Say what you will, you can’t keep a good woman down. Like “Mother Jones,” the legendary activist, advocate and paid agitator for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) who came to Utah in 1904 to “agitate, educate and aggravate” for the fiercest of strikers — those who work the mines.
Mary Harris was born 1837 in County Cork, Ireland. In her teens, she immigrated with her mother and siblings to Toronto, where her father worked as a railway laborer. A skilled seamstress wanting more, Mary enrolled in school, became a teacher and taught at a parochial academy in Michigan.
In 1861, Mary met and married George E. Jones, a union iron molder at a factory in Memphis, Tenn. Life was comfortable. They had four children.
In 1867, tragedy struck. An epidemic of yellow fever swept through their parish, infecting thousands and killing hundreds. Mary nursed her loved ones amid cries of delirium but suffered the loss of Catherine, 5, Elizabeth, 4, Terence, 2, baby Mary and George.
Too bereaved to return to teaching, Mary moved to Chicago, a burgeoning boomtown. She opened a dressmaking shop that attracted well-heeled customers and quickly discerned class distinctions where wealth abutted poverty. Four years later, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned the city — and her shop — to the ground.
Temporarily homeless, Mary spent evenings in the Knights of Labor’s fire-scorched building listening to labor movement issues and its struggles. Defying social convention, she became a member and found her voice. Vowing to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” Mother Jones came into being.
Over the years, supporters praised her as the labor movement’s Joan of Arc and the miners’ guardian angel. President Theodore Roosevelt called her the “most dangerous woman in America.” Nevertheless, Mother Jones stood up and spoke out to improve conditions for railroad, steel and textile workers, children and miners.
In November 1903, when the Castle Gate coal miners went on strike against mine owners Utah Fuel Company, 356 of 474 of them were Italians — immigrants at the heart of Utah’s labor force. They sought honest weighing of coal, equitable wages and hours, and acknowledgment of the UMWA.
Coal company officials accused the Italians of being “ungrateful foreigners” who instigated the walkout. Most of them were chased out of town — after all, they had been renting company-owned homes on company-owned land.
According to Utah historian Philip Notarianni’s The Peoples of Utah, newspaper accounts of the strike “left readers with a more intensified, stereotyped image of the Italian immigrant as a bloodthirsty, nonwhite, stiletto-in-hand villain.”
Such vivid words also left readers with a skewed view of Mother Jones, linking her to an uncorroborated charge (lifted from a scandal sheet) of being a Colorado brothel owner and prostitute who took to drink and was arrested several times.
When she arrived in Helper, Mother Jones quickly joined several Italians to visit union organizer William Price, who was homebound and quarantined for smallpox. Mining officials stalled her from speaking at a scheduled strikers’ meeting and tried to isolate her in a quarantine shed. It didn’t happen.
Celeste Dalpiaz and Angelo Pilatti found the shed and set it on fire. Mother Jones was taken to the miners’ “halfway house,” a temporary camp located between Helper and Castle Gate. Surrounded in protective custody by 100 armed Italians, she inspired them while championing their efforts. She then hid from the law in John and Caterina Bottino’s home.
Told of a planned raid on the strikers, Mother Jones stressed nonviolence and suggested the men bury their weapons.
In the early morning of April 25, the sheriff and his 45-man posse entered the camp and arrested 120 Italians. Herded into boxcars and sent to a makeshift jail in Price, the strikers waited under lock and key until their trial.
Eleven were found guilty of some offense; the others were set free. The strike failed.
Mother Jones moved on.
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional sources: Elliott J. Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America; Allan Kent Powell’s “Labor at the Beginning of the 20th Century”; and Phil Notarianni’s 1972 interview with Dr. J.J. Dalpiaz, archived at University of Utah’s Marriott Library.