Her personal life was marked by tragic events. Her children and her husband all perished in the yellow fever epidemic that struck Memphis in 1867. "The victims were primarily the poor and the workers," she wrote later. "The rich were able to leave the city. The schools and the churches were closed. It was forbidden to enter the home of a victim without special authorization. The poor could not afford a nurse. Ten people had died in front of me from the epidemic. Death surrounded us on all sides. They buried the corpses at night, without any ceremony. I used to hear the delirious cries and weeping. One by one, my four small children fell ill and died. I washed their small bodies before burying them. My husband caught the fever and died too. . . . Other families were as harshly affected as mine. Day and night, I used to hear the creaking of the wheels of the undertakers' carts.
After this tragedy, she left to set herself up as a dressmaker in Chicago, but her shop disappeared in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed a large part of the city. From 1871, she became ever more involved in the American trade union movement, to such an extent that the story of her life merged with the history of particularly impressive struggles -- but, unfortunately, too little known in Europe -- of the American working class. After losing her whole family, she "adopted" the miners, the railwaymen, and the textile workers. They named her "Mother." Mother Jones was in all the struggles. She participated in the great railwaymen's strike in Pennsylvania in 1877. During the 1880's, she organized lessons in political education for trade unionists. In 1890, she was hired by the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA).
In spite of her small size and her appearance as a harmless grandmother, Mother Jones was a speaker of extraordinary power. Climbing on any speaker's platforms to speak to crowds of workers, her bearing impressed everyone. Her tone was varied and aroused a range of emotions in those who heard it. She was able to move people to tears, and then, in an instant, to make them burst out laughing. Walking furiously from one end of the platform to the other, her tirades against the employers' misdeeds expressed a powerful indignation. She ridiculed the rich. She made workers feel at the same time their strength and the inhumanity of their condition.
In her writings as well, her direct style and the sincerity of her words touch the reader's spirit. In an article entitled "Civilization in the Factories of the South," published in the International Socialist Review in 1901, she related her experience in a cotton mill, where she got a job to witness the work conditions in that industry. "I found that children 7 or 8 years old were pulled from their beds at 4:30 a.m., when the foreman blew a whistle. They had a meager meal of black coffee and cornbread soaked in cottonseed oil, instead of butter. Then this whole army of serfs -- large and small -- got started. At 5:30 a.m. they were already
behind the walls of the factory, where, in the din of the machines, they stubbed out their young lives for 14 hours, day after day. When one thought of this brood of hopeless souls, one could almost hear them cry: 'Stop, if only for an instant, oh wheels of capitalist greed, so that we can finally hear a human voice, and let us believe, just for an instant, that this is not all of life!'"
Mother Jones played an exceptional role in numerous struggles, one of which was the miners' strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania. She involved the wives of the miners in a typically fantastic way: "When the company tried to bring in scabs, I told the men to stay home and let the women attend to the scabs. I organized a army of women housekeepers. They were to bring their mops and brooms and 'the army' would charge the scabs up at the mines. The day came, and I decided not to go up to the mine myself, for I knew they would arrest me and that might rout the army. I selected as leader an Irish women who had a most picturesque appearance. She had slept late and her husband told her to hurry up and get into the army. She had grabbed a red petticoat and slipped it over a thick cotton night gown. She wore a black stocking and a white one. She had tied a little red fringed shawl over her wild red hair. Her face was red and her eyes were mad.
"I said, 'You lead the army up to the entrance to the Drip Mouth. Take that tin dishpan you have with you and your hammer, and when the scabs and the mules come up, begin to hammer and howl and be ready to chase the scabs with your mops and brooms. Don't be afraid of anyone.'
"Up the mountain side, yelling and hollering, she led the women, and when the mules came up with the scabs and the coal, she began beating on the dishpan and hollering and all the army joined in with her. The sheriff tapped her on the shoulder.
"'My dear lady,' said he, 'remember the mules. Don't frighten them.'
"She took the old tin pan and she hit him with it and she hollered, 'To hell with you and the mules!'
"He fell over and dropped into the creek. Then the mules began to rebel against scabbing. They bucked and kicked the scab drivers and started off for the barn. The scabs started running down hill, followed by the army of women with their mops and pails and brooms."
The strike was victorious, but not before an attempt from the employers to put an end to it in a very peculiar manner. One evening Mother Jones was at the house of the union leader, whose name was Wilson, when someone knocked at his door. The Wilson family home was mortgaged to a bank whose owner was also the owner of the mine. The night visitors had an offer to make to the union leader: "We will take the mortgage off your home and give you $25,000 in cash if you will just leave and let the strike die out."
Mother Jones wrote: "I will never forget his reply: 'Gentlemen, if you come to visit my family, the hospitality of the whole house is yours. But if you come to bribe me with dollars to betray my manhood and my brothers who trust me, I want you to leave this door and never come here again.'" Wilson put up strikers who were in difficulty at his own house; he shared everything he had with them and lived modestly. Mother Jones continues: "He knew every hardship that the rank and file of the organization knew. We do not have such leaders now."
From 1904, Mother Jones worked as an organizer for the Socialist Party of America, before returning to the UMWA, in 1911. On September 11, 1912, during the strikes at Paint Creek and Cable Creek, West Virginia, she led a demonstration of miners' children in the streets of Charleston. Five months later, in another demonstration, when she was 82 years old, she was arrested, charged with murder, and sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. Fortunately, in May, 1913, she was freed, following the election of a new governor. MOther Jones stayed connected to the workers' movement up until her death in 1930, at the age of 100. She used to say, "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!" She was buried in the UMWA cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, near St. Louis. At the foot of the monument erected in her memory, a plaque recalls her last demand: "Let no traitor breathe o'er my grave."