In 1922, one of Grace’s colleagues, Mollie Maggia, had to quit the studio because she was sick. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. Her trouble had started with an aching tooth: Her dentist pulled it, but then the next tooth started hurting and also had to be extracted. In the place of the missing teeth, agonizing ulcers sprouted as dark flowers, blooming red and yellow with blood and pus. They seeped constantly and made her breath foul. Then she suffered aching pains in her limbs that were so agonizing they eventually left her unable to walk. The doctor thought it was rheumatism; he sent her home with aspirin.
By May 1922, Mollie was desperate. At that point, she had lost most of her teeth and the mysterious infection had spread: Her entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even some of the bones of her ears were said to be “one large abscess.” But worse was to come. When her dentist prodded delicately at her jawbone in her mouth, to his horror and shock, it broke against his fingers. He removed it, “not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.” Only days later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way.
Mollie was literally falling apart. And she wasn’t the only one; by now, Grace Fryer, too, was having trouble with her jaw and suffering pains in her feet, and so were the other radium girls.
It was literally boring holes inside them while they were alive.
On September 12, 1922, the strange 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. At 5 p.m. that day, her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that her nurse could not staunch it. She died at the age of 24. With her doctors flummoxed as to the cause of death, her death certificate, erroneously, said she’d died of syphilis, something her former company would later use against her.
As if by clockwork, one by one, Mollie’s former colleagues soon followed her to the grave.