CHAPTER XXI: In Rockefeller’s Prisons

I was in Washington, D. C., at the time of the great coal strike against the Rockefeller holdings in southern Colorado. Ten years previous a strike against long endured exploitation and tyranny had been brutally suppressed with guns and by starvation. But the bitterness and despair of the workers smouldered and smouldered long after the fires of open rebellion had been extinguished. Finally after a decade of endurance the live coals in the hearts of the miners leaped into a roaring fire of revolt.

One day I read in the newspaper that Governor Ammons of Colorado said that Mother Jones was not to be allowed to go into the southern field where the strike was raging.

That night I took a train and went directly to Denver. I got a room in the hotel where I usually stayed. I then went up to Union headquarters of the miners, after which I went to the station and bought my ticket and sleeper to Trinidad in the southern field.

When I returned to the hotel, a man who had registered when I did, came up to me and said, “Are you going to Trinidad, Mother Jones?”

“Of course,” said I.

[Pg 179]

“Mother, I want to tell you that the governor has detectives at the hotel and railway station watching you.”

“Detectives don’t bother me,” I told him.

“There are two detectives in the lobby, one up in the gallery, and two or three at the station, watching the gates to see who board the trains south.”

I thanked him for his information. That night I went an hour or so before the coaches were brought into the station way down into the railway yards where the coaches stood ready to be coupled to the train. I went to the section house. There was an old section hand there. He held up his lantern to see me.

“Oh, Mother Jones,” he said, “and is it you that’s walking the ties!”

“It’s myself,” said I, “but I’m not walking. I have a sleeper ticket for the south and I want to know if the trains are made up yet. I want to go aboard.”

“Sit here,” he said, “I’ll go see. I don’t know.” I knew he understood without any explaining why I was there.

“I wish you would tell the porter to come back with you,” said I.

He went off, his light bobbing at his side. Pretty soon he returned with the porter.

“What you want, Mother?” says he.

“I want to know if the berths are made up yet?”

[Pg 180]

“Do you want to get on now, Mother?”


“Then yours is made up.”

I showed him my tickets and he led me across the tracks.

“Mother,” he said, “I know you now but later I might find it convenienter not to have the acquaintance.”

“I understand,” said I. “Now here’s two dollars to give to the conductor. Tell him to let Mother Jones off before we get to the Santa Fe crossing. That will be early in the morning.”

“I sure will,” said he.

I got on board the sleeper in the yards and was asleep when the coaches pulled into the Denver station for passengers south. I was still asleep when the train pulled out of the depot.

Early in the morning the porter awakened me. “Mother,” he said, “the conductor is going to stop the train for you. Be ready to hop.”

When the train slowed down before we got to the crossing, the conductor came to help me off.

“Are you doing business, Mother?” said he.

“I am indeed,” said I. “And did you stop the train just for me?”

“I certainly did!”

He waved to me as the train pulled away. “Goodbye, Mother.”

It was very early and I walked into the little town of Trinidad and got breakfast. Down at[Pg 181] the station a company of military were watching to see if I came into town. But no Mother Jones got off at the depot, and the company marched back to headquarters, which was just across the street from the hotel where I was staying.

I was in Trinidad three hours before they knew I was there. They telephoned the governor. They telephoned General Chase in charge of the militia. “Mother Jones is in Trinidad!” they said.

“Impossible!” said the governor. “Impossible!” said the general.

“Nevertheless, she is here!”

“We have had her well watched, the hotels and the depots,” they said.

“Nevertheless, she is here!”

My arrest was ordered.

A delegation of miners came to me. “Boys,” I said, “they are going to arrest me but don’t make any trouble. Just let them do it.”

“Mother,” said they, “we aren’t going to let them arrest you!”

“Yes, you will. Let them carry on their game.”

While we were sitting there talking, I heard footsteps tramping up the stairs.

“Here they come,” said I and we sat quietly waiting.

The door opened. It was a company of militia.

[Pg 182]

“Did you come after me, boys?” said I. They looked embarrassed.

“Pack your valise and come,” said the captain.

They marched me down stairs and put me in an automobile that was waiting at the door.

The miners had followed. One of them had tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Mother,” he cried, “I wish I could go for you!”

