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Mother Jones arrested in Charleston 100 years ago

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- One hundred years ago Wednesday, labor crusader Mary Jones, better known as Mother Jones, alighted from a Kanawha & Michigan passenger train from Smithers, and began walking toward the state Capitol building, then located in downtown Charleston.

The white-haired firebrand, accompanied by a committee of Smithers-area miners, was carrying a petition to Gov. William Glasscock calling for the end of martial law and the removal of state National Guard troops from Paint Creek and the Upper Kanawha Valley. There, a bloody coalfield unionization struggle was underway, with no end in sight.

After a series of violent confrontations between striking miners and detectives hired by mine operators during the previous summer, Glasscock had placed the Paint Creek coalfields under martial law in September 1912, and sent National Guard troops into the area to enforce it. The troops seized arms and ammunition from both sides, and by Nov. 15, martial law was lifted. 

Coal operators began sending in replacement workers by the trainload, and in short order, those trains came under attack by the miners they displaced.  Coal company detectives, meanwhile, evicted striking miners from company-owned homes and broke up union meeting. Martial law was imposed for a second time on Nov. 15, 1912, and lifted again on Jan. 10.

The week before Mother Jones and her delegation walked their petition to the Statehouse, a group of about 50 miners attacked a machine gun post manned by coal company operatives near a mine at the Paint Creek community of Mucklow, near present-day Gallagher. At least one man, Fred Bobbitt, a bookkeeper for Paint Creek Collieries, was killed in the Feb. 7 raid.

That night, in retaliation, an armored train carrying two machine guns and dozens of coal company operatives shot up a tent camp of displaced miners and their families at Holly Grove on lower Paint Creek. Miraculously, despite hundreds of bullets being fired, only one person, miner Francis Francesco Estep, was killed in the fusillade, an instant after bringing his wife and child to safety. A woman in the encampment was shot through the foot.

Two days later, striking miners attacked the Mucklow machine gun post again, prompting Glasscock to impose martial law for a third time on Feb. 10.

Mother Jones, who had spoken at numerous miners' rallies in the Upper Kanawha Valley during the summer of 1912, had been in West Virginia only a few days during this visit. According to newspaper accounts, she stayed at the now-demolished five-story Fleetwood Hotel on Charleston's Capitol Street and commuted into the coalfields by rail to encourage the miners in pursuing their unionization struggle.

But on Feb. 13, 1913, her freedom to move and speak freely came abruptly to an end with her arrest and an 85-day stint in military custody. She and 47 other striking miners and union organizers became the first civilians to be arrested, and later tried and jailed, by military authorities since the Civil War.

As Mother Jones and the miners who accompanied her approached the corner of Broad and Washington streets, three men identified in a Feb. 14, 1913, Charleston Gazette account as Special Officers Dan W. Cunningham, Howard C. Smith and Rufus Clendenin intercepted them. Mother Jones and UMWA organizer Paul Paulson were placed under arrest, while their companions were briefly detained then released from custody.

"Mrs. Jones failed to show the slightest tendency of resistance, and a taxicab which was being driven from the depot toward town was hailed, and she was taken to the Hotel Ruffner in company with the officers," according to the Gazette account. Late that afternoon, Mother Jones and Paulson were escorted to the railroad depot and taken by a C & O passenger train to Pratt, at the mouth of Paint Creek, where the rail station was being used as a detention facility, or "bullpen," by military authorities.

While no attempt was ever made to charge the coal company operatives who gunned down Estep and terrorized the miners' tent city at Holly Grove, Jones and her co-defendants were charged with conspiracy to "inflict bodily injury with intent to maim, disfigure disable and kill" Bobbitt.

The miners and male union organizers were detained in the Pratt station house, while Mother Jones was kept under guard at Mrs. Carney's Boarding House, a two-story residence in downtown Pratt.

"They locked me in a military prison," Jones wrote in a February letter smuggled out of the boarding house and sent to William Wilson, who would become U.S. Secretary of Labor the following month. "The civil officers picked me up on the streets of Charleston, threw me in an auto, brought me 22 miles to the marshall (sic) law prison. The warrant wasn't signed by the squire (magistrate) until after I was arrested.  Oh, the villains! They shot a man dead while he was taking his wife to the shelter. She gave birth to a babe while they were burying him. They shot a woman through the leg."

Jones often used "Military Bastille, Pratt, W.Va.," as the return address on letters smuggled out of the boarding house.

She and several of her co-defendants declined to offer a defense during their military trials.

"The court had sent two lawyers to my bullpen to defend me," Jones wrote in her autobiography, "but I refused to let them defend me in that military court. I refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, to recognize the suspension of the civil courts. My arrest and trial were unconstitutional."

After a weeklong trial in early March, Jones was sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary, and came down with a severe case of pneumonia.

On March 4, 1913, Henry Hatfield was sworn in as West Virginia's new governor. Within weeks of taking office, he traveled to the strife-torn coalfields where he visited Mother Jones in her Pratt rooming house, and according to at least one account, arranged to have her taken to Charleston for treatment. After recuperating, the 80-something labor champion was sent back to her quarters in Pratt, where she remained in confinement, awaiting appeal.

From her boardinghouse "Bastille," Jones conducted several interviews with reporters and smuggled out more letters, including one to U.S. Sen. John Kern of Indiana calling for a Senate investigation into the treatment of miners attempting to organize in West Virginia.

"From out of the military prison wall of Pratt, West Virginia, where I have walked over my 84th milestone in history, I send you the groans and tears and heartaches of men, women and children as I have heard them in this state," she wrote. "From out of these prison walls, I plead with you for the honor of the nation, to push that investigation. ..."

Jones may have used a bit of dramatic license in describing the conditions of her incarceration.

"She was able to receive visitors, including Cora Older (the novelist wife of San Francisco Bulletin editor Fremont Older), and had made friends with a couple of the guards, who were able to slip things in and out of her room," said retired Marshall College of Graduate Studies history professor Fred Barkey. "Among the things that came in and out fairly regularly were beer and correspondence."

Back in Charleston, Hatfield reviewed the cases against Jones and her compatriots and began to formulate a plan to settle the strike. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Kern introduced a resolution authorizing the Senate Committee on Education and Labor to investigate conditions in the West Virginia coalfields. 

In early May, as the Kern resolution was debated in the Senate, Hatfield pardoned Jones and most of her co-defendants and ordered their release. After 85 days in custody, Mother Jones was free to go.

"Governor Hatfield commuted the sentences of all but the really hard-core radicals and socialists," said Barkey.  "The Kern hearing left much of the trouble of that time at the door of the mine guards. But there was some equivocation and political consideration, and the committee also concluded that there was more than enough blame to go around. It was the first real Congressional investigation, and it opened Congress up to the whole idea of investigating hot topics of the day."

The boarding house where Mother Jones was held for 85 days was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992, but was demolished by its owner four years later. Malden attorney Larry Rowe bought several doors from the historic building, and incorporated them in his home.

For more information on Mother Jones's arrest and the Paint Creek mine wars, visit www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1053, or www.wvculture.org/history/labor/paintcreek.html

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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