Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Luminous Women: Margaret Looney


Margaret Looney started work at Radium Dial in 1923, not long after Catherine Wolfe (Donohue) and Charlotte Nevins (Purcell). Her friends called her Peg. She was 17-years-old, too young to be working at Radium Dial according to their stated rules, but she was far from the only one. Some women remembered girls as young as 11 working in the studio as long as they were able to perform the fine work. Peg was quite capable, cheerful, and dedicated to earning an income that would help feed her large family of seven siblings (and counting!).

Peg had a habit of reading the dictionary and dreamed of being a teacher, but the wages at Radium Dial were too tempting for a working class girl. Besides that, she enjoyed working in the studio with the other young ladies who became fast friends. Since they were paid according to the amount of dials painted, Peg would sometimes even take work home. Her younger siblings enjoyed playing with the glow-in-the-dark paint.

Workers at Radium Dial, 1936

In 1925, some of the women at Radium Dial were beginning to feel symptoms of radium poisoning, although they did not realize that was the reason for their suffering. Red haired, freckled Peg was selected for health screening by her employer. Since she never received any results, she assumed that she was as healthy as any young woman would expect to be. Peg had a happy life with her friends, family, and a handsome boyfriend. Before long, she was engaged to be married.

Peg didn't make much of the problems she was having. Her jaw was sore, and she lost a few teeth. She lost weight and felt fatigued, but she kept working and living life as her failing health allowed. Sometimes, her boyfriend would pull her around in a little, red wagon when she lacked the energy to walk around town. She still enjoyed dancing and hanging out with friends as much as she could.

When news from New Jersey finally reached Ottawa, Illinois, Peg realized that she must be suffering from the radium poisoning that had caused the death of workers at US Radium Corp, but there was little she could do about it. Radium Dial management insisted that the radium compound in their paint was different - and safe. Peg could only hope that was true.

But it wasn't. Peg kept working, as she struggled to walk and her jaw disintegrated. She couldn't let her family down. She was at Radium Dial on August 6, 1929, when she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Radium Dial doctors attended her and refused to allow her family visits. Peg Looney, who had loved to be surrounded by family and friends, died alone on August 14. Company doctors claimed the cause of death was diphtheria.

Memorial to radium girls in Ottawa, IL

Radium Dial continued to insist that the women's work was safe for years following Peg's death. More women sickened and died, but some took up the legal fight against the company. Their bittersweet victory came in 1938, far too late for Peg Looney and many of her friends.


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

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"Well, mother, my time is nearly up."                                                               - Peg Looney

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Luminous Women: Charlotte Nevins Purcell


Charlotte Nevins began working at Radium Dial when she was only 16-years-old, despite the company's policy that required employees to be at least 18. She was far from the youngest girl hired, and ability to paint tiny numbers was more vital than adulthood toward gaining employment. As one of the younger girls working in the dial painting studio, Charlotte was more likely than her older friends, Catherine Donohue and Pearl Payne, to join in the silliness of using the glow-in-the-dark paint as makeup before turning out the lights to make faces and giggle at one another.

She enjoyed the comradery of the studio and built close friendships with her coworkers. Despite her fondness for the young women she worked with, Charlotte did not stay long at Radium Dial. Her dream was to become a seamstress, so when the opportunity arose after a little more than a year in the dial painting studio, Charlotte grasped it. Her friends were sad to see her go but had reason later to be grateful that she had left when she did.

A few years later, Charlotte married Albert Purcell and many of her former coworkers attended the festivities. Some of them were beginning to experience symptoms of what they would later discover were caused by radium poisoning. When Charlotte gave birth to a tiny 2.5 pound baby in 1929, she may have wondered if her time in the dial studio was the cause. Many of her friends were ill, and Peg Looney, to whom Charlotte had been particularly close, had died after months of her body painfully wasting away.

With the Great Depression underway and a healthy daughter born within two more years, Charlotte can be forgiven for setting aside her concerns. After all, medical professionals were united in their claim that no such thing as radium poisoning existed. That might have been the end of it so far as Charlotte was concerned, except for a persistent pain in her arm.

In 1934, then the mother of three children, Charlotte travelled to Chicago for expert medical help. Her arm ached in a way that was abnormal for her 28 years. Even after an amputation, Charlotte felt phantom pain along with the stress of caring for her family with only one arm. A few doctors were putting forward the idea that the health problems suffered by Charlotte and her friends were caused by the radium they had been exposed to as dial painters. Missing an arm and concerned about the future, Charlotte joined Catherine Donohue, Pearl Payne, and others in bringing legal action.