We drove to the prison first, passing cavalry and infantry and gunmen, sent by the state to subdue the miners. Orders were given to drive me to the Sisters’ Hospital, a portion of which had been turned into a military prison. They put me in a small room with white plastered walls, with a cot, a chair and a table, and for nine weeks I stayed in that one room, seeing no human beings but the silent military. One stood on either side of the cell door, two stood across the hall, one at the entrance to the hall, two at the elevator entrance on my floor, two on the ground floor elevator entrance.

Outside my window a guard walked up and down, up and down day and night, day and night, his bayonet flashing in the sun.

“Lads,” said I to the two silent chaps at the door, “the great Standard Oil is certainly afraid of an old woman!”

They grinned.

My meals were sent to me by the sisters.[Pg 183] They were not, of course, luxurious. In all those nine weeks I saw no one, received not a letter, a paper, a postal card. I saw only landscape and the bayonet flashing in the sun.

Finally, Mr. Hawkins, the attorney for the miners, was allowed to visit me. Then on Sunday, Colonel Davis came to me and said the governor wanted to see me in Denver.

The colonel and a subordinate came for me that night at nine o’clock. As we went down the hall, I noticed there was not a soldier in sight. There was none in the elevator. There was none in the entrance way. Everything was strangely silent. No one was about. A closed automobile waited us. We three got in.

“Drive the back way!” said the colonel to the chauffeur.

We drove through dark, lonely streets. The curtains of the machine were down. It was black outside and inside. It was the one time in my life that I thought my end had come; that I was to say farewell to the earth, but I made up my mind that I would put up a good fight before passing out of life!

When we reached the Santa Fe crossing I was put aboard the train. I felt great relief, for the strike had only begun and I had much to do. I went to bed and slept till we arrived in Denver. Here I was met by a monster, called General Chase, whose veins run with ice water. He started to take me to Brown Palace Hotel. I[Pg 184] asked him if he would permit me to go to a less aristocratic hotel, to the one I usually stopped at. He consented, telling me he would escort me to the governor at nine o’clock.

I was taken before the governor that morning. The governor said to me, “I am going to turn you free but you must not go back to the strike zone!”

“Governor,” I said, “I am going back.”

“I think you ought to take my advice,” he said, “and do what I think you ought to do.”

“Governor,” said I, “if Washington took instructions from such as you, we would be under King George’s descendants yet! If Lincoln took instructions from you, Grant would never have gone to Gettysburg. I think I had better not take your orders.”

I stayed on a week in Denver. Then I got a ticket and sleeper for Trinidad. Across the aisle from me was Reno, Rockefeller’s detective. Very early in the morning, soldiers awakened me.

“Get up,” they said, “and get off at the next stop!”

I got up, of course, and with the soldiers I got off at Walsenburg, fifty miles from Trinidad. The engineer and the fireman left their train when they saw the soldiers putting me off.

“What are you going to do with that old woman?” they said. “We won’t run the train till we know!”

[Pg 185]

The soldiers did not reply.

“Boys,” I said, “go back on your engine. Some day it will be all right.”

Tears came trickling down their cheeks, and when they wiped them away, there were long, black streaks on their faces.

I was put in the cellar under the courthouse. It was a cold, terrible place, without heat, damp and dark. I slept in my clothes by day, and at night I fought great sewer rats with a beer bottle. “If I were out of this dungeon,” thought I, “I would be fighting the human sewer rats anyway!”

For twenty-six days I was held a military prisoner in that black hole. I would not give in. I would not leave the state. At any time, if I would do so, I could have my freedom. General Chase and his bandits thought that by keeping me in that cold cellar, I would catch the flue or pneumonia, and that would settle for them what to do with “old Mother Jones.”

Colonel Berdiker, in charge of me, said, “Mother, I have never been placed in a position as painful as this. Won’t you go to Denver and leave the strike field?”

“No, Colonel, I will not,” said I.

The hours dragged underground. Day was perpetual twilight and night was deep night. I watched people’s feet from my cellar window; miners’ feet in old shoes; soldiers’ feet, well shod in government leather; the shoes of[Pg 186] women with the heels run down; the dilapidated shoes of children; barefooted boys. The children would scrooch down and wave to me but the soldiers shooed them off.

