Cover image for Mother Jones : the most dangerous woman in America
Mother Jones : the most dangerous woman in America
Gorn, Elliott J., 1951-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hill and Wang, 2001.
Physical Description:
xiii, 408 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Item Holds
HD8073.J6 G67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HD8073.J6 G67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HD8073.J6 G67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
HD8073.J6 G67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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Her rallying cry was famous: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." A century ago, Mother Jones was a celebrated organizer and agitator, the very soul of the modern American labor movement. At coal strikes, steel strikes, railroad, textile, and brewery strikes, Mother Jones was always there, stirring the workers to action and enraging the powerful. In this first biography of "the most dangerous woman in America, " Elliott J. Gorn proves why, in the words of Eugene V. Debs, Mother Jones "has won her way into the hearts of the nation's toilers, and . . . will be lovingly remembered by their children and their children's children forever."

Author Notes

Elliott J. Gorn, professor of history at Purdue University, is the co-author of A Brief History of American Sports (H&W, 1993) and author of The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. He lives in Chicago.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living" was the rallying cry that made Mother Jones (n‚e Mary Harris) one of the most famous union organizers and rabble-rousers. This highly engaging biography (the first since 1974) charts the life and work of one of the U.S.'s most important and captivating political figures. Born into an impoverished Irish family in County Cork in 1837, she immigrated to North America at age 15. After working as a seamstress and teacher, Harris married George Jones, a member of the International Iron Molders Union. At 30 she was widowed when her husband and four young children died in a yellow fever epidemic. Caught up in the mid-century's roiling labor and social upheavals, Jones threw herself into the political fray. Speaking tirelessly and effectively for the rights of workers and unionistsÄoften using bold, flagrantly rhetorical and poetic metaphorsÄ"Mother" Jones reached the height of her fame and influence by 1913 when, in her 70s, she campaigned for the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, where she was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder (she had urged striking minors to protect their families against the military brought in to break the strike). Gorn, professor of history at Purdue University, has successfully separated fact from myth (some of it promoted by Jones in her Autobiography), situating Jones's story within a wider cultural frame. Exploring issues from the complicated role of women in union organizing to the relationship of the Catholic Church to the working class and labor movements, he has produced a new and needed addition to contemporary labor and feminist literature. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

"Mother Jones" (nee Mary Harris, 1837-1930), one of the most influential labor organizers in American history, is today a mythological grandmotherly figure, largely remembered as the namesake of a leftist magazine. In this exhaustively researched, highly readable, and generally masterly biography, Gorn (Purdue Univ.) adds rich flesh to those mythological bones, always placing Harris's life squarely in the context of the brutalities of early American industrialization. After sketching her early years as a teacher, seamstress, and wife of a union iron molder (who tragically died, along with their four children, of yellow fever in 1867), Gorn focuses on the 1897-1920 period when--although often self-righteous and self-aggrandizing in the persona of "Mother Jones," which she created--Harris became one of the most beloved figures in American labor history as a militant, extraordinarily fearless, and extremely effective organizer, especially among the virtually feudalized coal miners of Colorado and West Virginia. Socialist leader Eugene Debs termed her a "modern Joan of Arc," while one worker termed her "Jesus Christ come down on earth again, and playing he's an old woman so he can come here and talk to us poor devils." Highly recommended for all collections. R. J. Goldstein Oakland University

Booklist Review

Purdue University historian Gorn has taken on unconventional subjects before--for instance, in his Brief History of American Sports (1993). Here, he supplies a thorough study of the life of an unconventional American woman, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1837^-1930). She was an immigrant from Ireland via Canada, and her adulthood is obscure; Gorn documents as much as he can. Only in the 1890s did Jones gain visibility as a union organizer and in the fight against child labor. For a quarter century, Mother Jones went wherever people were struggling: with Coxey's army; in the mine country of West Virginia or Colorado; organizing May Day demonstrations; and writing for labor publications and, ultimately, broader-circulation journals. Her age and the maternal role she adopted made Jones an effective organizer and symbol at a time when the common definition of womanliness restricted many women's activities. Gorn is not silent about Jones' flaws--including her tendency to mythologize her past and to impose her own views, on the theory that "Mother knows best" --but his entertaining study ultimately celebrates her "amazing life of courage and commitment." --Mary Carroll

