Was ‘Typhoid Mary’ a Scapegoat?

If anybody was in dire need of a good PR rep, it was Mary Mallon.

She was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook for affluent New York families in the early 1900s and the first person identified in America as an “asymptomatic” typhoid carrier.

After Mallon was forcibly quarantined for spreading the disease (although she would characterize her isolation as wrongful imprisonment), she became known the world over as Typhoid Mary.

Never mind that three men who also handled food for a living were subsequently found to be carriers. They infected far more people than Mary ever did.

But you never hear about Typhoid Tom, Typhoid Dick and Typhoid Harry.

Mallon (who spent the last 23 years of her life in quarantine) could have used someone like Mary Beth Keane as a PR/image consultant. Keane, a New York author, combined painstaking research and a fertile imagination to tell the story, for the first time, from Mallon’s point of view.

The fact-based novel, Fever, arrived in bookstores Tuesday.

Although Keane doesn’t whitewash Mallon’s guilt (the woman chose to work as a cook even after she learned she was infecting people), the author does paint a more sympathetic portrait than ever before.

We chatted with Keane last week about Typhoid Mary’s fascinating story, which still seems relevant in light of modern mystery outbreaks.

Q. What sparked your interest in the story of Mary Mallon?

A. My husband was watching a documentary about her and I got interested enough to read about her. I had always heard the epithet Typhoid Mary. I think a lot of people have heard the phrase without knowing the woman behind it. And a lot of what I read about Mary was written by people who couldn’t possibly have understood her point of view: doctors, lawyers, the educated elite.

But I felt like I understood her right away.

Q. But isn’t it true that she left no diaries or letters, that you had nothing to work with when it came to finding her voice?

A. There’s one letter. It’s part of her habeas corpus file. It’s the only thing I found in her voice, written in her hand. You can feel her frustration and how angry she was about being held.

But this, for the fiction writer, made it more appealing. I could get a sense of her personality without having to stick to the script. I could invent her completely, while feeling that I was getting it right.

Besides, I think the fiction writer’s job is to make the world seem vivid and true. I tried to be as accurate as possible about the important things, but at some point I had to write a story.

Q. Was she a villain or a victim?

A. I think she was both. Imagine how you might react in her situation: You’ve been accused of being a carrier of this disease, even though you’re not sick, even though you have no symptoms. The question is: Did Mary know she was passing typhoid on to others or did she truly believe she was innocent?

I think she was right when she claimed she was targeted for reasons that had nothing to do with the case. But I also think she was wrong when, after being released on the condition that she not work as a cook again, she went back.

Q. Do you think this book, even though it takes place in the early 1900s, is timely today?

A. Whenever there’s an issue where we have to decide which is more important — the public health or an individual’s rights — her story is very timely. Today, for example, we have debates about whether kids should be vaccinated in school and if it should be mandatory.

I was reading about Robert Daniels. He was a Russian immigrant held in Arizona against his will for months because he was found to have a resistant strain of tuberculosis and he walked into a store without a mask on. This was 2007. And they held him in a room without TV, phone, computer or shower.

This was in the interest of the public health. And while I cringe at the idea of that person riding a city bus, at the same time, it’s not his fault. We can’t criminalize the ill just because they’re ill. There has to be another option, a third solution. I think Mary’s story will always resonate because of these things.


“Fever” by Mary Beth Keane; Scribner (320 pages, $26)


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