Mary “Mother” Jones had a long and storied career as a fearless union organizer among miners. She immigrated to North America as a child after her family fled the devastation of the Irish Potato Famine in 1847. Her early life was marked by tragedy. When she was 30 years old and living in Memphis, Tennessee, she lost her husband and four children to a yellow fever epidemic that swept through the city. In 1871, after moving to Chicago to become a seamstress, she lost her shop in the Great Chicago Fire that ravaged the city. While living in Chicago and witnessing the labor uprisings of the late 1800s, Jones became active in workers’ movements, eventually becoming involved in the struggle for miners’ rights at the beginning of the 1900s.
Jones began organizing miners for the United Mine Workers (UMW) in Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Impressed with her ability to rally the men and to gain support from wives, daughters, and sisters of the miners, UMW president dispatched Jones to West Virginia when the union first launched its effort to organize the coal miners in the state. With her assistance, the miners in the Kanawha Valley were able to organize in 1902, but antiunion forces succeeded in forcing the union out soon thereafter. In 1912, when miners again went on strike in the West Virginia coal fields, demanding that operators negotiate a new union contract, their efforts proved successful. Not all miners succeeded, however, as the operators in Paint Creek refused to pay their workers on par with other miners in the region. In response to the strike, the Paint Creek mine operators hired mine guards from the infamous Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to harass and intimidate the miners and their families with threats of violence that often turned real.
The violence in what became known as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913 marked the beginning of the West Virginia mine wars. Mother Jones, who had been assisting miners in Colorado, returned to West Virginia to rally the miners once again. Here, she met the young labor organizer Frank Keeney, who was living with his wife and children in a tent camp set up for striking miners in Paint Creek. When no other officials from the UMW would come to organize the miners in nearby Cabin Creek, Keeney met with Mother Jones, who agreed to travel there with him and assist the strikers. Speaking on a makeshift platform in a baseball field in a town near Cabin Creek on August 4th, Mother Jones theatrically recounted her experiences in the Kanawha Valley strike ten years earlier and proclaimed that she was back to aid in the current fight while calling for others to join her.
As the strike continued into the Autumn of 1912, West Virginia governor William Glasscock twice declared martial law in the region. In February of 1913, as the violence continued, authorities arrested Mother Jones while she was staying in Charleston and moved her to a makeshift military prison in the town of Pratt in Kanawha County. Perhaps given her national fame, Henry Hatfield, who had recently been elected governor of West Virginia, traveled to visit Pratt, where he found Jones sick with pneumonia. While he allowed her to return to Charleston for medical care, she was sent back to the temporary prison in Pratt upon her recovery. During this time she was tried in a military court on various charges ranging from inciting a riot to destruction of property; she received a sentence of 20 years.
Rather than being moved to the state prison, however, Jones remained incarcerated in the makeshift prison—a boarding house owned by a Mrs. Carney. While there, the 84 year-old union activist smuggled a message out, which was eventually conveyed to the halls of Congress. Senator John Kern of Indiana, who sought to start a congressional investigation into the conditions in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, read her message aloud in the Senate, which brought even greater attention to the plight of the miners and her own struggle with imprisonment.
Eventually, after being incarcerated in the boarding house for 85 days, Governor Hatfield released Jones with a pardon for her and others who had been arrested under martial law. If Hatfield intended for these pardons to turn attention away from West Virginia, he failed, for Senator Kern’s resolution passed in May 1913, launching a congressional investigation into the conditions that surrounded the bloody Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike.
Mary Jones spent her remaining years supporting the American labor movement and the cause of striking West Virginia miners. However, shortly before the Battle of Blair Mountain in August of 1921 Jones opposed the miners’ march on Logan county. Jones told a group of assembled miners in Mingo County that the upcoming march would end in widespread bloodshed and produced a document that she claimed was a telegram from President Warren Harding offering to end the worst abuses of the mine company owners if they agreed to return home. Strike leaders, including Frank Keeney, cast doubt on the veracity of the telegram and refused to stop their march.
While Jones’ reputation suffered as a result of her attempt to halt the miners march, she remained active in the labor movement. In 1925, Jones published an autobiography detailing her long history of championing labor rights related causes. Towards the end of the decade, Jones relocated to Silver Spring, Maryland where she passed away on November 30, 1930 at the age of 100. Mary “Mother” Jones continues to loom large in American political consciousness and is widely recognized as one of the nation’s fiercest upholders of labor rights.
The makeshift prison where Mother Jones was incarcerated for 85 days was designated a National Historic Landmark in April of 1992. After the owner demolished the building in 1997, its NHL designation was withdrawn.
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the nation. Authorized by the National Historic Sites Act of 1935, the National Park Service's National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of NHLs with the goal of preserving them for the inspiration and benefit of the American people. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Discover more resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars and related topics here: Resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars.