The Autobiography of Mother Jones

Chapter XIII – The Cripple Creek Strike


The state of Colorado belonged not to a republic but to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the Victor -Company and their dependencies. The governor was their agent. The militia under Bell did their bidding. Whenever the masters of the state told the governor to bark, he yelped for them like a mad hound. Whenever they told the military to bite, they bit.

The people of Colorado had voted overwhelmingly for an eight-hour day. The legislature passed an eight hour law but the courts had declared it unconstitutional. Then when the measure was submitted directly to the people, they voted for it with 40,000 votes majority. But the next legislature, which was controlled by the mining interests, failed to pass the bill.

The miners saw that they could not get their demands through peaceful legislation. That they must fight. That they must strike. All the metal miners struck first. The strike ex-tended into New Mexico and Utah. It became an ugly war. The metal miners were anxious to have the coal miners join them in their struggle.

The executive board of the United Mine Workers was in session in Indianapolis and to this board the governor of Colorado had sent a delegation to convince them that there ought not to be a strike in the coal fields. Among the delegates, was a labor commissioner.

I was going on my way to West Virginia from Mount Olive, Illinois, where the miners were commemorating their dead. I stopped off at headquarters in Indianapolis. The executive board asked me to go to Colorado, look into conditions there, see what the sentiments of the miners were, and make a report to the office.

I went immediately to Colorado, first to the office of The Western Federation of Miners where I heard the story of the industrial conflict. I then got myself an old calico dress, a sunbonnet, some pins and needles, elastic and tape and such sundries, and went down to the southern coal fields of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

As a peddler, I went through the various coal camps, eating in the homes of the miners, staying all night with their families. I found the conditions under which they lived deplorable. They were in practical slavery to the company, who owned their houses, owned all the land, so that if a miner did own a house he must vacate whenever it pleased the land owners. They were paid in scrip instead of money so that they could not go away if dissatisfied. They must buy at company stores and at company prices. The coal they mined was weighed by an agent of the company and the miners could not have a check weighman to see that full credit was given them. The schools, the churches, the roads belonged to the Company. I felt, after listening to their stories, after witnessing their long patience that the time was ripe for revolt against such brutal conditions.

I went to Trinidad and to the office of the Western Federation of Miners. I talked with the secretary, Gillmore, a loyal, hard-working man, and with the President, Howell, a good, honest soul. We sat up and talked the matter over far into the night. I showed them the conditions I had found down in the mining camps were heart-rending, and I felt it was our business to remedy those conditions and bring some future, some sunlight at least into the lives of the children. They deputized me to go at once to headquarters in Indianapolis.

I took the train the next morning. When I arrived at the office in Indianapolis, I found the president, John Mitchell, the vice-president, T. L. Lewis, the secretary, W. B. Wilson of Arnot, Pennsylvania, and a board member, called “old man Ream,” from Iowa. These officers told me to return at once to Colorado and they would call a strike of the coal miners.

The strike was called November 9th, 1903. The demand was for an eight hour day, a check by weighman representing the miners, payment in money instead of scrip. The whole state of Colorado was in revolt. No coal was dug. November is a cold month in Colorado and the citizens began to feel the pressure of the strike.

Late one evening in the latter part of November I came into the hotel. I had been working all day and into the night among the miners and their families, helping to distribute food and clothes, encouraging, holding meetings. As I was about to retire, the hotel clerk called me down to answer a long distance telephone call from Louisville. The voice said, “Oh for God’s sake; Mother, come to us, come to us!”

I asked what the trouble was and the reply was more a cry than an answer, “Oh don’t wait to ask. Don’t miss the train.”

I got Mr. Howell, the president, on the telephone and asked him what was the trouble in Louisville.

“They are having a convention there,” he said.

“A convention, is it, and what for? “

“To call off the strike in the northern coal fields because the operators have yielded to the demands.” He did not look at me as he spoke. I could see he was heart sick.

“But they cannot go back until the operators settle with the southern miners,” I said, “They will not desert their brothers until the strike is won! Are you going to let them do it?”

“Oh Mother,” he almost cried, “I can’t help it. It is the National Headquarters who have ordered them back!”

“That’s treachery,” I said, “quick, get ready and come with me.” We telephoned down to the station to have the conductor hold the train for Louisville a few minutes. This he did. We got into Louisville the next morning. I had not slept. The board member, Ream, and Grant Hamilton, representing the Federation of Labor, came to the hotel where I was stopping and asked where Mr. Howell, the president was.

“He has just stepped out,” I said. “He will be back.”

“Well, meantime, I want to notify you,” Ream said, “that you must not block the settlement of the northern miners because the National President, John Mitchell, wants it, and he pays you.”

“Are you through?” said I.

He nodded.

“Then I am going to tell you that if God Almighty wants this strike called off for his benefit and not for the miners, I am going to raise my voice against it. And as to President John paying me, ... he never paid me a penny in his life. It is the hard earned nickels and dimes of the miners that pay me, and it is their interests that I am going to serve.”

I went to the convention and heard the matter of the northern miners returning to the mines discussed. I watched two shrewd diplomats deal with unsophisticated men; Struby, the president of the northern coal fields, and Blood, one of the keenest, trickiest lawyers in the West. And behind them, John Mitchell, toasted and wined and dined, flattered and cajoled by the Denver Citizens’ Alliance, and the Civic Federation was pulling the strings.

In the afternoon the miners called on me to address the convention.

“Brothers,” I said, “You English speaking miners of the northern fields promised your southern brothers, seventy per cent of whom do not speak English, that you would support them to the end. Now you are asked to betray them, to make a separate settlement. You have a common enemy and it is your duty to fight to a finish. The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause, a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue. I am accused of helping the Western Federation of Miners, as if that were a crime, by one of the National board members. I plead guilty. I know no East or West, North nor South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice. If it is my fortune to live to see the industrial chain broken from every workingman’s child in America, and if then there is one black child in Africa in bondage, there shall I go.”

The delegates rose en masse to cheer. The vote was taken. The majority decided to stand by the southern miners, refusing to obey the national President.

The Denver Post reported my speech and a copy was sent to Mr. Mitchell in Indianapolis. He took the paper in to his secretary and said, pointing to the report, “See what Mother Jones has done. to me!”

Three times Mitchell tried to make the northern miners return to the mines but each time he was unsuccessful. “Mitchell has got to get Mother Jones out of the field,” an organizer said. “He can never lick the Federation as long as she is still there.”

I was informed that Mitchell went to the governor and asked him to put me out of the state.

Finally the ultimatum was given to the northern miners. All support for the strike was withdrawn. The northern miners accepted the operators’ terms and returned to work. Their act created practical peonage in the south and the strike was eventually lost, although the struggle in the south went on for a year.

Much of the fighting took place around Cripple Creek. The miners were evicted from their company-owned houses. They went out on the bleak mountain sides, lived in tents through a terrible winter with the temperature below zero, with eighteen inches of snow on the ground. They tied their feet in gunny sacks and lived lean and lank and hungry as timber wolves. They received sixty-three cents a week strike benefit while John Mitchell went traveling through Europe, staying at fashionable hotels, studying the labor movement. When he returned the miners had been lashed back into the mines by hunger but John Mitchell was given a banquet in the Park Avenue Hotel and presented with a watch with diamonds.

From the day I opposed John Mitchell’s authority, the guns were turned on me. Slander and persecution followed me like black shadows. But the fight went on.

One night when I came in from the field where I had been holding meetings, I was just dropping to sleep when a knock – a loud knock – came on my door. I always slept in my clothes for I never knew what might happen. I went to the door, opened it, and faced a military chap.

“The Colonel wants you up at head-quarters.”

I went with him immediately. Three or four others were brought in: War John and Joe Pajammy, organizers. We were all taken down. to the Santa Fe station. While standing there, waiting for the train that was to deport us some of the miners ran down to bid me good bye. “Mother, good-bye,” they said, stretching out their hands to take mine.

The colonel struck their hands and yelled at them. “Get away from there. You can’t’ shake hands with that woman!”

