It was the job of their dreams. And it was killing them.
“These Shining Lives” tells the story of the women at the fictional Radium Dial Factory outside Chicago from the 1920s to the early ’30s. The light in the title carries multiple meanings. These factory women painted luminous numbers on the faces of clocks and watches. They tapered their brushes by licking them to a fine point. In doing as they were instructed, they ingested fatal amounts of radium, a carcinogen that produced bone cancer.
The Duke City Repertory Theatre is staging Melanie Marnich’s play opening Thursday, May 15, playing through May 25. The play is based on a true story.
“The premise that these women were being slowly poisoned by this big company and decided to fight back was very interesting to me,” said Amelia Ampuero, Duke City’s artistic director. Ampuero plays the defiant Catherine, who doubles as both the play’s narrator and lead character.
“These Shining Lives” opens with the married mother of two headed to her job interview. When she lands it, she meets Pearl, Charlotte and Frances, who become her friends as well as co-workers.
“They talk about making 8 cents a watch and $8 a day and how that’s such a huge thing,” Ampuero said.
After a few years, the women notice their hands glow in the dark. When they begin to develop jaw infections and bone pain, Catherine summons the courage to stand up to the factory and show that it knowingly poisoned them.
“It’s staggering to see how little their lives meant,” Ampuero said. “At the very least, they had an idea this wasn’t the best thing for these women to ingest. They never referred to them as women or ladies; they’re always ‘girls.’”
This was unskilled labor, and the factory needed nimble fingers to produce such detailed work.
“The company tried to malign them in the eyes of the public,” Ampuero said. “They said, ‘These women don’t have radium poisoning, they have syphilis.’”
The women filed a lawsuit with an attorney who agreed to take the case for free. Catherine was the lead plaintiff.
“She says, ‘It’s better than the alternative,’” Ampuero said. “They ask her, ‘What’s the alternative?’ and she says ‘Being invisible.’”
Most of the women suffered from some kind of bone cancer, Ampuero said. When they went to the dentist with tooth pain, the extraction produced pieces of jawbone with the teeth.
The quartet won their case seven times as the company filed repeated appeals, ending with the Supreme Court. Catherine won $5,000. Depending on the source, she died either shortly before or after the win.