Terror Tuesday: The Radium Girls

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Terror Tuesday: The Radium Girls
Content Warning: Death

When one looks across the periodic table of elements, it is worth remembering that there has not always been one hundred and eighteen recorded elements laid out to be studied. The table has been filled, square after square, through scientific experimentation, happy accidents, or a mix of the two.

This week’s Terror Tuesday has us looking closer at just one of those elements: Radium (Ra).

After its discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie in the late 1800s many referred to radium as the miracle element, particularly after its successful use in cancer treatments. But back then, this new element became widely used in things as mundane as toothpaste and make-up. Its luminous quality made it possible to make paints and dyes glow in the dark, a novel effect at the time. It became incredibly popular in the 1920s in the watchmaking industry for just this reason.   

Credit: Museum of Radium

Radium factories provided a unique opportunity to the working-class women of the time. Compensation in these factories was based on quantity, meaning you were paid by the watch. This meant some of these women were making even more money than their fathers had before them, finishing multiple trays of watches every day, some making as much as $2,080 a year. That doesn’t sound like a lot at first, until you realize that’s would be about $40,000 today. 

The work was good, even if it was repetitive and even a little bit difficult. You see, it was fine detail work. Some of the numbers and dials that needed to be painted were impossibly small. But the women figured out that they could make things easier by refining their paint brushes through a process that became known as ‘lip pointing’. Wetting the brushes between their lips before each use allowed them to get the incredibly fine point they needed for such fine work. 

These women also soon learnt that anyone working directly with the element would inevitably end up covered in trace amounts of it, and this exposure to radium dust caused their clothes, their hair, and their skin to give off a distinct glow. The recognizable ethereal shimmer spotted on the young women working in the radium factories earned them the nickname The Ghost Girls

But that isn’t how they would be remembered. 

Credit: Chicago Daily Times 1937

The Effects of Radium

The women working in the radium factories had been told repeatedly that the element was perfectly safe to work with, and that the trace amounts they were ingesting through lip pointing would do them no harm. They were so convinced of their own safety that many would use the radium-based paints as lipstick, painting them to get that unique fluorescent glow. 

But it was not long before the incredibly radioactive nature of radium began to devastate the bodies of the young women who were openly exposed to the element. Amongst the first to come forward about the effects was Amelia “Mollie” Maggia. Mollie, along with a number of her sisters, had worked as a dial painter for the United States Radium Corporation. Mollie’s ailments started as a painful toothache but they would grow much worse. 

Removing the tooth did nothing to subdue the pain as suddenly pus and blood filled ulcers formed in Mollie’s mouth. These ailments would only grow worse, eventually leading to the removal of Mollie’s entire jawbone. Even that was not enough to stop the spread of the radium poisoning. There was nothing to be done as Mollie began to waste away, her inevitable death caused by a massive haemorrhage.  

Even after all that, no one was willing to admit that radium was to blame. 

Soon more and more women fell ill with similar ailments, and at every turn their employers denied that radium was the cause despite it being the obvious connection between them all. Dozens of women would become ill, their bodies ravaged by the radium poisoning, falling apart day by day. Eventually the numbers grew so great that the United States Radium Corp. launched an independent study into the effects of radium, no doubt trying to disprove that their miracle element had any part to play in the women’s suffering. But when the study came back it only confirmed the connection. 

You would think things would’ve ended there. But they didn’t.    

You must remember, radium was a hot commodity, it brought in business both from the general public and from the military. Admitting that radium was at fault for the women’s ailments would’ve been bad for business, and had the potential to shut the industry down altogether. So the big Radium fought back, even going as far as launching counter studies to disprove the findings of the first. 

In return the women of the factories, despite the horrific afflictions of their illness, would not go down without a fight.

Credit: Worcester Democrat and the Ledger-Enterprise (Pocomoke City, MD), March 4, 1938, p. 9.

The Radium Girls

In 1927, attorney Raymond Berry would take on the challenge of representing the women that we now refer to as the Radium Girls. Despite the fact that many of them were already succumbing to the absolute grisly conditions that radium exposure causes, the young women in the factories bonded together and set out to ensure that others would not suffer the same fate. Many spent their last days in a courtroom, fighting the United States Radium Corp. and others in the industry for the harm they had done. 

Tragically, many only saw triumph in settlements outside of the courtroom. Even sadder still is that the money from the settlements often only served to pay for their funerals.   

Finally in 1938, more than a decade after Berry first accepted the Radium Girls’ case, a settlement was won in the actual courthouse when Catherine Wolfe Donohue successfully sued the Radium Dial Co. From then on out, there was no more denying that radium was a dangerous substance. 

If only the women had been listened to sooner.

[While the case of the Radium Girls has been solved, there are other mysteries that need unravelling. Put on your detective’s cap and grab your notebook, the Los Angeles Police Chief needs your help solving the toughest cases in the city. Do you have what it takes to catch the killer? Get your hands on Post Mortem Los Angeles to find out now!]

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