A New Album of Goth-Folk Songs Inspired by the Life of Marie Curie

After sev­er­al years of writ­ing and per­form­ing songs influ­enced by such sources as authors Edward Gorey and Ray­mond Chan­dler, film­mak­er Tim Bur­ton, and mur­der bal­lads in the Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tion, Ellia Bisker and Jef­frey Mor­ris, known col­lec­tive­ly as Charm­ing Dis­as­ter, began cast­ing around for a sin­gle, exist­ing nar­ra­tive that could sus­tain an album’s worth of orig­i­nal tunes.

An encounter with Lau­ren Red­nis­s’s graph­ic nov­el Radioac­tive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fall­out spurred them to look more deeply at the Nobel Prize-win­ning sci­en­tist and her pio­neer­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

The result is Our Lady of Radi­um, a nine song explo­ration of Curie’s life and work.

The crowd­fund­ed album, record­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, is so exhaus­tive­ly researched that the accom­pa­ny­ing illus­trat­ed book­let includes a bib­li­og­ra­phy with titles rang­ing from David I. Harvie’s tech­ni­cal­ly dense Dead­ly Sun­shine: The His­to­ry and Fatal Lega­cy of Radi­um to Deb­o­rah Blum’s The Poi­son­er’s Hand­book, described by The New York Observ­er as “a vicious, page-turn­ing sto­ry that reads more like Ray­mond Chan­dler than Madame Curie.”

A chap­ter in the The Poi­son­er’s Hand­book intro­duced Bisker and Mor­ris to the Radi­um Girls, young work­ers whose pro­longed expo­sure to radi­um-based paint in ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry clock fac­to­ries had hor­rif­ic con­se­quences.

In La Porte v. Unit­ed States Radi­um Cor­po­ra­tion (1935) pros­e­cu­tors detailed the con­di­tions under which the lumi­nous dials of inex­pen­sive watch faces were pro­duced:

Each girl pro­cured a tray con­tain­ing twen­ty-four watch dials and the mate­r­i­al to be used to paint the numer­als upon them so that they would appear lumi­nous. The mate­r­i­al was a pow­der, of about the con­sis­ten­cy of cos­met­ic pow­der, and con­sist­ed of phos­pho­res­cent zinc sul­phide mixed with radi­um sulphate…The pow­der was poured from the vial into a small porce­lain cru­cible, about the size of a thim­ble. A quan­ti­ty of gum ara­bic, as an adhe­sive, and a thin­ner of water were then added, and this was stirred with a small glass rod until a paint­like sub­stance result­ed. In the course of a work­ing week each girl paint­ed the dials con­tained on twen­ty-two to forty-four such trays, depend­ing upon the speed with which she worked, and used a vial of pow­der for each tray. When the paint-like sub­stance was pro­duced a girl would employ it in paint­ing the fig­ures on a watch dial. There were four­teen numer­als, the fig­ure six being omit­ted. In the paint­ing each girl used a very fine brush of camel’s hair con­tain­ing about thir­ty hairs. In order to obtain the fine lines which the work required, a girl would place the bris­tles in her mouth, and by the action of her tongue and lips bring the bris­tles to a fine point. The brush was then dipped into the paint, the fig­ures paint­ed upon the dial until more paint was required or until the paint on the brush dried and hard­ened, when the brush was dipped into a small cru­cible of water. This water remained in the cru­cible with­out change for a day or per­haps two days. The brush would then be repoint­ed in the mouth and dipped into the paint or even repoint­ed in such man­ner after being dipped into the paint itself, in a con­tin­u­ous process.

The band found them­selves haunt­ed by the Radi­um Girls’ sto­ry:

Part­ly it’s that it seemed like a real­ly good job — it was clean work, it was less phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing and paid bet­ter than fac­to­ry or mill jobs, the work­ing envi­ron­ment was nice — and the work­ers were all young women. They were excit­ed about this sweet gig, and then it betrayed them, poi­son­ing them and cut­ting their lives short in a hor­ri­ble way. 

There were all these details we learned that we could­n’t stop think­ing about. Like the fact that radi­um gets tak­en up by bone, which then starts to dis­in­te­grate because radi­um isn’t as hard as cal­ci­um. The Radi­um Girls’ jaw bones were crum­bling away, because they (were instruct­ed) to use their lips to point the brush­es when paint­ing watch faces with radi­um-based paint. 

The radi­um they absorbed was irra­di­at­ing them from inside, from with­in their own bones. 

Radi­um decays into radon, and it was even­tu­al­ly dis­cov­ered that the radi­um girls were exhal­ing radon gas. They could expose a pho­to­graph­ic plate by breath­ing on it. Those images—the bones and the breath—stuck with us in par­tic­u­lar.

Fel­low musi­cian, Omer Gal, of the “the­atri­cal freak folk musi­cal menagerie” Cook­ie Tongue, height­ens the sense of dread in his chill­ing stop-motion ani­ma­tion for Our Lady of Radi­um’s first music video, above. There’s no ques­tion that a trag­ic fate awaits the crum­bling, uncom­pre­hend­ing lit­tle work­er.

Before their phys­i­cal symp­toms start­ed to man­i­fest, the Radi­um Girls believed what they had been told — that the radi­um-based paint they used on the time­pieces’ faces and hands posed no threat to their well being.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem, the paint’s glow-in-the-dark prop­er­ties proved irre­sistible to high-spir­it­ed teens, as the niece of Mar­garet “Peg” Looney — 17 when she start­ed work at the Illi­nois Radi­um Dial Com­pa­ny (now a Super­fund Site) — recount­ed to NPR:

I can remem­ber my fam­i­ly talk­ing about my aunt bring­ing home the lit­tle vials (of radi­um paint.) They would go into their bed­room with the lights off and paint their fin­ger­nails, their eye­lids, their lips and then they’d laugh at each oth­er because they glowed in the dark.

Looney died at 24, hav­ing suf­fered from ane­mia, debil­i­tat­ing hip pain, and the loss of teeth and bits of her jaw. Although her fam­i­ly har­bored sus­pi­cions as to the cause of her bewil­der­ing decline, no attor­ney would take their case. They lat­er learned that the Illi­nois Radi­um Dial Com­pa­ny had arranged for med­ical tests to be per­formed on work­ers, with­out truth­ful­ly advis­ing them of the results.

Even­tu­al­ly, the mount­ing death toll made the con­nec­tion between work­ers’ health and the work­place impos­si­ble to ignore. Law­suits such as La Porte v. Unit­ed States Radi­um Cor­po­ra­tion led to improved indus­tri­al safe­ty reg­u­la­tions and oth­er labor reforms.

Too late, Charm­ing Dis­as­ter notes, for the Radi­um Girls them­selves:

(Our song) Radi­um Girls is ded­i­cat­ed to the young women who were unwit­ting­ly poi­soned by their work and who were ignored and maligned in seek­ing jus­tice. Their plight led to laws and safe­guards that even­tu­al­ly became the occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty pro­tec­tions we have today. Of course that is still a bat­tle that’s being fought, but it start­ed with them. We want­ed to pay trib­ute to these young women, hon­or their mem­o­ry, and give them a voice.  

Pre­order Charm­ing Disaster’s Our Lady of Radi­um here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioac­tive 100+ Years Lat­er

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Work of Marie Curie, the First Female Nobel Lau­re­ate

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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