine guards resumed their former roles
as militia members.
On February 12, 1913, Mother Jones was
arrested in Charleston and sent back to Pratt. She recounted
in her autobiography:
"The court had sent two lawyers
to my bullpen to defend me, but I refused to let them defend
me in that military court. I refused to recognize the jurisdiction
of the court, to recognize the suspension of the civil courts.
My arrest and trial were unconstitutional. I told the judge
advocate that this was my position. I refused to enter a plea."
The offenses for which
she was tried, according to her own account, included "stealing
a cannon from the military, inciting to riot, putting dinimite
[sic] under a track to blow up a C-O road." State Attorney
General Lee recalled a conversation with Jones, in which she stated
that her speech at Cabin Creek, made three months prior to the
first martial law declaration, was the basis of her conviction.
She was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary.
Dr. Henry Hatfield was sworn in as the
new governor of West Virginia on March 4, 1913 and he immediately
traveled to the strike area. He encountered Mother Jones on
his second day in the area, very sick with pneumonia and imprisoned
in the military camp at Pratt. Jones was removed to Charleston
for medical care, but when recovered she was returned to Pratt
and imprisoned in Mrs. Carney's Boarding House. Governor Hatfield
proceeded to issue terms for the settlement of the strike, which
included many favorable provisions for the miners but that did
not meet all of their demands. Threatened with deportation from
the state, however, the Paint Creek miners accepted the settlement.
The Cabin Creek miners remained on strike until the end of July,
but did gain the removal of the Baldwin-Felts detectives.
Historic Landmarks photograph.
Mother Jones, however,
was still being held at the boarding house in Pratt. In May, she
smuggled a message to Senator John Kern of Indiana, using a trapdoor
in the floor of her room to pass it to a friendly soldier. Senator
Kern read the telegram while introducing a resolution authorizing
the Senate Committee on Education and Labor to investigate conditions
in West Virginia. Jones' telegram read:
"From out of the military prison
wall of Pratt, West Virginia, where I have walked over my
eighty-fourth milestone in history, I send you the groans
and tears and heartaches of men, women, and children as I
have heard them in this state. From out of these prison walls,
I plead with you for the honor of the nation, to push that
investigation, and the children yet unborn will rise and bless
As debate on the Kern resolution grew,
Governor Hatfield had Jones released after eighty-five days,
pardoning her and all the others convicted by the military courts.
On May 27th, the Kern resolution passed in the Senate; it called
for an investigation which would "seek to determine if
a system of peonage existed in the strike zone, if immigration
or postal laws were being violated, if strikers were being prosecuted
contrary to federal law, and if certain other conditions existed."
Jones' imprisonment had gained national attention and led to
an inquiry into the working conditions of coal miners.
The Mother Jones Prison, the boarding
house where Jones was held, was designated as a National Historic
Landmark on April 27, 1992. The building was demolished by the
owners between April 1 and May 10, 1996. The Landmark designation
of the Mother Jones Prison was withdrawn on September 22, 1997
and it was removed from the National Register of Historic Places.