Cleveland Comhrá: “The Most Dangerous Woman in America”
by Bob Carney
There were many hardships for workers in the early days of industry. Here in America, low pay and hazardous working conditions were common in many fields. Miners, mill workers, shipyard laborers, canal workers and railroad workers were largely comprised of new immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Mary G. Harris was born on the north side of Cork, her exact date of birth is unclear, but we know she was baptized on the first of August in 1837. Her family emigrated to America to escape the famine when she was ten, only to find discrimination because they were Irish-Catholic.
They moved north to Toronto, where Mary received her education at Toronto Normal School. Tuition was free, and even paid one dollar a week for every semester a student completed. Mary did not graduate, but did complete enough courses to land a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, at the age of twenty-three. She made eight dollars a month.
The International Molders and Foundry Workers of North America
Later in life, she described it as a depressing place. After a couple of years, she left and moved to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker. Soon she moved to Memphis to open her own shop. There she met and married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders. The moulder’s union would later expand and become The International Molders and Foundry Workers of North America, representing the workers who built and repaired steam engines used in the mills and other manufacturing.
Her husband’s income provided for both of them; Mary devoted her time to raising their growing family and housekeeping. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis and Mary watched helplessly as her husband and four children succumbed to the disease.
Alone, the tragedy was a turning point for the young widow. She returned to Chicago and started a dressmaking business catering to the upper-class. Her business was doing well when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 occurred. Mary lost her business, her home and all of her possessions. Many homes and businesses were destroyed in the fire, and Mary became very active in Chicago’s rebuilding efforts.
Mary became more involved in her activism and joined the Knights of Labor. She started organizing strikes against manufacturing in support of the laborers. Most were ineffective at first, and often would be put down violently, with the police shooting and killing strikers.
By the middle of the decade, the union grew in power, with a membership of over a million workers. Divisions grew between management and laborers in the manufacturing businesses; during one altercation between police and union members, a bomb was thrown by an unidentified person.
The Knights were already under pressure from the police, management and others in the community who were apprehensive of social change and the perceived anarchy that might arise as a result of the union’s efforts. The bombing brought on the demise of the Knights.
Mary, believed that a man should make a wage that allowed women to stay at home, raise their families and care for the home. This view did not sit well with many of the female activists of the pre- nineteenth amendment days.
Suffrage and the Mine Workers
It was more important to Mary to see the working class itself liberated. Although she was not against it, she remained uncommited to the sufferage movement. Mary became active in the United Mine Workers and involved in the Socialist Party of America as an organizer and an educator. She was a gifted speaker, charismatic and very effective in delivering her message.
Mary gained recognition for being able to organize the wives and children of the mine workers in demostrations and publicized their plight. In 1902, she was arrested for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking workers. At her trial, West Virginia District Attorney Reese Blizzard pointed at her in the courtroom and said, “There sits the most dangerous woman in America; she comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign… crooks her finger and twenty thousand men lay down their tools and walk out.”
By the age of sixty, Mary had assumed the character of Mother Jones; she dressed in outdated black dresses and allowed others to assume she was older, and perhaps wiser, than her actual age. The workers she fought for, she refered to as “her boys.”
The mine workers were not the only ones Mary sought to help. The U.S. Census of 1900 found that 1/6 of American children were employed in various occupations, albeit at a much lower wage than an adult male. In 1901,workers in the silk mills in Pennslyvania went on strike over the lower wage issue and the harsh conditions the children were facing in the mills.
Mary felt that the long hours required by the mill operators deprived them of an education and any opportunity to improve themselves. In 1903, she organized a march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York with the child workers, bringing the issues of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. She continued to fight for child labor laws the rest of her life.
The Paint Creek – Cabin Creek Strike
Mary was arrested again in 1912 at one of the most violent strike conflicts in The United Mine Workers history. The strike in West Virginia pitted the U.M.W. against mercenaries hired by the mine owners; armed conflicts and even bombing from bi-planes prompted martial law to be declared. Mary’s trial was held in military court. She was convicted and sentenced to twenty years.
Mary was being held under house arrest, and after eighty-five days, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. A Senate Investigation into mining conditions helped her in obtaining her release. Several months later she was back at it, organizing miners in Colorado, at Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. Mary was arrested once more, served time in prison, and on her release was escorted from the state.
The Ludlow Massacre
On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard, supporting the mining companies, fired machine guns into a tent camp of 1,200 striking miners and their families, killing twenty-one, including miner’s wives and children. Afterwards, Mary was invited to meet with John D.Rockefeller Jr.; that meeting was partially responsible for Rockefeller’s visit to the mine the following year, and the introduction of long overdue reforms in the mining industry there.
Mother Jones remained an organizer for the U.M.W. into the 1920s, and spoke on union affairs almost to the end of her life. She celebrated her one-hundredth birthday on May 1, 1930 (even though the math doesn’t add up), and passed away in Silver Spring, Maryland on November 30th of the same year. She was buried in the Union Miner’s Cemetary in Mount Olive, Illinois. In 1932, 15,000 mine workers assembled in Mount Olive to protest against the U.M.W., and gain the reformations they were fighting for.
The U.M.W. became the Progressive Mine Workers of America. They felt they had acted in the spirit of Mother Jones,and by 1936 had raised $16,000 to erect a memorial at her grave.
“Eighty tons of pink granite, with bronze statues of two miners flanking a twenty foot column featuring a relief of Mother Jones at it’s center.” In Mount Olive, October 11 is “Miner’s Day,” and in 1936, 50,000 people came to see the monument. Today in Mount Olive, October 11 is also Mother Jones Day, celebrating the spirit of this rebelly woman from Cork.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is alsoactive in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected]