“Typhoid Mary” is one of those vague phrases that we hear from time to time but never really connect them with a real history or person. I’ve heard it as the name of a drink, or maybe a carnival ride, probably lots of other random things. And of course I knew there was a disease called Typhoid.
But until now I never really made the connection that there actually was a real, live Typhoid Mary–or rather, Mary Mallon–the first person in America to be a known healthy carrier of typhoid fever. She was an Irish immigrant in the early 1900s, employed as a cook for wealthy families in New York, and when those families started dying of the fever and she didn’t…the Department of Health arrested her and quarantined her on North Brother Island. She fought for years against the DOH, trying to understand the disease and why she was being held against her will.
Mary Beth Keane’s Fever tells this story from Mallon’s perspective. Marron’s narration shows perfectly just how confused and frustrated one would be in her situation–accused and abducted from her home, treated like a criminal, as if she were infecting people on purpose. Mary had never been sick a day in her life, and had actively tried to help treat her employers as they fell ill around her. However, the DOH felt she was an “omen of death,” and brought illness with her wherever she went, and for that she must be shuttered away from society. Keane did a fantastic job of bringing this mysterious woman to life, giving her a soul, and driving us to wish her free.