The Ghost Girls

From its discovery in 1898, radium was considered a wonder of science.  It glowed with an unearthly beauty.  It delighted its discoverers, Marie Sklodowska Curie and her husband Pierre, who called it “My beautiful radium”.  It was used in spas and clinics as a cure for everything from cancer to constipation.   It was used in makeup, jewelry and paints.  

At the height of World War I, it was used to make the hands and dials of wristwatches glow in the dark.  Girls all over the country flocked to make these watches as they paid up to three times what they could have been paid at any other wartime factory.  Plus the watches were going to adorn the arms of soldiers, so it was patriotic and profitable.  To paint the tiny watch faces, the girls were taught to put their small brushes in their mouth to draw it into a fine point then dip it into the radium.  This was totally fine as the girls were told radium “will put rosy cheeks on you.”  They were called the Ghost Girls because they glowed in the dark after work.  Some girls painted radium on their teeth and faces for dates.

However, everything wasn’t rosy.  Curie herself died of radium poisoning, and her notebooks are still too radioactive to handle. Men in radium companies handled the chemical wearing thick leather aprons, gloves and heavy metal tongs to prevent burns.  It was believed the small doses of radium the girls were getting were benign.  They weren’t.

The girls began to get sick.  In 1922, Mollie Maggia developed tooth problems.  It progressed to her losing all her teeth in a shower of pus and blood.  Her mouth was a giant abscess and when a dr treating her touched her jawbone, it disintegrated in his hands.  She was dead in less than a year.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Grace Fryer began developing the same problems in her jaw and in her feet.  Marguerite Carlough and Hazel Vincent suffered chronic exhaustion and skin so thin a fingernail would cut it.  Albina Larice had stillbirth after stillbirth.

The first lawsuit was filed against the parent company, USRC, in September 1925.  They lost.  There were no appeals as what little money the girls had went to doctors not lawyers.  The factory held all the cards.  Finally, one woman, Catherine Donohue, was willing to fight to the death.  She hired lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who worked pro bono.  After eight appeals, the won their suit on October 23, 1932.  This victory led to more stringent safety standards for dial painters as well as for later workers on the atomic bomb.

But the Ghost Girls were still dead.  In 1927, Mollie Maggia’s body was exhumed.  Her cause of death had been recorded as syphilis, and her family was protesting to have it changed.  Even five years later, her body glowed with a “soft luminescence”.  The radium took its toll.


The Straw Hat Riots of 1922

People take their clothes very seriously.  Ask any teenager trying to decide what to wear in the morning.  We devote magazines to what to wear and more importantly what not wear.  We make jokes about the fashion police.  However, those involved in the Straw Hat Riots of 1922 took it to extremes.

There was a strict tradition among men at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century about what was appropriate for the various seasons.  Because of the lack of air conditioning and central heating, men’s wear changed over to lighter fabrics in the summer and heavier fabrics in the winter.  Seersucker suits were popular because of their light, breathable nature.  This tradition can be seen in the “Searsucker Thursdays” that are still popular in the US Senate.  Hats were no exception.  No gentleman was fully dressed without a hat.  Until the exact date of May 15, a gentleman wore a felt hat.  On that date, he could switch to the lighter straw hat acceptably.  Then on September 15th, a gentlemen resumed his wearing of a felt hat.  This was so ingrained, September 15 was dubbed “Felt Hat Day”. Newspapers ran ads warning readers of the impending deadline.  The New York Times said anyone who wore a straw hat after September 15 “may even be a Bolshevik, a communal enemy, a potential subverter of the social order.”  They were only half kidding.  

If you dared to wear a straw hat after this Felt Hat Day, your headgear was fair game to any street urchin to grab off your head and stomp to smithereens.  Sometimes these snatchings got violent, as described in an article in the Pittsburgh Press from September 15, 1910 where police had to intervene.  They go on to say, “It is all right for stock brokers on the exchanges to destroy one another’s hats if they like, on the principle that everything goes among friends. But no man likes to have his hat snatched from his head by somebody he has not yet been introduced to.”  They weren’t kidding.

