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.


Huixtocihuatl-  Goddess of Salt

Salt has been a source of wealth since ancient times.  The human body must have some form of salt to survive and before the advent of refrigeration it was one of the main ways to preserve food.  Salt was associated with sex and fertility as well for some reason, which has proved fodder for psychoanalysts.  So as a source of wealth and sex, it is natural salt had its own deity.  The Aztecs were no exception.

Huixtocihuatl was a fertility goddess who was patron of salt and salt waters.  She was also the patroness of salt making and the discoverer of salt itself.  Huixtocihuatl was the older sister of the Tlaloques, the Aztec rain gods.  The most important of these was Tlaloc, the Lord of the Celestial Waters.  Legend has it Huixtocihuatl was in a heated argument with the Tlaloques, and they tried to drown her in salt water.  That was how she made her discovery.  Her appearance is described as ears of gold wearing yellow clothes and a fishnet skirt.  She carried a shield which was trimmed with the feathers of various birds and had a picture of a water lily on it.  She wears gold bells around her ankles and carried a cane topped by incense filled paper flowers.

In the seventh month of the Aztec year, a ten day festival dedicated to Huixtocihuatl was held.  A girl was chosen to represent Huixtocihuatl and she danced with women who made salt for ten days.  They paired off holding ropes and dancing and singing hymns.  On the tenth day of the festival, two slaves were killed then the girl representing  Huixtocihuatl was sacrificed.


The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811

A 19th-century print of New Madrid earthquake chaos. Photo Credit- Granger Collection, NYC via Smithsonian Magazine

New Madrid, Missouri was at the back end of nowhere.  It was technically a respectably sized town on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Natchez, but this was not a great achievement.  In 1811, the population was about 1,000 people made up of farmers, fur traders and pioneers supplemented by French Creoles and Native Americans traveling on the great river.  However, the events there beginning in 1811 shook the world.  Literally. Continue reading “The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811”

The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635

The James unloading after a somewhat more serene trip than it had during the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. Photo Credit- New England History Society

Hurricanes are a part of life if you live on the Eastern Seaboard or Gulf Coast of the US or the Caribbean. What we tend to forget is these powerful storms have been around longer than the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. We discussed a few such hurricane in our posts about the 1900 Galveston Storm (Please see this post for more information:…/ ) and one that destroyed the young city of New Orleans (Please see this post for more information: ). There was even a hurricane that possibly stopped Washington DC from burning in 1814 (Please see this post for more information: ) However, hurricanes have been plaguing the residents of the East Coast of the US for much longer. One such storm has been dubbed The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.

It was fifteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and the settlements at the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay and Jamestown Settlement had weathered brutal winters, disease and other natural disasters. However, they had never seen anything like the terrible storm that came up from the south. This is thought to be the first hurricane ever experienced by the colonists. The Jamestown Settlement in Virginia Colony was brushed by the winds. It is first mentioned by chroniclers there on August 24, 24, 1635 moving quickly to the east of the colony with the Plymouth Plantation in its sites.

At the many seaports, there were ships unloading full of settlers who made the perilous crossing of the Atlantic from England. One of these ships was the James, and on it was Reverend Richard Mather. Travelling with Reverend Mather were his wife, father-in-law and four children, one of which was Increase Mather, who became a famous minister in his own right. The James and its companion ship the Angel Gabriel arrived on August 25, 1635. Another smaller ship arriving was the Watch and Wait travelling from Ipswich, Massachusetts to Marblehead, Massachusetts. On it was the Thacher family- Anthony and his wife and four children. Unfortunately, arriving at the same time as these ships was the hurricane. It blew into the New England coast on August 26, 1635. Putting together journal accounts from settlers, Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College, has estimated the storm’s path with the help of Brian Jarvienen at the National Hurricane Center. Using the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) computer model, they estimate the storm passed over eastern Long Island then moved north into New England. After hitting the New England colonies, the storm moved back into the Atlantic.

John Winthrop, the head of the Massachusetts Bay group, wrote in his diary

“[the hurricane] blew with such violence, with abundance of rain, that it blew down many hundreds of trees, overthrew some houses, and drove the ships from their anchors.” He also wrote of Native Americans killed by the storm surge while “flying from their wigwams.”

William Bradford, head of the Plymouth group, also wrote

“Such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indian, ever saw,” he wrote. “It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others … It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle.”

He also reported loss of life in the Native American community of seventeen people.

The James and the Angel Gabriel were forced to try to weather the storm off the coast. The Angel Gabriel offloaded most of its passengers at Pemaquid, Maine. It’s a good thing as by the morning of the 27th, the Angel Gabriel had been torn from its anchor and reduced to rubble. Crew and passengers who stayed onboard were lost and along with most of its cargo. The James was a bit further south and fared somewhat better. The anchors were lost when the captain tried to dock at the Isle of Shoals. The ship was driven towards the rocks by the strong winds, but they were saved when the hurricane moved northeast. The James was able to limp into Boston harbor. Richard Mather recorded in his diary,

“When news was brought to us in the gun room that the danger was past, oh how our hearts did then relent and melt within us! And how we burst into tears of joy amongst ourselves, in love onto our gracious God, and admiration of his kindness in granting to his poor servants such an extraordinary and miraculous deliverance.”

