Anti-Capitalist Meetup: The West Virginia Court-Martial of Mother Jones by JayRaye

From the cover of the International Socialist Review of March 1913


June 11, 1912
Charleston Gazette Interview with Mother Jones

I am simply a social revolutionist. I believe in collective ownership of the means of wealth. At this time the natural commodities of this country are cornered in the hands of a few. The man who owns the means of wealth gets the major profit, and the worker, who produces the wealth from the means in the hands of the capitalist, takes what he can get. Sooner or later, and perhaps sooner than we think, evolution and revolution will have accomplished the overturning of the system under which we now live, and the worker will have gained his own.


This change will come as the result of education. My life work has been to try to educate the worker to a sense of the wrongs he has had to suffer, and does suffer-and to stir up the oppressed to a point of getting off their knees and demanding that which I believe to be rightfully theirs. When force is used to hinder the worker in his efforts to obtain the thing which are his he has the right to meet force with force. He has the right to strike for what is his due, and he has no right to be satisfied with less. The people want to do right , but they have been hoodwinked for ages. They are now awakening, and the day of their enfranchisement is near at hand.
[Reprinted in the March 1913 issue of the International Socialist Review. (pdf!)

Mother Jones gave this interview shortly after her arrival in Charleston. She came by train from Butte, Montana where she had been working with the copper miners of the Western Federation of Miners. Now, she was in West Virginia to assist the the striking miners of the United Mine Workers of America. The miners of Paint Creek were striking for renewal of their contract. The operators were refusing to sign a new contract preferring instead to bust the Union. At issue were all of the usual grievances: dangerous conditions, short weights, payment in company scrip, poor housing, low wages, blacklisting, poor medical care, and never-ending debt. But above all, the miners hated the brutal company-guard system.

To break the strike, the operators had contracted with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency which supplied them with three hundred gun-thugs who began a campaign of terror against the miners and their families. Even before Mother Jones arrived, there had been clashes with the company guards, and loss of life on both sides. The guards had more weapons, including machine guns, but the miners had more men, seven thousand by some accounts.


Cabin Creek was known as "forbidden territory." Miner [Frank Keeney] was not afraid to enter, but could find no one to go with him until early August when he found Mother Jones. Miner [Fred Mooney] later told the story:

He [Frank Keeney] proceeded to locate Mother Jones and after a thorough understanding was reached, a date was set for Mother Jones to go into the forbidden territory. I was standing on the bridge at Cabin Creek Junction the day Mother Jones entered Cabin Creek. Her hair was snow white, but she could walk mile after mile and never show fatigue. When we saw her drive by in a horse drawn vehicle we knew the meaning of that visit and we fully expected to hear of her being killed by the gunmen. She arrived at Eskdale without mishap, but after she passed through the business center of town and as she approached the southern residence section a body of gunmen could be seen just ahead....


But she drove her rig near [to the gunmen] and one of the miners assisted her to alight. She surveyed the scene with a critical eye and walked straight up to the muzzle of one of the machine guns and patting the muzzle of the gun, said to the gunman behind it, "Listen here, you, you fire one shot here today and there are 800 men in those hills (pointing to the almost inaccessible hills to the east) who will not leave one of your gang alive."

It was a bluff, there were no miners in those hills. But the bluff worked. Mother Jones held her mass meeting in Eskdale, and the miners of Cabin Creek joined the strike with Eskdale as a militant center of strike activity.


Mother Jones Speaks

We have the stenographer hired by the operators to thank for the preservation of these speeches. These five speeches were later entered into the court-martial proceedings as evidence against Mother Jones. Full text of the August 15th speech can be read [here.

August 1, 1912
Charleston, WV
Speech on the levee
from the back of a dray wagon:

...We have broken the chains of chattel slavery, we changed his condition from a chattel slave to wage slave. But you say we didn't make it any better. Oh, yes, we did, we made it better for the chattel slave. Then we entered into industrial slavery. That was one step in advance. We forever wiped out chattel slavery and came into industrial slavery. Now, industrial slavery is the battle you are in....


Today we are four hundred thousand strong, marching on to liberty, marching on to freedom. We are the United Mine workers of America today numbering four hundred thousand....

August 4, 1912
Montgomery, WV
Speech at the baseball park:

...Now, the Judge said if the operators would quit paying the Baldwin guards they would leave the State. The operators don't pay the Baldwin guards, they don't pay them a penny. If it had to come out of their pockets the Baldwin guards would be gone long ago. The miners are robbed in the weighing of coal, in rent and in the store, they pay the Baldwin guards. (Applause.)


