MT. OLIVE, Ill. – The Miners Union Cemetery is not very big. Located in Mt. Olive, Illinois, and surrounded by farmland, about halfway between St. Louis and Springfield, you wouldn’t notice the cemetery from Interstate 55.
It’s a short drive to the cemetery from the interstate; a little over a mile. The roadway is flanked by overgrown weeds and wild grass. A small cornfield neighbors the cemetery, with stalks taller than one’s head. A rather inauspicious place for a person once decried as “the grandmother of all agitators” and “the most dangerous woman in America.” But the grave of Mary “Mother” Jones is quite literally a monument to a champion of workers’ rights and a woman heralded as “the miners’ angel.”
“Mother” Jones was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland. While an exact date of birth cannot be verified, historians do know she was baptized on Aug. 1, 1837, meaning she was very likely born that same year. In later years, Jones would claim to have been born on May 1, 1830, likely in solidarity with the establishment of International Workers’ Day.
Her family immigrated to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in the midst of the Great Famine. The Harrises later moved south to Michigan in pursuit of better opportunities.
As a young woman, Mary moved to Chicago and then Memphis, where she met and married trade unionist George E. Jones in 1861. The couple had four children: Catherine, Terence, Elizabeth, and Mary. In 1867, the yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of George and their children. By age 30, a bereft Mary Jones moved back to Chicago and became a dressmaker. Jones lost her home and shop in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In subsequent years, Jones witnessed the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Haymarket affair in May 1886. These events radicalized her and further drove her interest in organizing and rallying on behalf of laborers and the working class.
Jones got involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Socialist Party of America. She set out across the nation, stumping on behalf of workers demanding fair wages and treatment and calling for the eradication of child labor. She assumed the moniker “Mother” Jones by carrying on and dressing like she was older, and by referring to the miners she advocated for as “her boys.”
Her many decades of rabble-rousing in support of striking workers would take her to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and West Virginia. It was in West Virginia that she earned her infamous sobriquet.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jones began spending time in West Virginia to organize miners. In June 1902, the United Mine Workers called a strike. Coal companies and local law enforcement began arresting organizers and judges issued injunctions against such pro-labor activities.
Jones would have none of it and challenged authorities to arrest her. A federal marshal arrested her in Clarksburg on June 20 while she was delivering a speech. After being released from custody, Jones went on the road describing the plight of the West Virginia miners and the dishonest behavior of coal companies, and called out politicians and for ignoring this injustice.
She returned to West Virginia the following month to face charges. Addressing the court, U.S. District Attorney Reese Blizzard said of Jones, “There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign, crooks her finger (and) 20,000 contented men lay down their tools and walk out.”
Though all the other defendants would be convicted and receive 60-day sentences, the judge refused to sentence Jones, lest he make her into a martyr for the cause of labor.
Jones would again find herself in a West Virginia court a decade later. This time, she was accused of conspiracy to commit murder during the 1912 Paint Creek Mine War. During the conflict, she is said to have organized 3,000 armed miners in a march to the state capitol.
Martial law was eventually declared in the region and Jones was again apprehended. Jones appeared before a military court in February 1913. Ever indignant, she openly refused to recognize the legitimacy of the proceedings. Jones was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, she was released after 85 days during a U.S. Senate investigation of the coal mines.
Jones died on Nov. 30, 1930, in Maryland at age 93. Her funeral was held at St. Gabriel’s in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2. Following the mass, a special railroad car took Jones’ body to St. Louis and then to Mt. Olive, where she’d lie in state until Dec. 7. She was buried in a grave next to the miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden, Illinois.
By 1936, the Progressive Mine Workers of America, a splinter group of the UMW, went to court to have a proper marker placed at her grave. The group raised $16,000 to acquire 80 tons of Minnesota pink granite. The unionists donated their own time and energy to construct a 22-foot-tall monument, flanked by bronze statues of miners.
More than 50,000 people came to Mt. Olive for the official dedication ceremony on Oct. 11, 1936.