Ora Pearl McGill
Ora Pearl McGill came to Muscatine, Iowa, as a young woman of fifteen to work in a button factory. By her death in 1924, Pearl had traversed the United States speaking out for the rights of workers in early factories, met Helen Keller, who supported Pearl continuing her education, getting her teaching license, teaching school, and becoming the principal of the Buffalo, Iowa, school.
There she met her fate, murdered by her ex-husband or someone who just wanted her rubbed out.
All of this in a short life of thirty years, most of it in her last fifteen years.
Her arrival in Muscatine to work in a button factory fashioned the course of the rest of her life.
Due to her literacy, ability to speak well, and write, she became the voice of labor in Muscatine. As the button strike of 1911 took its course, Pearl spoke for the workers through the written word as secretary of the Socialist Union. While working for “Big Bill” Heyworth and Eugene Debs, Pearl was in a prominent position to write and speak for improved work conditions not only in the local button factories of Muscatine, but also across the United States, particularly in New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston.
On December 15, 1911, Pearl wrote a letter home from Boston saying she had made over twenty-five speeches in a week’s time and had made nearly $600, which she sent home to Muscatine to help the striking button workers.
In a letter on June 9, 1911, from Chicago, Pearl told her family about the long travel hours in her life on the road: “Well, I am in Chicago now, wonder where I will be next. I came back from St. Louis Wednesday, was on the train for thirteen hours from St. Louis to Moline. Laid over in Rock Island for three hours, and went to Wilton and laid over for one hour, and got to Muscatine at 1:30 p.m. and to Chicago by 6 p.m.
“Twenty-eight women and myself are going to Boston at twelve o’clock and will get into Boston by six a.m. Now I want to go to New York City and Niagara Falls, and you know I haven’t any money. Now be sure to send it for I will pay it back sometime if I have to. Send it to: Miss Pearl McGill c/o Women’s Trade Union League, 7 Warrenton Street, Boston, Massachusetts.”
On September 22, 1911, from New York City, Pearl wrote about her work at a pearl button factory owned by Leo Hirsch, who also had a shop in Muscatine: “This one I went to one day at noon here in N.Y. just to see what it looked like, and when the whistle blew at noon a crowd of girls came stringing out of the factory doors, covered with grease and dust. They were at the most not over fourteen or fifteen years old. Little kids that ought to be in school. They were nearly all Italians, and lots of little boys the same way. Children who were finishing buttons making four to six dollars a week and that the men who cut the buttons making six or seven dollars at the most. Just imagine this, and to live in any kind of decent flat at all people have to pay twenty-five dollars a month rent. There are four big factories in Newark, New Jersey, too, and I am going to try to organize them.”
The impact of Pearl’s life can be seen in her letter from Helen Keller: “I have thought of you many times since we saw you at the station in Cedar Falls, and my heart goes out to you in your brave struggle for education, so that I am moved to help you. Will you accept the enclosed check as a token of my warm sympathy and comradeship! I long to give back to others all the help and happiness that have been bestowed upon me, and it makes me happy to have this opportunity to do something for one whose courage and devotion to a noble cause are such inspiration to me; I wish you every success in your work. I look forward confidently to your being a teacher, not only in a classroom, but in the great school of the world. It is splendid to think what you can do with your fine mind and fearless heart to lessen the terrible ignorance of men on the most vital questions of our daily life…the questions of bread, of right thinking, and right living.
With affectionate greeting, in which my teacher joins me, I am,
Sincerely your comrade,
Kansas City, Missouri”
Pearl McGill, a voice for the hardworking, common man met her demise in Buffalo, Iowa…murdered and found dead in the next-door neighbor’s yard, and her husband, accused, found two weeks later dressed in women’s clothes floating in the Mississippi River. Still a mystery today!
This article was based on the curated research and family letters by Jean Burns. Read more about Pearl McGill in Shell Games, the industrial spy novel by Jeff Copeland and available locally at the National Pearl Button Museum at the Muscatine History and Industry Center.
This piece was authored by Mary Wildermuth. A group of local women came together in 2020, as part of the Iowa League of Women Voters' "Hard Won. Not Done.” commemoration, to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. This amendment gave women the right to vote. The project was entitled Muscatine Women of Influence and Inspiration. The committee selected women from the past century to research; they then wrote short biographies on the work of these women and their lives in our community. Although we don’t know if they were suffragists, their actions helped advance women’s rights. The women featured chose independent paths and made a difference in times when society did not encourage or expect it of them.