You are the fellows that have got the right to clean up the Baldwin guards because you are the fellows who pay them...

August 15, 1912
Charleston, West Virginia
Speech on the capitol steps:

[After first reading a petition to Governor Glasscock for removal of the armed company guards...]

I want to say with all due respect to the Governor-I want to say to you that the Governor will not, cannot do anything, for this reason: The Governor was placed in this building by Scott and Elkins [industrialists] and he don't dare oppose them. (Loud applause.) Therefore, you are asking the Governor of the State to do something that he cannot do with out betraying the class he belongs to...

We will give the Governor until tomorrow night to take them guards out of Cabin Creek..Here on the steps of the Capitol of West Virginia, I say that if the Governor won't make them go then we will make them go...

It is freedom or death, and your children will be free. We are not going to leave a slave class to the coming generation, and I want to say to you that the next generation will not charge us for what we have done, they will charge and condemn us for what we have left undone. (Cries of: "That is right.")...

I see that hour. I see the Star breaking your chains; your chains will be broken, men. You will have to suffer more and more, but it won't be long. There is an awakening among all the nations of the earth...

Oh, men, have you any hearts? Oh, men, do you feel? Oh, men, do you see the judgement day on the throne above, when you will be asked, "Where did you get your gold?" You stole it from these wretches. You murdered, you assassinated, you starved, you burned them to death, that you and your wives might have palaces, and that your wives might go to the sea-shore...

[They say] "Oh, them horrible miners. Oh, that horrible old Mother Jones, that horrible old woman." I am horrible, I admit, and I want to be to you blood-sucking pirates. I want you, my boys, to buckle on your armor. This is the fighting age. This is not the age for cowards, put them out of the way...

This day marks the forward march of the workers in the state of West Virginia. Slavery and oppression will gradually die...The day of oppression will be gone. I will be with you whether true or false. I will be with you at midnight or when the battle rages, when the last bullet ceases, but I will be in my joy...

September 6, 1912
Charleston, WV
Speech in the courthouse square:

...When we were on the Capitol grounds the last time you came here, you had a petition to the Governor for a peacful remedy and solutiion ot this condition. The mine owners, the bankers, the plunderers of the State went in on the side door and got a hearing, and you didn't. (Loud applause.)...

Now, then, go with me up those creeks, and see the blood-hounds of the mine owners, approved of by your public officials, see them insulting women, see them coming up the track. I went up there and they followed me like hounds But some day I will follow them. When I see them go to Hell, I will get the coal and pile it up on them....


Now then, let me ask you. When the miners-a miner that they have robed him of one leg in the mines and never paid him a penny for it-when he entered a protest, they went into his house not quite a week ago, and threw out his whole earthly belongings, and he and his wife and six children slept on the roadside all night. Now, you can't contradict that. Suppose we had taken a mine owner and his wife and children and threw them out on the road and made them sleep all night, the papers would be howling "anarchy"...


The whole machinery of capitalism is rotten to the core. This meeting tonight indicates a milestone of progress of the miners and workers of the State of West Virginia. I will be with you, and the Baldwin guards will go. You will not be serfs, you will march, march, march on from milestone to milestone of human freedom, you will rise like men in the new day and slavery will get its death blow. It has got to die...

September 21, 1912
Charleston, WV
Speech on the lawn of the YMCA:

...We have entered West Virginia-I have - and a hundred thousand miners have pledged their support to me, "If you need us, Mother, we will be there." Five thousand men last Sunday night said, "We are ready, Mother, when you call on us." The revolution is here. We can tie up every wheel, every railroad in the State, when we want to do it. Tyranny, robbery and oppression of the people must go...


This strike ain't going to end until we get a check-weighman on the tipple. That is the law. It is on the statute books-that your coal will be weighed...You miners here have stood for it [being robbed of weight], you have starved your children, starved yourselves, you have lived in dog-kennels -they wouldn't build one for their dogs as bad as yours. You have lived in them and permitted them to rob you, and then got the militia for the robbers. You can get all the militia in the state, we will fight it to the finish-if the men don't fight, the women will. They won't stand for it....

I don't worry about [jail], I am down at the Fleetwood when they want to put me in jail for violation of the law, come along for me, come. There is coming a day when I will take the whole bunch of you and put you in jail. (Applause.)


