On her 100th birthday in the spring of 1930, Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones,” gave another of the speeches that had been her trademark throughout 50 years of championing the rights of working men and women, particularly the rights of miners. On her birthday she exhorted American laborers to embrace their power and to use it.
Born in Ireland, she came from a long line of agitators. Her grandfather, a freedom fighter, was hanged, and her father was forced to flee the country when Mary was eight years old.
She grew up in Canada, and after teaching in a convent school in Michigan, she moved to Chicago where she became a dressmaker, stating that she preferred sewing to “bossing little children.”
She married, but lost her husband and four small children during an epidemic. If that was not enough, she lost all her material possessions in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. It was shortly after this that she became interested in the plight of those working in the mines, a mission to which she would devote the rest of her life.
Barely five-feet tall and bursting with energy and enthusiasm, this grandmotherly-looking figure was known for her magnetic voice and her speechmaking. She was a dynamic speaker and a good storyteller, who had a way with words. She once said, “I am not a humanitarian; I’m a hell-raiser.” The media called her at times the “miners’ angel” and at other times, “the greatest woman agitator of our times.” She was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as “the grandmother of all agitators.” She took this all in stride, declaring, “Enough injunctions have been issued against me to make my shroud when I die.”
She lived seven months beyond her 100th birthday, dying in December 1930. Today, a prominent investigative journalism magazine bears her name.