Skip to main content

Chapter 9 - Murder in West Virginia

At the close of the anthracite strike in October, 1902, I went into the unorganized sections of West Virginia with John H. Walker of Illinois. Up and down along both sides of the New River we held meetings and organized – Smithersfield, Long Acre, Canilton, Boomer.

The work was not easy or safe and I was lucky to have so fearless a co-worker. Men who joined the union were blacklisted throughout the entire section. Their families were thrown out on the highways. Men were shot. They were beaten. Numbers disappeared and no trace of them found. Store keepers were ordered not to sell to union men or their families. Meetings had to be held in the woods at night, in abandoned mines, in barns.

We held a meeting in Mount Hope. After the meeting adjourned, Walker and I went back to our hotel. We talked till late. There came a tap on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

A miner came into the room. He was lean and tall and coughed a lot.

“Mother,” he said, “there are twelve of us here and we want to organize.” I turned to Walker.

“Mother,” he said, “the National Board told us to educate and agitate but not to Organize; that was to come later.”

“I’m going to Organize these men tonight,” said I.

“I’m reckoning I’m not going to be mining coal so long in this world and I thought I’d like to die organized,” said the spokesman for the group.

I brought the other miners in my room and Mr. Walker gave them the obligation.

“Now, boys, you are twelve in number. That was the number Christ had. I hope that among your twelve there will be no Judas, no one who will betray his fellow. The work you do is for your children and for the future. You preach the gospel of better food, better homes, a decent compensation for the wealth you produce. It is these things that make a great nation.”

The spokesman kept up his terrible coughing. He had miner’s consumption. As they had no money to pay for their charter I told them that I would attend to that.

Three weeks afterward I had a letter from one of the group. He told me that their spokesman was dead but they had organized eight hundred men and they sent me the money for the charter.

In Caperton Mountain camp I met Duncan Kennedy, who is now commissioner for the mine owners. He and his noble wife gave shelter and fed us when it was too late for us to go down the mountain and cross the river to an inn. Often after meetings in this mountain district, we sat through the night on the river bank. Frequently we would hear bullets whizz past us as we sat huddled between boulders, our black clothes making us invisible in the blackness of the night.

Seven Organizers were sent into Laurel Creek. All came back, shot at, beaten up, run out of town.

One Organizer was chased out of town with a gun.

“What did you do?” I said.

“I ran.”

“Which way?” said I.

“Mother,” he said, “you mustn’t go up there. They’ve got gunmen patrolling the roads.”

“That means the miners up there are prisoners,” said I, “and need me.”

A week later, one Saturday night I went with eight or ten trapper boys to Thayer, a camp about six miles from Laurel Creek. Very early Sunday morning we walked to Laurel Creek. I climbed the mountain so that I could look down on the camp with its huddle of dirty shacks. I sat down on a rock above the camp and told the trapper boys to go down to the town, and tell the boys to come up the mountain side.. That Mother Jones was going to speak at two o’clock and tell the superintendent that Mother Jones extends a cordial invitation him to come.

Then I sent two boys across a little gully a log cabin to get a cup of tea for me. The mine came out and beckoned to me to come over. I went and as I entered the door, my eyes rested on a straw mattress on which rested a beautiful young girl. She looked at me with the most gentle eyes I ever saw in a human-being. The wind came in through the cracks of the floor and would raise the bed clothes a little.

I said to the father, “What is wrong with your girl?”

“Consumption,” said he. “I couldn’t earn enough in the mines and she went to work in boarding house. They worked her so hard she took sick – consumption.”

Around a fireplace sat a group of dirty children, ragged and neglected-looking. He gave us tea and bread.

A great crowd came up the mountains that afternoon. The superintendent sent one of his lackeys, a colored fellow. When the miners told me who he was and that he was sent there as a spy, I said to him, “See here, young man, don’t you know that the immortal Lincoln a white man, gave you freedom from slavery? Why do you now betray your white brothers who are fighting for industrial freedom?”

“Mother,” said he, “I can’t make myself scarce but my hearing and my eyesight ain’t extra today.”

That afternoon, up there on the mountain-side, we organized a strong union.

The next day the man who gave me food-his name was Mike Harrington-went to the mines to go to work, but he was told to go to the office and get his pay. No man could work in the mines, the superintendent said, who entertained agitators in his home.

Mike said to him, “I didn’t entertain her. She paid me for the tea and bread.”

“It makes no difference,” said he, “you had Mother Jones in your house and that is sufficient.”

He went home and when he opened the door, his sick daughter said, “Father, you have lost your job.” She started to sob. That brought on a coughing fit from which she fell back on the pillow exhausted-dead.

That afternoon he was ordered to leave his house as it was owned by the company. They buried the girl and moved to an old barn.

Mike was later made an organizer for the United Mine Workers and he made one of the most faithful workers I have ever known.

In February of 1903, I went to Stanford Mountain where the men were on strike. The court had issued an injunction forbidding the miners from going near the mines. A group of miners walked along the public road nowhere near the mines. The next morning they held meeting in their own hall which they themselves had built. A United States deputy marshal came into the meeting with warrants for thirty members for violating the injunction.

The men said, “We did not break any law. We did not go near the mines and you know we were on the public road.”

“Well,” said the deputy, “we are going arrest you anyway.”

They defied him to arrest them, insisting they had not violated the law. They gave him twenty-five minutes to leave town. They sent for his brother, who was the company doctor and told him to take him out.

That night I went to hold a meeting with them. They told me what had happened.

I said, “Boys, it would have been better if you had surrendered, especially as you had truth on your side and you had not been near the mines.

“After the meeting I went to a nearby camp – Montgomery – where there was a little hotel and the railway station. Before leaving, the boys, who came to the edge of the town with me said, “You will be coming back soon Mother?”

I had no idea how soon it would be.

The next morning I went to the station to get an early train. The agent said to me, “Did you hear what trouble they had up in Stanford Mountain last night?”

“I think you are mistaken,” I answered, “for I just came down from there myself last night.”

“Well,” he said, “they have had some trouble there, all the same.”

“Anyone hurt?”

“Yes; I was taking the railway messages and couldn’t get all the details. Some shooting.”

I said, “Take back my ticket. I must go up to those boys.”

I took the short trail up the hillside to Stanford Mountain. It seemed to me as I came toward the camp as if those wretched shacks were huddling closer in terror. Everything was deathly still. As I came nearer the miners’ homes, I could hear sobbing. Then I saw between the stilts that propped up a miner’s shack the clay red with blood. I pushed open the door. On a mattress, wet with blood, lay a miner. His brains had been blown out while he slept. His shack was riddled with bullets.

In five other shacks men lay dead. In one of them a baby boy and his mother sobbed over the father’s corpse. When the little fellow saw me, he said, “Mother Jones, bring back my papa to me. I want to kiss him.”

The coroner came. He found that these six men had been murdered in their beds while they peacefully slept; shot by gunmen in the employ of the coal company.

The coroner went. The men were buried on the mountain side. And nothing was ever done to punish the men who had taken their lives.

Next page: Chapter 10 - The March of the Mill Children