Authors: Anthony Bourdain
The True Story
What May or May Not Have Been the Greatest Hoax
Ever Played on the Citizens of Gotham
‘God sends us meat –
but the devil sends us cooks.’
– Julius Chambers from
The Book of New York
quoting an unnamed ‘grouchy Englishman’
Historically, to be a cook, to prepare food for others, was always to identify oneself with the degraded and the debauched. As far back as ancient Rome, and as recently as pre-Civil War America, cooks were slaves. Untrustworthy, unpleasant, and more often than not, unhealthy, cooks in early twentieth-century Europe and America worked in hot, unventilated spaces for long hours. They were underpaid, underfed, and underappreciated – their cruel masters despotic, megalomaniacal tyrants, parsimonious desk-jockeys, and brutish warders. Cooks tended – as they still do – to drink. And they died, usually at a young age, with their livers bloated by booze, their feet flattened, hands gnarled, faces ravaged, their lungs coated with the sediment of years of inhaling smoke, airborne grease, and bad air. Their brains were fried by the heat and the pressure and the difficulty of suppressing mammoth surges of rage and frustration, their nervous systems frazzled by mood swings which peaked and crashed with each incoming rush of business. They sweated and toiled in obscurity, cursed their customers, one another, their underlings, and their evil overlords. They cursed the world outside their kitchen doors for making them work like animals, for making them bend always to another’s will. For existing.
And yet they were almost always proud. Cooks knew then, as they know now, that the people ‘out there,’ – the ones who lived outside those swinging kitchen doors, the ones who owned homes, who went out to dinner or to the theater on weekend nights, the ones who had holidays off and who saw their loved ones for more than a few fleeting hours a week, were different. Civilians, as all cooks know, take their pleasures in different ways and, just as significantly, at different times. The rules they live by are different too. And just as cooks are not understood, they don’t, can’t, and never have understood ‘them’. The world of the nine-to-five worker, the property owner, the regular restaurant goer, the boss, is completely and maddeningly incomprehensible to those who’ve spent most of their lives bent over a hot range. As author Michael Ruhlman points out, cooks don’t understand how others can live the way they live out there, in all that sloppy, unregimented luxury. It’s messy. It’s wasteful. It’s scary and disorganized.
, things just don’t seem to
the way they should.
For a cook, the well-ordered safety and certainty of the kitchen, however hot, cramped, and occasionally crazed, is a place of absolutes. The chef is the Absolute Leader. Food is always served on time. Cold food is served cold. Hot food is served hot. No one is late. No one calls in sick.
Let me repeat that:
calls in sick.
The world outside the kitchen doors, to the mind of the cook, is imperfect – a constant source of disappointment, a place of thousands of tiny betrayals which threatens at all times to intrude into their own territory. Cooks are territorial creatures. No Serbian militia or feral dog defends its terrain more fiercely, and seemingly unreasonably, than a cook protects his station.
, the general sense of things being the way they should be – of being ready for anything – extends only to the exit. Outside, it’s a strange and terrible place where things happen and don’t happen in unpredictable and unforeseeable ways.
Mary Mallon, the woman who came (to her everlasting displeasure) to be known as Typhoid Mary, was a cook. Much has been written about Ms. Mallon over the years. There have been sensational newspaper accounts, plays, works of fiction, the predictable feminist reevaluations depicting her as the sad victim of an unfeeling, racist, sexist society bent on bringing a good woman down – her persecution and incarceration the result of some gender-insensitive Neanderthals looking for a quick fix to an embarrassing public health problem. And there is an element of truth in almost all these characterizations. She
a woman. She
poor. None of these, listed on a resume in 1906, was going to put you on the fast track to the White House or a corporate boardroom or even a box seat at the opera.
Because, first and foremost, Mary Mallon was a cook. And her story, first and foremost, is the story of a cook. While that may not explain everything about some of the troubling aspects of her life, it explains a hell of a lot. Her tale has not yet, to my knowledge, been told from that point of view.
Little historical record of Mary’s life can be depended on – and there are few recorded words or utterances from her own mouth. The accounts of the time, from others involved, directly or indirectly, with her case, are all too often self-serving, incomplete, sensationalistic, or plain wrong. Few, if any, take into account the worldview of the career cook.
There is one excellent, scrupulously researched, comprehensive and insightful telling of Mary’s story: Judith Walzer Leavitt’s
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health,
an absolutely indispensable volume which should (and did, in my case) serve as a road map to anyone interested in her life and times. But Leavitt’s work focuses largely on the troubling public health and civil liberties issues raised by Mary’s incarceration by health authorities, drawing a meaningful comparison to today’s AIDS crisis, and the moral quagmire officials encounter when confronted with otherwise blameless people who can, through casual contact with others, cause illness or death.
That’s not where I’m going here. I’m a chef, and what interests me is the story of a proud cook – a reasonably capable one by all accounts – who at the outset, at least, found herself utterly screwed by forces she neither understood nor had the ability to control. I’m interested in a tormented loner, a woman in a male world, in hostile territory, frequently on the run. And I’m interested in denial – the ways that Mary, and many of us, find to avoid the obvious, the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day, the things we do and say so that we can go on, drag our aching carcasses out of bed each day, climb into our clothes and once again set out for work, often in kitchens where the smell, the surroundings, the ruling regime oppress us.
Going in, I knew only that she was a cook with a problem. Few, it seemed, knew her real name. ‘Typhoid Mary’, the moniker she’s come to be remembered by, is now an all-purpose pejorative, an epithet implying evil intent, willful contagion; shorthand for a woman so foul, so unpleasant, so infectious as to destroy all she touches. If you were to ask a passerby who Typhoid Mary was, you might hear that she was a plague carrier, someone responsible for infecting and killing thousands.