It was September 13, 1922 and Felt Hat Day was approaching.  Men were still wearing boaters safely with two days left until the deadline.  However, some kids in the Mulberry Bend section of Manhattan decided to start early.  They started swiping straw hats and stomping them although the men were within the window of acceptable straw hat wearing.  The targeted some of the men working on the docks, who were not going to sit idly by while some punks grabbed their hats.  The dockworkers fought back and it lead to brawling on the streets.  Soon gangs of straw hat hating gangs were roaming the city armed with nail studded clubs.  The New York Times reported, “[Scores] of rowdies on the east side and in other parts of the city started smashing hats.  Police reserves were called out, straw hat bonfires were started, and seven men were convicted of disorderly conduct in the Men’s Night Court.”

The riots lasted for three days and moved from the East Side to the Upper West Side.  Police went out with orders to nap the hat hunting gangs.  They brought in boys to station houses by the bucket full. One police lieutenant “invited the boys’ fathers to come to the station and spank them.”  Eventually the furor died down, but every year since there was more hat related violence around September 15.  In 1924, one man was killed defending his hat.  President Coolidge was shown wearing a straw hat on September 18, and it was so scandalous it made the front page.  I doubt the Secret Service allowed anyone to take his hat though.  All of this hat related violence died down once the country plunged into the Great Depression as we all had more important things to worry about.


Edith Wilson and the Secret Presidency

Wilson’s first posed photograph after his stroke in June 1920. Photo Credit- By Harris & Ewing – Library of Congress

Woodrow Wilson was tired.   He had been negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, planning for the League of Nations, campaigning for the US inclusion into said League of Nations and planned a speaking tour of the United States in support of this effort.  He had suffered from a terrible bout with influenza in April 1919, and had not allowed himself the opportunity to rest.  By September of the same year, Wilson was noticeably thinner and paler and his asthma was growing worse.  He also complained of terrible headaches.  Instead of taking the rest that he obviously needed, Wilson pushed on.

On the evening of September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado.  His wife, Edith, found him in his room with the muscles in his face twitching and complaining of severe nausea.  They canceled the speaking tour and rushed Wilson back to Washington where he had a massive stroke a week later.  Wilson collapsed on the way to the bathroom and Edith had to drag him back to bed.  Then she called the chief usher to get Wilson’s doctor, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, who pronounced the president paralyzed.  According to Dr. Grayson’s notes found much later, the president was paralyzed on his left side and blind in his right eye.  On top of that, his emotional state was volatile at best.  On top of this, Wilson suffered a urinary tract infection, which was life threatening.  What should have happened is Wilson should have resigned and his Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, should have taken over under the Constitution’s Article II, Section 1, Clause 6.  However, that did not happen.

Edith did not trust the president’s staff since their ham handed attempt to keep the president from marrying her.  Wilson had been widowed barely a year prior to meeting Edith, and wanted to marry her three months after being introduced.  During their courtship, Wilson asked for Edith’s evaluation on the loyalty of Cabinet members and her opinions on classified information, much to his advisers chagrin.  To stop this whirlwind romance from turning into a marriage, they leaked a series of fake love letters from Wilson to a lady named Mary Peck.  They hoped Edith would become angry and dump the president.  No dice.  She married him, and she was there to stay working alongside the president and attending meetings with him.  She was not about to step aside now.

Claiming that resigning would “depress” her husband, she and Dr. Grayson perpetrated a hoax they called “stewardship”.  Dr. Cary sent out carefully crafted medical bulletins that told everyone Wilson was recovering and fine.  In the meantime, he would be working exclusively from his bedroom suite.  Any papers or decisions must go through Edith, who would “take them to the president” then reemerge with his “decision”.  So, the most powerful men in this country sat in the West Sitting Room hallway waiting for Edith to pronounce the president’s word on all important matters.  She later described her actions by saying, ““So began my stewardship. I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs.  The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”  

Edith’s determination of what was “important” was sketchy at best.  Without Wilson to make appearances in the Senate, his plan to win over the Senate to the League of Nations was scuppered.  The British Ambassador came over to help Wilson negotiate for his version of the League of Nations, but Edith offended him when she demanded a minor aid be fired.  He had made an off color joke at her expense and she was offended.  The Ambassador went home without doing any negotiating.  As a result of all this, the US did not join the League of Nations and it ultimately failed.

