MARY BETH KEANE
SIMON & SHUSTER 306 pages €15.99
Typhoid Mary was a figure in the popular folklore of the USA during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. A carrier of typhoid, to which she was immune, she worked as a cook and infected considerable numbers of people in New York, some of whom died. This novel tells her story, fleshing out the few stark known biographical details about her.
Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown in 1869 and emigrated to the USA in the mid-1880s. From 1900 on she worked as a cook for wealthy families in New York. In 1907, when members of several families for whom she had worked contracted typhoid, investigator George Soper established that typhoid had broken out virtually everywhere she had worked since 1900, with several deaths.
Soper was convinced Mary was a carrier and eventually, despite her angry protestations, she was tested and Soper’s theory confirmed. Using obscure provisions in the Greater New York Charter, the authorities held her in isolation for three years on tiny North Brother Island, off Manhattan, where a special cottage, 10 foot by 12, was built for her. She was released in 1910, on condition that she did not work again as a cook. By then, also, other carriers like Mary had been identified, but not locked up.
However, in 1915, after 27 patients in Sloane Maternity Hospital contracted typhoid, two dying, Mary was discovered there working as a cook under an assumed name. Public sympathy was conspicuous by its absence. “ Before was carelessness; this time it’s criminal.” She was again removed to the island, where, incredibly, she was kept until her death in 1938.
She appears to have been the only typhoid carrier isolated in this fashion without much in the way of due process. That she was a woman, working class, difficult, even that she was Irish are among the reasons popularly advanced for her treatment.
Mary Beth Keane has woven a skilful and largely sympathetic novel around the bare facts of Mary’s life, without pulling any punches about her often difficult personality. She has also painted a vivid portrait of tenement life for New York’s poor at the time. The description of North Brother Island, all 20 acres of it, during Mary’s first confinement is particularly memorable.
The book concentrates on the period 1900 – 1915 with the final 23 years meriting only a few pages. But then what was there to say about those last lonely decades marooned on a tiny island with only a TB hospital, a small leper colony and the medical staff, who commuted, for company.