Throughout that fall and winter, Mother Jones continued giving speeches for the miners. She led parades for the women and children, always advocating for the education of the miner's children and end of child labor. She traveled to Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, and Washington D.C, giving speeches and raising money for the strikers. Sadly, these speeches have not been recorded for history.


At about 11 PM on the night of February 7, 1913, the "Bull Moose Special," an armored train equipped with machine guns, opened fire on the miners and their families at Holly Grove. Maud Estep later [testified] that her husband, stiking miner, [Francis Estep] was shot dead as he tried to get his pregnant wife and son to safety in the cellar.

Three days later the miners marched in protest to Mucklow where they were met by the gun thugs. Twelve miners and four company guards died in the battle that followed. Governor Glasscock declared martial law in the strike zone, ordered six companies of militia to occupy the area, and established a military commission. A wave of arrests soon followed.


Mother Jones in the hands of the military.

On February 13, Mother Jones was in Charleston attempting to lead a protest march and speak with the Governor when she was taken into custody along with 125 other protesters. Charleston was outside the area of martial law, yet those arrested were transported into the martial law district and imprisoned in Pratt to await trial by the military court. The miners were held in harsh conditions, but Mother Jones was held in a [commandeered boardinghouse], and cared for by the landlady, Isabel Carney.

Meanwhile, a new governor, Dr. Henry Hatfield, was sworn in on March 4, 1913. In later years he recalled traveling to the strike area where he found Mother Jones sick with pneumonia and with a temperature of 104 degrees. He recalled having her treated in Charleston and then returned to the boardinghouse prison, although there is no official record of this.

Visitors were forbidden, but one reporter did manage to get in to see her, A.J. Hollis of the Pittsburgh Leader who managed to interview her through the basement floorboards. He was detained for several hours in the bullpen for his efforts. An exception was made for Cora Older, wife of the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, who quoted Mother Jones:

I can raise just as much hell in jail as anywhere.

Mother Jones did write letters from the military prison, perhaps smuggled out as she later remembered. She had some powerful allies in Washington D.C: William B Wilson, former UMWA official and, now Secretary of Labor, and also US Senators Borah and Kern. She was able to get messages out to all three of them. Some of her letters were published in the [Appeal to Reason] and other socialist newspapers of the day. Other letters were more personal:

March 6, 1913
Letter to [Terence V. Powderly]
(as written, without correction):

Pratt W Va
Military Bastile
My dear friend
You no doubt have heard of my arrest by the hounds of capitalism they have me in close confinement-there are two military guarding me day and night. No one is allowed to speak to me. they squashed all constitutional rights and handed me over to the military. here I am-the first thing I will do if I am turned loose will be to go up and see you.
Tomorrow at ten o clock we will be taken before the Military Court for trial. They charge me and 3 national organizers besid the Editor of the Argus a local labor paper. neither one of us was in the marshall law zone they picked me up on the streets of Charleston-kidnaped me moved me with 2 others down in the military camp. here I am now for 22 days! not allowed to speak to anyone or see anyone. Just think of it I have lived 80 years and never before charged with any crime. Now I am charged with stealing a cannon from the Military-inciting to riot-putting dinamite under track to blow up A.C.O. road-We were not there at all. Just think what the tools of the olagarchy can descend to. I know they are death on me for I have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They came to me yesterday wanted to get a Lawyer & witnesses I refused to get either. I said if I have brok the Law of the State or nation I do not want any Lawyer or Witnesses. One fellow Said I should be Drummed out of the State. I have a lot to tell you when I see you God spare me the Heart to fight them Love to my dear Emma [Mrs Powderly] tell her not to worry-I'll fight the Pirates forever.


Friday, March 7, 1913, 10 AM
Pratt, West Virginia
From the Proceedings of the
Military Commission:

Mary Jones: Will you permit me to make a statement, General Wallace?
The Judge Advocate: Proceed, Mother.
Mary Jones: I have no defense to make. Whatever I have done in West Virginia, I have
done it all over the United States, and when I get out, I will do it again. The Judge Advocate: We will enter a plea of not guilty for you.

Mother Jones along with four other defendants refused to recognize the validity of the military court. Pleas of not guilty were entered for them. The forty-five other defendants pleaded not guilt and were provided counsel. The charges included murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy to commit property damage, charges of being an accessory after the fact, and weapons charges. They were all facing long prison sentences, and even the death penalty was a possibility.

