Monday, August 24, 2020

Disposable Girls


Throughout history, women have often been treated like second class citizens. Women have had to fight for the right to be legally independent from their husbands and for the right to vote. Few cases demonstrate just how undervalued women have sometimes been than the experiences of the young women who worked with radium paint in the early 20th century.

In the early 1920s, a position as a dial painter was considered excellent work for a young, working-class woman. The girls were skilled at the fine work, and the companies paid well to have the luminescent paint applied to small watch faces and instrument dials. Once girls obtained a position, they helped friends, sisters, and cousins get into the company as well. 

Then girls started dying.

But no one took much notice. When Mollie Maggia died in Orange, New Jersey, it was attributed to syphilis. Girls sickened with a variety of symptoms: loose teeth, fatigue, tumors, joint pain, headaches, and countless other complaints. The broad array of symptoms made it easier to ignore the common cause, the radium infused paint that the girls used daily. The fact that "only" working class girls were getting sick and dying also made it easier to dismiss.

Few besides the girls' families were concerned about the dangers of radium until it claimed a prominent, male victim. Sabin von Sochocky was the founder of US Radium Corporation and creator of radium paint. A young, successful doctor, he had learned about radium from the Curies who had discovered it. He was considered an expert on the substance and delivered a blow to the legal cases of the women suffering from radium poisoning when he testified in 1928 that the paint was not harmful. He denied that he had ever warned the dial painters about lip-pointing their brushes while using radium paint. However, later that year, Sabin von Sochocky himself lost his battle with radium poisoning.

Even after Von Sochocky's death, companies like US Radium Corp and Radium Dial continued business as usual and did not inform their employees of the dangers of the substance they used each day. Girls continued to sicken and die, and the companies continued to deny liability.

It wasn't until Eben Byers died in 1932 that the dangers of radium were made public knowledge. Byers was rich and had enthusiastically supported radium as a miracle cure-all. He drank Radithor, radium infused water, on a daily basis and recommended it to his friends. Before he died, he testified before the US Federal Trade Commission that he believed Radithor was killing him. He was right, and the Food and Drug Administration finally began an investigation into the substance that had been killing young women for at least a decade.

Yet, dial painting was still going on. 

Companies utilizing radium paint began instituting minor changes, most significantly discouraging the practice of lip-pointing paint brushes. This did slow the progression of illness and death in dial painters but did not stop it. Use of radium paint continued until the 1970s, increasing the rates of cancers and other diseases in Orange, NJ and Ottawa, Illinois. The waste and spread of radium in these communities created Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites that have cost millions in taxpayer dollars to clean up, a process that continues to this day.

The number of dial painters who died of radium poisoning is unknown due to the fact that their symptoms were often attributed to other causes, but studies of their experience helped update workers compensation laws and safety standards for dangerous substances that protect workers today.


Suggested reading: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore

Monday, August 17, 2020

Medieval & Tudor Childbirth


Toni Mount joins us today as part of her blog tour celebrating the publication of her latest medieval mystery, The Colour of Shadows. If you love Sebastian Foxley as much as I do, you won't want to miss it! If you haven't tried this series, I couldn't recommend it more highly - get started with The Colour of Poison. Toni's knowledge of the 15th century shines marvelously in this novel, and she has kindly shared some in depth expertise on what women endured to bear children during the medieval and Tudor times.

You can read my full review of The Colour of Shadows on Goodreads.

Join me in warmly welcoming Toni Mount to the blog today!

~ Samantha


Medieval & Tudor Childbirth

A guest post by Toni Mount

In my new Sebastian Foxley murder-mystery novel The Colour of Shadows, set in medieval London, Seb’s wife, Emily, is approaching the time of her second confinement. But what were the likely experiences of a mother-to-be in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?

As the time of her delivery approached, the pregnant woman of the Medieval and Tudor eras had much to do to prepare for the big event. Some felt trepidation and fear for we know that, during the reign of King James I, Elizabeth Joceline not only stitched the swaddling bands for the coming baby but sewed a shroud for herself as well – sadly, this was required nine days after the birth of a daughter in October 1622. It is certain that Elizabeth was not alone in feeling so pessimistic; perhaps she was even continuing a Tudor tradition.

Today, childbirth is seen as a case of medical intervention but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, male physicians and surgeons avoided the female-only occasion that centred on supporting the mother-to-be through her labour, as well as the days before and after the birth. This time in a woman’s life was called a ‘confinement’ for good reason as she kept to her chamber, away from society; a virtual prisoner of her condition. Royal and noble women ‘took to their chambers’ as early as four to six weeks before the baby was due for a period of rest and quiet, to build up their strength for the coming ordeal and to prepare their souls in case the worse should happen. This lengthy time of retirement was a means of demonstrating the families’ wealth and status as it meant the women no longer carried out any domestic duties, but it was also a precautionary measure because it was difficult to determine the exact date of conception. Even if that was known, the precise term of a pregnancy wasn’t understood and thought to be variable, so it was impossible to know the due date.

