Ottawa, Illinois is a small town in the rural Midwest that is about 85 miles southwest from Chicago. In 1922, to the excitement of many of the residents, a small ad ran in the local paper which stated that young women were needed for fine brushwork. It advertised “ideal location and surroundings. Unusually clean and attractive work”. The ad was placed by a new company that had just set up their new factory in Ottawa, Radium Dial. The president was a man by the name of Joseph A Kelly. They already had loyal employees such as Lottie Murray and Mr. and Mrs. Reed who became household names in the area. Many young women began to apply in great numbers (just as we saw in NJ), as the pay was just too good to pass up.
Like United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey, Radium Dial used the luminous paint to complete the detail work on the glow in the dark watch faces. Lottie Murray trained the girls specifically in the technique of lip pointing. This is where one would mix the paint, put the brush to their lip to bring to a fine point, and then paint. This process would be repeated hundreds of times throughout the day. They were told by their managers, the Reeds, that radium was harmless and could never hurt them. The girls were excited and loved their work. They worked about six days a week and the pay could be large depending on how many dials they completed. The girls were so enthused that many took their work home with them to practice creating those fine brushstrokes.
They also had fun with at their job. They used the paint to embellish their clothing and hair, drew fake rings on their fingers or makeup looks on their faces, and decorated the interiors of their rooms. The “ghost girls” were the envy of everyone in this small town as they glowed (literally) when they stepped out with their boyfriends for a night out dancing. This was the roaring twenties and being a “ghost girl” meant that you were young, independent, and beautiful. It was a very elite job for these working-class girls. The people of the community took pride that Radium Dial had chosen their city to make a successful factory.
Radium Dial would hire as many as 200 girls at their peak. The company’s main client had about 60% share of the US alarm clock market. The girls became close to each other as they worked side by side for many hours. They ate their lunches right at their workstation.
Margaret (Peggy) Looney was the eldest of 10 children and took this job to help her family with expenses. She did have ambitions to go to school and become a schoolteacher, but she ended up staying at Radium Dial. She enjoyed the worked and enjoyed that the wages allowed her to “spoil” her family. She would gift her siblings with new clothing and bring home some of the paint to play with.
What happened when the news came out about the legal cases in New Jersey? Unfortunately, nothing really. By 1925, Radium Dial was the largest dial painting company in the United States. Since business was booming, they could not have “rumors” like this circulating around. The company did not spread this news and it seems the girls themselves did not pay much attention to the newspapers. The company did have their workers medically tested, but never shared the results with the young women. The women trusted that if something was wrong the company would have told them. A government inspector did come to Radium Dial as well and noted that lip pointing was still being practiced and that there was no water made available for brush cleaning. This technique had actually been banned after all the fall out in New Jersey. The inspector concluded that the radium was dangerous, and Radium Dial needed to change some of their practices. Yet, this was kept secret. No one told the dial painters anything.
As the years went on, business continued to boom. In 1927, many of the girls began to report that they were feeling tired, they had jaw soreness, pain in hips and legs, uncontrollable acne, and teeth extractions that would not heal. In 1928, the further radium deaths in New Jersey and the court settlement of the five women was front page news. These headlines were noticed by the young women working at Radium Dial. The factory was full of panicked women as they knew that many of them had already started getting sick. A young woman named Ella Cruse had passed away just the previous year. Margaret Looney had a tooth pulled and it had not healed even a year on. The young women were spooked and demanded meetings with the company leadership. Some of these meetings were reported to be borderline riots. The production of the work had declined greatly due to the women’s uneasiness and fear. The women slacked at their work and did not want the brushes anywhere near their lips. Radium Dial called in more medical experts for more tests. They used the breath tests that had been developed by Dr. Martland in New Jersey and took x-rays and blood tests. The women waited and waited for the results, but they were told that this information could not be released to them.
