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.


Herald of Free Enterprise

Another ferry sails past in the distance, as the wreck of the Herald of Free Enterprise lays in shallow water on her side.

Today is going to be a fairly short one; it was an event that remains within recent living memory for most of us, over a certain age. And it focuses on a tragedy that resonates deeply with me personally to this day. As a teenager, I traveled several times on the cross-channel ferries between England and France and Belgium in my ongoing research of the Great War, as a young amateur Historian. (It was on those journeys that I got to know Phoebe.) Those journeys were for the most part made on the three specially built Spirit-Class vessels that operated between the home ports and those of mainland Europe. I was never a great sea dog, being blessed with both severe motion sickness and a nausea-inducing terror of the sea and all that goes with it from a seemingly insignificant incident at the age of four when I was startled by something at the beach whilst paddling in the sea with my family, causing me to run away from them, then believing them all to be drowned, when they failed to return. Anyway, one such journey I remember well, was in early 1987. Just two weeks later, that journey returned to haunt me, as the very ship I traveled on, was lost in the worst peacetime maritime disaster since 1919 when the Royal Navy yacht Iolaire sank off Stornaway with the loss of 205 men.

The Herald of Free Enterprise was one of three identical “roll-on/roll off” ferries commissioned by owners Townsend Thoresen, built by Schichau-Unterweser in Bremerhaven, Germany. Branded as the ‘Spirit class’ the ferries were 8 decks, including two vehicle decks, and were designed specifically with the Dover-Calais route in mind. The twin loading doors located at the bow and stern, were capable of aligning with the berth ramps at both ports, to enable quick on-and off-loading. Each ship weighed around 13000 tons and were capable of carrying 1400 passengers. Their safety enhancements, lifeboats and so on, were more than adequate quantity for the maximum passenger numbers.

The layout of the ship, basically allowed for crew areas on decks A and B at the top of the ship. Deck C was the passenger area, comprising lounges, bathroom facilities and restaurant, and complete with access to outer areas which also provided seating. Decks D through G were various fixed and mezzanine level vehicle decks, most particularly decks E and G, which were contiguous open plan drive in decks, accessed via watertight and weatherproof doors at the bow and open portal style stern ends. Each set of doors was constructed differently, by reason of the required movement limitations. Deck H underneath the main car deck on G, provided passenger berths. The wheelhouse was located toward the rear of the ship, meaning there was no view of the front of the vessel.

On the evening of 6th March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise was making a detour from her usual run, travelling via Zeebrugge in Belgium, rather than the usual Dover-Calais route, which she had operated earlier in the day. Her crew had been working for several hours since early in the morning; being that there were five sets of Officers and three sets of other crew, it was common practice for Officers to work up to twelve hours and then receive 24 hours rest, whereas the crew would work shifts of 24 hours, with breaks, followed by 48 hours off, thus changeovers were common place and full compliments were interchangeable via rotas. A routine special offer in the Sun Newspaper enabled many passengers to take advantage of a cheap day in Belgium for only a few pounds, some going for a change of scenery, others to take advantage of the availability of “duty free” alcohol and cigarettes.

Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley had been working since early that morning, on the Dover Calais route, and his duties included ensuring areas of the ship were cleaned between transports as well as assisting with the loading and unloading of the vessel and taking care of relevant passenger enquiries. As the ferry began to load at Zeebrugge, Stanley was stood down by Boatswain Terence Ayling to take his break. He returned to his berth and went to sleep. Zeebrugge runs were longer than the Dover-Calais by around double the time, at four and a half hours. Due to the extended period of the voyage, it was felt officers had ample time for rest, and as a result, there were generally only two Deck Officers and a Master on these runs.

Another difference about this run was the loading ramps at Zeebrugge, which were considerably lower than those at Dover and Calais and single ramps, rather than the twin ramps at the other ports, meaning only one vehicle deck could be loaded at a time. The ferries would have to come in bow first, with front ballast tanks full, (this was achieved by opening the tanks to fill as they approached the port) to lower the front of the ferry down. The higher Deck E (complete with suspended deck D) would be filled first, then the ballast would begin be pumped, raising the trim to enable the lower Deck G to be filled. As a result loading took longer than elsewhere. At a few minutes to seven that evening, the “harbour stations” call went out over the tannoy. This was to give notice to the crew to attend their stations, ready for sailing. Critically, Mark Stanley slept through this call, and so was not at his post, to close the bow doors, prior to voyage.

Personal tension between Chief Officer Leslie Sabel and Second Officer Paul Morter meant a breakdown in understanding, when Mr Morter reported to G Deck to take over the loading duties from Sabel, enabling him to take his own post on the crew deck, instead Sabel stayed on G deck for a further period, before leaving. In the later enquiry both men posed different recollections of the minutes prior to sailing, and their respective duties and actions. After leaving, it would appear Sabel returned to the car deck and relieved Morter of loading duties, instructing him to report to his station.