Despite all their plans, word of the president’s ill health began to leak out by February 1920.  However, they were able to keep up the charade until March 1921, when Warren G. Harding took office.  Wilson died February 3, 1924, and zealously guarded his memory.  She denied access to any papers she deemed questionable and maintained strict control over the script of the 1944 biopic “Wilson”.  She died on December 24, 1961.  It was not until 1967 that the 25th amendment was ratified, outlining more specific means of a transfer of power when a president dies or is disabled.


Osage Reign of Terror

Anna Brown Photo courtesy of the FBI

The early 1920’s looked like a good time for the Osage tribe.  They were in the midst of an oil boom as large deposits of oil were found on tribal land in north central Oklahoma.  Many members of the Osage tribe were becoming wealthy.  Unlike other Native Americans, the Osage had deeds to their land, unlike other tribes forced onto a reservation.  Under the 1906 Osage Allotment Act all subsurface minerals were tribally owned and held in trust by the United States government.  Revenues from the mineral leases paid the tribe over 30 million dollars.  Each member of the tribe received one share, called a headright, which could be passed to a tribe member’s legal heir upon death.  To receive a headright through inheritance, one did not need to be a member of the tribe.  

Sounds good, right?  Not so much. There was a lot of envy from white people in Oklahoma and all over the country.  The press referred to them as “the red millionaires and the plutocratic Osage.”  This new found wealth brought trouble the wealthiest among the tribe were dying under suspicious circumstances.  Soon the most dangerous place in the United States was on the Osage Indian Reservation, and that period of time became known as the “Osage Reign of Terror”.

In May 1921, a group of hunters discovered the body of Anna Brown in a remote ravine in Osage County.  She was a member of the Osage tribe, and at first police chalked up her death to alcohol poisoning.  Her body was found in an advanced state of decomposition, and as we mentioned in earlier posts, coroners were not trained in the CSI methods we are familiar with today.  (For more on this, please see these posts: and ).  Anna’s sister was Mollie Burkart nee Kyle.  The two girls grew up in an Osage lodge and following the traditional tribal ways.  Because of the oil deposits found on their land, the family became wealthy.  At the time of Anna’s death, Mollie was living in a mansion and married to a white husband with two children.  Mollie had been looking for her sister for weeks after she mysteriously disappeared.  After the body was found, Mollie pressed for more investigation and an undertaker found a bullet wound in the back of Anna’s head.

A string of tragedies befell Mollie’s family.  Her mother, Lizzie Kyle, died unexpectedly two months later.  The poor woman seemed to waste away and no one could figure out what was happening.  Finally, Lizzie’s body withered and she passed away from the mysterious illness.  Like her daughter, her death was attributed to “bad whiskey”.  Mollie and Anna had another sister, Rita Smith, who lived in a home not far from Mollie’s.  One night after going to bed, Mollie was awoken by a loud bang.  She went to her window and saw an ominous orange light from her sister’s house.  It was found later, someone planted a bomb under the house and when it went off, it killed Rita, Rita’s husband, William E. Smith, and their housekeeper, Nettie Brookshire.  Mollie’s cousin, Henry Roan, was found shot in the head, much like Anna.  George Bigheart, another of Mollie’s relatives, became ill and was taken to the hospital in Oklahoma City.  It was determined there he was poisoned.  Between 1921 and 1923, at least two dozen members of the Osage tribe died under suspicious circumstances.

There was some attention from the press, but they and the sheriffs were willing to write this off.  Even though it was extremely obvious these were homicides no one would do anything.  One man was poisoned by strychnine and witnesses describe him as jerking as if electrocuted.  One body found was so mutilated the autopsy could not determine cause of death.  Yet all of these were chalked up to natural causes or suicide.

Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire pictured in front of their summer home.

Mollie wasn’t going to take this lying down.  She issued rewards and hired private investigators.  However, this was the 1920’s and private investigators were a mixed bag.  Most of them were on the take.  The tribe approached a white oil man named Barney McBride.  They knew McBride to be an honest man, and he genuinely wanted to help.  He went on their behalf to Washington DC to try and get federal help.  As befitting a man of the times, he brought with him a gun and a Bible.  When he arrived at his boarding house in Washington, he received a telegram to be careful.  Later that night, he was kidnapped, and his murdered body was found naked and beaten.  He had been stabbed at least 20 times.   Another man named W.W. Vaughn, tried to help the Osage.  He had been called in by George Bigheart from the hospital in Oklahoma City.  He called the local sheriff and told him he had evidence to charge someone with murder and was coming home.  He was thrown from the speeding train and his neck was broken.  People were terrified and many Osage fled Oklahoma for other parts of the country, mainly California.  Children were not allowed outside, doors were locked and lights hung so houses were always illuminated.

