Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Medical Mystery Woman: Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

That night it snowed lightly. The next morning, March 19, 1907, Dr. Josephine Baker waited with three policeman at the corner, as instructed. Soon a horse-drawn ambulance pulled up. She stationed one police officer around the corner from the house and one in front of the house. The third officer accompanied her to the servants' back entrance. She figured all escape routes were blocked.

She approached the kitchen door and knocked. To her shock Mary Mallon was armed and ready, holding "a long kitchen fork in her hand like a rapier." She lunged at Baker. Caught off guard--it seems Dr. Soper had not warned her about carving forks--Baker recoiled, falling backwards into the officer.

The cook bolted through the kitchen. By the time Baker and the officer scrambled to their feet, wrote Baker, "Mary had disappeared."

Enlisting two more policemen, Dr. Baker searched the house for two more hours. But as she started out the front door, one of the policemen pointed to one of several ashcans piled beneath the stoop. A tiny fold of blue calico was stuck in the door. The exact calico of the dress Mary was wearing.

When people started falling ill of typhoid fever at the Long Island summer residence rented by the wealthy Warren family, the progressive public health authorities of New York had rolled into action. Water, block ice, milk, fruits and vegetables supplied to the house were tested for typhoid bacilli and were negative. The water tanks and pipes were tested. Even the cesspool and servant privies show no signs of contamination. Mr. Warren, banker to the Vanderbilts, was adamant that the cause of his little daughter's near brush with death be found. But the house turned up negative to all their tests, and the servants remained healthy. The case seemed closed.

But was it? The wealthy owner of the house fretted that her house was now a pariah. So the frustrated officials finally called in an expert, Dr. George Soper, a proven disease detective. Soper repeated all the testing of the house and the suppliers of ice and food. Finding no sources of infection, he became more and more convinced that the disease had to been brought in from outside the house. He re-interviewed the Warrens and asked about servants who had left or were added during the summer. Not one servant.


The cook who had been fired. The new cook came with good recommendations. She had worked for some of the finest families. She began work on August 4. Her name was Mary Mallon.

The Warren's nine-year-old Margaret had become ill a few days after eating Mary's delicious hand-churned ice cream prepared with the finest fresh peaches from local farmers. Warren Soper believed he had found the vector of the disease. But he needed proof, specimens collected from the apparently strong and healthy cook who denied ever having typhoid. The powers of the New York Public Health Authority provided for the arrest of Mary Mallon for definitive testing. Mary was quarantined at the Brothers Island sanitarium and forced to submit samples. And meanwhile Soper's investigation of Mary's former employers found that cases of typhoid had indeed turned up in a succession of the homes where Mary had worked as cook.

Soper had incontrovertible evidence that Mary Mallon was that rare specimen herself, a healthy typhoid carrier, capable of introducing the bacteria through her contact with food in the visibly spotless kitchens she ran with such skill. It did not help that she was immigrant Irish, a minority looked down upon as dirty and shiftless by some native New Yorkers.

Mary became the object of a media frenzy. Dubbed "Typhoid Mary," the newspapers pictured her as the villain of an intriguing medical detective story, complete with a thrilling capture of the fugitive cook. Mary, however, saw herself as the innocent victim of an illegal detention by the authorities, seized for medical experimentation, and an immigrant citizen held without due process.  She filed suit against the government which had determined that she must be detained indefinitely on an island in the harbor. "I have been a peep show for everybody," she lamented.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's riveting history mystery, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) reads like a page-turning novel, but it is indeed a well-documented historical account of an event in which the past is indeed prelude, with contemporary ramifications for the borderline between civil law and civil rights exemplified currently by distrust of science and government in the controversy over enforced vaccinations.

Mary, clearly a courageous and intelligent, albeit scientifically uneducated woman, is portrayed empathetically as a strong advocate for her rights, but as Bartelletti's text and meticulous timeline shows, Mary was responsible for twenty cases of typhoid and one death in her various workplaces. Then, when granted limited freedom in 1910 that required she appear monthly to her parole officer and refrain from working as a cook, Mary Mallon eventually jumped parole and in 1914 was the cause of an multiple-case outbreak of typhoid among mothers and newborns at a maternity hospital where she again worked as cook. For that deliberate act, Typhoid Mary, whose name remains a metaphor for a public menace to this day, was again incarcerated on an island in the harbor where she died in 1938.

American Library Association's Siebert Award-winning author Bartoletti has created a finely crafted text to this well designed book with impressive scholarly backmatter--a period photo and graphics gallery, an extensive notes section of citations to sources, a timeline of Mary Mallon's life, an impressive bibliography and an index--that provides a thorough look for young scholars at the known facts on Typhoid Mary and the public health movement of the period. Rave starred reviews all around for the outstanding Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America suggest that this is one to be watched when non-fiction awards for this year are announced for young adult readers.

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