Two women, Catherine Wolfe and Marie Rossiter, confronted their manager, Mr. Reed about this. He made a comment about how if they were to release the results there would be riots. This was a strange comment, especially as the company continued to tell the girls that there was no such thing as radium poisoning. The newspapers told a different story though.
Not long after the news from New Jersey was spread around Ottawa, Radium Dial released their own full page advertisement. It stated that the medical examinations that were made by the experts did not find evidence of radium poisoning. They stated if any of their employees were in danger they would have suspended operations. The company would re-run this advertisement multiple times. So, the practice of lip pointing continued. In reality, both the tests in 1925 and 1928 showed, without a doubt, that the young women who worked for Radium Dial were radioactive. The company was hiding this from everyone despite knowing the dangers.
Ella Cruse’s family was the first to attempt to take Radium Dial to court in 1929. They did not believe what the advertisement stated. Unfortunately, this would go nowhere. It was difficult to find lawyers who would stand up to the corporation (or even believed in the theory of radium poisoning). It was also the beginning of the depression and the town of Ottawa was proud that they had Radium Dial who was still providing good employment. Despite the depression, the clocks and watches were still in demand. There were many of the community who were loyal to Radium Dial and did not want to see them be accused or brought down.
The girls got worse as time went on. Margaret Looney had to be pulled in a wagon by her fiancé due to the pain she was in and her weakness. She had horrible hip pain, her tooth extractions were not healing, and she had anemia. She was unable to even do housework anymore, yet she was still forcing herself to go to work at the factory. When her parents sent her to a doctor in Chicago, he encouraged her to change her employment immediately. On August 6, 1929, Margaret collapsed at her job. After multiple requests to see the company doctor, this was finally the push that got Mr. Reed to make arrangements for her. At the company hospital, she caught pneumonia and passed away on August 14. Radium Dial wanted to quickly get rid of the body, but her family fought back. They insisted that she was to get a proper burial. The company men knew that her death was connected to the radium and they wanted to hide this. The family got their wish and demanded that an autopsy be completed. The company agreed, but it was to be performed by their own doctors. The family forced Radium Dial to agree to have their family doctor present to observe as well, but, when the appointed hour came, the family doctor found that the company had completed it before his arrival. They company claimed that the autopsy showed nothing unusual and even published these findings in the newspaper. In reality, her jaw and bones were riddled with holes.
In 1931, Catherine Wolfe came into work as usual. She had a severe limp by now and, at only 27 years old, struggled to get around. She was in terrible pain. Yet, on this day, Mr. Reed came up to her suddenly and told her that she was fired. It was not due to any performance issues (she had been working there 9 years), but because of the image she was presenting to the floor. It was because she was sickly and limping. Mr. Reed told her that she was not the image the company wanted to present. This was a very cruel step by Radium Dial. They had known their girls were suffering from radium poisoning since 1925 and were still doing everything they could to cover it up. They had lied to their workers, the community, and the media. Now they were firing loyal employees because their lies were starting to show.
Unfortunately, the local doctors were not up to task to figure out what was happening to all these women so Catherine’s husband brought in a doctor from Chicago, Dr. Loffler (a blood specialist). He noted that there was a toxic quality in her blood. After this, Dr. Loffler would begin to travel to Ottawa every weekend from March – April 1934 to hold clinics to examine many of the young women and treat them. These women were only in their 20s/30s but were beginning to look and feel like women in their 70s. Dr. Loffler did confirm for Catherine that she was suffering from radium poisoning.
When it came out that Radium Dial had known of the womens conditions in both 1925 and 1928, the women were rightly furious. Catherine and another women, Charlotte Purcell, confronted Mr. Reed at the factory. They told him that they now had proof they had tested positive and were going to take them to court. In front of the women, Mr. Reed told them he did not see that anything was wrong with them. Charlotte was literally standing there in front of him with an amputated arm (she had to have this amputated as a tumor had formed on her elbow ). This turned into a long and drawn out fight as the women went from lawyer to lawyer trying to fight the strength of the Radium Dial company. They were trying their best to get their hands on the 1928 medical tests which would prove the company’s lies.