During troubled times for the House of York, on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 1470, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of the exiled King Edward IV, gave birth to Prince Edward while she was in sanctuary in the Abbot’s House at Westminster Abbey. She had expected to give birth in the splendid lying-in chambers ready prepared for her at the Tower of London, but when the tables turned against her husband, she was forced to flee these sumptuous comforts with her mother and daughter to Westminster Abbey. In spite of the Earl of Warwick’s – then Regent of England – personal animosity towards the queen and her Woodville relatives, he wasn’t cruel to Elizabeth and he sent Lady Scrope and others to assist her in her delivery in addition to paying their fees.

Anne Boleyn’s childbed chamber at Greenwich was redecorated, almost rebuilt with a false ceiling installed, tapestries hung and a special cupboard made on which to display her gold and silver plate to impress any (female) visitors. Those who attended her as steward, butler, carver, etc. were all women appointed for the duration, taking on these male roles. King Henry VIII is mentioned as her only male visitor during her tedious wait but whether any priests were allowed to attend her, I haven’t been able to discover. We know midwives were permitted to baptise the baby, if it was thought unlikely to live until the christening proper. The Ordinances and Regulations for the Royal Household*, drawn up in the previous reign by Henry VII, seem to have still been current by the time of Anne’s lying-in and they say the queen should attend divine service before retiring but make no mention of any provision for religious observance after that until her ‘churching’ when she returned to society.   

Of course, women of lesser status and affluence could not afford to withdraw in this way and probably worked until the labour pains began, if they were well enough and able to do so. Once it was certain labour had begun, men were banned from entering the chamber where the women took charge. I imagine that in the case of those who lived in single-room cottages, this meant the husband went off to the tavern to eat and drink with his friends. Labour might last up to two or three days and the longer it went on, the less likely a successful outcome for both mother and child became.

After the birth, the new mother remained in bed for three days with the room kept in darkness because they believed labour made her eyes weak. On the third day, ‘upsitting’ was allowed. This was again a female only occasion but meant the woman could get out of bed but was still confined to her chamber. A special meal was served and the baby shown off in its christening robe. The famous painting of the Cholmondeley Ladies [pro. Chumlee] commissioned from an anonymous artist c.1600-1610, probably shows this event. The Cholmondeley sisters, Lettice and Mary, were twins who married on the same day and gave birth on the same day. 

The painting shows them in all their Elizabethan finery, holding their swaddled babies swathed in crimson christening robes. [The Colmondeley Ladies, Tate Gallery, London. ]

The next stage of the confinement, about a week later, allowed the woman to leave the chamber but she still couldn’t go outside the house nor have male visitors other than her husband. After a month or so, her face veiled, she would finally be escorted to church by her women friends to be ‘churched’. This was a brief service in which Psalm 121 would be read, the Lord’s Prayer recited and the woman gave an offering to the church in thanks for her safe delivery. The Church regarded this as a simple thanksgiving ceremony but many thought of it as a woman’s purification after the ‘unclean’ act of childbirth – a fact which upset some Protestants as being a papist idea. Later, the Puritans were even more scathing, seeing childbirth as a natural event in a woman’s life for which she required no purification, while the greedy Church took money from women who perhaps couldn’t afford it, at a time when they most needed every penny.

As with the withdrawal before the birth, many poorer women with husbands and older children to care for couldn’t wait a month or more before returning to normal life. Church records show that for ordinary parishioners the time between a baby’s baptism and its mother’s churching varied from eight days to nearly fifty days, with the usual gap being just under two weeks. The longest gaps may have been due to the woman being ill after the birth and taking weeks to recover. Whatever the case, her confinement over, it was back to work as usual for the Medieval and Tudor housewife but, if things had gone well, there was now a new baby to add to her tasks and another mouth to feed so, as Thomas Tusser pointed out: ‘a housewife’s affairs have never an end’.

Connect with Toni:

I'm an author, a history teacher, an experienced speaker - and an enthusiastic life-long-learner. I'm a member of the Research Committee of the Richard III Society and a library volunteer where I lead a Creative Writing group. I regularly give talks to groups and societies and attend history events as a costumed interpreter. I write for a variety of history magazines and have created seven online courses for

I earned my Masters Degree by Research from the University of Kent in 2009 through study of a medieval medical manuscript held at the Wellcome Library in London. My BA (with First-class Honours), my Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and my Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. My Cert. Ed (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich.

