We're Getting GhostGirled

A lesson from history.

We're Getting GhostGirled

They glowed in the dark.

In 1917, the U.S. Radium Corporation began hiring women and girls as young as 14 to paint the dials on their watches. They used a special radium paint called Undark. The corporation sold the watches to the U.S. military for a huge profit. The girls made 1.5 cents per dial. It was good money back then. Plus, glowing in the dark made these patriotic young women popular.

They became known as the ghost girls.

As you can imagine, working with radium is dangerous. This wasn't a case of naivety. Scientists already knew the danger of radium. Chemists at the U.S. Radium Corporation wore protective gear when handling the stuff. And yet, the ghost girls were told it was completely safe.

Not only were the ghost girls told not to worry, but the Radium Corporation deliberately deprived them of the rags and rinse solution they needed to clean their brushes. They thought it was too expensive. Instead, managers told them to wet their brushes by licking them between dials.

They called it lip pointing.

Of course, the general public thought radium was good for you.

Radium was the goop of the day.

In the 1910s and 20s, you could go to a radium spa. You could do radium cleanses. You could irradiate your junk to restore your lost manhood. Schools used radium byproducts as sand on playgrounds. Radium was used in everything from toothpaste to hemorrhoid cream. Countless grifters founded sketchy little companies claiming to sell "authentic" radium products. Did I mention scientists already knew radium was bad for you? They knew it was useful, but it was dangerous. You had to be careful with it.

Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered radium and polonium, ultimately winning the Nobel Prize (twice) by 1911. They published a range of papers exploring the practical use of radioactive elements in x-rays, surgery, and tumor treatment. Curie herself directed France's first radiology program during WWI. She didn't suggest rubbing it on your junk or bathing with it. And she didn't recommend drinking water stored in jugs lined with radioactive material. I know, I know. It's hard to believe the public would make huge assumptions about scientific studies and misinterpret what a scientist said.

For example:

J.A. Bailey was the Dr. Oz of the day. He made a fortune promoting a product named Raditor, radioactive water, which he described as a cure for chronic illness and fatigue, even impotence. Unfortunately, some of his wealthy clients wound up dropping dead from radium poisoning.


By the early 1920s, the ghost girls started coming down with strange illnesses, including bleeding gums and loose teeth. One girl's jaw broke off in a doctor's hands while he was examining her. Her name was Amelia. She was 19 when she started working for U.S. Radium.

The U.S. Radium Corporation didn't do a thing to help the ghost girls. They bribed scores of doctors to go on record telling everyone how safe radium was. Some of them even wrote op-eds blaming their illness on syphilis, suggesting the ghost girls were simply promiscuous.

Corrupt doctors deflecting blame?


Eventually, the problem got too big to cover up. Other workers, including chemists, started dropping dead from radium poisoning. The Department of Labor inspected the Radium Corporation's factories.

They didn't do a thing.

Lawsuits started piling up. Young women were testifying against the U.S. Radium Corporation from their deathbeds. The company did everything they could to drag out the trials, hoping the ghost girls would die and the problem would go away. Alas, their corrupt doctors couldn't keep blaming all the deaths on syphilis. Finally, the inventor of Undark himself died from radiation poisoning.

That was pretty hard to attribute to promiscuity.

By then, it was too late.

Dozens of young women were dying in horrible ways. Their leg bones broke from walking. Their spines collapsed. The ones who survived wound up with lifelong health conditions. It's hard to know how many people died or ruined their health by using radium products. Given their wide availability, you could easily put the number in the thousands.

There's so many lessons here.

Corporations are happy to kill you. Some doctors are happy to help them cover it up. Politicians are happy to sit back and watch. You might get justice, but it's almost always too late to matter for you personally. In the case of U.S. Radium, the corporation continued painting dials by hand until 1947. The practice only gradually faded out, mainly for economic reasons. Radium continued to be used in products until the early 1970s, and strict laws didn't exist until the mid 2000s. People had to learn the hard way that radium was toxic.

It took about 50 years.

Today, there's no shortage of doctors willing to go on television or write an op-ed on behalf of an entire industry, telling us unsafe products are safe or that we shouldn't worry about this or that deadly disease. They do it even when piles of scientific evidence contradict them. It doesn't matter if they wind up partially disabled themselves. It doesn't matter how many trash cans they bust their heads on. They believe the money and attention are worth it. If they lived a hundred years ago, they'd be accusing the ghost girls of promiscuity and blaming their radium poisoning on an STD.

Those doctors were on the wrong side of history.

So are these doctors.

You might've come across the term social murder, a term introduced by Friedrich Engels in 1845 to describe how governments (and corporations) knowingly preside over unequal and dangerous living and work conditions that contribute directly to large numbers of deaths, especially among the working class. The term has resurfaced lately as a way to articulate the mix of exploitation and policy that produces huge amounts of death and suffering.

We're awash in it now.

Social murder is exactly what happened to the ghost girls. The U.S. Radium Corporation knew they were poisoning their employees. They foolishly thought they could get away with it.

Oh, wait a minute.

They did get away with it. Despite settling some lawsuits, the company continued its operations for decades. Nobody went to jail. Nobody went bankrupt, at least not for the right reasons.

One of the ghost girls survived for quite a while.

She lived to be 107.

Mae Keane knew something was wrong on her first shift. She didn't like lip pointing. After a few days, she was told to quit. And she did. Although she dealt with gum problems, migraines, and cancer, she avoided the fate of the girls who worked there for years.

A lot of us are like Keane.

We're getting ghostgirled. Our corporate and political leaders are lying to us about a great number of things, from dangerous diseases to the wars they fund with our money. They're putting us at risk. We know it. We're resisting. It's hard. There's no vindication around the corner for us. If you look at history, that's still years away, maybe decades.

The parallels between then and now burn a little. The way the ghost girls were treated lines up with how the media and the medical community in general (with a few exceptions) portrays Long Covid patients. When USDA or FDA officials assure us it's safe to drink pasteurized milk, when they actually don't know for sure, their behavior echoes the U.S. Radium Corporation telling 14-year-old girls it's totally fine to lick radium a hundred times a day.

We tend to assume evil people get what they deserve. Sometimes, they do. Far more often, they don't. And that's why this kind of behavior persists. The ones who put us in danger while lying to us hardly ever face consequences, except when they die from radiation poisoning, wind up partially disabled from the viruses they dismiss, or bang their heads on trashcans.

Even then, they don't admit they were wrong. I guess the shame would be too great. So they go the cognitive dissonance route. They invent excuses. They play their victim cards. They go right on lying to the public and doing extraordinary damage to public health.

History shows, it's disturbingly common.

You can't trust a system that would lie to teenage girls and then let them die from radium poisoning. That system lives on.

It has a long half-life.

It would be nice if more people knew the story of the ghost girls. This kind of thing happens a lot in western history, especially American history. Every decade has its ghost girls, whether it's the Tuskegee studies, the coverups around lead paint and asbestos, the coverups around tobacco, or the coverups around HIV. Instead of holding their leaders accountable, the public tends to indulge moral panics and far more elaborate, convoluted conspiracy theories. In the 1980s and 90s, they preferred to get worked up over nonexistent satanic cults. Now they're getting worked up over TikTok. Meanwhile, the companies we work for and the governments we pay to protect us usually end up doing the most harm to us. Even the doctors on television are often lying to us, simply because it's an easy way for them to make a paycheck.

These aren't fun conspiracy theories with lizard people and cannibals. It's just unfettered greed, doing what it does best. There are so many documented cases of widespread deception, it's a little hard to believe that so many people still trust their governments at all.

As we're witnessing now with the university protests, we see what happens when anything threatens the assets of the rich. All those warm, fuzzy words about democracy, knowledge, and free speech disappear. The boot comes down hard. The lies get more obvious.

We're all getting ghostgirled, every day. We're getting placed in danger, lied to by the very entities charged with our protection and care. We're berated, shamed, and vilified the minute we try to speak up.

We don't glow in the dark.


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