Library Journal Review

Gorn (history, Purdue; A Brief History of American Sports) restores Mother Jones from leftist poster icon to imperfect flesh-and-blood radical. The author successfully fills in the gaps and puts Mother Jones's remarkable life into context. Before becoming a labor organizer and Socialist tribune, Jones witnessed the Irish potato famine, became an educated woman against heavy odds, and lost her children and husband to disease. In her efforts to unionize the working class, she pitted her courage, oratory, and organizing talents against the industrial robber barons and their government allies. Yet she deliberately clouded her past and often shaded the truth to promote her mythic status as "Mother" to the nation's toilers, and at times she was nave and patronizing. This engaging biography recalls an almost forgotten American radicalism and reminds readers that the Gilded Age faade hid an industrial system built on exploited labor and poverty. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. Duncan Stewart, State Historical Society of Iowa Lib., Iowa City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-From the Progressive Era forward, no one more forcefully or tirelessly championed the cause of low-wage earners than Mother Jones. Born Mary Harris in Ireland in 1837, she survived the potato famine, a yellow-fever epidemic that wiped out her entire family, and the Chicago Fire. Yet, as Gorn puts it, the "first half of her life prepared her for the task of becoming Mother Jones." Already in her mid- to late-50s by the time she became active in the nation's nascent and increasingly violent labor movement, Jones spent the next 30-odd years as a labor organizer and self-described hell-raiser. She exhorted her "boys" in coalfields and union halls from Colorado to West Virginia to demand the civil rights and human dignity that America promised to all. Modern teens may find it startling to learn that many of the issues Mother Jones and her colleagues faced-the wealth gap, a worker's right to a "living wage," the influence of Wall Street on Washington, and corporate monopolies-remain unresolved a century later. While sympathetic to his subject, Gorn neither minimizes Jones's faults nor veils the controversies that surrounded her, which included her selective memory, shortsightedness, and, ironically, her conventional views of women. This is a welcome adjunct to the study of the labor movement, women's history, and/or Progressivism. It is also an uplifting reading experience about a fiery, white-haired widow who excoriated the haves to the delight and benefit of the have-nots.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt Mary Harris "I was born in the city of Cork, Ireland, in 1830" begins The Autobiography of Mother Jones . "My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland's freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America in 1835, and as soon as he had become an American citizen, he sent for his family." Mother Jones thus describes her entire childhood in five sentences. What was her mother's name, did Mary have siblings, did she go to school, did she speak Irish, did her family attend church, how did they make their living? All questions unasked and unanswered. In a book almost 250 pages long, there are only six pages on the first half of her life.     The early twentieth century was not an age of personal revelation, but Mother Jones carried reticence to an extreme. The Autobiography was published in 1925, when, by her own reckoning, she was ninety-five (actually, she was eighty-eight). Perhaps her memory was deteriorating. More likely, she did not consider her youth terribly important. The book was written to inspire action, to teach the power of political commitment, to keep alive the history of labor organizing, and to promote radical change. Her autobiography continued the work she had begun decades before as a labor organizer and orator. Most of all, the book sought to perpetuate the memory of Mother Jones, not Mary Jones?     Biography is a literary genre. A good life history unfolds like a novel; the writer plots the story, develops character, cuts from scene to scene, employs metaphor and allusion. Biography, however, must cleave to known facts. So how does one write a biography of someone who preferred not to reveal her past? There are two answers, for we are dealing with two people, a person and a persona, and the relationship between the two. We will never know Mary Jones (née Mary Harris) well. She came from an obscure background, and she was not the sort of person to leave behind a diary or a cache of letters. But Mother Jones left dozens of speeches and scores of letters (all written after 1900); journalists interviewed her and wrote hundreds of articles about her. The single greatest clue about the life of Mary Jones was her desire to become someone else.     