The Radium Girls left us all an extraordinary legacy. But who were they?
In the book, The Radium Girls, Kate Moore introduces readers to these real women, who lived in New Jersey and in Illinois: separated by 800 miles, but united in their determination to stand up for themselves – and workers everywhere. Here she shares some further details of their lives.
This is the memorial statue to the Radium Girls, which stands in Ottawa, Illinois. At Christmas time, locals drape the statue with a red homemade knitted scarf, to keep her warm in winter.
The statue is dedicated not only to the Ottawa dial-painters, but also to ‘dial-painters who suffered all over the United States ... in recognition of the tremendous perseverance, dedication and sense of justice the Radium Girls exhibited in their fight’.
May they rest in peace.
Katherine was born on 10 March 1902 in Newark, the second child of Mary (‘Mamie’) and William Schaub. She had an older sister, Josephine, and a younger brother and sister. Her grandparents were German. Katherine began work at the radium factory in Newark on 1 February 1917, aged 14; she later became an instructress. She was described as ‘imaginative’ and longed to be a writer, later publishing an excerpt of her memoir. Sadly, after her death her family was said to have burned the complete manuscript, which does not survive.
Grace was born on 14 March 1899 in Orange, NJ, one of eleven children in total (a brother died in infancy). A paper wrote of her upbringing: ‘Grace has not been pampered, nor has she been taught to think first of her own happiness.’ Grace’s little sister Adelaide also dial-painted but was fired for talking too much; their nephew said: ‘I always thought that was funny: the person who did the wrong thing, supposedly, ended up living to be an old lady...’ The family was political, with Grace’s father a union rep and Grace herself speaking publicly about her enthusiam for voting. Grace was highly intelligent and extremely capable, and became the driving force behind the five New Jersey girls who famously filed suit against the United States Radium Corporation in 1927.
Amelia ‘Mollie’ Maggia was born 21 December 1897. There were seven Maggia sisters; listed in order of age: Louise, Clara, Albina, Mollie, Quinta, Irma and Josephine. They were the children of Italian immigrants. Albina, Mollie, Quinta and Irma all worked in the radium-dial factory; unlike her elder sisters, however, not a lot is known about Irma, save that she worked there and died at the age of thirty-seven in 1940. Mollie was an exceptional dial-painter – but paid the price. She was the first dial-painter to die, on 12 September 1922.
Quinta Maggia McDonald
Quinta was the fifth Maggia daughter, thus her unusual name; she often went by the nickname May instead. Born on St Valentine’s Day, she worked as a stenciller for a music-roll company before dial-painting but, she said, ‘My sisters and I were attracted by the offer of “good pay for a fast worker”’; they felt ‘lucky to find work in the same plant’. Quinta had two children, Helen and Robert, but her home life was not picture-perfect. Newspaper reports from 1928 show that Quinta was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband, James, on ‘several occasions’. Her husband told the court: ‘I got into bad company, your Honor, and I got drinking and I guess I was mean to her.’ That was an understatement: he had threatened to kill her and had viciously struck his crippled wife. When she filed for divorce on the grounds of cruelty, the judge postponed the case; in order, he said to James, to ‘give you an opportunity to make up with your wife’. Later, James Larice, Quinta’s brother-in-law, reported that the McDonalds had shared a ‘bedside reconciliation’: McDonald ‘came back to her and was forgiven’. Quinta's sister-in-law Ethel cared for the children when Quinta could not.
Albina Maggia Larice
Albina, alongside her sister Quinta, Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub and Edna Hussman, was one of the five New Jersey women who famously filed suit against the United States Radium Corporation (USRC). At the time of the lawsuit, she was considered to be the worst-stricken by her poisoning. She was a very short woman – only four foot eight – born on 15 August 1895. Her nickname was Bena.
Edna appears to have moved in different social circles to the other girls who filed suit, yet she and Katherine Schaub continued to be colleagues after WW1; both girls worked for a second NJ radium firm, Luminite, after leaving USRC, and Edna was still dial-painting even in the late spring of 1925 – just as radium poisoning was proven to exist. Luminite was sued by Katherine and Edna alongside USRC in 1927; the claims were settled out of court. Edna was born in Newark in May 1901, the daughter of an Englishwoman, Minnie, and an American engineer. Her favourite hobby was music, but she was also unusually fond of flowers. When she wrote to Martland to thank him, she scribbled ‘Radium patient’ at the top of the letter, as though she was concerned Martland might not remember who she was.
Eleanor ‘Ella’ Eckert
Ella was born on 10 November 1895 into a large family of nine children; she was the daughter of a chauffeur. At the studio she painted 250–300 dials a day. She had a son, Sonny, out of wedlock in 1923 and reportedly kept the child a secret. Ella’s original death certificate gave her cause of death as ‘shock from operation’, but Martland changed this to make it radium poisoning. The case was not clear-cut as Ella was the first dial-painter to die of the rare bone cancers that later killed many of her colleagues, and the novelty of her condition initially perplexed physicians. When she died, compensation was claimed for her four-year-old son, but there is no evidence any money was ever paid out.