At five minutes past 6pm and running a few minutes behind schedule, the Herald of Free Enterprise reversed slowly out of her berth, turning to face bow forward, and made her way through inner harbour towards the outer harbour entrance. At 6.22 she passed through the entrance to the outer harbour and just a few seconds later she listed around 30 degrees to port side, before righting herself briefly then, after performing a sudden turn to starboard, keeled over and sank, in the shallow waters of a sandbank. The Herald of Free Enterprise, devoid of consistent procedures, and with a somewhat uncommunicative crew, had set sail with ballast tanks still partially full, meaning she was lower in the water than she ought to have been, and crucially, her bow doors remained open. As she had quickly gained speed once away from the enclosed harbour, her bow had dipped under the waterline, and tons of water had surged through the open bow, and down through the length of the ship on Car Deck G.

As she had listed, her captain, unaware that the bow doors were wide open, had turned to port, and as luck would have it, as the ship keeled over, it came to rest on the sandbank nestled just outside of the harbour wall, with her starboard side above the water line. Had they not landed on the sandbank, they would have been quickly and completely lost in the much deeper water either side, with little chance of survival. The whole drama from first list to capsize, took just 90 seconds. The violence of the capsize threw the still sleeping Mark Stanley from his bunk. The water meanwhile hit the power supply and back-up generator, causing both to blow. The ship lost all power and plunged into darkness, as hundreds of terrified day trippers were thrown violently around into the rapidly rising water.

193 people lost their lives that night, out of the 459 passengers and 80 crew on board. Those figures included 15 teenagers, and seven children aged under 13. The youngest was just 23 days old and was one of several small children to die. A number of families lost three or four members, separated in the darkness and confusion as decks became walls and furniture became hazardous. Mark Stanley, despite his culpability in the disaster, redeemed himself somewhat when finding his way out onto the hull, broke a window and climbed back inside, rescuing several passengers before passing out from severe blood loss caused by the broken glass as he cleared his entrance into the stricken ship.

Emergency response was rapid, most notably the crew of dredger Sanderas spotted the capsized vessel just a few minutes after it went over, and raised the alarm. Zeebrugge harbour had an emergency action plan in place and tugs were quickly dispatched, which minutes later circled the Herald and began rescue attempts. Some passengers had managed to fight their way out, or had been on the outer deck as she sank, and were either in the water around the ship or waiting on the hull. Divers had been airlifted to the wreck within half an hour of the alarm being sounded, and the Belgian Navy, on exercise nearby quickly joined them. Unfortunately, the tide was rising, and this soon hampered the rescue efforts. Eventually, they had to be called off until morning. When they returned at first light, and low tide, many of the survivors trapped on board had succumbed to hypothermia and injuries and had died during the night.

Memorial to the victims of the Herald disaster

Just seven weeks later, the official inquiry into the tragedy was concluded, the presiding official deeming it necessary for both the implementation of preventative measures, learned from the event, and for the victims families and survivors to achieve closure and entitlement to any due compensation for their loss. Following the result of the enquiry, a salvage operation was agreed, and the Herald was recovered and sold to a South African interest. As the ship was righted, the last remaining bodies were recovered. The Herald was towed towards her new home, causing further incident when her tow rope broke, causing her with no power, to drift before being caught, upon arrival, the new owners were unable to find a buyer for her, and she was ultimately scrapped the following year.

At the inquest, it was ruled the first case of corporate manslaughter in such a disaster. However, this verdict was successfully overturned. The senior officers involved were cautioned as to their lack of structure procedurally but three men were eventually ear-marked for their negligence in the tragedy. Leslie Sabel as Chief Officer for his failure to notify the senior officer that the Herald was setting sail without all discrepancy reports noted, including vitally not ensuring the bow doors were closed, which he was aware of before reporting to his station. Sabel claimed to have seen a crew member approach and believed it was Stanley returning to his post. Mark Stanley for failing to be at his post, when his duties included the closure of the bow doors after loading and prior to voyage, (there was special mention made however, of Stanley’s later conduct, in his rescue efforts saving the lives of several passengers) and finally Boatswain Terence Ayling. At the inquest, Ayling was asked, after standing Stanley down and taking charge of the loading, prior to setting sail, and knowing Stanley had not reported to close the doors, why did he not close the doors himself? He replied that it was not within his job remit to close the doors; it was a duty he had never been required to perform.

193 souls were lost on the basis of “it wasn’t my job…..”


Fire at the Cocoanut Grove

The front of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub after the fire

Boston did not technically have nightclubs, but one of the hottest places to be in 1942 was the Cocoanut Grove.  It was a supper club located on near Park Square, which was built in 1927.  It kind of fell out of favor after Prohibition, but with the advent of World War II it began to pick up in popularity again.  Barnett Welansky, became owner of the Cocoanut Grove in February 1933 and he brought in a prominent Boston interior designer to make the club more family oriented.  Palm trees, blue satin ceilings and a dance floor were added.  The first floor had a dining room and a ballroom with a bandstand, with several separate bar areas.  On beautiful clear nights, the retractable roof was pulled back so patrons could dine and dance in the moonlight.

