Mary Harris, the daughter of a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, was born on 1st May, 1830 near Cork, Ireland. Mary's father got into trouble for his political activities and in 1838 decided to move the family to Toronto, Canada.
After graduating from high school, Mary became a school teacher and worked in Michigan before settling in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1861 she married George Jones, an iron molder. Like her father, Jones held left-wing political views and was an active member of the Iron Molders' Union.
In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, killing Mary's husband and her four children. She decided to move to Chicago where she set up as a seamstress. However, the 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed her home and her business.
Jones now became a full-time trade union organizer. Specializing in helping miners in their fight for decent wages, improved working conditions and an end to child labour. Her work involved making speeches, recruiting members and organizing soup kitchens and women's auxiliary groups during strikes. After the formation of the United Mine Workers Union in 1890, Jones became one of its officials. Jones, who by the 1890s, was in her sixties, was always affectionately called Mother Jones by the other trade unionists.
In 1905 Jones helped to form the radical labour organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Important leaders of this organization included William Haywood, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, William Z. Foster, Joe Hill, Frank Little and Ralph Chaplin.
As a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (also called Wobblies) Jones travelled the country helping workers to form themselves into unions. In 1908 Jones played a leading role in the mine strike in Paint Creek, West Virginia. During the strike, men employed by the mine-owners, machine-gunned the strikers and their families. When a company guard was murdered, Jones was arrested. Now aged seventy-eight, Jones was found guilty of being involved in the crime and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. A senatorial investigation discovered she was innocent of the charges and the sentence was overturned.
Jones was also involved in organizing workers in the mining strikes in Colorado in 1913 and 1923. This again led to her arrest and a nine week spell in prison. Now aged eighty-three, Jones was deported but when she returned to the strike area she was once again imprisoned.
In 1925 Jones published her autobiography. She defiantly wrote: "In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders the cause of the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowly his standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautiful things in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong, rough hands."
Soon after celebrating her 100th birthday, Mary Harris Jones died on 30th November, 1930. After a funeral attended by over 20,000 people, Jones was buried in the United Mine Workers Union Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.