With the town of Ottawa and the medical community divided over the women's case, Charlotte persisted, allowing journalists to use photos of her with her sad, empty sleeve to elicit sympathy from newspaper readers. Charlotte's health was relatively good after her amputation, but the same couldn't be said of her friends. Catherine Donohue especially seemed to be fading away before their eyes.

During the women's hearing, Charlotte had the satisfaction of testifying that Mr Reed of Radium Dial had had the audacity of claiming he "didn't think there was any such thing as radium poisoning" while looking at the young woman who was missing her arm. She had made a huge sacrifice for her 13 months on the job, but Radium Dial was finally held responsible. 

By the time that happened, Catherine Donohue was dead and Charlotte determined to not take a single day for granted. She lived until 1988, the extra decades of life likely granted to her due to the amputation that removed the worst of the radium poisoning from her body. Charlotte made it a habit not to say she couldn't accomplish a task because of her missing arm, and one of her grandchildren remembered her tying a jump-rope to a fence in order to jump rope. 

Charlotte also remained convinced that visits from a black and yellow canary were heavenly visitations from her departed friend, Catherine Wolfe Donohue. Like her friend, Pearl Payne, Charlotte participated in scientific studies to understand radioactivity and its effects on the human body. She continued to undergo tests and exams until 1985.


Learn more about Charlotte Nevins Purcell and the other radium girls of Ottawa, Illinois in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"We were a bunch of happy, vivacious girls."

                             - Charlotte Nevins Purcell

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Luminous Women: Pearl Payne


Pearl Payne worked with the young women at Radium Dial in the 1920s, and she was what I would have called a 'non-trad' back in my college days. She was a few years older than her coworkers, but, more notably, she was married. Pearl had her nursing certificate, but dial painting paid better, allowing her to sock away more savings for the day when she and her husband started a family.

Motherly and caring, Pearl was the oldest of thirteen siblings. She loved children and was eager to have a large family of her own. Little did she realize that the paint used in the Radium Dial studio caused miscarriage and infertility. Thankfully, Pearl worked there for only eight months. At the time, she was disappointed when her mother's health failed, forcing Pearl to give up her job to serve as caregiver. Only later would Pearl realize that this course of events might have saved her life.

During her short time at Radium Dial, Pearl had become close friends with Catherine Wolfe (who later married Tom Donohue). Pearl watched Catherine's health devastatingly decline after working at Radium Dial for nine years. Pearl remained relatively healthy and outlived her friend by decades, but radium poisoning did cause one heartbreaking health problem for Pearl. The woman who dreamed of a large family struggled to bear children.

Pearl holding Catherine's hand at IIC hearing

Pearl was plagued by tumors and endured multiple surgeries before realizing that she was suffering from the same ailment, though with varied symptoms, as her dear friend. By 1929, one side of Pearl's face was paralyzed and she had been hospitalized nine times. She feared she might be dying. Catherine was.

Pearl had the advantage of being trained as a nurse, so she realized better than many of the victims of radium poisoning that many of the illnesses suggested by medical professionals did not make sense as the cause of her suffering. When she was forced to have a hysterectomy in 1933, abruptly ending any dream she had of giving her daughter siblings, Pearl began to realize what was happening to the dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois. By the end of the next year, Pearl had brought together a group of women to challenge the legality of Radium Dial's operations.

To protect their assets, the owners of Radium Dial shut down the studio in 1936 . . . . only to reopen it a few blocks away under a new name: Luminous Processes. The workers were informed they would be safe as long as they didn't "lip-point" their brushes, and operations continued. Pearl and Catherine were determined to make a difference.

Desperate for justice - and money to pay the women's snowballing medical bills - Pearl's husband, Hobart wrote to famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, hoping that he would be willing to take on their case. Darrow was not able to help them directly, but he did refer them to Leonard Grossman, who turned out to be their knight in shining armor. 

Pearl wasn't content with the dial painters of Ottawa winning their own case, she also presented Grossman with the idea of an organization created to help other exploited workers. They gave it the morbid, yet apt, name The Society of the Living Dead. Months after the first meeting of the Society, Catherine Wolfe Donohue died of radium poisoning at age 35, leaving behind two small children. Pearl was heartbroken to lose her friend and even more determined to see justice prevail.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Illinois Industrial Commission decision to hold Radium Dial liable for the women's radium poisoning, Pearl did not stop there. She submitted to years of tests and exams for the Center for Human Radiobiology, helping to ensure that others did not suffer the way she and her friends had. 

