MFDJ 06/21/23: Death of a Radium Girl

The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting radium dials – watch dials and hands with self-luminous paint. The incidents occurred at three factories in United States: one in Orange, New Jersey, beginning around 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, beginning in the early 1920s; and one in Waterbury, Connecticut, also in the 1920s.

After being told that the paint was harmless, the women in each facility ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to “point” their brushes on their lips in order to give them a fine tip;[1] some also painted their fingernails, faces, and teeth with the glowing substance. The women were instructed to point their brushes in this way because using rags or a water rinse caused them to use more time and material, as the paint was made from powdered radium, zinc sulfide (a phosphor), gum arabic, and water.

Five of the women in New Jersey challenged their employer in a case over the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers under New Jersey’s occupational injuries law, which at the time had a two-year statute of limitations, but settled out of court in 1928. Five women in Illinois who were employees of the Radium Dial Company (which was unaffiliated with the United States Radium Corporation) sued their employer under Illinois law, winning damages in 1938.

Here is one of the sad story of the first Radium Girl to die.


Today’s Agonizing Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Mollie Maggia completed her tray of dials and stood to take it up to Miss Rooney.  Despite herself, she found her tongue flicking back to that hole. The pain was just so nagging. If it didn’t get better soon, she thought, she was going to the dentist again — and a different one this time, someone who really knew what he was doing.

It didn’t get better soon.

A dial-painter at work

And so, in October 1921, she made an appointment with a Dr. Joseph Knef, a dentist who’d been recommended to her as an expert on unusual mouth diseases. For Mollie, the appointment couldn’t come soon enough. For several weeks, the pain in her lower gum and jaw had become so intense that it was almost unbearable. As Knef ushered her into his office, she desperately hoped he would be able to help her. The other dentist had only seemed to make things worse.

Knef gently probed Mollie’s gums and teeth, shaking his head as he examined the place where her tooth had been removed by the previous dentist. Although it had been over a month since it had been taken out, the socket had failed to heal. Knef observed her inflamed gums and softly touched her teeth, several of which seemed a little loose. He nodded briskly, certain he had found the cause of the trouble. “I treated her,” he later said, “for pyorrhea.” This was a very common inflammatory disease, affecting the tissues around the teeth. Mollie appeared to have all the symptoms. Knef was sure that, with his expert care, her condition would soon improve.

Yet it didn’t improve. “Instead of responding to the treatment,” Knef recalled, “the girl became steadily worse.”

It was so terribly, terribly sore. Mollie had more teeth out, as Knef tried to stop the infection in its tracks by removing the source of her pain — but none of the extractions ever healed. Instead, ever-more agonizing ulcers sprouted in the holes left behind, hurting her even more than the teeth had.

Mollie struggled on, continuing to work at the studio, even though using her mouth on the brush was extremely uncomfortable. Her friend Marguerite, who was feeling completely well again, tried to engage her in chatter, but Mollie barely responded. It wasn’t just the pain of her gums, which seemed to take up all her concentration, but the bad breath that came with it. There was a disagreeable odor whenever she opened her mouth, and she was embarrassed by it.

At her sister’s wedding, all of Mollie’s sisters couldn’t help but be concerned by her deteriorating condition. For as the weeks passed, it wasn’t just her mouth that became sore; she started to have aches and pains in completely unconnected places. “My sister,” her sister Quinta remembered, “began having trouble with her teeth and her jawbone and her hips and feet. We thought it rheumatism.”  The doctor administered aspirin and sent her home.

Young Mollie Maggia

The more Knef tried to help, the worse Mollie became. Knef didn’t even have to pull teeth anymore; they fell out on their own. Nothing he did arrested the disintegration in the slightest degree.

And disintegration was the word for it. Mollie’s mouth was literally falling apart. She was in constant agony, and only superficial palliatives brought her any relief. For Mollie, a girl who had always loved to joke around, it was unbearable. Her smile, which had once been a toothy grin that beamed across her face, was unrecognizable as more and more of her teeth came out. Well, no matter; she was in too much pain to smile anyway.

Mollie in happier days

By now Dr. Knef had noticed certain things about her case that made him doubt his initial diagnosis. It was, it appeared, an “extraordinary affliction”; it was almost like something was attacking her from the inside, though he knew not what it could be. As well as the seemingly unstoppable disintegration of her mouth, to his trained nostrils the noticeable smell coming from her seemed “peculiar”; it differed decidedly from the odor commonly associated with the usual forms of necrosis of the jaw.” Necrosis meant decay. Mollie’s teeth – those that were left – were literally rotting in her mouth.

