Mother Jones fearlessly questioned corporate rule and earned the title “the grandmother of all agitators.” She is a figure who lives on because the issues she raised are still of concern to us, still relevant in the twenty-first century.
While Mother Jones asked to be buried "with her boys" in Mt. Olive, her early commitment to organizing the women and children of the coal fields was a major contribution to a new style of rebellious unionism.Jones was a fine observer of women's willingness to struggle in these coal communities. She crafted the theater from observation.
We place this story at the gravesite of Jane Bradley's daughter, Bertha, who was active in the women's auxiliary and kept alive the memory of her brother, "General Alexander Bradley," the miner who was a catalyst of the struggle for a living wage, an endeavor that was also a catalyst for this cemetery. While Jane was likely buried in Union Miners Cemetery, we have to assume it was in the paupers area, in an unmarked grave (see map). Jane Bradley deserves to be remembered as the kind of woman Mother Jones appreciated, the kind that would have produced the rebel leader Alex, her son, who is the one remembered for his role in this history. Jane was lost to the record. There was a long tradition of women's militancy in the coalfields, and the incident depicted here brought Jane Bradley to the front among some of the immigrant women when she boldly confronted the military in Mt. Olive, Illinois, in 1894, not too far from this cemetery.
Jane was born Jane Sisson in England, and she married Alexander Bradley, a Nottinghamshire miner, when she was 24. From 1864 to 1900 she gave birth to 9 children, but only 2 survived, Alexander and Bertha. Both of Jane's children became involved in the labor movement. We know very little about her husband, for which the record is even more silent, but her son Alex went on to make a name for himself in this area.
The Bradley family moved from England to Collinsville, Illinois (about 30 miles south) in 1880, and Alex began to work there as a boy of 14. The family likely participated in a great confrontation there a few years later, when women were vitally involved in a strike, and troops fired on them. Sometime later the Bradley family moved to Mt. Olive, and experienced the continual downward spiral that made survival seem impossible.
When the miners went on strike in 1894 in the first general strike against cruel starvation conditions, Jane and the immigrant women and men of Mt. Olive were at the center of it. The men stopped trains coming into Mt. Olive to take the coal out. Jane led children to unload the railroad cars full of coal, in order to keep the miners from losing the strike; they defied federal marshals sent in. This is around the same time as the Pullman strike upheaval and the unemployed army called Coxey's army that led Mother Jones to fame.
Illinois Governor Altgeld sent the militia in to Mt. Olive when he received the reports of stopping trains and unloading coal in defiance of property rights. This forced the miners back to work in defeat. It was a sensational confrontation but it wasn't over without a fight; tales of this event were legion. As the articles below suggest, the press was ready to blame the trouble not on unjust or unfair conditions, but on unruly uncivilized immigrants.
The major newspapers depicted Jane's confrontation in a way that suggested these immigrants were dangerous and upsetting the norms of civilized behavior, especially because they let women take charge.
Note the way that the newspapers emphasized the ethnic identity of the strikers in the newspaper below, to suggest an unruly uncivilized character to the immigrants.
So we asked artist Bill Yund to imagine the scene from Jane’s point of view, but based on research in dozens of sources. The scene is at the Lutheran Church in Mt. Olive, which permitted the seventh regiment from Chicago to set up a barbed wire bullpen to round up men who were on strike. The miners had sought to shut down coal delivery as part of the UMWA’s first national strike. The militia was called in to pacify them and as a strikebreaking agency.
The Lutheran Church that agreed to allow the militia’s bullpen for imprisoning the immigrant miners on their church grounds was the same one that later objected to commemoration for the slain Mt. Olive miners in 1899. That led the miners to establish the Union Miners Cemetery in 1899, which began the commemoration in spite of the objections, and built up a culture of resistance in the years to come. And that led Mother Jones to choose to be buried at the cemetery.
Jane was also vitally involved in the 1897 miners march and strike for a living wage, not only in support activity. She was on hand in 1897 when her son Alex confronted another set of troops. This was a pivotal moment in that strike, and was a turning point.
In the 1940s, Bertha Bradley's Poem to her brother "General" Bradley below shows her determination that her brother be remembered. Bertha married a miner who died young, in 1926. The entire family paid a heavy price for extracting energy from the earth. We have to wonder--what poem did she write to her mother that was left unpublished because few people documented the role of women.
Below: Bertha Bradley, at 1940 ceremony at Mother Jones Monument, with Mike Engleman and George Simburger, survivors of Virden 1898 from the Mt. Olive local.