Mother Jones : The Most Dangerous Woman in America, by Gorn
- ISBN: 9780809070947 | 0809070944
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 4/15/2002
"Elliott Gorn's outstanding and dramatic new biography of Mother Jones reacquaints us with this extraordinary figure . . ." --Benjamin L. Alpers, Chicago Tribune
"[A] lively, well-honed biography . . . Admirable." --David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review
"I was born in the city of Cork, Ireland, in 1830" begins The Autobiography of Mother Jones . "My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland's freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America in 1835, and as soon as he had become an American citizen, he sent for his family." Mother Jones thus describes her entire childhood in five sentences. What was her mother's name, did Mary have siblings, did she go to school, did she speak Irish, did her family attend church, how did they make their living? All questions unasked and unanswered. In a book almost 250 pages long, there are only six pages on the first half of her life.
The early twentieth century was not an age of personal revelation, but Mother Jones carried reticence to an extreme. The Autobiography was published in 1925, when, by her own reckoning, she was ninety-five (actually, she was eighty-eight). Perhaps her memory was deteriorating. More likely, she did not consider her youth terribly important. The book was written to inspire action, to teach the power of political commitment, to keep alive the history of labor organizing, and to promote radical change. Her autobiography continued the work she had begun decades before as a labor organizer and orator. Most of all, the book sought to perpetuate the memory of Mother Jones, not Mary Jones.
Biography is a literary genre. A good life history unfolds like a novel; the writer plots the story, develops character, cuts from scene to scene, employs metaphor and allusion. Biography, however, must cleave to known facts. So how does one write a biography of someone who preferred not to reveal her past? There are two answers, for we are dealing with two people, a person and a persona, and the relationship between the two. We will never know Mary Jones (née Mary Harris) well. She came from an obscure background, and she was not the sort of person to leave behind a diary or a cache of letters. But Mother Jones left dozens of speeches and scores of letters (all written after 1900); journalists interviewed her and wrote hundreds of articles about her. The single greatest clue about the life of Mary Jones was her desire to become someone else.
The difficulty of knowing Mary Jones can be attributed in part to the Victorian era, when men and women were relegated to separate spheres. Journalists, reformers, and religious writers insisted that men dominate the public realm--work, business, and politics--while women control the private domain of home, family, and worship. By refusing to say much about her private life, Mother Jones revealed her radical intentions: even as she took for her name the most sacred role of the private sphere, she ignored family life and lived entirely in the public realm. More precisely, if motherhood was at the center of the family circle, Mother Jones widened that circle to embrace the entire family of labor.
Even the most basic facts about Mary Jones are difficult to pin down. For example, her birthday was not May 1, 1830, as she declared in countless speeches, as her autobiography repeated, as journalists reaffirmed. When Mother Jones first came to public attention around the beginning of the twentieth century, newspapers reported that she was born sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s; only after she became quite famous did she insist on 1830. Only then too did she declare that May Day--the international workers' holiday that began in 1886 when laborers demanded the eight-hour day--was her birthday. So reconstructing her early life means combining a few reliable facts with informed speculation, then placing it all in historical context.
On February 9, 1834, Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter were married in Inchigeelagh, County Cork, Ireland. Ellen was about twenty years old and her husband roughly a decade older. It was customary for weddings to take place in the bride's home parish, so Ellen Cotter was almost certainly born in Inchigeelagh, which one visitor described as "a poor, small, and irregular village" (the entire town consisted of about a dozen buildings). Although Richard had kin in the parish, he was from the city of Cork, about thirty miles to the east.
Richard and Ellen baptized their second-born child, Mary, at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cork on August 1, 1837. Mary's older brother, Richard (born in 1835), was baptized in Inchigeelagh, but her younger siblings all began life in the city--Catherine in 1840, Ellen in 1845, and William in 1846.
So for more than a generation, the Harrises and the Cotters moved between town and country, between Cork and Inchigeelagh. It is impossible to know exactly how they lived their lives. Clearly, their roots ran deep in rural soil, but by the time Mary was born in 1837, the family had moved to the city. It is likely, though, that the Harris children knew firsthand both urban streets and country ways, especially since the river Lee and a good carriage road connected Cork to Inchigeelagh.
One chronicler described the landscape of Inchigeelagh Parish as "a country gradually assuming wilder and more imposing features; everywhere it is broken up by rocky hills, partially clothed with purple heath and furze.... Slight patches of cultivation diversify the succession of crag and heath, snatched as it would seem from the surrounding barrenness, by the hand of industry." Six thousand people, almost all of them Roman Catholic, lived in this remote, six-by-nine-mile parish. Folk memory recalled great families like the O'Learys, who in better times built imposing castles. But ownership of most of the land had long since passed into English and Protestant hands. Those Cotters and Harrises of Inchigeelagh who retained enough land to be assessed held modest, mostly rented plots.