Despite her radium poisoning related health problems, Pearl Payne lived until 1998. In her attic, she kept a baby stroller and crib alongside the papers she had kept through the years. Many of those clippings, letters, and other records can be viewed today at the LaSalle County Historical Museum. 


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

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"I belong to a class of women of which the medical profession does not know the reason for their illness."                                                               - Pearl Payne

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Stepping Back into Saxon England: Æthelflæd’s Daughter


Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick are two amazing historians and authors, so I was thrilled when Annie told me about their joint blog tour. Saxon England may be a little distant for some of my readers, but, trust me, it's worth the trip!

Welcome Annie!

~ Samantha 


Æthelflæd’s Daughter

A Guest Post by Annie Whitehead

I’m delighted to be Samantha’s guest today as part of the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour with Helen Hollick. Recently I was talking to someone about the enduring popularity of the Tudors and why it should be so. I think the fascination is partly to do with two things: a king executing his queens is unique in English history, and women succeeding women to the throne is something which had never happened before and has not happened since, unless you count Anne’s succeeding William and Mary.

Well, I say it hadn’t happened before. It did, once, albeit briefly.

I’ve written a great deal about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in my novel To Be A Queen, and both my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and she was born at a time when ‘Viking’ incursions were not only a major nuisance, but had already seen two kingdoms - East Anglia and Northumbria - fall pretty much permanently under Danish control. Only the very top part of Northumbria, some of Mercia and the whole of Wessex were still under English rule. Alfred, and later his son, Edward, began working alongside Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and, when a concerted joint effort pushed the invaders out of London, the alliance was sealed by the marriage of Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

We don’t have much information for the early years of their marriage, except the details of the continuing campaign against the Danes. Around the year 902, however, the chronicles stop mentioning Æthelred’s name and the Irish annals make it clear that he was suffering from some kind of illness, which prevented him from fighting but did not stop him giving strategic advice to his wife. This gives me the impression that by this stage, this was one amazing power couple, happy to support and protect each other - she looking after him while he was ill and he being happy to delegate to a ‘mere’ woman.

History records - and yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler - that after this protracted illness she ended up ruling alone. That’s also worth a moment’s pause. Only once before had a woman ruled an English kingdom, and it didn’t end well. Seaxburh, queen of Wessex, was the only Anglo-Saxon woman to be included on a regnal list. She ruled for somewhere between one and two years in the seventh century but as a later chronicler said, the men of the kingdom would not go to war under the leadership of a woman. I think ‘war’ is the clue here. It’s likely that she was actually ruling as regent for her son during a time of conflict over the succession. At any rate, her rule was not long, and was not successful.

Æthelflæd, on the other hand, ruled Mercia for seven years on her own and in that time she worked in partnership with her brother Edward to wrest occupied Mercia out of Danish hands, building defensive towns called burhs, and famously taking Derby with her troops and losing in the fighting ‘four thegns who were dear to her.’ Derby was one of the strategically important ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw (the other four being Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham and Leicester). By the time she died at Tamworth, their work was almost done.

From beyond the grave though, she pulled off another remarkable feat. Her daughter Ælfwynn succeeded her.

We know virtually nothing of Ælfwynn’s life, not even her year of birth, but we do know that she witnessed a charter of her mother’s, issued at Weardbyrig (unidentified but possibly in Shropshire) in 915, when Æthelflæd was in the midst of her intense burh-building programme. Even if Ælfwynn had been born late in the marriage – and it seems unlikely that she would have been conceived after her father fell ill in around 902 – she probably wouldn’t have been on campaign with her mother if she was still tiny. Most likely she was a young adult at the very least. Given that it would have been far safer for her to remain in the Mercian heartland, there could well have been a specific reason for her presence at Weardbyrig, that of watching and learning from her mother, with the intention that one day she would take over.

But if she was already a young woman, why had she remained unmarried? Again, I think it might be because she was being groomed to take over the country and keep it in Mercian hands. It’s said that her mother raised the future King Athelstan in Mercia but she clearly didn’t consider him her heir and, when she died, the Mercian council declared for Ælfwynn. We know this because, like Seaxburh all those years ago, her tenure was short-lived. Her uncle Edward, who’d been happy for his sister to rule, wasn’t so accommodating when it came to her daughter and according to the annal known as the Mercian Register, she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Thus they clearly believed that she was rightful ruler.

