Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood

More Than a Small Town Girl

Nederland, Texas, sign
Nederland, Texas, sign

At first, Karen Silkwood was just a Texas teenager. She grew up in Nederland, Texas, an oil town, and had two sisters. Pretty and stubborn, she became interested in science and math. In high school, when other girls her age were more interested in dating, Silkwood pursued academics, passing over home economics for science classes. Her sister was quoted in the Biography channel's documentary, Karen Silkwood: A Life on the Line: "She wasn't the type to sit around and worry about brushing her hair. She was more interested in taking care of business."

She excelled in school: She was an A student and even got a scholarship to Lamar University to study medical technology.

But her plans to go into science took a detour when she met her first husband, Bill Meadows. She was 18 when she met him—her parents were fortuitously vacationing in Longview, Texas, as were his—visiting from California. Though she went on to college, they stayed in touch by mail.

Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood

After a year of courtship, Bill, now graduated and employed at the Mobile Pipeline Company, just like his father, returned to Longview. The two teenagers—both only 19—ran off together. Because they were so young, Meadows explained in the documentary Contaminated: The Karen Silkwood Story, nobody would marry them. "We were too young to get married in Louisiana."

They returned to Texas and had three children. They never did have a wedding, but were together long enough to establish a common-law marriage.

The honeymoon didn't last long. After seven years, Karen wanted to get a divorce, but Bill, who had started dating another woman, wanted the children. After a brief battle, Karen gave up the fight. In August 1972 she simply walked out. Writes Richard Raske in the book The Killing of Karen Silkwood: "No note, no phone number, no address."

Silkwood intermittently made the two-hour drive to see her children, but it was a tumultuous time for her, trying to rebuild her life. She wound up in Oklahoma City, and soon found out about the new Kerr-McGee plant opening nearby in Crescent City. A lightbulb went off, perhaps, that career in science could happen after all.

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