Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
By: Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 2015
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: August 2, 2015
Mary Mallon was a well-kept, attractive Irishwoman who was not averse to working and that she did. Mary's skills at as a cook served her well and her "fourteen-hour days" would make her well off in comparison to many servants in 1906. Next stop for her was Mr. Charles Elliot Warren's summer residence on Oyster Bay. Mr. Stricker's Servants' Agency had found her a good position, but little did she know that this position would change her life forever. Mary began to cook, "preparing elaborate meals for the Warren family and less elaborate and less expensive meals for the servants." Unbeknownst to Mary, or anyone for that matter, her hands had been stirring up a recipe for disaster.
Little nine-year-old Margaret was the first to fall ill, but not to worry, children often came down with things. It soon became evident that this was no ordinary illness when "her fever persisted, spiking as high as 105 degrees." Delirium was certainly not something to be taken lightly nor was bloody diarrhea. The verdict of course, was that little Margaret, with her "telltale skin rash," had typhoid fever. The disease was contagious and five more people in the household contracted it. Certainly it was something in the water so the house soon became vacant and Mary Mallon would need to find yet another place of employment.
Mr. and Mrs. George Thompson, owner of the house in Oyster Bay, were alarmed at the prospect that they had a sick house. Something had to be done and they hired Dr. George A. Soper, "a sanitary engineer who was considered an expert epidemiologist." If anyone could solve the mystery of the typhoid-ridden household, it would be Soper. His tenacity and excellent detective skills soon sent him on the trail of Mary Mallon. By process of elimination the only source of the "Salmonelli typhi" was the thirty-seven-year-old cook. Mary was seemingly the epitome of good, robust health, but she was one of those lethal "healthy carriers." Would he be able to stop her before her hands infected and possibly killed someone else?
Most young readers have at least had a glimpse at Mary's life, most likely in a science text. There are many aspects of her life that they don't know about, especially how she was captured by the the New York City Department of Health. In addition to Dr. Soper, we also meet another doctor, the inimitable Dr. (Sara) Jospephine Baker, Dr. Joe. I found the journey to be a fascinating one, bringing to life a character I'd heard so much about, but knew practically nothing about. In the back of the book is a timeline of Mary's life (1845 to 1939), source notes, and an expansive bibliography. Many of these book and website resources would make excellent stepping stones for further research in many areas.
Quill says: This is a very well-written historical overview of "Typhoid Mary," Mary Mallon.