The difficulty of knowing Mary Jones can be attributed in part to the Victorian era, when men and women were relegated to separate spheres. Journalists, reformers, and religious writers insisted that men dominate the public realm--work, business, and politics--while women control the private domain of home, family, and worship. By refusing to say much about her private life, Mother Jones revealed her radical intentions: even as she took for her name the most sacred role of the private sphere, she ignored family life and lived entirely in the public realm. More precisely, if motherhood was at the center of the family circle, Mother Jones widened that circle to embrace the entire family of labor.     Even the most basic facts about Mary Jones are difficult to pin down. For example, her birthday was not May 1, 1830, as she declared in countless speeches, as her autobiography repeated, as journalists reaffirmed. When Mother Jones first came to public attention around the beginning of the twentieth century, newspapers reported that she was born sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s; only after she became quite famous did she insist on 1830. Only then too did she declare that May Day--the international workers' holiday that began in 1886 when laborers demanded the eight-hour day--was her birthday. So reconstructing her early life means combining a few reliable facts with informed speculation, then placing it all in historical context. County Cork On February 9, 1834, Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter were married in Inchigeelagh, County Cork, Ireland. Ellen was about twenty years old and her husband roughly a decade older. It was customary for weddings to take place in the bride's home parish, so Ellen Cotter was almost certainly born in Inchigeelagh, which one visitor described as "a poor, small, and irregular village" (the entire town consisted of about a dozen buildings). Although Richard had kin in the parish, he was from the city of Cork, about thirty miles to the east.     Richard and Ellen baptized their second-born child, Mary, at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cork on August 1, 1837. Mary's older brother, Richard (born in 1835), was baptized in Inchigeelagh, but her younger siblings all began life in the city--Catherine in 1840, Ellen in 1845, and William in 1846.     So for more than a generation, the Harrises and the Cotters moved between town and country, between Cork and Inchigeelagh. It is impossible to know exactly how they lived their lives. Clearly, their roots ran deep in rural soil, but by the time Mary was born in 1837, the family had moved to the city. It is likely, though, that the Harris children knew firsthand both urban streets and country ways, especially since the river Lee and a good carriage road connected Cork to Inchigeelagh.     One chronicler described the landscape of Inchigeelagh Parish as "a country gradually assuming wilder and more imposing features; everywhere it is broken up by rocky hills, partially clothed with purple heath and furze.... Slight patches of cultivation diversify the succession of crag and heath, snatched as it would seem from the surrounding barrenness, by the hand of industry." Six thousand people, almost all of them Roman Catholic, lived in this remote, six-by-nine-mile parish. Folk memory recalled great families like the O'Learys, who in better times built imposing castles. But ownership of most of the land had long since passed into English and Protestant hands. Those Cotters and Harrises of Inchigeelagh who retained enough land to be assessed held modest, mostly rented plots?     So how did Mary Harris's ancestors make their living? They might have been farmers with a score of acres to their name, or maybe they tended one or two dozen cows for the thriving dairy trade. Much more likely, they were small cottiers, rural laborers who subsisted mainly on potatoes grown in tiny rented plots.     Well into the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century, small unfenced patches of land were distributed to Irish peasants for tilling or grazing cattle. Since the plots varied considerably in quality, they were redistributed periodically by communal agreement. This system began to break down as ambitious farmers sought to benefit from Ireland's expanding rural economy. Exports and imports increased, seaport towns like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast prospered with trade, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, even the most remote Irish villages had become part of the commercial economy.     Economic growth brought rising prices, but the spread of potato culture supplied a source of food that was easily cultivated. Landlords now subdivided land into plots as small as a quarter acre and charged exorbitant rents. Economic expansion was paralleled by a population boom. The census of 1841 conservatively estimated eight million people (a fourfold increase in a century), making Ireland one of the most densely populated nations in Europe?     