The telegrams came in by the hundreds on May 1, 1930, to the remote Burgess farmhouse in Maryland, where Mother Jones lived out her final days. Almost none have survived. One that does is from John Fitzpatrick, the head of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
Courtesy Saul Schniderman
"The hundreds of thousands of trade unionists affiliated with the Chicago Federation of Labor through its officers sends greetings to you on this the hunredth anniversary of your birthday coupled wit the sincere hope that the labor movement in general and Chicago in particular may enjoy your inspirational spirit for another century of still greater progress," Fitzpatrick wrote.
In her response, she thanked him for their many years of comradeship, and signed her letter, "Yours for justice."
Mother Jones had claimed May Day as her birthday, no doubt reveling in her own little mission to keep the memory of the day alive. Indeed, she felt she had been reborn to what she referred to as “a happy life” in the struggle.
This was not the first time John Fitzpatrick had sent Jones a telegram for her birthday. Another that survives is the one he sent to her in Mexico in 1921, when she was being feted for her support of the Mexican Revolution. She responded to Fitzpatrick by noting the connections with Chicago's labor heroes in the strong workers movement in the town of Orizaba, a manufacturing city. There, she noted, the workers displayed a banner of the Chicago Haymarket martyrs, giving it equal footing to the new national banner.
Had such a banner been displayed in Chicago, she said, “every one of them would have been put in jail.” Notably, the "tribute paid to that banner as it entered that hall was the most remarkable demonstration I had witnessed in all my years in the industrial conflict,” and more remarkable was the absence of police at a large meeting, given their regular presence at labor demonstrations in the U.S.
The celebration for her 100th in 1930 was originally planned for Chicago, and it was going to be the biggest birthday party ever held in the city. But pneumonia struck before the celebration and made a trip impossible. So instead, Fitzpatrick sent Secretary-Treasurer Ed Nockles as the official representative to the Burgess Farm. (You can learn about that celebration here.)
Mother Jones likely did not know who would make it to the remote farmhouse, especially in the wake of the economic panic and hard times. She and her caregiver, Lilian Burgess, were stunned themselves with the deluge, as hundreds of people did arrive in addition to telegrams. The newsreel cameras turned on, but until I produced the short film on Mother Jones in 2007, no biographer had access to the full statement that survived in the long interview.
“You know, I’ve been called a Bolshevik, a red, a radical, an IWW, and I admit to being all they’ve charged me with. I’m ANYTHING that would change this moneyed civilization into a higher and grander civilization for the ages to come. And I long to see the day when Labor has the destination of the nation in her own hands, and she will stand a united force, and show the world what the workers can do.”
That was a statement curated for May Day, still so relevant for our time. For her it harkened to a trail of spilled blood and high ambition for the future, just as Fitzpatrick's telegram suggested that she was a touchstone for Chicago.
In true form, Mother Jones greeted the the unemployed army of young and old, Black and white who came for her birthday with equal accord to the labor and government officials. such as head of the American Federation of Labor According to Mrs. Burgess, Mother Jones was fine with letting the dignitaries wait in line as she greeted these unemployed workers who had walked all the way from an unemployed conference in Washington, D.C.