Sarah Carlough Maillefer
Sarah bucked the trend for dial-painters being teenagers, for she was 28 at the time she started work and a single mother. Her husband, Henry, had ‘disappeared’ so she brought up their daughter, Marguerite, on her own, living with her parents, Sarah and Stephen Carlough. Sarah was the eldest of their four children; her little sister, Marguerite, who was almost twelve years younger than her, was also a dial-painter. Needing the money, Sarah only stopped work at USRC when her sister Marguerite filed suit against the firm. She is notable in history for being the first dial-painter ever to be tested for radium poisoning and the first to be autopsied.
Marguerite was the first dial-painter ever to bring a lawsuit against the radium firms; she was only 23 at the time she filed suit. She was the youngest child of Sarah and Stephen Carlough, born on 6 March 1901. Dial-painting was her first and only job. Publicity of her lawsuit led to the Waterbury Clock Company banning lip-pointing – which undoubtedly saved and extended the lives of hundreds of women – and
showed other dial-painters that it might just be possible to hold the firms to account.
Catherine Wolfe Donohue
Catherine was born in Ottawa, Illinois on 4 February 1903, the youngest child of Bridget and Maurice Wolfe. She had three older brothers, John (who died aged 23 in 1917), Frank (known as Pinkie) and Edward, but after both her parents died she alone moved to 520 East Superior Street to live with her elderly aunt and uncle, Mary and Winchester Biggart, who had no living children. It seems Mary was the sister of Catherine's mother Bridget; the girls had Irish parents. Catherine was educated in the Ottawa grade and high schools and was a member of St Columba’s Church and of the Altar and Rosary Society. She married Tom Donohue in St Columba on 23 January 1932, with the modest reception held at home; the colour scheme was pink and green. Catherine is perhaps the most famous of the Ottawa dial-painters, for it was her courage and commitment to give evidence that captured the heart of the nation in 1938. She had two children, Tommy and Mary Jane. When Mary Jane died, her cousins donated her mother’s personal scrapbook of the case to Northwestern University; by chance, the alma mater of the wife of George Marvel, the judge in Catherine’s case. The library which holds the Catherine Wolfe Donohue Collection is a beautiful, calm and quiet room, with huge church-like windows, wooden furniture and leafy green plants. It seems a fitting final resting place for Catherine’s own record of her momentous fight for justice.
Charlotte Nevins Purcell
Charlotte Agnes Nevins was born on 27 January 1906 in Ottawa, the youngest child of Patrick and Matilda (‘Tillie’) Nevins. She had four sisters and one brother; her sister Eva worked at the dimestore F. W. Woolworth Co., where she worked alongside future dial-painter Marie Becker Rossiter, who would later become close friends with Charlotte (the women stayed in touch after the court case for the rest of their lives). Charlotte was a parishioner of St Columba and very devout. A relative said: ‘She was pretty outspoken. She told people what she thought about things ... she spoke her mind about a lot of things.’ That perhaps explains why Charlotte played such an important role in the Illinois lawsuits. She and Catherine Donohue were ‘spokesmen for the other women’. This despite the fact that Charlotte dial-painted for only 13 months: she left to become a seamstress and then, aged 22, married Albert Purcell on 12 April 1928 in St Columba; their family said they were ‘best friends’. They had three children: Donald, Patricia and Jean Ann. Her family remembered that she liked to cook chicken and mashed potatoes.
Marie Becker Rossiter
Marie Becker grew up in an underprivileged community in Ottawa, Illinois; her grandmother, an indomitable German woman called Mary Pfeiffer, used to send her out to pick dandelions for the poor to eat. It was from Mary that Marie said she got her ‘fierce, I-can-do-it’ attitude – and from early on in her tough life, Marie needed every bit of it. Her father, a bartender, died of dropsy when she was young; she sat by his bed at his request as he lay dying. Her mother later remarried and Marie’s stepfather sent her to work aged 13. She did a variety of jobs before ending up in the dial-painting studio, where she worked for 7 years. Marie was a funny, witty, charismatic woman who was a brilliant storyteller and clearly adored by her friends. She loved cats, and playing euchre (a card game), shows and cooking – dishes like spaghetti and sauerkraut with pork; she liked to make anything. She married Patrick Rossiter and had a son, William (Bill), at which point she left Radium Dial. But before her departure, Marie, characteristically, stood up to her supervisors when news of the New Jersey cases reached Ottawa, demanding answers. She was instrumental in the legal fight and her support of her stricken colleagues never slipped. She used to sit beside Catherine Donohue’s bed of an evening when her friend was very sick, just as she had once nursed her father. Marie lived on West Superior Street, just down the road from the Donohues.