In fact, as I soon discovered, Mary’s total body count – for all her career – as tabulated by her most fervent and least forgiving pursuer – came to thirty-three persons infected, with confirmed deaths of only three. Although, in all likelihood, there probably were a few more uncounted, undiscovered cases associated with Mary. God bless her, she often worked off the books.
So knowing nothing when I began this project, I soon found myself rooting around dusty collections, library stacks and archives. Research was fun, I have to say. I’ve been penned up in various versions of a 25-foot by 10-foot professional kitchen (like Mary) for most of my adult life, so it was a very new experience for me to acquire knowledge in silence, seated. It helped that I was writing about a fellow cook.
The history of my profession has always fascinated me. Years ago, at culinary school, my fellow students and I loved the stories of Vatel, for instance, impaling himself on his sword over a late fish delivery. While we admired the seriousness with which he took his enterprise, we also thought, ‘What a punk! Who hadda cover for him the next day at work?!’ Carême’s edible monuments and minarets, his kooky ambition to marry architecture, fine art, and the preparation of food inspired generations of cooks to all sorts of terrible and ludicrous excesses, nearly drove some insane trying to emulate his maniacal construction projects. We have – all of us professionals – worshipped at the altar of Escoffier, memorized his recipes, been drilled in his methods, heard and cherished stories of the Great Man, burned his image and the names of his dishes into our brains as deeply as any disciples of Chairman Mao or L. Ron Hubbard. We know the names of the greats like divinity students know the names of the apostles: Point, Troisgros, Bocuse, Guerard, Robuchon, and so on . . . We know their progeny, the ones who came after – who begot whom – and in which kitchens – and we are comforted by knowing the names. It puts our own lives, our own toil, in perspective – it reminds us that we are a part of something, cogs, however tiny, in a great machine whose wheels have been turning for centuries. One of the best parts of being a chef or a cook is exactly that sense of belonging to something, of being made members of a large and secret society. It feels good knowing you are part of a long and glorious tradition of suffering, insanity, and excess. We may not have a secret handshake (though even brushing contact with the callused hand of another cook communicates, in an instant, scads of information) but we have a language, customs, tribal rituals all our own. There is a common structure, a shared understanding of the world, a hierarchy, terminology, and initiation with which we are all – whether flipping burgers in a Bora Bora beach bar or spooning caviar at the top of the World Trade Center – intimately familiar, and we take comfort in that too.
It has been until all too recently, however, a predominantly male club, this thing of ours. In exactly the reverse of the ignorant dictum that ‘Women Should Stay In The Kitchen – Preferably While Barefoot and Pregnant’, in the hotel/restaurant kitchen it was always, ‘They’re not strong enough to lift heavy stockpots!’ (Hilariously wrong in that NO cook I’ve ever seen hoisted full stockpots without assistance – okay, one guy. We called him Hernia Boy.) Women, it was said, ‘Can’t take the pressure!’ they’re ‘Too emotional!’ You want to see emotional? Watch a table of ten’s order come back for a refire in a busy all-male kitchen in the middle of the rush. You’ve never seen such weeping and rending of garments and tantrum throwing since you smacked your little brother and took away his favorite stuffed toy.
Point is, in the annals of professional cooking, there are precious few names of women. Catherine de Medici comes to mind, but she didn’t cook. She was, however, smart enough to bring along some Italian cooks when she moved to France. Had she not, the French might still be thickening their sauces with bread raspings – and tearing at their food with daggers and bare hands.
Not that women weren’t cooking professionally. There were, all along, at any given moment, probably more women cooking than men. It’s just that they were doing it in private homes, tiny bistros, Parisian pork stores, institutions. They stayed closer to the traditional role of professional cook of Roman times – which is to say they were slaves. Or darn close. They cooked, most times, alone. The domestic cooks of the nineteenth century and early twentieth didn’t often work as part of a crew (a tendency tragically mirrored today with the predominance of the female pâtissier in the otherwise all-male kitchen). They didn’t get to enjoy the yo-ho-ho camaraderie, the grab-ass hijinks of the restaurant kitchen. They did not enjoy the aid and company of sauciers, grillardins, entremetiers, poissoniers, garde-mangers, and plongeurs to assist them in their work. There were rarely chefs or sous-chefs to stand between them and their masters, no one to protect them from the caprices and unreasonable desires of their clients.
If Mary was part of anything, she was part of a very different movement, one forged in hunger, dislocation and social upheaval, a sea-change which pushed millions of women out of their homeland and away from their traditional roles, across the sea and into the lonely business of domestic servitude.
I have known, at various low points in my long and checkered career, what it feels like when one’s pride in what one does – one’s love of cooking, one’s faith in one’s ability – begins to fade, and I know the kind of sloppiness that can follow. Fortunately, in my case, those days are long gone. I got a second chance. Mary never did.
Bouncing from job to job, with lousy pay, no health insurance, no sick days, no vacation, miss one day at work and it’s back on the treadmill . . . find another dirty, badly equipped kitchen . . . and no hope in the world. You endure simply so that you can afford to go on enduring. The small, simple joys of a perfectly made bowl of soup, a rustic stew, a lovely piece of fish cooked just right, disappear, replaced over time by a simmering forced-down resentment, bubbling up and choked down again and again like burning reflux. The small annoyances grow large: the way the boss smacks his wet lips when he tastes the soup, the acrid cloud from the steam table, the smell of old grease, the lingering odor of lamb fat – these become the nexus of all the evils and injustices of the world.
That you may have cooked good food in the past, worked in the homes of the rich, in great houses or great kitchens, seen the pyramids or danced naked on the moon, matters not at all. