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Who was Mary Harris "Mother" Jones?   

"Mother Jones' Final Sojourn: My Search for the House Where 'the Miners' Angel' Died"

 By Saul Schniderman

      Throughout her long fight for the labor movement, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones lived a nomadic life, often with a handbag serving as her pillow. Only in the final years of her life in rural Maryland did she find a tranquil home at the farmhouse of Walter and Lillie May Burgess. It was there that she celebrated her "100th birthday" and died six months later, mourned by working people everywhere.

        For fifty years and beyond, Mother Jones was the most beloved and newsworthy woman fighting for the rights of workers. Born in Cork, Ireland, she claimed May 1, 1830, as her birth date. She emigrated with her family to Canada and later moved to the United States where in Memphis, Tennessee, she married George Jones, an iron molder and union activist. Six years later a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of her husband and four children. After moving to Chicago, the great fire of 1871 left her destitute. She began attending meetings of the Knights of Labor and soon began to "raise hell" in support of workers. During her long career she aided children in sweatshops, steelworkers, railway carmen, and others, but first and foremost she came to be identified with coal miners, known as "her boys." They called her "Mother," a term of endearment that friends and foes adopted when referring to her.

     During Mother Jones' years of traveling to fight for justice and organize workers, she often rested in Washington, D.C., at the home of her long-time friend Terence Powderly, former head of the Knights of Labor, and his wife Emma. It was there she met the Burgesses. Lillie May Burgess often drove Mother Jones to their farm for a day's outing, an overnight stay, or a week-long visit. After Powderly's death in 1924, her time in rural Maryland increased. In 1928, the Burgess farm on Powder Mill Road, near the intersection with Riggs Road, became her home. Lillie May lovingly cared for Mother Jones as the labor icon became increasingly frail.

     The May 1, 1930, birthday party renewed Mother Jones' legendary energy. Hundreds of well-wishers crowded onto the farm and countless others wired telegrams. Even her long-time foe John D. Rockefeller, Jr. sent his greetings. On November 30, Mother Jones died at the farm she loved. After a funeral service at St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., a train carried her remains to Mt. Olive, Illinois, to be buried in the Union Miners Cemetery with "her boys."

     In 1932 after the death of her husband, Lillie May Burgess turned the farm house into the Mother Jones Rest Home, which she operated until the late 1940s. In 1952 she sold the property to the Hillandale Baptist Church. Subsequently, the house was torn down. In April 2000, the Maryland Historical Trust approved the placing of a state highway marker at the site of the Burgess farm, which was the culmination of Saul Schniderman's twenty-year search to find the site where labor's champion died.

Saul Schniderman is a cataloger in the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. He is president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild, Local 2910, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He is the secretary-treasurer of the Labor Heritage Foundation.

Created on January 4, 2001; last updated on March 18, 2005.
Copyright ©2001-2005 National Labor College.
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Last modified: 9/10/2017 11:04:38 AM