Ethyl’s hidden victims     

”I swore never to be silent … Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Eli Wiesel, 1986.

Joseph G. Leslie was dead.  Or at least, everyone in the family thought he was dead.

Only his wife Gertrude, and later, his children John and Ruth, knew of his hideous suffering after an industrial accident at the Standard Oil refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, in October, 1924.   But they had no idea what happened or why they had to put him away in a maximum security psychiatric hospital, at age 30, for the rest of his years.

When he actually died on April 15, 1964, the rest of the family members were shocked. Everyone thought he had been killed in the accident back in the ’20s.  And still, for decades after that, no one understood what had happened.     

Census records tell us that the four Leslies lived in a row house on Bond Street in Elizabeth, NJ,  in 1920. Joseph was listed as a chemical operator at the refinery, although later, on his death certificate, his occupation would be listed simply as “fireman.”  He was born in New Jersey to Lithuanian immigrants George and Martha, and raised in the Catholic faith.    

Tucked into the marshes behind Staten Island, the little town of Elizabeth grew up with the economic boom around New York harbor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Factories sprang up for corsets, submarines, sewing machines and electric cars. During WWI, Standard Oil company built an oil refinery in Bayway, a suburb of Elizabeth,  and in the summer of 1924, the refinery added a new unit and asked for volunteers.       

Attracted by higher pay, Leslie transferred over to the unit where they turned metallic lead into a clear thick fluid called tetra-ethyl lead (TEL), which was known by its trade name:  “Ethyl.”

A few grams of Ethyl blended into gasoline stopped engine knock which opened the way to more powerful engines with higher compression ratios.  It was an octane boosting additive, although the term did not exist in 1924.   Very little was known about fuel chemistry in 1924,  but they certainly knew that they were building an unsafe plant.  DuPont engineers, who had already lost half a dozen men to TEL, warned them vehemently that their refinery would be a killer. They were ignored.   

The workers were aware of the danger, apparently more than their bosses. They had heard stories about the mysterious Ethyl fluid that drove workers barking mad at a DuPont refinery in Deepwater, New Jersey. They had heard about the place they called the “butterfly factory.”  So the Standard workers held mock funerals and going away ceremonies for those who transferred to the Ethyl production unit to make what was being called “loony gas.” But these were for comic effect. No one dreamed that there would be real funerals and real departures in only a few weeks. No one believed that their bosses would let them be killed.

The first Gertrude knew of any problem was when the plant started up in September and Joseph began coming home feeling dizzy and disoriented.  Then in late October,  Gertrude and the other relatives of 36 other men in Leslie’s unit realized that something was terribly wrong. One by one, they were going crazy. Literally.

On Saturday, Oct 25, the first of them, Ernest Oelgert, died convulsing in a straitjacket,   his blood said to be “boiling” from an unknown gas.  The Union County medical examiner who saw Oelgert’s blue-black body was horrified. He contacted the district attorney, who launched an investigation.   

Sometime during the next week, Leslie was taken to the hospital.  Gertrude would have seen him pushed into a straight-jacket, straining from crippling seizures, and locked into a haze of vivid hallucinations.  When he smiled – or grimaced – she could see blue lines in the gums above his teeth.

If it were not for the strangely violent form of this insanity, doctors might have recognized  the blue lines as classical symptoms of lead poisoning – a well known “occupational disease.” But lead poisoning had never come on so quickly, or so violently, in its long and bitter  history. The doctors quickly transferred a steady stream of patients from the refinery to Reconstruction Hospital on 100th Street in New York,  where WWI veterans of gas attacks were treated.

By early November, 1924, Reconstruction Hospital had a ward full of men from the Standard refinery, strapped to their beds, straining from crippling seizures,  screaming out insane gibberish, and acting out bizarre hallucinations.  A variety of treatments were attempted, but nothing worked. A few of the men got better, gradually. Others who could not stop shuddering, screaming, sobbing, and shaking were moved out of the city to the Greystone psychiatric asylum in New Jersey, and later, to a special ward at Marlboro State Hospital in Monmouth, NJ.   Their official diagnoses was “syphilitic meningoencephalitis” — in other words, sexually transmitted syphilis. This was one of many lies the Leslie family had to endure.  The immediate cause of death was a spontaneous cerebral hemorrhage, according to Joseph Leslie’s death certificate. No autopsy was performed, and he was buried at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Cemetery in Woodbridge, NJ. Gertrude Leslie died eight years later, and is buried beside him. 

It wasn’t possible for Leslie’s children and grandchildren to put pieces of the puzzle together in 1964 or throughout the rest of the 20th century.  The only histories of the Ethyl disaster had been manufactured out of whole cloth by industry-paid historians.  Ethyl embodied the ideal of scientific progress, they said. Ethyl was a scientific triumph, they said. Why, it was like a “gift of God,” they said.   And somehow, professional historians found it possible to overlook even the most basic information about the disaster that had been published on the front pages of the nation’s largest daily newspapers.

With the victims safely out of sight and the historians sidetracked, if not bribed,  the Ethyl disaster was forgotten, even during the most vehement debates about banning leaded gasoline in the 1970s.  Then, in the 1990s, new documents about the origins of leaded gasoline surfaced by accident and a renewed environmental controversy over leaded gasoline emerged.    

This book is the story of that controversy.

It’s often said that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. But what makes a failure? Who decides?  All too often  a technology is accepted without any critical test of national interest or public health.  How much do we know about the price we pay for what we might call progress?  How do we evaluate the roads not taken? Who chooses one path over another?

And so the mystery of a forgotten Standard Oil chemical operator named Joseph Leslie, falsely labeled a “fireman,” falsely diagnosed with syphilis, reflects a larger historical mystery.

What killed Joseph Leslie and dozens of his fellow workers at refineries in New Jersey and Ohio?

How was the episode swept under the carpet of history?

Was it an accidental death?  Occupational mortality? Industrial murder?  Or something so well hidden that it has no term or art in the English language?     

Most of all, why were the well-known alternatives to Ethyl leaded gasoline — and among those, especially, ethyl alcohol — so easily dismissed?