Jessica Mitford

On this date in 1917, Jessica Mitford, "Queen of the Muckrakers," was born to a markedly eccentric, religious, aristocratic family in England. Her parents were anti-Semites and notorious members of the British Union of Fascists. Two of her sisters became high-profile Fascists, but by age 14, Jessica was a pacifist. Like her sister Nancy, who became a novelist (Love in a Cold Climate), Jessica also embraced a left-wing socialism. In 1937, Jessica ran away at age 19 to marry journalist Esmond Romilly, nephew to Winston Churchill. They honeymooned in Spain while he wrote about his experiences in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and was killed in 1941 during a raid over Nazi Germany. Jessica, who married radical lawyer Robert Treuhaft in 1943, was active in civil rights campaigns. She led the "White Women's Delegation" to Mississippi seeking to save a black defendant from the death penalty. She and her husband, who were members of the American Communist Party until 1958, refused to give evidence when summoned before HUAC. Jessica wrote the irreverent bestseller, The American Way of Death (1963), after her husband became aware of outrageous death costs borne by working class families. The book enraged funeral directors and the clergy, and brought government regulation to the industry, also spurring demand for cremation. She also wrote an autobiography, Daughters and Rebels (1960), The Trial of Dr. Spock (1970), A Fine Old Conflict (1977), Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973), Poison Penmanship: The Making of a Muckraker (1979), and An American Way of Birth, (1992). Jessica Mitford died at age 78 of cancer. After a $475 cremation, a memorial service-only was held in San Francisco, where famous speakers lauded her mordant sense of humor and lifelong unorthodoxy. D. 1996.

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”

—Motto at Jessica Mitford Memorial Site (

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

Contribute to Nonbelief Relief

FFRF privacy statement