The five speeches noted above were entered as evidence by the prosecution in an attempt to prove that the Mother Jones had inflamed the miners and had caused them to murder company mine guards. When in fact, she had counseled only self-defense. The mine guards who died, were killed in battle with weapons in hand. Unlike Francis Estep who was shot and killed, unarmed, in his own home.

The editor of the socialist newspaper, Labor Argus was one of the defendants, and several pages from that newspaper were read into the record, including this:

It has always been said that it was a hard job to keep a woman's mouth shut. Governor Glasscock is evidently of that opinion as he sent sixteen soldiers with guns and ammunition to keep an old woman over eighty years of age from making a speech and then failed. We would advise the Governor to send the whole regiment along the next time he wants to stop Mother Jones from speaking.

March 12, 1913
Captan Charles R Morgan for the defense:

Now, gentlemen, as to one of my clients, the aged lady, who has sat here so patiently and listened to the testimony...this old lady is fighting the battles of the laboring man and has been for years and years...


[Those] speeches that she made were made all the way back last summer, shortly after the poor old woman had waded the creek in order to get to the place she was going to speak. My God, it is enough to make the blood of an old woman boil when she is force to do things of that kind; when men-will stand on each side of the creek and force an old woman to march in the middle of it, in order that she may get up to say a few works to "the boys" that she-whose interest she thinks she is advancing-Where is there a single item of evidence connecting this old woman with the conspiracy, if a conspiracy has been shown, and which we say we do not think has been shown. Now, the state has failed.

The verdicts and sentences were submitted by the military commission to Governor Hatfield under seal, and were never revealed by the Governor. No official record has ever been found. However, many of the prisoners were soon released. Mother Jones was one of those who remained a prisoner of the military. According to Edward Steel, the "ringleaders" were kept as hostages to strengthen the Governor's hand in forcing the the national leaders of the UMWA to accept his proposed settlement of the strike.


Meanwhile, Senator John W. Kern of Indiana, Democratic Majority Leader, had introduced a resolution calling for an investigation into the conditions of coal mining in West Virginia. During debate on the resolution, Senator Goff of West Virginia referred to Mother Jones as the "grandmother of all agitators." Senator Kern then took the floor and read this telegram from Mother Jones into the Congressional Record:

Hansford, West Virginia
May 4, 1913
Senator Kern
Care Senate Chamber
Washington, D.C.
From out the military prison walls, where I have been forced to pass my eighty-first milestone of life., I plead with you for the honor of this Nation. I send you groans and tears of men, women, and children as I have heard them in this State, and beg you to force that investigation. Children yet unborn will rise and bless you.
Mother Jones

The Kern Resolution passed and the investigation eventually totaled over 2000 pages of testimony. The final report is available online and makes interesting reading:

U.S. Congress. Senate. Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor. Investigations of Conditions in the Paint Creek District, West Virginia. 1913. [Final Report (pdf!)

The strike was eventually settled with some concessions by the operators as to checkwieghman, bimonthly pay, and a grievance procedure. But the hated company-guard system remained intact.

Mother Jones was released May 10th, and the last prisoners were released in June, about the time that the Senate committee arrived in West Virginia to begin hearing testimony.


May 27, 1913
New York City
Speech at Carnegie Hall:

I hope you do not believe that, as Comrade Wanhope has said, that the miners of West Virginia simply decided casually "to take guns and do a share of the killing." They got guns only wen it became clear that the authorities, acting on behalf of their masters would not accede to the just and peaceful requests of the miners.

I organized a meeting at which a committee was chosen to go to Charleston to present a petition to the Governor asking him to remove the Baldwin gunmen from the mine territory. We went, several thousand miners and myself to Charleston, and met on the grounds in front of the State Capitol. The Governor came out and heard the petition read....

The petition was unavailing. The guards were not removed. The men came back to Charleston, and held another meeting on the river bank. Then they went and bought up every gun in Charleston. They had appealed to the constituted authorities for protection, but they had failed, and they decided to fight for themselves-not because they favored violence but because they had no other choice.

Meanwhile, encouraged by the indifference of the Governor, the thugs began a veritable reign of terror. The war was then begun. Some guards were killed by miners in self protection, and the militia came. A short period of peace followed, and militia was withdrawn. This was the signal for the agents of the mine owners to intensify the war against the workers. Men, women and children were evicted from their home; miners were shot down in cold blood, and reign of terror grew even more terrible. When I protested the barbarism of the capitalists and their henchmen., I was deprived of all the rights of an American citizen and imprisoned in a military bastille for three months...