There was, of course, no such thing as a "typical" Irish parish. Although Ireland was rapidly modernizing due to the strength of its economy, Inchigeelagh was a bit backward; it had a higher rate of illiteracy, lower land values, more stable population, and more Irish speakers than other rural parishes. But even such remote places were affected by the commercialization of Ireland's economy and the Anglicization of Irish culture. The development of commerce certainly allowed many to prosper, but it also subjected the vast majority to chronic uncertainty, poverty, and even forced emigration.     The writer William Cobbett described the homes of the rural poor he found in county Cork early in the nineteenth century: I went to a sort of hamlet near to the town of Midleton. It contained about 40 or 50 hovels. I went into several of them.... They all consisted of mud-walls, with a covering of rafters and straw.... I took a particular account of the first that I went into. It was 21 feet long and 9 feet wide. The floor, the bare ground ... No table, no chair.... Some stones for seats. No goods but a pot , and a shallow tub, for the pig and the family both to eat out of.... Some dirty straw and a bundle of rags were all the bedding .... Five small children ; the mother, about thirty, naturally handsome, but worn into half-ugliness by hunger and filth.... The man BUILT THIS PLACE HIMSELF, and yet he has to pay a pound a year for it with perhaps a rod of ground! ... All built their own hovels , and yet have to pay this rent.     So here was the paradox: Ireland was growing, changing, expanding. But the commercialization of the economy, combined with English colonial policies, brought wealth for a few, poverty for the masses. The trend was unmistakable--the majority of Irish people faced poverty in their own country or emigration.     Mary Harris's kin were not only poor, they were also Catholic. Pre-famine Ireland did contain some prosperous and influential Catholics, but about ten thousand Protestant families virtually owned the country, and of those, a few hundred possessed the bulk of the land. Typically, the landowner (if he was not an absentee landlord) lived in a large home, employed several servants and estate workers, and perhaps owned the local grain mill. Magistrates, bailiffs, sheriffs, and estate agents were generally Protestants; the Protestant Church of Ireland was supported by a tithe paid by Protestant and Catholic alike; Protestants dominated politics and commerce.     But English Protestants could not destroy traditional Irish culture entirely. Travelers commented on Ireland's distinctive brand of folk Catholicism, which incorporated old pagan idols into the cult of the saints. The sacraments and rituals of Rome stretched thin over alternative traditions: belief in an animate world filled with dangerous beings, wakes for propitiating the dead, patterns of worship designed more to secure kinship and communal identity than to attain personal grace. In Inchigeelagh Parish, for example, pilgrims came each summer to bathe in the sacred waters of Gougane Barra and walk in the path of Saint Finbar. Rural life retained many of the old country ways that helped pass the time but that the English took as signs of laziness--races, fights, dances, storytelling, bouts of drinking.     Above all, there were words, Irish words and English words inflected with Irish, words with their own rhythms, molded into stories and songs. A traveler in Connemara noticed a youth wearing a tally stick (which was hung around children's necks and notched every time they were caught speaking Irish). The traveler asked the boy's father if he did not love the Irish language: "I do," said he, his eyes kindling with enthusiasm; "sure it is the talk of the ould country, and the ould times, the language of my father and all that's gone before me--the speech of these mountains, and lakes, and these glens, where I was bred and born; but you know," he continued, "the children must have larnin', and as they tache no Irish in the National School, we must have recourse to this to instigate them to talk English." (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Elliott J. Gorn. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. 3
1. Mary Harrisp. 7
2. Mary Jonesp. 33
3. Mother Jonesp. 57
4. "There Comes the Star of Hope"p. 87
5. The Children's Crusadep. 117
6. "Faithfully Yours for the Revolution"p. 143
7. "Medieval West Virginia"p. 169
8. The Colorado Coal Warp. 199
9. "The Walking Wrath of God"p. 227
10. The Last Decadep. 263
Epilogue: "Mother Jones Is Not Forgotten"p. 297
List of Archivesp. 305
Notesp. 307
Indexp. 395