Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Luminous Women: Catherine Donohue


It wouldn't be proper to begin this blog series on Luminous Women with anyone besides Catherine Wolfe Donohue. This quiet Catholic woman from Ottawa, Illinois inspired her friends, courageously challenged the radium industry, and made law-changing history in the United States. Her place in history is not one to which she aspired, but when injustice would have reigned Catherine gave voice to the vulnerable.

Catherine Wolfe was born in 1903 in a midwestern town snugly settled along the banks of the Fox River. She was baptized, married, and took her first communion at Ottawa's St Columba, and went to school with the same young people she attended church with. When she was 19, she took a job at the company across the road from St Columba. Radium Dial had taken up residence in the old high school, and they hired young women to paint the fine numbers and lines on watches and instruments with radium infused paint to make them glow in the dark.

This was an excellent opportunity for Catherine and her friends. Working in a painting studio was more sophisticated and higher paying than domestic service or factory work. A quiet girl, Catherine formed close connections with her coworkers. She married Thomas Donohue in January 1932, just a few months after being fired from Radium Dial for poor health and a visible limp.

It would have been tempting for Catherine to settle into being a housewife and raising children, but she was concerned about her health, even more so because some of her young friends had died in recent years making Catherine wonder if there wasn't something dangerous in the paint they used in Radium Dial's studio. The radium industry by this time was well aware of the dangers of the luminescent paint, but inconsistent and underplayed efforts had been made to ensure the dial painters' safety. Radium Dial had briefly given the women glass pens to apply the paint with to stop the practice of lip-pointing brushes, but they were quickly discarded since the brushes were more efficient. 

The brushes were also how radium entered women's bodies. Trained to dip their brush in the paint, point the bristles with their lips, and then paint the tiny numbers on their dials, women like Catherine had been ingesting the radioactive substance for years. Initially told that radium was good for their health, as medical professionals did briefly believe, the women were not informed when new research and multiple deaths proved that people had been wrong about radium.

Profit is king, and Radium Dial continued operations until forcibly closed, long after the death of Catherine Donohue and others like her. In fact, Radium Dial had taken strides to protect it's cash and resources before Catherine's law suit was judged. It wasn't until her hearing before the Illinois Industrial Commission that Catherine and her co-litigants learned that only $10,000 in assets could possibly be paid - if they won - because Radium Dial's assets had been transferred to a new business. Luminous Processes operated just a few blocks away from Radium Dial's old schoolhouse. 

Suffering horribly from radium poisoning, Catherine testified about her years at Radium Dial. She weighed less than 70 pounds. Her teeth and jaw bone were falling out, and a huge tumor grew on her hip. Catherine was carried into the room to make sure the court heard what was happening to dial painters. Only when a doctor was asked to testify as to her prognosis did Catherine finally break down and fully accept that she was dying.

The hearing continued in the Donohue home, so that Catherine could complete her testimony tucked in on the family sofa. Scarcely able to move and her words slurred by the deformation of her mouth, Catherine demonstrated how she had created a fine point on her brushes with her lips and poisoned herself irreversibly. 

Catherine was victorious in her case before the Illinois Industrial Commission, and new worker compensation and employee safety laws began to be drafted, but Catherine never saw any of the settlement Radium Dial was ordered to pay. She died on July 27, 1938, while Radium Dial was still filing appeals. Final victory was bittersweet when the Supreme Court refused to hear Radium Dial's appeal and Tom, Catherine's grieving and bankrupted widower, received about $5,700, a fraction of the amount that had been spent on his suffering wife's medical bills.

Catherine's true victory came in raised awareness of the dangers of radium and worker exploitation. This could not save her or end the suffering of her friends, but it did decrease the chances that it would happen to another generation of working class women. The women's cases of radium poisoning also informed researchers during World War II and led to strict precautions in how radioactive substances are handled. It was one of Catherine's last hopes that, though she would die, she would be able to help and protect others.


Learn more about Catherine Wolfe Donohue and the other radium girls of Ottawa, Illinois in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"It's too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others."

                                                      - Catherine Wolfe Donohue


Other suggested reading:

Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Banned! Women Explorers Who Broke Barriers

I'm excited to introduce a new guest to the blog today! Jayne Zanglein is the author of The Girl Explorers, scheduled for publication in March 2021. She is here to give us a sneak peek into the lives of the remarkable women she has researched.

Welcome, Jayne!

~ Samantha


Banned! Women Explorers Who Broke Barriers

A Guest Post by Jayne Zanglein

In 1925, four women explorers had an “indignation meeting” over tea. They spoke of their outrage at reporters who ignored their work while they praised men’s work. They also complained that they were banned from the all-male Explorers Club when they qualified in all respects except one: gender.