So how did Mary Harris's ancestors make their living? They might have been farmers with a score of acres to their name, or maybe they tended one or two dozen cows for the thriving dairy trade. Much more likely, they were small cottiers, rural laborers who subsisted mainly on potatoes grown in tiny rented plots.
Well into the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century, small unfenced patches of land were distributed to Irish peasants for tilling or grazing cattle. Since the plots varied considerably in quality, they were redistributed periodically by communal agreement. This system began to break down as ambitious farmers sought to benefit from Ireland's expanding rural economy. Exports and imports increased, seaport towns like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast prospered with trade, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, even the most remote Irish villages had become part of the commercial economy.
Economic growth brought rising prices, but the spread of potato culture supplied a source of food that was easily cultivated. Landlords now subdivided land into plots as small as a quarter acre and charged exorbitant rents. Economic expansion was paralleled by a population boom. The census of 1841 conservatively estimated eight million people (a fourfold increase in a century), making Ireland one of the most densely populated nations in Europe.
There was, of course, no such thing as a "typical" Irish parish. Although Ireland was rapidly modernizing due to the strength of its economy, Inchigeelagh was a bit backward; it had a higher rate of illiteracy, lower land values, more stable population, and more Irish speakers than other rural parishes. But even such remote places were affected by the commercialization of Ireland's economy and the Anglicization of Irish culture. The development of commerce certainly allowed many to prosper, but it also subjected the vast majority to chronic uncertainty, poverty, and even forced emigration.
The writer William Cobbett described the homes of the rural poor he found in county Cork early in the nineteenth century:
I went to a sort of hamlet near to the town of Midleton. It contained about 40 or 50 hovels. I went into several of them.... They all consisted of mud-walls, with a covering of rafters and straw.... I took a particular account of the first that I went into. It was 21 feet long and 9 feet wide. The floor, the bare ground ... No table, no chair.... Some stones for seats. No goods but a pot , and a shallow tub, for the pig and the family both to eat out of.... Some dirty straw and a bundle of rags were all the bedding .... Five small children ; the mother, about thirty, naturally handsome; but worn into half-ugliness by hunger and filth.... The man BUILT THIS PLACE HIMSELF , and yet he has to pay a pound a year for it with perhaps a rod of ground! ... All built their own hovels , and yet have to pay this rent.
So here was the paradox: Ireland was growing, changing, expanding. But the commercialization of the economy, combined with English colonial policies, brought wealth for a few, poverty for the masses. The trend was unmistakable--the majority of Irish people faced poverty in their own country or emigration.
Mary Harris's kin were not only poor, they were also Catholic. Pre-famine Ireland did contain some prosperous and influential Catholics, but about ten thousand Protestant families virtually owned the country, and of those, a few hundred possessed the bulk of the land. Typically, the landowner (if he was not an absentee landlord) lived in a large home, employed several servants and estate workers, and perhaps owned the local grain mill. Magistrates, bailiffs, sheriffs, and estate agents were generally Protestants; the Protestant Church of Ireland was supported by a tithe paid by Protestant and Catholic alike; Protestants dominated politics and commerce.
But English Protestants could not destroy traditional Irish culture entirely. Travelers commented on Ireland's distinctive brand of folk Catholicism, which incorporated old pagan idols into the cult of the saints. The sacraments and rituals of Rome stretched thin over alternative traditions: belief in an animate world filled with dangerous beings, wakes for propitiating the dead, patterns of worship designed more to secure kinship and communal identity than to attain personal grace. In Inchigeelagh Parish, for example, pilgrims came each summer to bathe in the sacred waters of Gougane Barra and walk in the path of Saint Finbar. Rural life retained many of the old country ways that helped pass the time but that the English took as signs of laziness--races, fights, dances, storytelling, bouts of drinking.
Above all, there were words, Irish words and English words inflected with Irish, words with their own rhythms, molded into stories and songs. A traveler in Connemara noticed a youth wearing a tally stick (which was hung around children's necks and notched every time they were caught speaking Irish). The traveler asked the boy's father if he did not love the Irish language:
"I do," said he, his eyes kindling with enthusiasm; "sure it is the talk of the ould country; and the ould times, the language of my father and all that's gone before me--the speech of these mountains, and lakes, and these glens, where I was bred and born; but you know," he continued, "the children must have larnin', and as they tache no Irish in the National School, we must have recourse to this to instigate them to talk English."