Postcard showing Antony Thacher’s Monument. Photo Credit- Boston Public Library

The Watch and Wait did not fare as well. The storm caught it off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As with the other ships, it was torn from its anchor trying to ride out the winds. The Watch and Wait crashed upon the rocks of an island off shore and was destroyed. Anthony Thatcher and his family were cast into the sea along with the rest of the crew. He wrote later he said to his cousin,

“O cousin, it hath pleased God to cast us here between two rocks, the shore not far from us, for I saw the tops of trees when I looked forth. I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful to us and receive us to himself!”

Eventually, they lost the rocks they were holding on to and were swept into the sea. Anthony and his wife made it safely to the shore, but the rest of the family was lost. A passing ship found them and took them to the mainland. The island is named after him, and the rock they clung to is named Avery’s Rock after his late cousin Joseph Avery.


It has been estimated that the storm would have been categorized as a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which meant there were winds up to 130 miles per hour and moving at a speed of 30 miles per hour. Coch and Jarvinen also estimate the storm surge to have been large as well- up to 21 feet at Buzzards Bay and 14 feet at Providence, Rhode Island. The tides at Narragansett Bay were reported as 20 feet higher than normal. A few miles change in the track could have wiped the growing colonies of map, reducing the British influence in the New World. Also, the settlers had never seen a storm of this magnitude and were convinced it was a sign of the apocalypse. No one would have blamed them if they had packed up and left. However, they didn’t. They stuck it out and changed history.


The Valiant Ladies of Potosí

Mining in Potosí, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596

When the Spanish “discovered” South America, they were thrilled to find a plethora of precious metals to take.  The heart of the silver boom was the town of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia.  At the time it was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and was known as Alto Peru.  There was so much money there that the theory is that the mint mark of Potosí, which was the letters “PTSI” all written over each other, is the origin of the dollar sign.  The very name meant money, and a common Spanish expression is “vale un Potosí”, which is literally translated to “to be worth a Potosí” and means “to be of great value”.  However, with great wealth comes opportunity and unfortunately opportunistic people.  Native South Americans were used as forced labor in the mines for Spanish robber barons who came for the money.  Miners, who actually go paid, blew what salary they had on drinks, loose women and carousing.  Bandits were everywhere and crime was rampant.  It was so bad that the town council wouldn’t meet unless they had chain mail shirts on.  Enter in the mix of obscene wealth, screaming poverty and rank crime, Ana Lezama de Urinza and Dona Eustaquia de Sonza.

The two women were as different as they could be.  Ana was born on the streets and grew up as an orphan.  The fact she lived meant she was tough as nails.  Eustaquia lived in a beautiful villa overlooking the city with every possible comfort.  It’s not recorded how they met, but they became unlikely friends.  So close that Ana was adopted into Eustaquia’s family at the age of 12.  They were taught the skills needed for young noble women at the time-  dancing, needlework, cooking and running of a great household.  However, these two little Arya Starks were completely uninterested in all of this.  They paid much more attention to Eustaquia’s brother’s fencing lessons.  No matter what they were doing, the made sure to observe his lessons and try out the moves when no one was looking.  Sadly, Eustaquia’s brother died young, but the two girls had shown so much promise they received their own tutor and were working on swordplay, riding and firearms training.  Beats the heck out of needlepoint.

“Chronica del Peru” by Pedro de Lieca

Despite their training, Ana and Eustaquia were extremely sheltered.  It was no proper for a lady to be roaming the streets let alone in a town as dangerous as Potosí.  However, they were bored with their secluded life and came up with a plan to sneak out.  Disguising themselves as caballeros, they induced a servant to help them sneak out.  This became a habit, and the two young women got into the inevitable scrap.  In one of their most famous street duels, it was the two of them against four bandits.  Ana had fallen from a wound, and Eustaquia was guarding her from all comers.  Then Ana “rose to her feet like a lioness and, recognizing the man who had wounded her, said, ‘Monster, now I will revenge myself!”  The proceeded to open a can of whipass on him.  At the end of the fight, both women were wounded but made it home.  By this time, the women had found that their friendship had deepened into a romantic relationship.  The two lovers quit searching for fights and went full on vigilante on the mean streets of Potosí and beyond.  They spent five years touring Peru drinking, fighting bulls, playing cards and handing out their own brand of justice at the point of a sword.  They were known as “The Valiant Peruvian Ladies of Potosí”.

Eventually, they returned to Potosí as Eustaquia’s father died leaving her as sole heir.  They settled into the cushy villa, but did not give up their wild life.  Unfortunately, their life together ended a few years later when Ana succumbed to wounds she received in a bullfight.  Eustaquia did not live much longer, dying of a broken heart four months later.

Although their life was short, their legend lives on.