Blair Niles circumnavigated the globe with her husband in 1910 on the trail of pheasants. After her divorce, she became an expert on Latin America. She visited Haiti to report on the demoralizing effects of the American Occupation on Black Haitians, who had ruled the country since its liberation in 1791. She became the first woman to interview French prisoners on Devil’s Island, the penal colony off South America’s coast. In 1931, Blair exposed gay profiling by Harlem police.

Marguerite Harrison was a society reporter for the Baltimore Sun when World War I broke out.  She asked the newspaper if she could cover the war in Europe. The Sun refused to send a woman, and so she convinced the US government to send her to Russia as the first female spy. 

The KGB caught and imprisoned her. After she was released, she accompanied 50,000 Bakhtiari nomads and a film crew on a seven-week trek across Persia as the tribe guided its livestock—a half million cows, horses, goats, and sheep—to winter pastures. The movie was the nation’s second ethnographic film.

Gertrude Emerson Sen was the first woman to interview Mahatma Gandhi. He helped her find a village where she could live while she studied India. Gertrude spent most of her adult life in India, working as the editor of Asia Magazine.

Gertrude Mathews Shelby was a feminist economic geographer who studied land use, cooperatives, and natural resources. She also studied Black folklore, particularly of the South Carolinian Gullah people.

On a snowy afternoon during tea, these four women decided to form an organization to address one of the most pressing difficulties they faced: isolation. Usually, they were the only woman on an expedition. When they returned home, they craved the companionship of other women travelers. The organization would allow them to share their experiences with other women.

The founders established the parameters for the new club. First, they wanted to attract an eclectic group of women. They agreed that the association’s name should reflect the diverse nature of its members. They decided on the Society of Woman Geographers because it was flexible enough to encompass explorers, scientists, anthropologists, geographers, ethnographers, writers, mountain climbers, scientific artists, and ethnomusicologists. Second, they only would invite women who had published books that enhanced the world’s store of knowledge about the countries they had visited. Marguerite Harrison summed up the group’s exclusive nature: it would include “only women who have really done things.” Third, the primary purpose would be social.

When it came to selecting a president, the choice was obvious: Harriet Chalmers Adams, who was on a quest to visit every nation or territory that had once flown the flag of Spain. Not only did Adams have an excellent reputation as an explorer, but she was an outspoken feminist who attracted the attention of the press. She criticized men who skulk about in “their hide-bound, exclusive little explorers’ and adventurers’ clubs afraid that some mere women might penetrate their sanctums of discussion.” When a reporter asked her why men dominate exploration, Harriet claimed to be at a loss to understand the phenomenon. “I’ve wondered why men have so absolutely monopolized the field of exploration. I’ve never found my sex a hinderment; never faced a difficulty, which a woman, as well as a man, could not surmount; never felt a fear of danger; never lacked the courage to protect myself.” As a war correspondent for Harper’s Magazine during World War I, Harriet had been “in tight places and had seen harrowing things.” She scoffed at the idea that women are more prone to injury than men: “That sounds like rather a stupid notion.”

The Society had no trouble recruiting trailblazers. In the first year, they admitted 41 members. Soon, they boasted members such as anthropologist Margaret Mead, Arctic explorers Josephine and Marie Peary, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, filmmaker Osa Johnson, and aviator Amelia Earhart.

When Amelia accepted her invitation to join the Society, she demurely replied, “I am very much honored but doubtful of my qualifications. However, if the other members will bear with me a while, I’ll try to make up the deficiencies.” Then she broke Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight record.

The organization is still in existence today, with more than five hundred members. Contemporary members include marine biologist Sylvia Earle and primatologist Jane Goodall. Mountaineer Arlene Blum explains that the Society publicizes members’ accomplishments because although the women “do such wonderful things, they are so apologetic. They say things like, ‘Well, I didn’t do anything much this summer. I just visited the pygmies and was kidnapped.’”

My book, The Girl Explorers, tells the story of these remarkable women and how they widened the world’s understanding of culture, race, sexuality, and gender, especially of marginalized peoples. They broke through barriers so that future generations could carry on their important and inspiring work.


Jayne Zanglein’s book, The Girl Explorers, is scheduled for publication on March 2, 2021. Until then, you can read more about the founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers on her blog, thegirlexplorers.com. Connect with Jayne on Facebook, Instagram, or  Twitter.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Queen's Devil: The History Behind the Story


I'm pleased to be a part of Paul Walker's blog tour for The Queen's Devil, the latest installment in his William Constable series. Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this spy thriller is one you won't want to miss. The Tudor era is rich with history that makes it a perfect setting for Walker's story.

Join me in welcoming Paul Walker to the blog today!

~ Samantha


The Queen's Devil: The History Behind the Story

A guest post by Paul Walker

The third book in the William Constable series, The Queen’s Devil, is set in London during the years 1583 and 1584. They’re not instantly memorable dates, but more than enough took place in that period to trigger my writing itch. Elizabeth I was 50 years old and had been on the throne for 25 years. All talk of marriage was gone, but Sir Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley were occupied with conspiracies, war in the Low Countries and the threat of Spain coupled with the influence of the Catholic League in France.

