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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2015. $24.50 ages 10 and up

"But Mary was frightened. At last she knew what the health department wanted. They wanted to perform surgery on her. They wanted her gallbladder. Later, Mary would reveal her fear that the health department wanted her out of the way and that they were trying to murder her. Mary's fear wasn't baseless."

I am always interested to see trends in publishing. Who knew that would mean two exceptional books about Typhoid Mary in one year? Reading the two in such close proximity made for some interesting connections to Mary's sad life. Knowing almost nothing about her, I had always thought of her as someone who cared little for the value of human life. Having shared both versions of her story, I must admit I now see her in a very different light.

Given the time and her circumstance, she is sure to have heard stories from Irish history of grave robbers who sold bodies to the medical community for purposes of research and dissection. The fact that she was fearful of that medical community can easily be understood. In contrast to Fatal Fever, Susan Bartoletti focuses her book on Mary herself and helps readers understand what her world was like.

The book begins with the story of a wealthy woman's search for a cook. Good ones were not easy to find and keep. Her requirements were demanding:

"Mrs. Warren needed a cook who wouldn't mind the lack of freedom and the fourteen-hour days. She needed someone available morning, noon, and night. Someone who wore a white servant's cap and apron, a plain dress, and thick-soled shoes. Someone who never left the house without permission. Some cooks shared rooms with other servants. Others made themselves comfortable in the attic or the cellar. A good servant wasn't uppity. She knew her place. If the servant was smarter than her employer, she never showed it. She was humble. She ate in the kitchen, using the plain crockery and ironware, not the good family china and silver."

We learn much about Mary before we meet George Soper and discover how he tracked her, the first known healthy carrier of typhoid fever. It was argued that she infected close to 50 people in her lifetime. Once found, she was confined to hospitals for most of the rest of her life - against her will and while other healthy carriers were allowed their freedom. Mary didn't understand how she could be making people sick when she was not sick herself: she railed against any attempts made to convince her to have the surgery that would provide the answers that were needed.

Using photos, official documents, firsthand accounts of her life, a letter that Mary herself wrote, newspaper articles and journal entries, Ms. Bartoletti weaves a story of what the early twentieth century was like for an Irish immigrant wanting a better life. She discusses the medical misconceptions, the at-all-cost need for advancement in science and medicine, and the half-truths printed that made Mary a scapegoat. The notoriety lasted until her dying day.

"For the last time, Mary Mallon left North Border Island. Her casket was ferried across the East River and taken to St. Luke's Roman Catholic Church in the Bronx, where her funeral mass was held.  Nine mourners attended the funeral. Reporters flocked to the church."

A comprehensive afterword, a photo album, a timeline of events in Mary's life, an extensive source list, a bibliography, acknowledgements and an index are added in back matter.

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