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She was born Mary Harris, the daughter of a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, Richard Harris and his wife Ellen Cotter, on the northside of Cork city, Ireland. Some recent materials list her birthday as August 1, 1837, although she claimed her birthdate to be May 1, 1830. Her claims to an earlier date may have been an appeal to her grandmotherly image. The date of May 1st was chosen symbolically, representing the national labor holiday and anniversary of the Haymarket Riot.
The family emigrated to the United States in 1848 and settled in the town of Monroe, Michigan. Harris studied and qualified to become a teacher in Toronto in 1857. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1862 where she married George Jones, a member of the Iron Workers' Union.
Two turning points in her life were the 1867 deaths of her husband and their four children (all under the age of five) during a yellow fever epidemic in Tennessee, and the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the death of her family, she moved to Chicago and recreated herself as an independent dressmaker. She lost her hard-earned home, shop and possessions in the Great Fire. This second loss catalyzed an even more fundamental transformation: she turned to the nascent labor movement and joined the Knights of Labor, a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies").
As another source of her transformation into a radical organizer, biographer Elliott Gorn draws out her early Roman Catholic connection -- including bringing to light her relationship to her estranged brother, Father William Richard Harris, Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and dean of Toronto's diocese of St. Catherine's, who was "among the best-known clerics in Ontario." 
Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf.
She became known as "the most dangerous woman in America," a phrase coined by a West Virginia District Attorney Reese Blizzard in 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She crooks her finger—twenty thousand contented men lay down."
In 1903 Jones organized children working in mills and mines in the "Children's Crusade", a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want to go to School and not the mines!" Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda.
In 1913, during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia, Mother Jones was charged and kept under house arrest in the nearby town of Pratt and subsequently convicted with other union organizers of conspiring to commit murder, after organizing another children's march. Her arrest raised an uproar and she was soon released from prison, after which the United States Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines.
A few months later she was in Colorado, helping to organize the coal miners there. Once again she was arrested, served some time in prison, and was escorted from the state in the months leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre she was invited to Standard Oil's headquarters at 26 Broadway to meet face-to-face with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a meeting that prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.
By 1924, Mother Jones was in court again, this time facing varying charges of libel, slander, and sedition. In 1925, Charles A. Albert, publisher of the fledgling Chicago Times, won a $350,000 judgment against the matriarch.
A common "tall tale" is often told about Mother Jones, as follows: "In early 1925, Jones fought off a pair of thugs who had broken into a friend's house where she was staying. After a brief struggle one intruder fled while the other was seriously injured. The wounded attacker, 54-year old Keith Gagne, later died from the wounds inflicted on him by the elderly Jones—wounds including blunt head trauma from Jones' trademark black leather boots. Police immediately arrested Jones, but she was soon released when the attackers were identified as associates of a prominent local business person." According to academic-based search engines, this story is false. Not only that, but she was in her late 80s by then, in poor health, and it stretches credulity to imagine that she could have prevailed in such a physical altercation with two men.
Mother Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW affairs into the 1920s, and continued to speak on union affairs almost until her death. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). In her later years, Jones lived with friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess of Hyattsville, Maryland. There she celebrated her self-proclaimed 100th birthday on May 1, 1930, and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel. She died at the age of 93 or 100 on November 30, 1930. Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the Virden Riot of 1898. She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys".
- The Autobiography of Mother Jones, 1925, ISBN 0-486-43645-4
- Mother Jones Speaks: Speeches and Writings of a Working-Class Fighter, 1983, ISBN 0-87348-810-5
- Day by Day in Cork, Sean Beecher, Collins Press, Cork, 1992
- *Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn
- *Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn
- *Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn, p. 278
- Death Notice for Mother Mary Jones, The Washington Post, Dec 2, 1930, pg. 3.
- "Service Tomorrow for Mother Jones," The Washington Post, Dec 2, 1930, pg. 12.
- DVD and virtual museum about Mother Jones
- Mother Jones: biography by Sarah K. Horsley
- Industrial Workers of the World
- Free eBook of The Autobiography of Mother Jones
- Free audio book of The Autobiography of Mother Jones at Librivox.org
- Mother Jones at Find-A-Grave
- Mother Jones Monument at GuidepostUSA
- Mother Jones Plaque in Adelphi, MD
- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Elementary School website, Adelphi, MD