We don’t know what happened to her after that, other than that she was probably taken into Wessex. A later charter speaks of a holy woman called Ælfwynn, but there is no proof at all that this was the same woman. Like so many before and after, she simply disappeared off the pages of history.

But we should not overlook that very important point. In Mercia in 918 a remarkable thing happened: a woman ruler was succeeded by a woman ruler. This would not happen again until the time of the Tudors.


About the Author:

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month.

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie: 

On Amazon

On her blog 

On Twitter

On her website

On Facebook

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Coronation Day for Mary I

Princess Mary Tudor was crowned Queen Mary I on October 1, 1553, in an event without precedent. After fighting successfully for her birthright, Mary became England's first queen regnant.

The spectacle had actually begun several days earlier when Mary arrived at the Tower of London with her sister, Elizabeth. They were welcomed with music, decorations, and a volley of the Tower guns by the mayor and aldermen of London. Time here was spent rehearsing for the coronation. Mary also met with her councillors and pledged herself, on her knees, to "the task God had been pleased to lay on her to His greater glory and service, to the public good and all her subjects' benefit." It was an emotional moment that left many of the men in tears. Then, on September 30, the sisters rode through the city to the Palace of Westminster, where the coronation ceremony would begin.

Their procession was planned to impress Londoners with the vision of everything they believed their monarch should be, and they were met by cheering crowds. Rich fabrics and vibrant colors glittered with magnificent jewels, silver, and gold. Even the horses were draped in beautifully embroidered cloth. Amid this dizzying array of wealth, Queen Mary was expected to stand out. She rode in an open chariot draped in gold. Her dress of purple velvet trimmed in ermine was complimented by the crimson velvet worn by her ladies and silver cloth-of-gold worn by Princess Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves. The bejeweled crown that Mary wore for the procession was reported to be so heavy that she wearily propped up her head with her hands.

Crowds, pageants, and performers vied for Mary's attention as her procession slowly moved from the Tower to Westminster. Choirs of children sang as wine flowed from fountains. An acrobat even performed atop the weathervane of St Paul's Cathedral. After what must have been an exhausting day, Mary prepared for her coronation.

The next day was certainly one filled with both excitement and anxiety for this woman who had been at various times pampered and bastardized by a tempestuous father. Mary was not necessarily the showman that Henry VIII had been, so to be put on display before crowds would have been stressful, even without the knowledge that she was setting a historical precedent. Setting aside her shyness and timidity, Mary was determined that her coronation be held according to the customs of the kings who had come before her.

Mary wore crimson velvet robes and walked on blue fabric from the porch of Westminster Hall to the Abbey. Her auburn hair was worn loose in the style of a queen, but the orb, scepter, and crown of kingship were carried before her. Inside Westminster Abbey, swathes of cloth-of-gold hung from the choir to the altar and covered the grand chair upon which Mary was seated.

She was presented by the Bishop of Winchester:
"Sirs, here present is Mary, rightful and undoubted inheritrix by the laws of God and man to the crown and royal dignity of this realm of England, France and Ireland, whereupon you shall understand that this day is appointed by the peers of this land for the consecration, inunction and coronation of said most excellent Princess Mary; will you serve at this time, and give your wills and assent to the same."

"Yea, yea, yea. God save Queen Mary," those assembled responded.

Mary gave her offering and lay prostrate upon cloth-of-gold cushions as prayers were invoked above her. After a sermon by the Bishop of Chichester on the obedience owed to kings, Mary was prostrate again to swear her oaths as queen, followed by her anointing. Bishop Gardiner touched holy oil to Mary's forehead, temples, shoulders, and chest as she knelt wearing a sleeveless purple velvet corset. After the anointing, Mary was again regally dressed in a crimson velvet mantle and crimson cloth-of-gold slippers.

Gold coin featuring Queen Mary I, 1555

Trumpets announced the moment each of three crowns was placed upon Mary's head, and the choir sang Te Deum when the coronation ring was placed on her finger. She then received the sword and spurs that would have been presented to a crowned king and received the homage of her clergy and magnates. Finally, another offering was made, and Mary carried the orb and scepters (one traditionally the queen's and the other the king's) to her coronation feast.

She was Queen of England, but she had taken a long road to get there. Her mother's only child, Mary had been raised to believe she would be her father's heir. When Henry VIII broke with both Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic Church in order to disinherit Mary, she may have believed she would never see the throne. Through many trials and tribulations, which did not end once she was queen, Mary endured.