West Virginia is on trial before the bar of the nation. The military arrests and court-martial to which I and others were forced to undergo in West Virginia was the first move ever made by the ruling class to have the working class tried by military and not civil courts. It is up to the American workers to make sure that it is the last.

Mother Jones,
Grand Old Champion of Labor:
O'er the hills and through the valley
In ev'ry mining town;
Mother Jones was ready to help them,
She never turned them down.
On front with the striking miners
She always could be found;
And received a hearty welcome
In ev'ry mining town.

[The Death of Mother Jones, sung by Gene Autry, 1931]


Struggle in the coal fields:
the autobiography of Fred Mooney
With JW Hess
WV University Library, 1967

Mother Jones Speaks
Collected Writings and Speeches
Edited by Philip S Foner
NY, 1983

The Correspondence of
Mother Jones
Edited by Edward M Steel
U of Pittsburgh Press, 1985

The Speeches and Writings of
Mother Jones
U of Pettsburgh Press, 1988

The Court-Martial of
Mother Jones
Edited by Edward M Steel, Jr
U Press of Kentucky, 1995

The Mother Jones Museum
(Amazing photo collection!)


Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party
in West Virginia, 1898-1920
by Frederick A. Barkey
WV U Press, 2012

And see this link for interview with Barkey:

A Union Man: The Life of C. Frank Keeney Charles Belmont Keeney
Available here only:

The Autobiography of
Mother Jones
With Mary Field Parton
[Charles H Kerr Publishing], 1990
Pittston Strike Commemorative Edition

This diary is dedicate to Francesco Estep Who lost his life in Freedom's Cause.

Francis Estep, from Holly Grove, W. VA,
In 19 and 13 loaded coal, twelve hours a day.
Six days a week, 47 and a half cent a ton.
He was hot down by gun thugs
At the young age of 31.

So is this little marker his only memorial today?
For a man who gave his life to the UMWofA.
Is this how we remember all the sacrifices he made?
To let the briars and the weeds
Take over his union and grave?
-Hazel Dickens

Let us honor our Martyrs by keeping our Unions
strong and democratic.

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.
Mother Jones





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Excellent piece.

Glinda's picture

Thank you.

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What a great essay.

sartoris's picture

This change will come as the result of education. My life work has been to try to educate the worker to a sense of the wrongs he has had to suffer, and does suffer-and to stir up the oppressed to a point of getting off their knees and demanding that which I believe to be rightfully theirs. When force is used to hinder the worker in his efforts to obtain the thing which are his he has the right to meet force with force. He has the right to strike for what is his due, and he has no right to be satisfied with less.

Labor, in my opinion, has lost their way and needs to revisit the examples of people like Debs, Mother Jones and Haywood. The gilded class has the money, means and will to disseminate so much misinformation that it can only be countered by an education offensive. As in birth control, we are being forced to refight battles that should have long ago been settled.

I really appreciate the effort that it took to prepare this essay.  Mother Jones was a hero in every sense of the word. Look at the dignity with which she holds herself while standing next to the soldier. She gives off the aura of being in complete controld of the situation. A person with no previous knowledge of the picture would likely assume from her posture that she was the one in charge and not the soldier.

The State's attack on her, Debs, Goldman, and countless others was reprehensible. The State over reacted by murdering and imprisoning thousands. No, that is not hyperbole, that is American history. Labor was attacked because it represented a 'threat' to the dominant class.'s unchallenged control of capital. People died fighting for 6 day work weeks. Labor is an area of history that is not taught. A person has to seek out this knowledge. Wonder why............

Thanks for the excellent essay. 

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Thank you so much, Sartoris,

JayRaye's picture

for your kind words. 


And yes, I had the same thot about that pic of her and the soldier!

Funny story, one of those soldiers took her to town for beer. Hope he didn't get in too much trouble!

So much that I had to leave out!




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that speaks volumes

sartoris's picture

I never heard that story. One of the soldiers took her to town for a beer. That demonstrates the soldiers knew their orders were stupid and they made the conscious decision to befriend her and treat her as an equal. Wow.

JayRaye, appreciate your efforts on this essay. I know how much work something like this takes.


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