Mother Jones, "Letter to Emma Powderly," 1926


Mother Jones Speaking to Group
Courtesy of Newberry Library / Kerr Archives

Mother Jones' part in the Colorado coal strike brought her to national attention. For the next few years, she continued her rigorous schedule of traveling and speaking. However, by 1920, rheumatoid arthritis, which caused painful swelling of her joints, and other unnamed illnesses had left her often crippled and weak. Despite her health, she spent the latter half of 1920 and most of 1921 in West Virginia supporting the striking miners. After recovering from a near-fatal illness in 1923, she fulfilled her long-held hope of writing her autobiography. The following year, she made her last public appearance; it was on behalf of dressmakers in Chicago.

Out of the public eye and in increasingly fragile health, from 1924 until her death in 1930, she lived with friends in California and Washington, DC. As a union organizer, she had spent her life on the road, moving between mines and factories. She had had little time to cultivate friendships, reflect on her life, or establish a permanent residence. Now, ill and unable to travel at will, she found herself with time to build friendships and think about her own needs. Yet, even after she was housebound, she followed the miners' struggles until her death October 30, 1930. She died at the home of her friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess, with whom she lived after several years with Terence and Emma Powderly.



Letter to Emma Powderly from Mother Jones, Jan. 22, 1926

This letter written by Jones in 1926 while she lived with her friends in Los Angeles, California, offers a glimpse of the woman in her final years. It reveals her continued concern for the state of the United Mine Workers, the miners and their families, and surprisingly, her need to nurture friendships that essentially replaced the family she had lost decades earlier. In this letter, she criticizes the men, among them Hugh Kerwin, who were supposed to help the miners, comparing them unfavorably to past leaders, such as Terence Powderly, former president of the Knights of Labor. Specifically, she was angry about the actions of these new men, regarding strikes in Anthracite and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and other locations. The men named were involved in labor in some capacity.

Hugh Kerwin was the director of conciliation in the Department of Labor. Terence Powderly, her close friend, had led the Knights of Labor as their president; Martin Irons had stood against the railroad companies as a regional leader of the Knights of Labor; and John Siney (misspelled Sinie) had served the miners as the president of the Miners' National Association.



As you read the document, reflect on the following questions:

  • Who are Mother Jones's people?
  • What was the struggle underlying the cause of the strikes? Does she believe class harmony is possible?
  • Does Mother Jones appear to be religious? What did Mother Jones mean when she said, "Religion changes without changing the order of production?" Was this good or bad?
  • In light of her comments on government officials, both good and bad officials, did she believe that the government could help solve the problems?
  • In this speech Mother Jones speaks of the cycle of enslavement that condemns people to a life of poverty. Who created this cycle? Whom does it benefit? Who must break it?