One morning when my hard bread and sloppy coffee were brought to me, Colonel Berdiker said to me, “Mother, don’t eat that stuff!” After that he sent my breakfast to me—good, plain food. He was a man with a heart, who perhaps imagined his own mother imprisoned in a cellar with the sewer rats’ union.

The colonel came to me one day and told me that my lawyers had obtained a habeas corpus for me and that I was to be released; that the military would give me a ticket to any place I desired.

“Colonel,” said I, “I can accept nothing from men whose business it is to shoot down my class whenever they strike for decent wages. I prefer to walk.”

“All right, Mother,” said he, “Goodbye!”

The operators were bringing in Mexicans to work as scabs in the mines. In this operation they were protected by the military all the way from the Mexican borders. They were brought in to the strike territory without knowing the conditions, promised enormous wages and easy work. They were packed in cattle cars, in charge of company gunmen, and if when arriving, they attempted to leave, they were shot. Hundreds of these poor fellows had been lured[Pg 187] into the mines with promises of free land. When they got off the trains, they were driven like cattle into the mines by gunmen.

This was the method that broke the strike ten years previously. And now it was the scabs of a decade before who were striking—the docile, contract labor of Europe.

I was sent down to El Paso to give the facts of the Colorado strike to the Mexicans who were herded together for the mines in that city. I held meetings, I addressed Mexican gatherings, I got the story over the border. I did everything in my power to prevent strike breakers going into the Rockefeller mines.

In January, 1914, I returned to Colorado. When I got off the train at Trinidad, the militia met me and ordered me back on the train. Nevertheless, I got off. They marched me to the telegrapher’s office, then they changed their minds, and took me to the hotel where they had their headquarters. I told them I wanted to get my breakfast. They escorted me to the dining room.

“Who is paying for my breakfast?” said I.

“The state,” said they.

“Then as the guest of the state of Colorado I’ll order a good breakfast.” And I did—all the way from bacon to pie.

The train for Denver pulled in. The military put me aboard it. When we reached Walsenburg, a delegation of miners met the train, [Pg 188]singing a miner’s song. They sang at the top of their lungs till the silent, old mountains seemed to prick up their ears. They swarmed into the train.

“God bless you, Mother!”

“God bless you, my boys!”

“Mother, is your coat warm enough? It’s freezing cold in the hills!”

“I’m all right, my lad.” The chap had no overcoat—a cheap cotton suit, and a bit of woolen rag around his neck.

Outside in the station stood the militia. One of them was a fiend. He went about swinging his gun, hitting the miners, and trying to prod them into a fight, hurling vile oaths at them. But the boys kept cool and I could hear them singing above the shriek of the whistle as the train pulled out of the depot and wound away through the hills.

From January on until the final brutal outrage—the burning of the tent colony in Ludlow—my ears wearied with the stories of brutality and suffering. My eyes ached with the misery I witnessed. My brain sickened with the knowledge of man’s inhumanity to man.

It was, “Oh, Mother, my daughter has been assaulted by the soldiers—such a little girl!”

“Oh, Mother, did you hear how the soldiers entered Mrs. Hall’s house, how they terrified the little children, wrecked the home, and did worse—terrible things—and just because Mr.[Pg 189] Hall, the undertaker, had buried two miners whom the militia had killed!”

“And, Oh Mother, did you hear how they are arresting miners for vagrancy, for loafing, and making them work in company ditches without pay, making them haul coal and clear snow up to the mines for nothing!”

“Mother, Mother, listen! A Polish fellow arrived as a strike breaker. He didn’t know there was a strike. He was a big, strapping fellow. They gave him a star and a gun and told him to shoot strikers!”

“Oh, Mother, they’ve brought in a shipment of guns and machine guns—what’s to happen to us!”

A frantic mother clutched me. “Mother Jones,” she screamed, “Mother Jones, my little boy’s all swollen up with the kicking and beating he got from a soldier because he said, ‘Howdy, John D. feller!’ ’Twas just a kid teasing, and now he’s lying like dead!”

“Mother, ’tis an outrage for an adjutant general of the state to shake his fist and holler in the face of a grey-haired widow for singing a union song in her own kitchen while she washes the dishes!”

