In 1922, Mollie Maggia, an American factory worker, died tragically of a hemorrhage in her jugular vein. During that previous year her body had begun to disintegrate quickly. First were her teeth, which rotted one by one and had to be removed by her dentist. But instead of healing, her gums became ulcerated and were filled with pus finally resulting in the loss of her jaw. When her hips broke, she could no longer walk and remained immobilized until her life ended a short time later. According to her death certificate she had died of syphilis. But today we know that this was not the cause at all — Mollie Maggia had actually died of radiation poisoning.
One after another, dozens of women began dying in the United States because of the harmful effects of radiation on the body. All of them worked in watch factories painting fluorescent numbers onto the faces of the timepieces. At first it seemed like a good job — they were paid three times more than workers in other factories. The young women were happy to enjoy a kind of financial independence previous generations could only have dreamed of.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the numbers of the clocks were painted on with a mixture that contained radium to give them their characteristic luminosity. Female workers, young girls of 14 years old and older, were instructed to sharpen the tips of the brushes with their lips. Of course, every time they did that they would ingest a small amount of the mixture and the managers at the factory denied that this was a potential health risk. While it was known that radiation was dangerous, the owners of these companies had funded fraudulent studies that proved that consuming it in small quantities was a good thing. That is why wealthy people drank water with radium and used it as an ingredient in makeup and food.
The fluorescent substance was so fashionable that the young workers even painted their teeth to make them look bright. People called them “ghost girls” because the contact with the toxic mixture made their skin glow in the dark.
But the truth was that little by little they were all being poisoned. Mollie was the first to die, but certainly not the last. Her coworkers suffered the same fate, albeit with different symptoms and problems. Some gave birth to dead children, others had chronic fatigue. Their bodies began to disintegrate slowly, with holes forming in their skin, bones turning to powder and tumors growing throughout their bodies. Today we know that external contact with radiation destroys human tissue, but they were eating it. With the radium inside them, the damage was infinitely worse. And nothing could be done to reverse the horrible process.
After the first deaths, the girls knew their horrible destiny. Nothing could save them from the terrible and painful future that lay ahead. But there was something they had to do, not for them, but for all the girls who were still employed in those factories: they had to bring the companies to justice and stop other from dying.
Thus began a long legal battle. The women wanted to prove that the companies had lied to them and that the radium was what was making them sick.
However, the factories financed false studies that “proved” that this was not the reason. In addition, the company owners claimed that the symptoms were too diverse and inconsistent to prove that the radium had caused them. In their defense, they also used Mollie’s death certificate, which stated that she had died of syphilis.
Only when a man died did the experts take the case seriously. In 1925, Harrison Martland irrefutably proved the link between radium and the poisoning suffered by the women who had worked in the factories. And when they exhumed some of the corpses, there was no doubt about it: the bodies still glowed with that characteristic brilliance of the numbers they had painted with their own hands.
The women were so determined to expose the company owners’ negligence that they even continued to condemn them on their death beds. Newspapers ran front page stories about their crusade, and although the companies denied everything and falsified autopsies, they could no longer hide the truth: they had poisoned and killed their female workers. It was only in 1938 that the owners of the factories were finally found guilty for their negligence which had led to the death of the young women.
And what were the consequences of their victory? Nothing more and nothing less than completely changing the way employees work.
Since they were able to prove their case, companies and factories were obligated to ensure the safety of their workers. Basically, many of the workers’ rights that are still in force internationally to this day are thanks to those brave women. Unfortunately, the “ghost girls” have nearly been forgotten even though their achievements live on. Hopefully this story and others like it will keep their memory alive so their sacrifice can be properly honored.