Pistol-packin’ woman; Historical Society production looks into Aunt Molly Jackson’s impact on Appalachia

Published 10:15 am Friday, February 24, 2023



The Bell County Historical Society will host a production at the Bell Theatre that takes a look back at the 100-year anniversary of the events that have shaped this part of Appalachia and one of the lesser-recognized players in the Coal Wars in Harlan County.

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Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos is not a name instantly recognized, even in the subject’s Eastern Kentucky home area. Today, she is known as “Aunt Molly Jackson,” a mountain woman who lived a long and difficult life of hardship and grief, whose unconquerable spirit was evident in every aspect of her life.

“Aunt Molly Jackson: Pistol Packin’ Woman,” with Ann Shelby starring as Molly Jackson, is scheduled for March 23 at the Bell Theatre in Pineville. There are tickets available at the Bell Historical Society for a dinner and show, a show-only option as well as student tickets.

Jackson led a colorful life.

“She was born about 1880, although no one is really sure exactly when, in Clay County, Kentucky,” said Robert Cox, from the Bell County Historical Society. “She was orphaned at age 6 when her mother died of tuberculosis, a disease largely of the poor in the Victorian Era.

“Her father, a store keeper, went bankrupt giving credit to coal miners who always meant to repay the debt, but never got around to it.”

The whole family was involved in union activity, and Jackson went to jail with the rest of the family when she was 10 years old. By age 14 she was married, and by age 27 widowed. Her father and brother were blinded in a mining accident about this same time. After her husband, Jim Stewart, was killed in a mine accident, Molly joined the United Mine Workers and began writing protest songs.

“Her next husband, Bill Jackson, was forced to divorce Molly in order to keep his mining job,” said Cox. “Still, Molly wrote songs such as ‘I Am a Union Woman,’ ‘Kentucky Miner’s Wife,’ ‘Ragged Hungry Blues’ and ‘Poor Miner’s Farewell.’ ”

These songs were based on melodies Molly had been taught as a child by her great grandmother.

The Dreiser Committee, named for famed novelist and union sympathizer Theodore Dreiser, investigating the Harlan County War of 1931, discovered Molly and brought her to New York City. In New York, she appeared at concerts to raise money for striking coal miners. As part of the Greenwich Village folk revival, Molly sang for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress. She is credited as an influence on Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

In later years, Jackson was crippled in a bus accident and confined to a New York City apartment. She died in 1960 at about 80 years old.

Aunt Molly Jackson was the product of an unbelievably difficult life. She used her talents and raised her voice to help others. Today, her work has been discovered by a new generation of scholars delving into the social history Appalachia.

Appalachia today is much less populated and much more apathetic than it was 100 years ago. This is an ideal time, therefore, to rediscover the passionate fire for social change espoused by Aunt Molly Jackson a century ago.