“It is all an outrage,” said I. “’Tis an outrage indeed that Rockefeller should own the coal that God put in the earth for all the people. ’Tis an outrage that gunmen and soldiers are here protecting mines against workmen who ask[Pg 190] a bit more than a crust, a bit more than bondage! ’Tis an ocean of outrage!”

“Mother, did you hear of poor, old Colner? He was going to the postoffice and was arrested by the militia. They marched him down the hill, making him carry a shovel and a pick on his back. They told him he was to die and he must dig his own grave. He stumbled and fell on the road. They kicked him and he staggered up. He begged to be allowed to go home and kiss his wife and children goodbye.

“We’ll do the kissing,” laughed the soldiers.

“At the place they picked out for his grave, they measured him, and then they ordered him to dig—two feet deeper, they told him. Old Colner began digging while the soldiers stood around laughing and cursing and playing craps for his tin watch. Then Colner fell fainting into the grave. The soldiers left him there till he recovered by himself. There he was alone—and he staggered back to camp, Mother, and he isn’t quite right in the head!”

I sat through long nights with sobbing widows, watching the candles about the corpse of the husband burn down to their sockets.

“Get out and fight,” I told those women. “Fight like hell till you go to Heaven!” That was the only way I knew to comfort them.

I nursed men back to sanity who were driven to despair. I solicited clothes for the ragged children, for the desperate mothers. I laid out[Pg 191] the dead, the martyrs of the strike. I kept the men away from the saloons, whose licenses as well as those of the brothels, were held by the Rockefeller interests.

The miners armed, armed as it is permitted every American citizen to do in defense of his home, his family; as he is permitted to do against invasion. The smoke of armed battle rose from the arroyos and ravines of the Rocky Mountains.

No one listened. No one cared. The tickers in the offices of 26 Broadway sounded louder than the sobs of women and children. Men in the steam heated luxury of Broadway offices could not feel the stinging cold of Colorado hillsides where families lived in tents.

Then came Ludlow and the nation heard. Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not.

On the 19th of April, 1914, machine guns, used on the strikers in the Paint Creek strike, were placed in position above the tent colony of Ludlow. Major Pat Hamrock and Lieutenant K. E. Linderfelt were in charge of the militia, the majority of whom were company gunmen sworn in as soldiers.

Early in the morning soldiers approached the colony with a demand from headquarters that Louis Tikas, leader of the Greeks, surrender two Italians. Tikas demanded a warrant for[Pg 192] their arrest. They had none. Tikas refused to surrender them. The soldiers returned to headquarters. A signal bomb was fired. Then another. Immediately the machine guns began spraying the flimsy tent colony, the only home the wretched families of the miners had, spraying it with bullets. Like iron rain, bullets fell upon men, women and children.

The women and children fled to the hills. Others tarried. The men defended their homes with their guns. All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed.

By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.

Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils[Pg 193] of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.

After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found—unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bed springs writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

The strikers issued a general call to arms: every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man’s inherent right. To a man they armed, throughout the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.

Everybody got busy. A delegation from Ludlow went to see President Wilson. Among them was Mrs. Petrucci whose three tiny babies were crisped to death in the black hole of Ludlow. She had something to say to her President.

Immediately he sent the United States cavalry to quell the gunmen. He studied the [Pg 194]situation, and drew up proposals for a three-year truce, binding upon miner and operator. The operators scornfully refused.

A mass meeting was called in Denver. Judge Lindsay spoke. He demanded that the operators be made to respect the laws of Colorado. That something be done immediately. It was. The Denver Real Estate Exchange appointed a committee to spit on Judge Lindsey for his espousal of the cause of the miners.

Rockefeller got busy. Writers were hired to write pamphlets which were sent broadcast to every editor in the country, bulletins. In these leaflets, it was shown how perfectly happy was the life of the miner until the agitators came; how joyous he was with the company’s saloon, the company’s pigstys for homes, the company’s teachers and preachers and coroners. How the miners hated the state law of an eight-hour working day, begging to be allowed to work ten, twelve. How they hated the state law that they should have their own check weighman to see that they were not cheated at the tipple.

And all the while the mothers of the children who died in Ludlow were mourning their dead.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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