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MC's Cordery writes Mother Jones bio

Barry McNamara
03/08/2010
A century before fictional character Forrest Gump turned up in the most famous places of his generation, such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate Hotel, there was Mother Jones. Before becoming famous as a leader in the labor movement of the early 20th century, she experienced the Irish potato famine, the Civil War, a yellow fever epidemic and the Great Chicago Fire.

Simon Cordery, associate professor of history at Monmouth College, has completed “Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness,” a 220-page biography that will be published by the University of New Mexico Press and be available through all major outlets, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

It is the fourth biography in a UNM Press series profiling significant women in American history. The other books chronicled the lives of former justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Colorado politician Pat Schroeder and another labor leader, Dolores Huerta.

Cordery said he teaches about Jones in his Monmouth College courses because “She allows us to talk about a wide range of issues in American life from 1860 to 1930, including the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era and the modern labor movement.”

When his students observed that a biography on Jones already in print “was too long and too complicated,” Cordery decided to write his own. Written primarily during his sabbatical year in 2007-08, Cordery worked on revisions through the summer of 2009.

“I can’t wait to see it,” he said of the finished product, which is scheduled to be available on March 31.

In the meantime, Cordery has already promoted the book at a talk in Illinois, and he was in Buffalo, N.Y., during the first week of March to deliver another presentation. After the book is published, he will speak in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, as well as three cities in Oregon.

Born in Ireland in 1837, Mary Harris Jones saw many hard times before becoming a champion of the working class in her later years.

“Her family survived the Irish potato famine, but after living in Memphis during the Civil War, her husband (George Jones) and four children died in the yellow fever epidemic,” Cordery said.

Four years after that tragedy, Jones lost her home and dressmaking business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Also lost was her public footprint for nearly a quarter-century.

“From 1871 to 1894, she falls off the map,” Cordery said. “She goes wandering for 20 years. She reappears when she helps organize a contingent of marches by unemployed men to Washington, D.C. They were called Coxey’s Army.”

Jones’s reputation as a labor leader was beginning to be established, and her efforts on behalf of mine workers, in particular, cemented her national fame.

“From 1900 to 1925, she was very rarely out of the public eye. Every time she went to a strike, the press reported it,” said Cordery of Jones, who was often referred to as “the most dangerous woman in America.”

He was aided in his research by newspapers with searchable online archives, allowing him to “track her in the middle of nowhere.”

“She did not have a home; she just traveled,” said Cordery, who noted that Jones spent a significant amount of time on labor causes in Colorado and West Virginia. “Her family was the coal miners. She would say, ‘They’re my boys.’”

Cordery said that while the women’s suffrage movement was going on concurrently, Jones considered it “a distraction” from fighting what she viewed as the more important class war.

Jones made her last public appearance in Alliance, Ohio, in 1926. She died four years later. The final resting place for the woman with no home is a cemetery in Mt. Olive, Ill., chosen, said Cordery, because it was the only one owned by a labor union.

Cordery, who joined the Monmouth faculty in 1994, received his doctorate in history from the University of Texas. His dissertation, which was about railway friendly societies in Britain during the 19th century, led to his book, “British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914.” He called the Mother Jones biography a “continuation” of his writings on the labor movement.