Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Ridgway, Elk County
Born in Ridgway, journalist Katherine Mayo is most famous for her controversial book Mother India.
Born in 1867 in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, Katherine Mayo traveled the world with her heiress friend, researching for her books. As a social historian, she wrote books on what she felt were important issues, like the lack of a state police force in New York in Justice for All, and the question of India’s independence in Mother India. Mayo died in 1940.
Katherine Mayo was born in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, to James H. and Harriet Mayo. She had a private education in Cambridge and Boston, where she lived for five years. Later, she went to live with her father in Dutch Guiana for eight years.
Her first work was published in Life magazine in 1892. She also contributed to an article in the New York Evening Post in 1894. Supposedly she used a pseudonym, Katherine Prence, for some of her publications.
In 1899, she traveled to Dutch Guiana with her father and stayed their for eight years. She later wrote about her time in Guiana in her first articles that appeared in the New York Post. Mayo also began to write about the Guiana for the Atlantic Monthly and Scribner’s Magazine. She also collective indigenous people’s relics and insects to sell to institutions.
Mayo then spent some time as a researcher and historian, helping Oswald Garrison Villard of the New York Evening Post prepare John Brown in 1910. Villard became her mentor and greatly influenced her to become a social reformer. Now, when Mayo began to do research for a new article, it quickly turned into a cause.
In 1910, Mayo also met M. Moyca Newell, a wealthy heiress. The two became life-long friends, with Newell providing the money necessary for Mayo’s writing projects. The two women traveled the globe to research the facts for Mayo’s reform books.
Mayo began her first social reform book, Justice For All, in 1913 when a paymaster was murdered on Newell’s estate in Bedford Hills, New York. The book was published in 1917, and was a historical look at the Pennsylvania State Police. The book was so influential that is crediting with helping to start the foundations of the New York State police, and even Theodore Roosevelt contributed to the introduction of the book. Mayo also wrote two other books on the topic, The Standard Bearers (1918) and Mounted Justice (1922).
Mayo then took on the YMCA in 1920, with the book That Damn Y. She followed in 1925 with The Islands of Fear which was published as a serial in the New York Times. Mayo had gone to the Philippines with Newell to research, and the book illustrated her opposition to the independence of the islands. This book set the tone for her most famous work, Mother India. Like her later work, the book was written in a sensationalized, almost muckraking style.
Mother India (1927) described Mayo’s belief that India was not ready for independence either. She based her criticisms on child marriage, young pregnancy and what she thought was the exploitation of women. The matter was greatly sensationalized (something which Mayo herself admitted in an interview) and was not well received by many groups of people. The book was burned in India (along with her effigy) and New York City, and Mahatma Gandhi denounced the book as untruthful. It wasn’t just native Indians who found her books distasteful, as there were many protesters in America and England.
Much of the criticism of Mother India came from the fact that Mayo was an outsider, and there were several works written in response, like Father India by C.S Iyer Ranga. While Mayo’s research was done first hand, by interviews with officials and reviews of debates from the legislature, many authors suggested that because she was not part of the culture she could not completely understand the system. Furthermore, she was accused of painting India in a bad light, and then not providing a truly viable solution to the problem. Despite the criticism, however, the minimum age for marriage was raised to 14 for girls and 18 for boys after the release of her book.
Mayo’s next three books Slaves of the Gods (1929), Volume II (1931), and The Face of Mother India (1935) never achieved the fame of her original book on India. She also wrote two other books before her death Soldiers What Next! (1934) discussed American volunteers, and General Washington’s Dilemma about the Revolutionary War. However, after the release of Mother India, Mayo’s other books were overlooked.
Mayo died in Newell’s home in 1940 after a long disease. She continued her work even to her deathbed, and was working on a book on the international narcotics trade when she finally succumbed.
Justice for All. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917.
Mother India. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927.
Soldiers what next! Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934.
The Standard Bearers: True Stories of Heroes of Law and Order. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930.
“Ban Proposed on Book by American.” New York Times 14 Aug. 1927: 6.
“Book by Miss Mayo Rouses Hindu India.” New York Times 6 Oct. 1927: 6.