The militia took us to La Junta. They handed me a letter from the governor, notifying me that under no circumstances could I return to the State of Colorado. I sat all night in the station. In the morning the Denver train came along. I had no food, no money. I asked the conductor to take me to Denver. He said he would.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t want you to lose your job.” I showed him the letter from the governor. He read it.

“Mother,” he said, “do you want to go to Denver?”

“I do,” said I.

“Then to Hell with the job;” said he, “it’s to Denver you go.”

In Denver I got a room and rested a while I sat down and wrote a letter to the governor the obedient little boy of the coal companies.

“Mr. Governor, you notified your dogs of war to put me out of the state. They complied with your instructions. I hold in my hand a letter that was handed to me by one of them, which says ‘under no circumstances return to this state.’ I wish to notify you, governor, that you don’t own the state. When it was admitted to the sisterhood of states, my fathers gave me a share of stock in it; and that is all they gave to you. The civil courts are open. If I break a law of state or nation it is the duty of the civil courts to deal with me. That is why my fore-fathers established those courts to keep dictators and tyrants such as you from interfering with civilians. I am right here in the capital, after being out nine or ten hours, four or five blocks from your office. I want to ask you, governor, what in Hell are you going to do about it?”

I called a messenger and sent it up to the governor’s office. He read it and a reporter, who was present in the office at the time told me his face grew red.

“What shall I do?” he said to the reporter. He was used to acting under orders. “Leave her alone,” counseled the reporter. “There is no more patriotic citizen in America.”

From Denver I went down the Western Slope, holding meetings, cheering and encouraging those toiling and disinherited miners who were fighting against such monstrous odds.

I went to Helper, Utah, and got a room with a very nice Italian family. I was to hold a meeting Sunday afternoon. From every quarter the men came, trudging miles over the mountains. The shop men were notified not to come but they came anyhow. Just as the meeting was about to open, the mayor of the little town came to me and said that I could not hold a meeting; that I was on company ground. I asked him how far his jurisdiction extended. He said as far as the Company’s jurisdiction. He was a Company mayor.

So I turned to the audience and asked then to follow me. The audience to a man followed me to a little tent colony at Half Way that the miners had established when they had been evicted from their homes.

When the meeting closed I returned to Helper. The next day, although there was no smallpox in town, a frame shack was built to isolate smallpox sufferers in. I was notified that I had been exposed to smallpox and must be incarcerated in the shack. But somehow that night the shack burned down.

I went to stay in Half Way because the Italian family were afraid to keep me longer. Another Italian family gave me a bare room in their shack. There was only a big stone to fasten the door. No sooner was I located than the militia notified me that I was in quarantine because I had been exposed to smallpox. But I used to go out and talk to the miners and they used to come to me.

One Saturday night I got tipped off by the postoffice master that the militia were going to raid the little tent colony in the early morning. I called the miners to me and asked them if they had guns. Sure, they had guns. They were western men, men of the mountains. I told them to go bury them between the boulders; deputies were coming to take them away from them. I did not tell them that there was to be a raid for I did not want any bloodshed. Better to submit to arrest.

Between 4:30 and 5 o’clock in the morning I heard the tramp of feet on the road. I looked out of my smallpox window and saw about forty-five deputies. They descended upon the sleeping tent colony, dragged the miners out of their beds. They did not allow them to put on their clothing. The miners begged to be allowed to put on their clothes, for at that early hour the mountain range is the coldest. Shaking with cold, followed by the shrieks and wails of their wives and children, beaten along the road by guns, they were driven like cattle to Helper. In the evening they were packed in a box car and run down to Price, the county seat and put in jail.

Not one law had these miners broken. The pitiful screams of the women and children would have penetrated Heaven. Their tears melted the heart of the Mother of Sorrows. Their crime was that they had struck against the power of gold.

The women huddled beneath the window of the house where I was incarcerated for small-pox.

“Oh Mother, what shall we do?” they wailed “What’s to become of our little children!”

“See my little Johnny,” said one woman holding up a tiny, red baby-new born.