In desperation, the tribe contacted a little known branch of the Justice Department- the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  It was their first murder investigation.  However, the Bureau had just come under control of an ambitious young man named J. Edgar Hoover.  He was itching to remake the Bureau in his image and coming up with a conviction here would be a win.  Hoover recruited a frontier lawman named Tom White.  White put together a team of undercover agents, who were all experienced frontier lawmen, surprisingly for the time including a Native American agent.  They hit the reservation in the spring of 1923 looking for answers.  What they found was a vast criminal conspiracy.  The names that kept coming up were William K. Hale, Byron Burkart and John Ramsey.

William K. Hale, “King of the Osage Hills.” Photo courtesy the FBI.

Hold up.  Wasn’t Mollie’s name Burkhart?  Well spotted.  Ernest Burkhart was Mollie’s husband and Byron Burkhart was Ernest’s brother.  The sordid tale that came out was especially sick because of all the family ties and the long term planning involved.  William K. Hale was a wealthy cattleman and the self proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills”.  Apparently his extensive banking and business connections weren’t enough because he lusted after the Osage oil money.  He convinced his very pliable nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to marry Mollie Kyle.  Then systematically had her family murdered so that she would control their headrights.  By the time the murder plot was discovered, Mollie controlled about 2 million dollars worth of headrights.  Mollie was also dangerously sick with what turned out to be poisoning.  If Mollie died, all her headrights would go to her husband, then if he accidentally turned up dead….well, that would all go to dear Uncle William.

Under interrogation, Ernest Burkhart tied John Ramsey to the murder of Henry Roan.  Ramsey sang like a bird and fingered Hale in the Roan murder as well as the firebombing of the Smith house.  Testimony also revealed Hale had taken out a $25,000 insurance policy on Henry Roan with himself as the beneficiary.  Nice.  Byron Burkhart and Kelsie Morrison were fingered for Anna Brown’s murder as they was last seen with her.  It was found this was done at Hale’s behest.  The defendants were tried in state and federal courts at Guthrie, Oklahoma City, Pawhuska and Bartlesville.  The initial trials were rife with jury tampering and corruptions.  Eventually, Hale was convicted and sentenced to “hard labor for the rest of your natural life at Leavenworth prison.” Kelsie Morison, John Ramsey and Ernest Burkhart were also sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth.  Byron Burkhart turned state’s evidence and got off.

Despite Osage protest, Burkhart, Hale and Ramsey were all paroled.  Burkhard even received a full pardon from the governor of Oklahoma in 1965.  The only good thing that came out of this was a law in 1925 that stated headrights could not be passed to anyone who wasn’t a tribal member with more than one-half Osage blood.  No more murders for headrights.  However, I think Joseph E. Tinker, an Osage, said what I am thinking.  He said: “In our minds there is no doubt that Hale was the ringleader in the mass murder of our tribesmen. His good conduct in prison does not mitigate that fact. I personally think he should have been hanged for his crimes.”  Amen and amen.


The Teapot Dome Scandal

Albert Fall, President Warren G. Harding’s secretary of Interior. Wikipedia.

In geological terms, a dome is a formation that traps oil underground between layers of rock, with the upper layer bent upward to form a dome.  Teapot Dome is a dome north of Casper, Wyoming, which was named for a rock formation that looked like a teapot- complete with a spout and a handle.  This rock was unsurprisingly called Teapot Rock.  In the early 20th century, the oil deposits were designated by the federal government as Naval Oil Reserves.  

