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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Terrible Typhoid Mary Tells Fascinating, True Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Most of us have probably heard of Typhoid Mary, but what do we really know about the woman behind the headline?  Not much, probably.  In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti seeks to remedy that by telling the true story of Mary Mallon, a healthy woman with a nasty habit of passing typhoid to those she served.  Using newspaper accounts, historical photographs, and personal letters, Bartoletti shares the relatively little that is known about Mallon, weaving a fascinating tale of disease, fear, and paranoia in turn-of-the-century America.  

Born in Ireland in 1869, Mallon immigrated to The United States as a young teenager.  She became a cook, who worked for wealthy families in New York.  Hardworking and dependable, she was a trusted member of those households.  It was only when members of all the families for whom she worked became sick with typhoid (at least one of whom died) that Mallon came under suspicion.  George Soper, a 36-year-old sanitation engineer who investigated the cook, accused her of carrying the deadly disease.  He urged her to stop cooking for others and to give herself over for scientific study.  Rarely ill, Mallon found the suggestion that she was making others sick utterly ludicrous; that anyone could be a "healthy" carrier of typhoid seemed beyond ridiculous.  And yet, that's exactly what she was.  Soper's aggressive quest to stop Mallon eventually led to her arrest, quarantine, and many years of exile on isolated North Brother Island.   

The story of Mary Mallon is as sad as it is compelling.  Bartoletti's sympathetic but balanced telling brings the time period to life, showing the ignorance and fear that prevailed when it came to deadly, communicable diseases.  How Mallon got caught up in the murky ethics of it all is also brought to light.  Right or wrong, what happened to the cook makes for engrossing reading.  Although the biography is written for children, Terrible Typhoid Mary is not for the squeamish.  It's got plenty of blood and guts type detail that will turn delicate stomachs.  Nevertheless, it's an engrossing account, one that will definitely keep the curious riveted to its pages.  

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for vague references to sex, and blood-and-guts descriptions

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


  1. Her story is a sad one. To forever be known as Typhoid Mary... I feel bad for her. This sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to see if my library has a copy. :)

  2. This is for kids? Whoa! I never really new this story. I might need to read it.

  3. This sounds so interesting. I love historical fiction. Add that to my strange interest in vaccines and diseases... and I must get this!

  4. Deadly, by Chibbaro is another fiction book on the subject. But I haven't read it. This one is on my list. Great thoughts.


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