“That’s a nice baby,” I said.

“He sick. Pretty soon he die. Company take house. Company take my man. Pretty soon company take my baby.”

Two days after this raid was made, the stone that held my door was suddenly pushed in. A fellow jumped into the room, stuck a gun under my jaw and told me to tell him where he could get $3,000 of the miners’ money or he would blow out my brains.

“Don’t waste your powder,” I said. “You write the miners up in Indianapolis. Write Mitchell. He’s got money now.”

“I don’t want any of your damn talk,” he replied, then asked: “Hasn’t the president got money?” “You got him in jail” “Haven’t you got any money?”

“Sure.” I put my hand in my pocket, took out fifty cents and turned the pocket inside out.

“Is that all you got?” “Sure, and I’m not going to give it to you, for I want it to get a jag on to boil the Helen Gould smallpox out of my system so I will not inoculate the whole nation when I get out of here.”

“How are you going to get out of here if you haven’t money when they turn you loose?”

“The railway men will take me anywhere.”

There were two other deputies outside. They kept hollering for him to come out. “She ain’t got any money,” they kept insisting. Finally he was convinced that I had nothing.

This man, I afterward found out, had been a bank robber, but had been sworn in as deputy to crush the miners’ union. He was later killed while robbing the post office in Prince. Yet he was the sort of man who was hired by the moneyed interests to crush the hopes and aspirations of the fathers and mothers and even the children of the workers.

I was held twenty-six days and nights in that bare room, isolated for smallpox. Finally with no redress I was turned loose and went to Salt Lake. During all those days and nights I did not undress because of imminent danger.

All civil law had broken down in the Cripple Creek strike. The militia under Colonel Verdeckberg said, “We are under orders only from God and Governor Peabody.” Judge Advocate McClelland when accused of violating the constitution said, “To hell with the constitution!” There was a complete breakdown of all civil law. Habeas corpus proceedings were suspended. Free speech and assembly were forbidden. People spoke in whispers as in the days of the inquisition. Soldiers committed outrages. Strikers were arrested for vagrancy and worked in chain gangs on the street under brutal soldiers. Men, women and tiny children were packed in the Bullpen at Cripple Creek. Miners were shot dead as they slept. They were ridden from the country, their families knowing not where they had gone, or whether they lived.

When the strike started in Cripple Creek, the civil law was operating, but the governor, a banker, and in complete sympathy with the Rockefeller interests, sent the militia. They threw the officers out of office. Sheriff Robinson had a rope thrown at his feet and told that if he did not resign, the rope would be about his neck.

Three men were brought into Judge Seeds’ court – miners. There was no charge lodged against them. He ordered them released but the soldiers who with drawn bayonets had attended the hearing, immediately rearrested them and took them back to jail.

Four hundred men were taken from their homes. Seventy-six of these were placed on a train, escorted to Kansas, dumped out on a prairie and told never to come back, except to meet death.

In the heat of June, in Victor, 1600 men were arrested and put in the Armory Hall. Bull-pens were established and anyone be he miner, or a woman or a child that incurred the displeasure of the great coal interests, or the militia, were thrown into these horrible stockades.

Shop keepers were forbidden to sell to miners. Priests and ministers were intimidated, fearing to give them consolation. The miners opened their own stores to feed the women and children. The soldiers and hoodlums broke into the stores, looted them, broke open the safes, destroyed the scales, ripped open the sacks of flour and sugar, dumped them on the floor and poured kerosene oil over everything. The beef and meat was poisoned by the militia. Goods were stolen. The miners were without redress, for the militia was immune.

And why were these things done? Because a group of men had demanded an eight hour day, a check weighman and the abolition of the scrip system that kept them in serfdom to the mighty coal barons. That was all. Just that miners had refused to labor under these conditions. Just because miners wanted a better chance for their children, more of the sunlight, more freedom. And for this they suffered one whole year and for this they died.

Perhaps no one in the labor movement has seen more brutality perpetrated upon the workers than I have seen. I have seen them killed in industry, worn out and made old before their time, jailed and shot if they protested. Story after story I could tell of persecution and of bravery unequalled on any battlefield.

