Who is Mother Jones? Unless you are a history buff or one of our oldest living citizens, you might think Mother Jones is just a 25 year-old socially conscious magazine. The fact is, the magazine was named after Mary Harris Jones, or Mother Jones as she preferred, the hell-raising, black-garbed Irish widow who traveled around the country fighting for the rights of workers -- and now, the subject of an eponymous biography by Purdue historian Elliott J. Gorn.
Between the 1870s and 1920s, the name Mother Jones was synonymous with another type of publication: newspapers. Her name constantly appeared in them with the reports of her powerful speeches, raising the spirits of workers and inflaming the owners of workplaces. From the coalmines to the textile mills to the iron and steel foundries, Mother Jones was a force to be reckoned with, passionately declaring "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."
Through the extensive research of newspapers and labor journals, plus Mother Jones' own autobiography, Gorn traces the courageous
woman's life. However, much of her humble beginnings in Ireland, her
childhood in Canada, her short years as a wife and mother in Memphis, and her start in the labor movement are speculation. All Gorn seemed to have to go on was Mother Jones' autobiography, of which she only devoted three pages to her early life. He compensates by describing much of the history of these areas, all of which certainly had an impact on his subject's later life. Still, his use of the words "probably" and "possibly" when trying to fit Mother Jones into the events of the times makes one wonder how much of what he tells us is fact or fiction.
To tell the story of Mother Jones is to tell the story of the labor movement. We read about Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, Edward Bellamy, J. P. Morgan, and Clarence Darrow, her contemporaries and main characters in her story. But unlike Mother Jones, these men are still remembered today. Some may argue that they made more substantial contributions to society. But if you could ask any coal miner working a twelve-hour day in 1890 or ten year-old girl with gnarled and missing fingers working in a 1902 mill, they would tell you that they had no better friend than Mother Jones.