Connect with Toni on her website, Facebook, or Twitter. You can also learn more about the Sebastian Foxley series or Toni's works on Medieval England and Medieval Medicine.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Historic Places: Benjamin Harrison House

During a recent weekend in Indianapolis, I was thrilled to stumble upon this gem on the north side of downtown. I'll be honest, I didn't even realize that President Benjamin Harrison was from Indiana, so this was a fascinating visit!

Benjamin Harrison came from a very political family. Besides his grandfather, who was our 9th president, his great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison V was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, he was practically raised with high office in mind, and few could have been surprised when he elected to be America's 23rd president.

Before moving into the White House, Harrison practiced law in Indianapolis and built the home on Delaware Street. Today, it appears much as it did in the late 1800s with 80% of it's current furnishings originally belonging to Benjamin Harrison. Wallpaper, rugs, and other details have been painstakingly recreated to appear just as they did more than a century ago. 

The dining table is set for ten and decorated with china painted by Benjamin Harrison's wife, Caroline. Her paintings are found throughout the home and are a testament to her skill as an artist. The front porch of the Italianate home served as Harrison's campaign stage after his presidential nomination. An estimated 300,000 people listened to him speak as they crowded in to the yard for one of the dozens of speeches Harrison gave from his home.

Some of my favorite items in the Benjamin Harrison house included a hand carved walking cane that features faces and names of each of the presidents that served before him, a gorgeous glass doored bookcase holding Harrison's books, and the nursery containing two cribs that served as beds for future presidents. In the ballroom, which would have taken up the entire third floor in Benjamin Harrison's day, an exhibit is dedicated to the cause of women's suffrage. Since fair elections and the right to vote were key issues to Benjamin Harrison, this exhibit is one of which he would be proud.

While he was undoubtedly pleased to have served his country as president, Harrison believed that achievement was secondary to his time as a Brigadier General of the US Army during the Civil War. He did not have military experience, but his skill as a disciplinarian, courage in the face of danger, and desire to serve his country made up for it. As president, he ensured fair treatment of Civil War veterans. He also strove to protect the voting rights of blacks, especially in the South where great efforts were made to prevent them from exercising this right.

Benjamin Harrison also served as president during an epidemic. Cholera spread from Asia to America in 1892 and could leave a person devastated by dehydration within hours. A 20 day quarantine was enacted for immigrants arriving in New York, and citizens were encouraged to self-isolate. Sadly, since cholera deaths were significantly limited to poor immigrants, little attention was paid to the tragedy. It was also downplayed, ironically, due to the upcoming election.

When Harrison returned to Indianapolis, he married his second wife, Mary. Caroline had died during his time in office, and Mary was her niece. This caused a bit of a family scandal, but the couple was happy and welcomed baby Elizabeth in 1897. Harrison died just 4 years later, and Mary soon left Indianapolis for New York, leaving the houseful of presidential furnishings stored away in the attic for them to be discovered decades later. Visit the Benjamin Harrison House in Indy and feel just as though you have stepped back in time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Historic Places: Landmark for Peace Memorial

On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis to make a speech as part of his presidential campaign. Shortly before his scheduled stop, he learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and his advisors discouraged him from speaking to the Indianapolis crowd which was expected to be filled with black voters who often came out in droves to hear RFK and his strong civil rights message. Kennedy refused to cancel the speech and quickly prepared to break the tragic news to a potentially hostile crowd.

The site where Robert Kennedy stood and informed the black community of Indianapolis of Martin Luther King Jr's death is now the Landmark for Peace Memorial. His speech can be heard here. It was touching to see parts of it memorialized at the Landmark for Peace. His words are as relevant today as they were 52 years ago.

"I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love--a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."
(Text of Robert Kennedy's speech copied from the JFK library here.) 

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr's death, riots broke out across the country. Indianapolis is one of the few major cities that did not experience widespread violence in reaction to the beloved leader's assassination, and Robert Kennedy is often credited for that. He revealed his own heart, his own pain about losing his brother to a murderer's bullet, and it made him vulnerable and empathetic to people who had lost someone who felt like a loved one, even if they had never met him. Robert Kennedy was one of the few people who was able to bridge the gap between people who were hurting and those with the power to make changes.

Just two months later, Robert Kennedy, another man who "dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings," was shot and killed after giving a speech celebrating his victory in the California primaries.

Before visiting this park, I had no idea that this beautiful monument existed. I was expecting a plaque that most people passed without realizing what it was. Imagine my excitement when I saw this breathtaking sculpture of two men remembered for striving for peace and unity. They reach toward each other, reach for peace, reach for a better future. Let's not disappoint them. 


Photos are property of Samantha Wilcoxson

Read more about Robert Kennedy in my Remembering RFK blog series.