After conducting further research, Knef reached a conclusion. She was, he determined, suffering from a condition not unlike phosphorous poisoning.

“Phossy Jaw” – as the victims of phosphorus poisoning had grimly nicknamed the condition – had very similar symptoms to those that Mollie was enduring: tooth loss, gum inflammation, necrosis, and pain. And so, at her next appointment, Knef asked Mollie how she was employed.

“Painting numbers on watches so that they will shine at night,” she responded, wincing as her tongue formed the words and touched the ulcers in her mouth.

With that, his suspicions increased. Knef decided to take matters into his own hands. He visited the radium plant – but received little cooperation.  “I asked the radium people for the formula of their compound,” he remembered, “but this was refused.”  Knef was, however, told that no phosphorus was used and assured that work in the factory could not have caused the disease.

None of this  helped Mollie.  By now, the pain was excruciating. Her mouth had become a mass of sores; she could barely speak at all, let alone eat.  It was horrifying for her sisters to watch. She suffered such agony, said Quinta, that, it “has unnerved me every time I recall [it].”

Anyone who has ever endured an abscessed tooth may be able to imagine some small degree of her suffering. By now, Mollie’s entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even the bones of her ears might be said to be one huge abscess. There was no way in the world that she could work in such a condition. She quit her job at the studio, where she had spent so many happy hours painting dials, and was confined to her home. Surely, one day soon, the doctors would determine what was wrong, and cure her, and she could get on with her life again.

But no cure came. In May, Knef suggested that she come in again to his office, so that he could examine her and see what progress had been made. Mollie limped into his office, the rheumatism in her hips and feet had grown worse, and she was almost lame. But it was her mouth that took up all her thoughts, all her time, and consumed her. There was no escape from the agony.

She hobbled over to Dr. Knef’s dental chair and then leaned back. Gingerly she opened her mouth for him. He bent over and prepared to probe inside.

There were barely any teeth left now, he saw; red raw ulcers peppered the inside of her mouth instead. Mollie tried to indicate that her jaw was hurting especially, and Knef prodded delicately at the bone in her mouth.

To his horror and shock, even though his touch had been gentle, her jawbone broke against his fingers. He then removed it, “not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.”

A week or so later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way.

The deteriorated jaw of Mollie Maggia

Mollie couldn’t bear it — but there was no relief. All the doctors could offer were analgesic drugs that barely helped. Her whole face beneath her bouffant brown hair was just pain, pain, pain.  She became anemic, weakening further.

After her jaw had gone, an important discovery was made. Knef had always hoped that by removing a tooth, or a piece of infected bone, the progress of the mysterious disease would be halted. But now it became evident that “whenever a portion of the affected bone was removed, instead of arresting the course of the necrosis, it speeded it up.”  Over the summer, Mollie’s condition deteriorated ever further. She was getting painfully sore throats now, though she knew not why. Her jaw, at times, would spontaneously bleed, and Edith, her nurse, would press white cotton bandages to her face, trying to stem the flow.

In September 1922, the peculiar infection that had plagued Mollie Maggia for less than a year spread to the tissues of her throat. The disease “slowly ate its way through her jugular vein.” On September 12, at five p.m., her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that Edith could not staunch it. Her mouth, empty of teeth, empty of jawbone, empty of words, filled with blood, instead, until it spilled over her lips and down her stricken , shaken face.  It was too much.  She died, her sister Quinta said, a “painful and terrible death.”

She was just twenty-four years old.

Culled from: The Radium Girls


Sing Sing Prisoner Du Jour!

For participating in the robbery and murder of an American serviceman in wartime, 18-year-old Benitez DeJesus was condemned for “aiding and abetting the enemy.”  [That’s kind of a stretch, don’t you think? – DeSpair]

NAME:                Benitez DeJesus
NUMBER:           B101824
BORN:                06-30-24 (San Tuce, PR)
AGE:                  18
OCCUPATION:   Handyman
PHYSICAL:         5’7″, 127 lbs
CRIME:               Murder, stabbed Edwin Berkowitz, $6 robbery, 10-2-42
ACCOMPLICES: William Diaz 101-827,
Americo Romano 101-831
JUDGE:               Wallace, New York General Sessions
SENTENCED:     12-21-42
RECEIVED:         12-21-42
EXECUTED:        7-8-43

“I heard that you have a new guard up there who is telling you that you have no chance — that you will certainly get the chair. I do not see how anybody can be that brutal. Even if he believed you would get the chair, he should not have told you, he should have used a little tact.”
—  “Kite” (written message) to DeJesus from a fellow prisoner

Culled from: Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House

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