History records John Somerville as a conspirator. In October 1583, he journeyed alone from his home in Warwickshire, uttering threats to kill the Queen. He was arrested and, under torture, implicated his father-in-law, Edward Arden, and Hugh Hall, a Catholic priest. They were also arrested. Arden, who protested his innocence, was in dispute with the Earl of Leicester for refusing to sell him property and reportedly had made comments about the Earl’s affair with Lettice Knollys and the suspicious death of her first husband, the Earl of Essex.

All were found guilty under a fast-track legal process. Hall was released, but Arden was executed at Smithfield. Somerville was moved from the Tower to Newgate prison and within two hours was found dead as the result of self-strangulation. Even by the standards of jails at that time, his death was suspicious. The historian William Camden in his Annales (published after the death of Elizabeth) wrote that he had heard gossip linking his strangling to the Earl of Leicester.

In hindsight the Somerville episode seems undeserving of the term ‘conspiracy’. The ravings of a lone madman were surely no more than a flea bite on the affairs of state, but his threat was taken seriously by Walsingham, and I found the possible link to Leicester intriguing.

The Throckmorton Conspiracy was on a different scale and presented real danger to Elizabeth. It led to the strict confinement of Mary Queen of Scots, the expulsion of the Spanish Ambassador and eventual war with Spain.

Francis Throckmorton was from a prominent Catholic family based in Warwickshire. In 1580 he travelled to Paris, Italy and Spain, where he met with exiled Catholics. In 1583 he returned to England and became involved in an elaborate plot to release Mary Queen of Scots and restore the authority of the Pope. An invasion of England was planned, backed by Spain and led by the French Duke of Guise.

Throckmorton carried messages from the Spanish Ambassador, Bernadino de Mendoza, to Mary and correspondence was routed through the French Embassy at Salisbury Court. Sir Francis Walsingham was alerted to the plot by an agent in the Embassy and Throckmorton was arrested at his house on St Paul’s Wharf in November 1583.

Throckmorton confessed under torture, naming other conspirators. He later retracted his confession, saying he was forced by pain and words put in his mouth. However, his confession agreed with details from other sources and documents seized from his properties confirmed his guilt. His trial took place in May 1584, and he was executed at Tyburn in July of that year.

It may be a coincidence that the conspiracies of Somerville and Throckmorton took place at the same time and there were links of kinship and geography between the two men, but it is known that both affairs shared space on Walsingham’s desk at Seething Lane in November 1583. Ample excuse to suggest a connection in my writing.

Leicester’s Commonwealth was a book first circulated in 1584 attacking Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester for numerous crimes including murder and immorality. The original title was The Copy of a Letter written by a Master of Arts of Cambridge, and begins with a plea for religious toleration of those Catholics loyal to the Queen. The book progresses to defend Mary Stuart’s succession rights, but its primary purpose was to vilify Dudley. The title Leicester’s Commonwealth was first used in the 1641 edition and the book had a significant influence on Dudley’s reputation.

The accusations are many and include the murder of his first wife, Amy Robsart, who broke her neck after falling downstairs. The book also claims he was assisted by his physician, Doctor Guilio Borgarucci, in several acts of poisoning. The victims of poisoning were said to include Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, and Baron Sheffield, husbands to his lovers Lettice Knollys and Lady Douglas Sheffield. The book also details Dudley’s amoral behaviour, his monstrous sexual appetite and the lewd conduct of his second wife, Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth was not amused at the trashing of her favourite’s name and published an official condemnation of the libel.

Authorship is uncertain, but likely to be the work of a group of Catholic exiles in France and linked to a factional struggle in the French court, favouring the Catholic League against those who wanted friendship with Elizabeth and England.

Two conspiracies and a scurrilous tract attacking Robert Dudley disturbed the peace of the Queen and her ministers. But there was more, including: the death of Duc d’Anjou, one-time suitor of Elizabeth; William of Orange was assassinated; the fourth edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was published; and Giordano Bruno, the philosopher of an infinite universe arrived in London. The presence of Bruno brings added spice as he was probably Walsingham’s informer on the suspicious activities of Throckmorton.

Research had provided me with a juicy collection of events and characters. Now, all I had to do was weave these into a believable and compelling fiction. Simple. Or was it?

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Connect with the author:

Paul is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. Having worked in universities and run his own business, he is now a full-time writer of fiction and part-time director of an education trust. His writing in a garden shed is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs.

Paul writes historical fiction. He inherited his love of British history and historical fiction from his mother, who was an avid member of Richard III Society. The William Constable series of historical thrillers is based around real characters and events in the late sixteenth century. The first two books in the series - State of Treason and A Necessary Killing - were published in 2019. The third book, titled The Queen's Devil, was published in the summer of 2020.

Connect with Paul Walker on Twitter, Facebook, or 

his Amazon Author Page.