I have been watching Mysteries at the Museum since it first came on, first because I love history and finding out about history that I have never heard of at all is exciting to me. And second, I do have to admit I have always loved Don Wildman, the host of the show.
This week one of the segments started off with a watch from WW1, because of my fascination of the 1920’s, I have become more and more fascinated by WW1. The effect of that war and how it created the modern era is just unbelievably profound. Every segment begins with a piece found in a museum from around the world. This one started with a watch that was made in WW1 for the servicemen to use in the trenches.
Then it flashes forward to the early 1920’s and young woman named Grace Fryer, who is a bank teller and a modern young women with a lot of passion for life in her. She begins to feel pains in her joints of her ankles, feet, hands and jaw. Her teeth hurt. And the pain becomes worse and is disabling her. Her jaw becomes so inflamed and extended by swelling and extra cartilage that she begins to lose her teeth. She went to several doctors who had no idea what was wrong with her.
She saw an article about a local dentist from her hometown in New Jersey, that had several women patients with same health issues as she did, and it turned out that had Radium poisoning. Radium at that time was used in rat poison. None of the women knew at first where they could have come into contact with it, though they lived in NYC they were not near where there was a rodent problem.
Turns out, they all worked for a company called; US Radium Corporation; they created Undark, a high-tech paint which allowed America’s infantrymen to read their wristwatches in the trenches. US Radium assured the public and their workers that their paint used the radioactive element in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.” They had hundred’s of women working for them in Orange, New Jersey, where Grace Fryer was born and lived with her family and she was one of the women who worked in that plant, it was interesting work for high pay and she had no idea what was to come from it.
The employers encouraged the women to use their lips and tongue to keep the paint brush pointed, so they could delicately paint the dial and the numbers on the watches. (This is where I sat up, my eyes widened and I said out loud, much to the annoyance of my brother, “That is right out of an episode of Miss Fisher!” My brother was annoyed because I talked over the broadcast and he had re-run our DVR so we could hear what they had just said. My mind started to whirl with memories of that episode as watched the segment.)
Apparently, the owners and scientists at US Radium knew that Undark’s key ingredient was approximately one million times more active than uranium. And they warned the other corporate executives not to go near the stuff, but not to let the women know that it was dangerous. The girls thinking it was harmless, would entertain themselves by painting their fingernails and teeth with it so they would glow in the dark, they were jokingly called the Ghost Girls. How this came back to haunt them is truly tragic.
So as all the women got sicker and sicker, there was a campaign from the corporation to say that they were suffering from venereal diseases, to make it seem like they were the cause of their own sickness not the poison that was willingly covered up by owners and allies of US Radium.
It took Grace Fryer two years to find an attorney willing to take on this company and sue them for Grace and four other co-workers. All of them dying from Radium poisoning. They sued the company for $250,000 each. It took a long slow time and word reached the famous scientist who discovered uranium; Marie Curie in Paris. “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could,” she said, adding, “there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.” Though she took every correct precaution she would die from her discovery in 1934, so these unprotected innocent women had no chance.
They tried to delay the trial to end of the fall but all the women were dying, the press published angry reports about the cruel and calculating delaying tactics of the corporation and the Judge, because of this bad press, the judge pushed it forward to June; each woman received $10,000— equivalent to about $100,000 today— and have all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. Unsurprisingly, few of the annuity payments were collected. This resulted into new regulations for working conditions with hazardous material, all because Grace Fryer was so brave and pushed through all the red tape. Grace died in 1933.
Okay, now I am going to give away the ending of this Miss Fisher episode; “Death Do Us Part”, if you never saw it and want to keep spoiler free I would stop here.
After I watched that I could not stop thinking of the Season Three episode of Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries called “Death Do Us Part”, in it the killer who was the head of the science institute; Logan Wren had to watch his poor wife Agnes, die of Radium poisoning, so he came up with his revenge which was to kill his wife killer in the same painful way.
I sent an email to Deb Cox and she confirmed that it was indeed the research from this incident that led to the adaption of “Death Do Us Part”. So a real life tragedy in the US becomes a fictional tragedy of revenge in Australia. I felt deep compassion for Agnes when I watched the show, but now reading all that she and her co-workers suffered because of lies and corporate greed I have even more compassion for Agnes and a new understanding of why quiet, nice and respectable Logan Wren did it. What that poor man suffered watching the agony of his beloved wife. Tragic.