There was Mrs. M. F. Langdon of Cripple Creek. “The Victor Record,” a newspaper giving the miners’ side of the strike, had been arbitrarily suppressed by the militia, as were all journals that did not espouse the cause of the coal operators. Her husband had been arrested because he was the editor of The Record.

The military were surprised when the morning after the suppression of the paper and the jailing of the editor and his helpers, the paper came out as usual. Throughout the night Mrs. Langdon, working with a tiny candle, had set the type and run the sheets out on a hand press.

On November 19, 1903, two organizers, Demolli and Price, were going to Scofield when a short distance from town, a mob composed of members of the “citizens’ alliance” boarded the train armed with high-powered rifles, and ordered the train crew to take the organizers back.

In December, Lucianno Desentos and Joseph Vilano were killed outright by deputy sheriff at Secundo. Soon after their killing, the home of William G. Isaac, an Organizer, was blown up. He was in Glenwood Springs when it occurred. Part of the house was wrecked by the explosion, the part in which his two little children usually slept. The night of the explosion, however, they slept in the back room with their mother. The family was saved from being burned to death in the fire that followed the explosion by crawling through a broken window. Isaac was arrested and charged with attempting the murder of his wife and children.

And so I could go on and on. Men beaten and left for dead in the road. The home of Sherman Parker searched without warrants, his wife in her nightclothes made to hold the light for the soldiers. And no arms found.

On Sunday in February of 1914, Joe Panonia and myself went to a camp out in Berwyn to hold a meeting, and William Farley and James Mooney, national organizers, went to Bohnn. Both settlements lay in the same direction, Berwyn being a little further on. As we drove through Bohnn after our meeting, three women ran out from a shack, waving their long, bony arms at us and shrieking and whirling around like witches. They jumped right in front of our automobile in the narrow road.

“Come in! Come in! Something bad!” They put their hands to their heads and rocked sidewise. They were foreigners and knew little English.

“Joe,” I said, “we’d better drive on. They may have been drinking. It may be some sort of hoax to get us into the house.”

“No! No!” shrieked the women. “No drink! Something bad!” They climbed on the running board and began pulling us.

“Come on, Mother,” said Joe. “Let’s go in – I think there has been trouble.”

We followed the three lanky women into the shack. On a wretched bed covered with dirty rag-ends of blankets and old quilts lay Mooney, – bleeding profusely and unconscious. Farley sat beside him, badly beaten.

Joe raced into Trinidad and got a doctor but although Mooney survived he was never quite right in the head afterward. Farley, however, recovered from his terrible beating.

He said that as they were returning from Bohhn, seven gunmen jumped out from the bushes along the road, had beaten them up, kicked them and stamped their feet upon them. All seven were armed and resistance was useless.

Organizers were thrown into jail and held without trial for months. They were deported. In April fourteen miners were arrested at Broadhead and deported to New Mexico. They were landed in the desert, thirty miles from food or water. Hundreds of others were deported, taken away without being allowed to communicate with wives and children. The women suffered agonies not knowing that when their men went from home whether they would ever return. If the deported men returned they were immediately arrested by the militia and put in jail. All organizers and leaders were in danger of death, in the open streets or from ambush. John Lawson was shot at but by a miracle the bullet missed him.

The strike in the southern fields dragged on and on. But from the moment the southern miners had been deserted by their northern brothers, I felt their strike was doomed. Bravely did those miners fight before giving in to the old peonage. The military had no regard for human life. They were sanctified cannibals. Is it any wonder that we have murders and holdups when the youth of the land is trained by the great industrialists to a belief in force; when they see that the possession of money puts one above law.

Men like President Howell and Secretary Simpson will live in history. I was in close touch with them throughout this terrible strike. Their descendants should feel proud that the blood of such great men flows in their veins.

No more loyal, courageous men could be found than those southern miners, scornfully referred to by “citizens’ alliances” as “foreigners.” Italians and Mexicans endured to the end. They were defeated on the industrial field but theirs was the victory of the spirit.