Eventually, they finally found a lawyer who would stick with them and work free of charge (like the New Jersey girls, these working-class women were in financial hardship with their medical bills piling up). Leonard Grossman was a popular lawyer from Chicago who specialized in representing those of their social standing. By this time, Catherine was basically bedridden. She was losing weight quickly and had a large tumor on her hip bone. Her body even gave off a faint glow. Yet, she was going to have her day in court just like the other women that Grossman was representing. The media began to pick up the young women’s compelling stories and published articles supporting them. They had pictures taken of them with their families and it gave these women a voice that Radium Dial was trying to smash. The public was falling in love with them and supported them.
The trial began Feb 10, 1938. Grossman was able to seize some documents from Radium Dial (unfortunately, not the actual medical reports), but these were letters from insurance companies who kept rejecting to cover the company due to the medical reports stating there was radium poisoning. It turns out 10 different insurance companies had denied Radium Dial. Since Radium Dial had no insurance, this would mean there would be little money for settlements, but now this trial was more about justice and making a change in industrial law.
Catherine, along with other girls, took the stand and told their story. Catherine even showed the fragments of her jaw bone that had been pulled out previously. It was also at this trial that Catherine had been told her condition was permanent and there was no hope of a cure. For all this time, she had been holding out hope that things would change and could go back to how it was. Her doctors had hid this information from her. She screamed and broke down right in the courtroom and was brought back to her bed.
By this point, Radium Dial had nothing that could cover them. There was definitive proof they had lied with the letters from the insurance companies which summuraized that they knew about the radium poisoning and then the advertisement that the company had published in the newspaper claiming that the reports said nothing of the sort.
Despite being bedridden, Catherine continued to give testimony (many were worried she would not even see the dawn of the next day). She demonstrated to all how they were taught to lip point, how no one had told them that the practice had been banned years before, and she told how they were given the okay to eat their lunches amongst the radium dust. The women had become the figureheads for workers rights.
The verdict was in and the company was found guilty. The women and their families were elated. They now had justice for all the women who had come before them and those who were now suffering. Radium Dial continued to file appeals to avoid paying the settlements and to protect their company. They even attempted to appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court, but the Court decided not to hear the case. The company had been proved guilty a total of eight times. Finally, a company had been held totally responsible for the health of the employee. Not even the New Jersey cases had gone this far (as they ended in a settlement agreement, not a guilty verdict). This would lead to changes in laws to protect workers in the workplace.
On July 27, 1938, Catherine (Wolfe) Donahue passed away. She was only about 60 pounds at her death. Her death certificate stated that her death was due to occupational disease. Finally, this was recorded correctly. The remaining women formed a society, their first meeting in 1938, where they would work to obtain better legislative protection for those who suffered from occupational hazards.
When World War II broke out in the 1940s, the luminous watches were once again in high demand. Yet, the occupation of dial painting was now the most feared in the country. The government made big strides in making the job safer for all of those who worked with radium. Thanks to the women’s sacrifice before them, the new generation of dial painters did not have to worry about becoming sick.
Many of the women and their families allowed their bodies to be donated to science. They provided so much insight and knowledge that we have today regarding radium poisoning. They have saved many lives in this way and they are continued to be studied today. Due to their sacrifice, scientists can know what the long-term effects of exposure to radium are. They are able to develop ways to protect future workers from this damage. When Margaret Looney’s bones were exhumed in 1978 for further research (she had died back in 1929), it was found that her bones were still extremely radioactive. Her bones contained 1000 times more radium than what was considered safe. There are still areas of Ottawa that, to this day, are still radioactive. These areas are mostly around where the old Radium Dial company had once stood.
On September 2, 2011, a statue/memorial was erected in Ottawa, Illinois to honor the dial painters and their sacrifice. They saved many lives because they were brave enough to fight for it.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women By Kate Moore