Government officials labeled her the "most dangerous woman in America" and the "grandmother of all agitators."
In response to the latter designation, Mary Harris Jones, known more affectionately (or notoriously) as “Mother Jones,” said, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.”
The Irish-American schoolteacher-turned-activist lived to be 93. Now, nearly a century after her death, her spirit as an agitator lives on as one of the American labor movement's greatest crusaders.
Tucked away in the archives of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU Libraries is a glass plate negative that shows a portrait of Jones, among other original artifacts and papers documenting her story.
It is believed that the image was taken between 1910 and 1925, during Jones’ heyday as the coal industry’s biggest foe.
“Artifacts tell stories in ways that paper documents don’t,” said Michael Ridderbusch, associate curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, about the negative. “This glass plate serves as a mute witness to history. The image of Jones connects you to the wider history of the country.”
The photo shows Jones sitting in a wooden chair and wearing one of her trademark outdated dresses. It is said that by the age of 60, she had adopted the persona of “Mother Jones” by claiming to be older than she really was and by referring to male workers as “her boys.”
John Cuthbert, director and curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries, said the center acquired the glass in 1963 as part of the Van Bittner Collection. Bittner was a Pennsylvania miner who became a union leader as a teenager. He was keenly interested in photography and this glass plate was in his collection when his papers were donated to the center by his daughter, Cuthbert said.
It was in West Virginia in the early 1900s when Jones developed her reputation as the charismatic, foul-mouthed watchdog for labor laws and mine safety.
She was arrested in Clarksburg in 1902 for her involvement in mine strikes — ignoring an injunction that banned striking miners from meeting. At her trial, West Virginia District Attorney Reese Blizzard argued, “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.”
Ultimately, Jones was acquitted, though her brief imprisonment did little to hinder her progress. Hired by the United Mine Workers of America, Jones organized coal miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia from 1897 to 1920 and also pushed the issue of child labor into the public spotlight.
Jones found herself in court again, this time in 1913 after being accused of conspiring to commit murder during the Paint Creek Mine War. Jones rallied workers and organized a march of 3,000 armed miners to the State Capitol Complex in Charleston during the violent 15-month confrontation between miners and coal operators in Kanawha County.
She was sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary but was released after 85 days due to a U.S. Senate investigation into the local mines.
In addition to the glass plate, the center also has a 106-page typescript narrative about Jones written in 1937.