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 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 Dahlgren Affair

Kilpatrick and his 3rd Division staff, March 1864 Photo Credit- Library of Congress

In 1864 the American Civil War was still raging.  The capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, was still tantalizingly close to Union forces, but as of yet out of reach.  There on an island in the James River was Belle Isle, a holding pen for Union prisoners.  Like most Civil War prisons, it was not a fun place complete with disease and overcrowding.  Since prisoner exchanges had been called off in June of 1863, the number of prisoners at Belle Isle grew to staggering proportions.  There were thoughts that a raid on Belle Isle could not only free Union soldiers from abominable conditions and death by disease, but free up fresh troops for a raid on Richmond.  This was the brainchild of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, but the Confederates got wind of the attack and his force was turned back before reaching their goal.

Against this back drop, enter a report in the New York Tribune that reporter Charles Dunham had exposed a plot to assassinate President Lincoln by the evil Confederate Colonel George Margrave.  The fact that George Margrave was entirely fictitious as was besides the point.  It made good copy.  Naturally, this report was greeted with concern at the highest levels of government.  Put these two things together in the mind of ambitious Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, and you get the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid on Richmond.

Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was dubbed a “boy general”, and his men had little to no respect for the reckless commander.  He was not shy about committing soldiers’ lives to obtaining his goals usually through frontal assaults, which were regarded by other officers as “for no good purpose whatsoever”.  So much though that he earned the nickname “Kill Cavalry”.  Called a “danged fool” by Major General William Sherman, Kilpatrick was still in command and put out word that he believed a raid on Richmond led by him would succeed.  Word was passed along and possibly with the help of a Republican Senator, Kilpatrick was invited to a private meeting with the president.  Lincoln must have liked the idea, so Kilpatrick was shunted to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to work out the details.  Ostensibly, the objectives of the raid were threefold:  sever Confederate lines of communication with their capital, free the Union prisoners at Belle Isle and get word of Lincoln’s recent amnesty proposal behind enemy lines.

Kilpatrick got command of 4,000 men and enlisted the help of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren.  Dahlgren was the son of a prominent rear admiral, and had just returned to active duty after losing a leg at Gettysburg.  Kilpatrick would attack from the north and Dahlgren would come at it from the southwest.  As a diversion, Brigadier General George Custer would attack the Confederate left.  However, Dahlgren was not just part of a pincer movement on Richmond.  He had been given secret orders and an address to visit which Kilpatrick marked with “approved” in red ink then signed.  Unfortunately, the raid was a flop as Kilpatrick failed to stop an approaching train from warning the city.  Dahlgren did not make it to that address or even Richmond.  He was killed near King and Queen County Courthouse on March 2, 1864.  His body was found by a 13 year old boy, William Littlepage, who rifled through his pockets looking for valuables.  What he found was a packet of documents, which he turned over to his teacher Edward Halbach.  Halbach read the documents with disbelief.

In the orders was outlined the plan to meet up with Kilpatrick’s forces and “destroy and burn the hateful city” of Richmond.  A second set of orders were even more explosive as they outlined plans to kill the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and the Confederate Cabinet.  The exact wording was as follows:

“We will try and secure the bridge to the city, (one mile below Belle Isle,) and release the prisoners at the same time. If we do not succeed they must then dash down, and we will try and carry the bridge from each side. When necessary, the men must be filed through the woods and along the river bank. The bridges once secured, and the prisoners loose and over the river, the bridges will be secured and the city destroyed. The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

This went up the chain of Confederate command and was then released to the press on March 5, 1862.  People were appalled.  Despite the fact that the Civil War was the bloodiest and nastiest war fought up to that point, the thought of assassination was past the pale.  It was considered against the rules of war, which had been conducted with honor and as a “gentleman’s affair.”  Northerners were skeptical and generally believed the Dahlgren papers were a forgery.  Dahlgren’s father declared them completely false as his son would not be involved in such and they hadn’t even bothered to spell his name correctly.  However, privately some in the Union hierarchy, such as General George Meade, though they were valid.  The Richmond Examiner spoke for all of the south in their indignant rage saying, “The depredations of the last Yankee raiders, and the wantonness of their devastation equal anything heretofore committed during the war.”

It is plausible to believe in light of the accusations by Charles Dunham, Stanton and the others in the Cabinet may have entertained a similar assassination plot against Jefferson Davis.  However, it is not known how seriously they took the Dunham accusations.  It is also a mystery why they would put such a delicate operation in the hands of a commander who was known to be reckless.  Also, there is a question as to why Dahlgren did not destroy the orders after reading them.  It was put down to Dahlgren’s inexperience.  Again, why would you put such a controversial matter in the hands of an inexperienced commander?