The restaurant was located off the narrow cobblestoned Piedmont Street, and a couple of bars occupied the basement.   The Caricature Bar and the Melody Lounge shared space with the newly opened Broadway Lounge.  There were two entrances- a revolving door from Piedmont and a regular door from Broadway into a vestibule.  It was an old building, originally built in 1917 and because it was not originally meant to be a restaurant was an odd shape with many separate rooms on several floors.  The building covered close to half a block.

The place was jumping on the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1942.  The Boston College football team had pulled up an upset that day to get into the Orange Bowl.  People were going crazy with celebration.  Although the club was licenced to hold 500 patrons, about 1,000 people were jammed into the club that night.  Among the notables at The Grove that night were Buck Jones, a Hollywood movie star famous for his cowboy movies, who was in town on a war bonds tour.  Around 10:15, Stanley Tomaszewski, a busboy 16 years of age, was ordered by a bartender to fix a burnt out light bulb in the Melody Lounge.  It was suspected a patron had unscrewed it to provide a more intimate environment for his date.  The light bulb was at the top of an artificial palm tree, and since it was dark he couldn’t see.  He indicated in later testimony, he lit a match to better see what he was doing.  

Moments later, patrons saw what looked like a flicker of flame in the palm tree or in the cloth ceiling decorations.  There was no visible flame, but the decorations changed color.  Quickly after, open flame burst out of the palm tree decorations, which bartenders tried to put out with water and seltzer bottles.  It didn’t work, and a fireball of flame and toxic gas ignited and rolled across the room and up the stairs to the restaurant above.  Within five minutes of the initial spark, the entire basement was engulfed in flames.

The fire traveled along the cloth decorations and the plywood ceiling and soon hit the other bars, accelerated by a ventilation fan in The Caricature Bar.  Panic hit the patrons and athey ran towards the exit screaming “Fire, Fire”.  The flames appeared in the street floor lobby within two to four minutes after they broke out in the Melody Lounge.  It was travelling quickly and described by eyewitnesses as a “ball of fire” that was blue or yellow in color.  Some people made it through the revolving doors on to Piedmont Street before the flames got there, but the doors jammed.  The lucky ones who got out had to watch their fellow patrons get crushed in the rush for the broken doors.

Smoke rises from the Cocoanut Grove

The fireball hit the main dining room, where many of the patrons were crowded together at small tables to watch the 10 pm show.  The flames went quickly up the walls leaving behind a cloud of acrid smoke.  The lights went out leaving patrons to try to find their way out in the dark, thick smoke choked air.  Most of the doors were locked or broken and patrons were trapped in the dining room.  One exit door was installed as an inward-opening door and the weight of the panicked people trying to escape forced it shut, much like in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  (Please this post for more information on this event: )  Those that got out were helped by employees through the dark back corridors.  Others hid in the meat lockers and refrigerators and hoped for the best.

In a stroke of luck, the Boston Fire Department was nearby as they had been putting out a car fire on Stuart Street and saw the smoke.    By the time the fire was done, it was a five alarm fire.  Once the fire department arrived, the narrow streets were clogged with emergency vehicles, and patrons both living and dead.  Often those who escaped were wounded and exhausted and collapsed on the spot.  Stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were piled at the entrances shoulder high.  Ironically, the fire itself was put out rather quickly, but the damage was done.  The firefighters knew they needed more help with the rescue and recovery efforts.  National Guard, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Army were mobilized the help.  Any and all vehicles were pressed into service to get the wounded to hospitals and a temporary morgue was organized at a nearby garage.  By the time it was over, 490 people had died and 166 were injured.  Among the dead was movie star Buck Jones.

In the inquest that followed, many believed 16 year old Stanley Tomaszewski was responsible for the disaster, however, he was exonerated by the courts.  He was always believed to be to blame by the public.  The official cause is still listed as unknown, but there are several theories.  Some believe it was electoral in nature as there had been renovations by a non licensed electrician two weeks earlier.  There was no permit for this work either.  A report on the fire published in 1943, placed the blame on alcohol fumes from the drinkers.  However, ethyl alcohol in 50% concentration by volume, which is about maximum of any ordinary liquor, does not produce flammable vapors except at temperatures above approximately 85 degrees F.  There were also tests that the flame proofing chemicals used for the new decorations had been lacking.  Theories also state that they had been a source of toxic gasses, such as ammonia, which worsened the fire.  In 1991, Francis L. Brannigan, a noted fire safety expert, wrote a letter to the NFPA Journal blaming the fire on the fixative used to install the new ceiling tiles in the Broadway Lounge.

Whatever the cause, the locked exits and lack of fire sprinklers added to the death toll.  The only person charged in the Cocoanut Grove fire was Barney Welansky, the owner.  He was indicted by a Grand Jury on manslaughter charges and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Charlestown State Prison.  He died of cancer in 1947 after being pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin.

As after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, building codes were revamped and strengthened.  Now a high rise hotel and theatre stands where so many lost their lives on a November evening.