By Jim Suhr
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
MOUNT OLIVE, Ill. -- Nine years after Margaret Orner first donned spectacles and a long black dress to impersonate famed labor crusader Mother Jones, she's gotten used to the questions and curious stares.
But that doesn't happen in this sleepy town, a place Mother Jones (whose real name was Mary Harris Jones) never lived, but where she spends eternity in a union-owned cemetery.
A 22-foot granite obelisk rises from the graveyard tucked between cornfields to mark the tomb of an activist who was both reviled and revered.
"When you go to Mount Olive, it's like she died a month ago. She's so loved," says Orner, who spent three days here in costume at the town's inaugural Mother Jones Festival. "I never had my picture taken so much my whole life."
Locals hope to make a yearly tradition of the event, staged this summer to commemorate Jones's 175th birthday and the 75th anniversary of her death. Plans also are afoot to open, perhaps by next summer, a Mother Jones museum in a downtown site that had been a union hall in this outpost along Interstate 55, about 40 miles northeast of St. Louis.
"Our main focus is to spread the word of our heritage," says Mayor Tom Spears, among those looking to draw tourists to the community because of its famous grave. "No one else has a Mother Jones monument, so we're trying to benefit any way we can."
Orner considers seeing the monument at Jones's grave "a moving experience for anybody."
"When I'm there, I swear the earth moves," she says.
Some might say the firebrand Mother Jones made the earth tremble. From the 1870s almost until her death in 1930 at the age of 100, the white-haired, 5-foot former seamstress was in the thick of some of the nation's most venomous labor disputes.
"I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser," proclaimed the woman whose profanity-peppered rhetoric was the stuff of legend, according to a Mount Olive Public Library booklet.
Elliott Gorn, a Brown University history professor who authored a 2001 biography of Mother Jones, called her a "great, great orator, a galvanizing speaker" comparable in modern history to Martin Luther King Jr., her struggle for worker rights analogous to the push for civil rights.
"One hundred years ago, she was one of the most famous people in America," Gorn said of a woman he considers largely -- and regrettably -- absent in today's history books. "It's unfortunate that folks don't know much history these days; Mother Jones is just one casualty of that."
Jones was in Washington in 1898 when more than a dozen men were killed in gunfire exchanged during a labor dispute at the mine in Virden near Mount Olive. The deadly clash, touched off when replacement workers tried to pass through a group of armed strikers, became known as the "Virden Riot" -- to unionists, the "Virden Massacre." More than 40 others were wounded.
Four of the dead miners were from Mount Olive, where they initially were buried in the town cemetery before that land owner objected to ceremonies and other activities miners held there. The Lutheran cemetery barred the dead miners because the minister denounced them as "murderers," John Keiser wrote in 1969 for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Jones later wrote that she wanted to be buried near the miners: "I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys."
She got her wish.
When the 80-ton Minnesota granite monument was dedicated at her grave six years after she died, thousands of people came to the graveyard. There, a hand-painted sign on a wrought-iron arch above the entrance now reads: "the resting place of real union people."
Jones's elaborate monument has a large medallion bearing her likeness, and it's flanked by bronze statues of two standing miners -- one in a miner's hat and holding a pickax, the other sporting a sledgehammer. A bronze plaque on the base, in part, warns, "Let no traitor breathe o'er my grave."
A simple stone in the ground marks Jones's plot, sandwiched between those of the dead from Virden and that of "General" Alexander Bradley, a self-appointed United Mine Workers of America organizer around the turn of the 20th century. Two other bronze plaques list the names of Illinois miners who between 1932 and 1936 gave "their lives to the cause of clean unionism in America."
The cemetery and its monument were declared a national historic site in 1972.
Gorn visited the monument about a decade ago while researching his book and recalls it as "very dignified."
"The real thing that made it compelling was that it's really a quiet but moving place," he said. "It has great drama to it."