In any case, the War Department claimed the papers were forgeries.  Union spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, used her contacts to secretly exhume Dahlgren’s body from Oakwood Cemetery and spirit it away so it could not be mistreated by the Confederates.  This prompted accusations that Dahlgren had “risen or been resurrected,” according to the Richmond Examiner.  Kilpatrick vehemently denied he had been a party to the secret orders and that they had been changed after he signed his name.  He lost command of his division and was put in charge of a brigade.  In the larger lens of the civil war, this affair is probably what sent John Wilkes Booth into a plot to kidnap President Lincoln.  This plan morphed into the assassination plot, which culminated in Lincoln’s death April 14, 1865.


Typhoid Mary

Typhoid Mary in a 1909 newspaper illustration
Photo Credit

There were many ways to die in the overcrowded disease ridden cities of the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Typhoid was one the most terrifying ones simply because of the speed it could spread through a household.   It’s initial symptoms could be anything- fever and some abdominal cramping.  Then the fever got higher and blood clots formed under the skin.  The patient becomes delirious and the brain and the intestines hemorrhage.  The death rate was recorded anywhere from one in ten to three in ten.  It was frightening.  Doctors were building on the advances in the young science of epidemiology led by pioneers like Dr. John Snow.  (For more on him, please see this post: ) By the 1900s, they had found the cause of the disease was much like cholera in that it was cause by bacteria found in infected feces.  They were able to trace the cause of outbreaks more accurately, however, outbreaks still happened.

Typhoid broke out in the quiet community of Oyster Bay, Long Island.  One of the families affected was the Warren family where six of the eleven people in the rented vacation home became ill.  The patriarch, Charles Henry Warren, hired civil engineer, George Soper, to determine the cause of the outbreak.  Soper checked out the usual suspects- the food and water supply- and came up empty.  Then he began interviewing the servants.  His suspicions fell on Mary Mallon, a cook for the family who had arrived at the vacation home shortly before the outbreak began.  It was strange though because Mary wasn’t sick.  She was an immigrant in her thirties from Ireland who took pride in her cooking.  When asked if she washed her hands before she cooked, she indignantly replied “Of course not.”  When Soper asked her for samples of her blood, urine and feces, she brandished a meat fork at him and called him indecent.  However, Mary was his best lead.

Soper did more research and found that typhoid seemed to follow Mary wherever she went.  Between 1900 and 1907, Mallon worked as a cook in the New York City area for seven families.  In all of these families, someone became ill with typhoid.  He tried again to get her tested, this time visiting her in the hospital when she was ill with an unrelated ailment.  She locked herself in the bathroom until he left.  Mary was convinced she was being persecuted unjustly.  Finally, Sara Josephine Baker from the New York City Health Department went to Mary’s place of employment with five police officers and she was taken into custody.  The samples were forcibly taken, and it was found Mary had a gallbladder teaming with typhoid bacteria.  They suggested she get her gallbladder removed.  Mary refused.  They told her she could not work as a cook.  Mary refused that as well.  She was put into quarantine on North Brother Island in the East River.  There she stayed for three years.  Mary paid a private lab to run tests and they found she was not a typhoid carrier and sued for her freedom.  She lost.

In 1910, a new health inspector deemed the Mary was no longer a danger to the public.  He released her from quarantine as long as she promised not to be a cook.  Mary duly promised and then promptly disappeared.  Then a new outbreak of typhoid broke out at the Sloane Maternity Hospital in 1915.  It was mostly found in the staff, and there were twenty-three people who became ill and two who died.  They found that a Mary Brown was working in the kitchen.  This Mary Brown soon disappeared when people became sick and matched the description of Mary Mallon.  The authorities soon caught up with her in her Queens apartment, sneaking in through a second story window.  Mary was once again sent to the hospital on North Brother Island.

The public had become fascinated with the case, dubbing her “Typhoid Mary.”  The New York Times reported, she was “a veritable peripatetic breeding ground for the bacilli”.  Any public support she had dwindled once it came out that she went back to cooking and endangered people.  However, Mary did not have many options once she was out in the world.  Cooking was the only skill she had.  Plus, she never truly believed she was a carrier of typhoid so didn’t believe she was putting anyone in danger.  

Scientists from Stanford figured out only recently how Mary could be a carrier and not get sick.  Part of the immune system are macrophages, which “eat” foreign bodies.  When someone becomes sick, the macrophages go into high gear to fight the infection.  However, after a few days the macrophages become less aggressive and the typhoid bacteria actually penetrate and live in the cells meant to kill them.  Even now, that is difficult to treat let alone a hundred years ago.  

Mary was not always well treated in quarantine, and it was not an easy life.  She suffered a stroke and died from its effects six years later. She was still living on North Brother Island, and her New York Times obituary attributed 41 cases of typhoid and 3 deaths to her.