She lost her own family, so she adopted a new one, a huge one, lifting up the cause of labor and becoming one of the most famous women in American history.

Mother Jones became perhaps the greatest labor force ever in Illinois. Barely over five feet tall, the dynamo who was Mary Harris Jones didn’t start speaking and organizing until her mid-50s and was a rabble rouser nationally from the 1890s to 1920s, yet always with a heart for Illinois.

“Illinois ranks as a union birthplace, and Mother Jones was a midwife in that process,” says Mike Matejka, vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society. “She formed deep friendships with Illinois workers, from miners to union leaders, and continually returned to Illinois as a home base.”

Upton Sinclair, whose “The Jungle” excoriated the Chicago meatpacking industry, summed up Jones like this: “All over the country she had roamed, and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.”

Mary Harris was born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland. A decade later, the potato famine drove her family to Toronto, where her parents realized a middle-class living, and Harris learned dressmaking and was a teacher. As a young adult, she took her first wanderings, around the Midwest, before landing in Memphis, where she met and married George Jones, a foundry worker and union supporter. They had four children by 1867, when a yellow fever epidemic claimed the entire household save her.

The 30-year-old widow moved to Chicago to start anew with a dress shop, but it burned down during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

She scraped by, sometimes sewing piecework for wealthy Chicago families. According to the Illinois Labor History Society, she later recalled: “Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate-glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lakefront … The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care.”

She gravitated to organizing with the Knights of Labor, then the United Mine Workers. Though progressive in workers’ causes, she broke from suffragettes of the day, saying working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their children. But her labor-rights moxie quickly won over workers — first by the thousands, then millions — especially miners.

As Jones became more prominent and popular, she became a symbol of her own device. As Mother Jones magazine describes her transformation, “She invented Mother Jones. Or, to put it more precisely, she began to play a role that she and her followers made up as they went along. By 1900, no one called her Mary, but always Mother; she wore antique black dresses in public, and she began exaggerating her age.”

Jones often squeaked by on a stipend from the United Mine Workers. But she’d travel to help wherever the call came: from garment workers in Chicago, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, bottle washers in Milwaukee, railing against companies for fair wages and safe working conditions.

“Jones’ intellectual core was the idea that labor creates all wealth and that therefore the wealth of the nation should benefit the people who worked,” says Rosemary Feurer, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University who maintains a Mother Jones website at motherjonesmuseum.org. “This provided an intellectual foundation from which she agitated not only in Illinois but across the nation. She was the Johnny Appleseed of the country’s immigrant workforce, planting seeds of rebellion from which the labor movement grew.”

Mother Jones.

Mother Jones. | Provided photo

Jones was more direct in trying to light a fire under laborers. As she put it: “I have been in jail more than once, and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight.”

Despite her vagabond predilections, between causes, she often stayed in Illinois, which she considered the state the birthplace of rank-and-file unionism.

She felt a special pull to the plight of the state’s miners. At the close of the 19th century, Illinois became a labor battleground as the Chicago Virden Coal Co. and two other anti-union owners defied a union contract and sought to bring in strikebreakers, according to motherjonesmuseum.org.

She died in 1930 (some say at 100, others a shade less) and was laid to rest at Miners’ Union Cemetery in downstate Mount Olive. Her simple marker carries some uncharacteristically purple prose, in part extolling: “She gave her life to the world of labor, her blessed soul to heaven.”

This installment in the Illinois Bicentennial series is from the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3. Stories published so far can be found at 200illinois.com.