Mary Harris Jones

Mary Harris Jones

She looked like a short, plump grandmother. But some politicians called her the most dangerous woman in America. "I'm not a humanitarian," she said. "I'm a hell-raiser!" Actually, she was both.

Mary Harris Jones came from a family of agitators. She was born in Ireland, in 1830. Her grandfather was hung as an Irish freedom fighter. Her father took his family and fled to Toronto, Canada, when Mary was just a child. Mary trained as a teacher and taught for a short time in a Michigan convent school. She moved to Chicago, where she earned her living as a dressmaker. She said, "I preferred sewing to bossing little children."

In 1861, Mary Harris married George E. Jones, a union organizer. Tragedy struck when Mary's husband and four sons all died within one week of each other in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. Mary Jones went to Chicago to make a new life for herself. Once more a tragedy occurred. The great Chicago fire of 1871 totally destroyed her dressmaker shop and everything she owned.

When she had to start over yet another time, she resolved to do something more important than making dresses. Jones had seen the poor on the streets of Chicago from the windows of the mansions of the wealthy for whom she sewed. No one seemed to care for them. She began to attend meetings of the newly formed Knights of Labor. She dedicated herself to America's workers.

To help the labor movement, Jones traveled all over the country wherever labor trouble was brewing. She lived with the laborers in tents or shanties near the mines and mills. Jones adopted America's workers as her family. They called her "Mother Jones." When asked where she lived, she replied: "Well, wherever there is a fight."

Mother Jones organized workers who endured nightmare conditions in mines, mills, and factories, for starvation wages. She seemed to be present at every milestone or crushing defeat in the laborers' struggle. On some occasions, her work landed her in jail.

She never stopped crusading for the rights of laborers. During her final public appearance, at a reception for her hundredth birthday on May 1, 1930, Mother Jones made a fiery speech captured by the motion picture camera. Seven months later, Mary Jones died and was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery. Her epitaph reads, "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living," which is exactly what she did all her life.

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