President Theodore Roosevelt had dreams of a powerful American Navy that could sail around the world showing off our might.  (For more on Theodore Roosevelt, please see this post )  However, the coal fired ships that had served the United States up until that time were not cutting it.  There had to be coaling stations everywhere and that was a logistical nightmare.  By the time President Taft was in office, the Navy was shifting to oil powered ships.  These oil fields were set aside so that in time of war, our Navy would have plenty of fuel to defend our interests.  Oilmen throughout the west drooled a the thought of the untapped reserves.  However, no drilling would be permitted unless there was a national emergency, such as war.  Enter President Warren G. Harding.

Harding was elected in 1920, and was described as a dim but charming man.  He appointed one of his card playing friends, Senator Albert Fall to be the secretary of Interior.  Fall was a lawyer from New Mexico Territory, and had represented mining and timber companies.  He attempted open up Alaska for private development as well as vast tracts of national forests, and was blocked by the conservationists in Congress.  Well, what’s a corrupt senator to do to exploit natural resources for money?  Honestly.  Fall turned to the naval oil reserves.  Cutting a deal with Edwin Denby, the Secretary of the Navy, and Harding, Fall had the naval oil reserves transferred to the Department of the Interior.  Once the naval oil reserves of Teapot Dome and Elk Hills, CA were under his control, Fall secretly began shopping around drilling rights to the highest bidder.  In exchange for a $100,000 interest free “loan” from the head of the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company, they were leased drilling rights to Elk Hills.  The same rights were leased to Mammoth Oil for Teapot Dome for a $300,000 interest free “loan”.  The owners of both of these companies were old friends of Fall’s.

Teapot Rock in the 1920s, before the “spout” broke off the formation that gave its name to Teapot Dome. Wyoming Tales and Trails.

People began getting suspicious when they saw trucks with the Mammoth Oil company logo hauling drilling equipment into Teapot Dome.  Leslie Miller, who later became the governor of Wyoming, asked Wyoming Senator John Kendrick to look into it.  Simultaneously, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of how Secretary Fall leased the naval oil reserves without competitive bidding.  The next day, Senator Kendrick introduced a resolution to begin an investigation into Secretary Fall’s actions, and Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette arranged to have the Committee on Public Lands investigate.  Fall had crossed swords with La Follette before, as La Follette was a prominent conservationist who had thwarted his attempts at privatizing forests and land in Alaska.  They must have thought it would be a nothing investigation, so they gave it to their least senior minority member to oversee- Senator Thomas Walsh from Montana.  They misjudged that one.

What Walsh found was that Fall had gotten rich very quickly with no discernible source of income.  That was quite fishy.  The heat was turning up on Harding’s attorney-general, Harry Daugherty, because he had not investigated any of this possible corruption.  In desperation, Daugherty got William J. Burns, the director of the FBI, to send an agent to ransack La Follette’s office for blackmail material.  All that did was convinced La Follette that what he thought was a nothing investigation was a big deal.  La Follette doubled down on the investigation.  Fall tried to stall and delivered a mountain of paperwork for the committee to go through.  He claimed what he was doing was beneficial to the Navy and he was saving the oil from syphoning from private wells.  For anyone who has seen There Will Be Blood, this is the “I drink your milkshake” defence.  Fall also claimed there was no competitive bidding because to make this public would make the oil fields a target for foreign enemies, and since Mammoth Oil was making a pipeline from Kansas to Wyoming anyway it all just made sense.

In the middle of all this, Warren G. Harding suffered a massive heart attack and died.  His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, was sworn in and the investigation continued.  Coolidge appointed two special prosecutors, one Democrat and one Republican, to continue.  What they found was a scandal ridden cabinet made up of Harding’s card and drinking buddies who were taking bribes from anyone who would offer and embezzling anything they could get their hands on.  Some joked that Harding escaped impeachment only because he died.  Senator Walsh became a national hero as Fall was the first cabinet member ever to be sent to prison for crimes committed while in office.  Henry Sinclair and Edward Dheny, the heads of Mammoth Oil and the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company respectively, were charged, but found not guilty.  A reporter quipped on their acquittal, “You can’t convict a million dollars.”  Sinclair was sentenced to nine months for contempt of Congress and jury tampering.

Several court cases came out of this episode which defined the Senate’s investigative powers.  In 1927, McGrain v. Daugherty explicitly established Congress’ right to compel witnesses to testify before its committees.  The government also sued to invalidate the leases to the oil fields Fall granted, but those leases were upheld and were not canceled until the Kennedy administration