Typhoid Mary - Kevin Connolly


Typhoid Mary was broadcast on the BBC From Our Own Correspondent April 2020, this was at the height of the global pandemic Corovid 19 - 

The author Kevin Connolly has worked in Russia, The United States, Europe and The Middle East, among other places. This is his first contribtuion to KerinsNaumov International Translation Competiton. 

Typhoid Mary

When I was young my mind was filled with a jumbled gallery of characters known to me only by their names.

They were installed by an equally colourful gallery of uncles drawn from the coalfields of the South Wales Valleys and the tight little streets of the Lanes of Cork.

The characters were culled from the newspaper headlines of the 1920s and the movies from around the time of the death of silent cinema.

Practise the piano and you were ‘Paderooski’ after the Polish concert pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski, brush your hair and you became ‘Jackie Coogan’ after the winsome child star who appeared with Charlie Chaplin….but above all sit down to tea without washing your hands and you were ‘Typhoid Mary.’

When we were children we assumed she was a cartoon character – maybe a girlfriend for Desperate Dan – but not only was Typhoid Mary real, she is a grim reminder of the one of the few previous times in history when epidemiology was headline news.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1869 but left Ireland as a teenager to seek a new life in the New World.

By 1900 Mary was a cook working in the houses of wealthy families in and around New York City. Her signature dish was said to be peach ice cream.

Somewhere between one and two million Americans worked in domestic service back then and to be a cook was to be Queen of the Castle….You managed the kitchen staff, bought in supplies and to prove your status you were to your employers ‘Miss Mallon’, and not merely ‘Mallon’.

Mary worked in the ritzier parts of Manhattan but things were not going as well as they seemed.

Between 1900 and 1907 she cooked in the homes of seven families – the last one on Park Avenue – and in every one of them people fell sick or died. Each time Mary Mallon slipped away and found work elsewhere.

Her wealthy employers in places like Oyster Bay and Fifth Avenue were shocked…Typhoid was a killer but surely it belonged to another world, the New York of the teeming slums of Five Points, Prospect Hill and Hell’s Kitchen.

One of the families hired a researcher called George Soper and the diligent Mr Soper proved to be Mary’s nemesis…even though when he first tracked her down she chased him out of her kitchen with a carving fork.
And that’s part of the problem with Mary.

You might admire her feisty way with the kitchen cutlery but Mr Soper had correctly identified her as an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. She would never get the disease herself and would never stop giving it to other people.

Not surprisingly Mary Mallon found this impossible to understand or believe but the New York authorities were desperate and in 1907 Mary was exiled to the isolation facility – you wouldn’t call it a hospital – on North Brother Island in the river outside New York.

She was held – essentially – in solitary confinement and here again the Mary Mallon we can admire began to emerge.

She planned legal action and told her lawyer that it was unjust to treat her as an outcast when she had done nothing wrong…
‘It seems incredible’ she said , ‘That in a Christian community a defenceless woman can be treated in this manner.’

Mary won her freedom in return for a promise that she wouldn’t work as a cook again….it’s possible that her legal action was funded by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who was once said to have demanded that every story in his papers should cause the reader to rise from his seat with a cry of ‘Good God!’.

You could see why Mary’s story attracted him but Hearst’s support was a double-edged sword….his journalists may have coined the title Typhoid Mary which stuck for the rest of her life.

Before long the Mary that’s impossible to admire resurfaced.

She tried working in the lowlier job of laundry maid but eventually returned to cooking under a string of assumed names….she even, unforgivably, takes a job in the kitchens of a hospital

The now familiar trail of death and sickness pursued her – some researchers think she may have killed as many as 50 people and when they tracked her down again in 1915 there was no newspaper campaign and no sympathy.

Mary was sent back into isolation and lived in confinement for 23 years until her death in 1938…her legacy perhaps is a lesson about following medical advice even when you don’t really understand it.

You may have wondered why I mentioned that Mary’s signature dish was peach ice cream by the way….and the reason is simple enough. The typhoid virus can live in cold food but is destroyed by cooking….if Mary Mallon had taken a special pride in her apple pie perhaps we’d never have heard of Typhoid Mary.

Kevin Connolly © 2020 BBC