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 Assassination of Domitian

Titus Flavius Domitianius was born the youngest son of Emperor Vespasian in 51 CE.  This was prior to his father’s rise to emperor of Rome.  (For more on Emperor Vespasian, please see this post )  His older brother, Titus, and his father were close, leaving Domitian on the outside looking in.  After a stunning turn of events, Vespasian became emperor and passed the throne to his oldest son Titus on his death.  Titus was groomed as Vespasian’s heir, and it was assumed Titus would marry and pass the throne on to his sons.  Domitian was relegated to being a patron of the arts, and was none too happy about it.  However, fate took a turn.  Domitian was set to be the emperor’s black sheep brother when Titus died suddenly.  The little known and lesser cared for brother was now the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

The beginning of his reign was a bit ominous as he spent hours alone in a room killing flies with a stylus.  This account comes from Suetonius, who reported a general quipped “not even a fly” was with the emperor.  However, he shored up support with army by raising their pay and financing campaigns along the Rhine and in Dacia.  Domitian ended up ruling for fifteen years, the longest since Emperor Tiberius.   He maintained power and popularity,  but showed a staggering contempt for the Senate.  He hated the aristocratic families who make up its ranks and went out of his way to humiliate them.

In 90 CE, Cornelia the head of the Vestal Virgins was accused of being unchaste. This was a crime against the State as the Virgins had to remain pure to tend the sacred flame to protect the city.  (For more on Vesta, please see this post: )  Cornelia was found guilty and was walled alive and her alleged lovers beaten to death.  In this climate of unrest, treason trials were put on for members of the Senate.  The consul Flavius Clemens was killed and his wife Flavia Domitilla was banished for “godlessness”.  This was just his sister and brother in law.  Even the heads of Domitian’s beloved praetorian guards, Petronius Secundus and Norbanus, we’re accused.  No one was safe.  Someone had to act.

As the fifteenth anniversary of his reign approached, according to Suetonius an astrologer predicted the emperor would die around midday on September 18th.  Naturally,  Domitian was nervous and restless but settled down to try to accomplish something.  Petronius Secundus and Norbanus had recruited Stephanus, an ex-slave of Flavius Clemens’ banished widow, to do the deed.  Stephanus approached Domitian with a dagger concealed his bandages from a fake wound.  They fought with Stephanus wounding Domitian in the groin, but he was also fatally wounded.  Both died on the palace floor.  The last Flavian emperor was dead.  He was denied a state funeral and his name removed from state buildings.


Arachidamia of Sparta

The Greeks did not have a good track record on women’s rights in the ancient world.  However, there was an anomaly in a strange place.  The city-state of Sparta was not generally a tolerant place.  Men were expected to give life long service to the military and boys were separated from their families to build esprit de corps.  A coming of age ritual was killing a slave and not getting caught.  It was a messed up place. (For more on the Spartans, please see these posts: and )  However,  women there were given extraordinary rights.  This was because the men were off fighting and the women were left to take care of everything else.  Spartan women were quite formidable.   Arachidamia was one such woman.

She was born in Sparta in the third century BCE and in due time became the wife of Eudamidas I and bore him a son, the future Archidamus IV. Not much is known about her until Sparta came under attack by the forces of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 273 BCE.  Pyrrhus was a legendary general, whose reputation gave even the Spartans pause.  Although he was at the end of his career, Pyrrhus had agreed to come out for one last hurrah by a rival contender for the Spartan throne.  The king and the bulk of the army were off fighting somewhere else.  This was a slam dunk.

The Spartan Gerousia, or council of elders, knew they were outmanned and outgunned and started to make plans.  They decided it would be best to send the women and children to the relative safety of Crete and then mount a defence of the city.  The Gerousia discussing this proposal when Arachidamia let them know she had other plans.  She marched in with a sword and asked the men how the expected Spartan women to survive the destruction of their city.   She declared every woman and child would step up to the defense.

And they did not falter.  Part of the defense plan was to dig a trench parallel to Pyrrhus’ army’s camp.  Arachidamia organized the women and children to dig, and the completed at least one third of it themselves.  It was in the nick of time as Pyrrhus attacked with 20,000 men and 5,000 elephants.  But Sparta was ready.  During the heat of the battle, some of the women pulled wounded to safety and nursed them while others fought alongside the men.  Together,  the pushed back the enemy and saved Sparta.  Pyrrhus fled to Argos and was beheaded by a falling statue.  I want to believe a Spartan woman pushed it, but that is completely my own fiction.

So, dear reader, don’t go after the home of formidable woman.  You’ll end up stomped.