Mary Harris Jones was born in Ireland in 1830 or 1837 depending on the source. She was trained as a teacher and taught for several years in a convent. Her great strength came from early tragedy. She lost her husband and four young children in a yellow fever epidemic. Following their loss, she returned to dressmaking and rebuilt her business only to lose everything in the Chicago Fire. In 1871 she began working as a labor organizer. A powerful speaker she regaled her listeners with stories, jokes, and even dramatizations. By 1902 she was being called “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her effectiveness. The following excerpt is from her autobiography written in 1925.
One night a riot occurred. Hundreds of box cars standing on the tracks were soaked with oil and set on fire and sent down the tracks to the roundhouse. The roundhouse caught fire. Over one hundred locomotives belonging to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company were destroyed. It was a wild night. The flames lighted the sky and turned to fiery flames the steel bayonettes of the soldiers.
The strikers were charged with the crimes of arson and rioting, although it was common knowledge that it was not they who instigated the fire; that it was started by hoodlums backed by the business men of Pittsburgh who for a long time had felt that the Railroad Company discriminated against their city in the matter of rates.
I knew the strikers personally; I knew it was they who had tried to enforce orderly law. I knew they disciplined their members when they did violence. I knew, as everybody knew, who really perpetrated the crime of burning the railroad’s property. Then and there I learned in the early part of my career that labor must bear the cross for others’ sins, must be the vicarious sufferer for the wrongs that others do.
The Autobiography of Mary Harris Jones 1925 pp. 3-4
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