Mary Harris Jones lost everything. Everything!
When the Civil War ended, she was eager to raise her family in peace, but just two years later her husband and all four children died of yellow fever in Memphis. Imagine!
Devastated and alone, she moved to Chicago and became a seamstress, fashioning beautiful dresses for elegant ladies. As if trapped in a Job-esque nightmare, she lost her home and sewing shop in the Great Fire of 1871. Everything she owned went up in flames.
THAT’S WHEN MARY BECAME “MOTHER JONES”
For awhile, she slept in a church and spent her days listening to speeches in the Knights of Labor building. The speakers believed in an eight-hour work day, fair pay, and decent working conditions. They also thought children belonged in school, not in factories or mines. It made sense to Mary.
Her own children buried, she decided to become “Mother” to all poor and suffering kids. Her own home in ashes, she became a traveling “hell-raiser” for the rights of working people. She said, “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE OF 1903
No one thought seventy-five thousand workers in Pennsylvania would go on strike, but they did. At least 10,000 of those strikers were children.
Mother Jones went to Philadelphia to support the strikers. Once there, she realized the American people needed a dramatic story to wake them up about the brutal reality of child labor.
She proclaimed a Children’s Crusade — a march of young textile workers from Kensington, PA to Oyster Bay, NY, where President Teddy Roosevelt was vacationing in style with his children.
On July 7, 1903, though newspaper headlines warned: HEAT WAVE! Mother Jones set out with a ragtag group of factory kids and their parents for a march to challenge American indifference to child labor.
That evening, stopping on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mother Jones stirred up the sweaty crowd with a speech. She called millionaires “hobos and bums” and scolded lawmakers and factory owners for hiring boys and girls to do grownup work.
In town after town, the Children’s Crusade drew crowds and grabbed headlines. In Princeton, Mother Jones shocked a crowd of professors and students. She pointed to one of her crusaders. “Here’s a textbook on economics! This little chap is only ten years old, but he’s stooped over like an old man from carrying bundles of yarn that weigh seventy-five pounds. For all his work, he only gets three dollars a week. He works in a carpet factory eleven hours a day, while the children of the rich are getting their higher education!”
MOTHER JONES IN MANHATTAN
The crusaders reached Jersey City on July 22nd. The next day, they piled into a ferryboat to cross the Hudson, then paraded through the streets of Manhattan waving their banners.
Thousands of people turned out to hear Mother Jones’ headline-grabbing oratory. She didn’t disappoint. Pointing to a young marcher, she hollered: “That’s little Gussie Rangnew. She’s just a little girl, but all the childhood has gone out of her. Gussie works in a factory eleven hours a day. She packs stockings into boxes. At the end of the day she is given a few cents.”
The children were invited to spend a day at the Coney Island amusement park. For Mother Jones, it was another opportunity to make news for the strikers.
She found some empty cages and asked a few children to crawl inside. Then, she started to talk as a crowd gathered. She said that the children were imprisoned in their terrible factory jobs like animals imprisoned in cages and told the crowd about their plan to see the president. “These children weave the carpets he walks upon and the lace curtains in his windows. They make his clothes. We want him to hear the wail of the children who never have a chance to go to school.”
The children never got to see the president. Warned about possible arrest and probable disappointment, Mother Jones only took three boys with her all the way to the president’s summer mansion, but Teddy Roosevelt refused to see them. Back in Philadelphia, the strikers were too hungry to hold out any longer. The strike was over.
Despite the disappointing results, the Children’s Crusade made a difference. People around the country talked about Mother Jones and the factory children long after the march was over. They wrote to lawmakers and demanded that the laws be changed.
Two years after the hot summer of 1903, the child labor laws in Pennsylvania were changed. Slowly, other states changes their laws. In 1938, a federal law was passed so that all American children, rich and poor, would have the right to go to school.
TO GO DEEPER
“March of the Mill Children” except from The Autobiography of Mother Jones, 1925.
“Mary Harris ‘Mother Jones’” by Doris Weatherford, reprinted from American Women’s History (Prentice Hall, 1994) on National Women’s History Museum blog
“Jones, Mary Harris ‘Mother’” at Zinn Education Project — Teaching A People’s History
“The March of the Mill Children of 1903: Changing Public Perception of Child Labor” (10 mins.)