Monday, August 24, 2015

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's "Terrible Typhoid Mary"

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the award-winning author of several books for young readers, including Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845–1850, winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal.

Bartoletti applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, and reported the following:
Which scene would I find on page 99?

Would it be the scene where George Soper (the epidemiologist) has successfully tracked Mary to the Park Avenue kitchen for the first time? Where Soper forgets the old adage that the cook rules the kitchen? Where he asks for specimens of a very personal nature? Where he accuses Mary of unclean habits? ? Where he neglects to see the carving knife within the indignant cook’s reach? Where Mary lunges at him with the carving knife?

Or would it be the scene where Dr. S. Josephine Baker is sent to accomplish what Soper could not? No one has warned Baker that Mary might be resistant. No one warned her about Mary’s propensity with kitchen utensils.

I wondered if I’d find the scene where Mary bolts outside, scales a fence, and with the help of other household servants, hides in an outdoor closet? When a policeman spies a bit of blue calico sticking out from the door, he opens the door, and Mary emerges, fighting and swearing for all she’s worth. It takes four policemen to strong-arm Mary into the waiting ambulance that whisks her, kicking and screaming, to the hospital.

Page 99 occurs about 20 pages after the book’s midpoint. It’s 1907 and Mary has been remanded into the custody of the New York Board of Health. She’s sent to North Brother Island, a small island for quarantined patients in the middle of New York City’s East River. Mary’s 38th birthday comes and goes. So do Christmas and New Year’s. Mary lives alone in the tiny cottage that sits on the East River bank, with only a small dog for company.

“A keeper, three times a day, brings food to her door and then flees as if from a pestilence,” writes a North American reporter. A New York Call reporter states, “They do not dread leprosy, smallpox, scarlet fever, and a score of other diseases. … But they avoided the disseminator of typhoid germs and left her entirely to herself.”

It is a lonely, dismal existence. Or so newspapers would have us believe. Using a journalistic style known as “yellow journalism,” they fear-mongered the public. They characterized Mary as half-human, referring to her as a “human typhoid germ,” a “human culture tube,” and a “human fever factory.” Later newspapers would demonize her as a skull-simmering witch.

Such reporting dehumanized Mary. (It’s always easier to exploit and victimize and treat someone cruelly after you’ve convinced yourself that the victim isn’t human. It removes the abuser’s guilt and assuages his conscience.)

Soper is guilty of dehumanizing Mary, too. In order to convince the NYC Board of Health to arrest her, he calls her “a living culture tube” and “a chronic typhoid germ producer.”

In his later writings, Soper also transforms Mary into a stock character in a real-life cautionary morality tale. Mary Mallon becomes a fallen woman who deserves her treatment and punishment because she is “dirty” (with all those germs inside her), because she has violated the “true nature” of womanhood and the social mores of the time, and because she refused the help offered by a man. In fact, Soper said, Mary “walk[ed] more like a man than a woman.”

But on page 99, we begin to see a different, human Mary who belies the depictions offered by Soper and the newspapers. We see a Mary who makes life-long friends with others on the island. One such friend was a nurse, Adelaide Fane Offspring, with whom Mary could often be seen walking and talking. This friendship continued throughout the course of Mary’s life.

We see a Mary who longed for human contact and who desired to help others.

“Often I help nurse the other patients on the island and often the children will have no one else take care of them when they are very sick,” Mary later recounted to a reporter. Soon we will also see a Mary who forgave the man who betrayed her to George Soper. At the end of her life, we will see a woman who had close friends who loved her, and about whom she cared deeply, who cared for the less fortunate, and who was a woman of faith.

Mary was not without blame for her fate. But she was not the half-human monster that George Soper and reporters had conjured – and this is the story that emerges on page 99.
Visit Susan Campbell Bartoletti's website.

My Book, The Movie: Terrible Typhoid Mary.

--Marshal Zeringue