The man might well have spoken the same words in Inchigeelagh Parish, where the Irish language held on with unusual tenacity.
But the Harris children, after all, grew up in the city; the lanes and alleys of Cork, more than the fields of Inchigeelagh, were their home. Yet city and countryside were inextricably tied in pre-famine Ireland. Many city people were recent migrants from the country who left the land in search of work. Families like the Harrises brought parish ways with them.
St. Mary's Cathedral, where the Harris children were baptized, was located in a densely populated part of North Cork. The sight of the poor wandering the streets, of the hospitals and asylums, provided daily evidence of the harshness and fragility of life. Even the smells of Cork were vivid. The feces of countless animals choked the pathways with filth, while the lime works and the local tannery gave the air its characteristic stench. Until she was thirteen or fourteen years old, Mary Harris lived within blocks of the bustling Cork Butter Market, with its stream of butter-bearing pack animals coming in from the country, with its brokers buying the goods and its laborers hauling barrels down to the river Lee. Mornings, she awakened to the famous Bells of Shandon ringing from nearby St. Anne's (Protestant) Church. Perhaps the family lived in one of the tiny houses that still survive in the twisted alleyways of the neighborhood. Mary walked and played in those lanes, she went to Mass at the newly rebuilt St. Mary's Cathedral. Maybe she learned to read and write at the North Presentation Convent, where the nuns gave free education to hundreds of poor girls.
The same market forces transforming the rural economy marked the city. The growing merchant class thrived on the trade in foodstuffs brought in from the hinterlands. Most Irish butter, beef, and pork bound for North America were shipped out of Cork Harbor; trade was the single most important part of the urban economy. By the early nineteenth century, prosperous new elites began to move out of the old disease- and crime-ridden medieval city center into new homes on the outskirts of town. Nearly three-quarters of those who remained in the city dwelled in slums. Cork's population stood at about eighty thousand in the 1840s. The wages of working-class people had been stagnant for decades, and the poverty of the rural parishes ensured a steady flow of migrants to the city in search of work, alms, or passage out of Ireland. Although Cork was only a midsized town, lacking the satanic mills we associate with manufacturing centers like Manchester, its dense slums--nearly forty people per acre--and tenacious poverty made it a frightful place to live.
Such conditions led to some very unsettled politics, but Cork's working class never became a well-organized, radical force. The powerful English workers' movement of the 1830s and 1840s known as Chartism failed to catch hold in Ireland, even though it was founded by Feargus O'Connor, who was raised near Cork. Nonetheless, these were turbulent times. Workers generally sought not the remaking of society but the reestablishment of old patterns that free markets and the beginnings of industrialization had upset. Journeymen artisans--weavers, carpenters, printers--organized themselves into unions that opposed the vagaries of the marketplace with the precapitalist notion of the just price, the idea that wages must conform to what tradition dictated as fair, not to the cruel forces of supply and demand. Cork journeymen used petitions, strikes, and even riots in an attempt to secure living wages, to shorten the workday, and to limit the loss of jobs to machines. Common laborers, too, organized themselves to protect what they described as their traditional rights as workers.
The crosscutting divisions of class, religion, and nationalism, however, ensured that no one political movement became singularly powerful in Cork. Not only was the working class split--artisans feared that the unskilled would take their jobs, while the masses resented the artisans' prerogatives--but the issues of home rule for Ireland and Catholic political equality also divided the city. The Act of Union, which at the turn of the century abolished the Irish Parliament and gave the country a handful of representatives in London, united diverse Irishmen who sought repeal of this loathsome law. But nationalist unity could blunt class solidarity, with merchants and manufacturers in leadership roles and labor marching behind. Moreover, religious conflict among working people often grew bitter. Mary Harris was baptized in the new St. Mary's Cathedral because the old one had been gutted by fire a few years earlier, a fire allegedly started by congregants from St. Anne's. Only the intervention of priests from St. Mary's prevented Catholics from burning the Shandon Church in revenge. Such conflicts--dramatized by the monster rallies held by the great patriot Daniel O'Connell for repeal of the Act of Union--were woven into the fabric of daily life in Cork. It was not, however, a city gripped by revolution, not a place, as Mother Jones later claimed, where rebels were hanged from scaffolds.
Excerpted from MOTHER JONES by Elliott J. Gorn. Copyright © 2001 by Elliott J. Gorn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.