Mary Ellen ‘Ella’ Cruse
Mary Ellen Cruse, known as Ella, was the only daughter of Nellie and James Cruse; the family were of Irish descent. She had a brother, John, who was two years younger. The family shared their Ottawa home with some international boarders: men from Russia and Austria working as labourers. Ella worked at Radium Dial for roughly four years and died aged 24 on 4 September 1927. Ella’s death was the first suspected case of radium poisoning in Ottawa, and her family’s case against Radium Dial – filed after she passed away – was the first lawsuit filed on behalf of a dial-painter in the state and the first to be filed outside New Jersey.
Margaret ‘Peg’ Looney
Margaret Looney was the eldest daughter of Michael and Ethel Looney; she had nine brothers and sisters. Intelligent and scholarly, she aspired to be a schoolteacher; she began dial-painting aged 17 in part to help earn money for her family. She never left Radium Dial but worked there until just a week before her death, which came on 14 August 1929, when Peg was 24. She had red hair, was slender, had a voice ‘ever soft, gentle and low’, and was prone to ‘giggling fits’. Her fiancé was Charles ‘Chuck’ Hackensmith, her closest friend was Marie Becker Rossiter and she was good friends with Catherine Wolfe, too. As described in the book, Peg’s case is particularly horrifying because of the actions of Radium Dial in the wake of her death.
Inez Corcoran Vallat
Inez sat next to Catherine Donohue in the dial-painting studio; the women worked together for 6 years. Inez was born the day after Catherine – 5 February – but was four years younger, the daughter of George and Mary Corcoran. She had one brother, Russell. A lifelong resident of Ottawa, she attended the town’s grade and high schools and married Vincent Lloyd Vallat on 20 October 1926. Inez goes down in history as the first lead case in the Illinois dial-painters’ collective lawsuit and as the woman who first won a judgment in the state on the poisoning of the radium girls. She died at the age of 29, after eight years of agony. Her husband lost his mother, father and wife in less than 2 years; he later remarried. He died on the same day as Inez, 25 February, 49 years after she passed away.
Frances Glacinski O'Connell (left) and Marguerite Glacinski
Frances and Marguerite were sisters (Frances was the elder of the two, by two years) who both dial-painted at Radium Dial. Frances started work in 1922, aged 15 or 16, while Marguerite, who was described as ‘comely’, began in 1924. They worked in the same room as Catherine Donohue. Frances appears to have left in 1925, while Marguerite left after Catherine in 1931. Their father was a cement miller of Polish origin; at the time they worked at Radium Dial, they lived with their widowed mother Margaret; and the girls remained living together even after Frances married John O’Connell, a labourer, and had three children. The sisters were involved in the lawsuit, giving evidence in Catherine’s case, but do not seem to have been as passionate about it as some of the other women. Catherine Donohue wrote in a letter to Pearl Payne: ‘Emma Engel has been here to see me. She and Marie Rossiter went to Chicago and had their X-ray pictures taken and asked Marie Glacinski and Frances O’Connell to go with them as they drove up. But that the girls refused to go. I’m really surprised as it didn’t cost much, $100 apiece, and Mr Grossman took them to lunch.’ Frances ultimately died in 1977, aged 70 or 71. Marguerite died in 1981; she had one son.
Pearl was born Pearl Konzal on 8 March 1900 in LaSalle, Illinois. She was the eldest child of 13 (some siblings died in infancy), born to Polish parents who came to the US from Pozen, Germany. Educated at parochial school in LaSalle, Pearl completed 6th grade aged 13. She was then forced to leave school to work, but to her credit continued her education at night school and later became a nurse. She met her husband, Hobart Payne, at the age of 16 and ‘kept company with him until the age of 21’, when they married. They had one daughter, Pearl Charlotte. Pearl dial-painted for only 8 months, and joined the subsequent lawsuit a little later than some of the other girls – a choice that took her family by surprise. ‘Pearl was so polite, and kind, and rather unobtrusive,’ remembered her nephew. ‘Why would she join in a lawsuit? It’s not her MO, it’s not really how I remember her. Because she’d rather just say, “Oh, I’m sorry” or “I’ll just go the other way or turn the other cheek”. She’s not one who would say, “I’m gonna sue your butt.” She’s not like that. She was never like that ... She must have been doing it for a reason. She must have felt strongly that her friends were dying and she needed to help them, even though she was dying herself.’ Pearl was especially close to Catherine Donohue, and their letters to one another reveal a deep, true friendship. ‘You have proven that one can still have faith in a few friends. Real ones at heart,’ Catherine wrote to Pearl. ‘And it helps me along, dear, just to know someone thinks of [me] along life’s way.’ Pearl was heavily involved in the lawsuit, and it was she who suggested to Grossman that the radium girls form a society to help other workers afflicted by occupational hazards; a suggestion she hoped would be ‘another stepping stone for your greater efforts and humanitarian idealism’. Her idea became the famous Society of the Living Dead, which made national headlines when the Illinois girls’ case came to court. In her spare time, Pearl was a woman who liked to sew, making curtains and dresses, but her favourite pastime was cooking. Her speciality was baked fruit pies, which she made from scratch, using butter – never margarine.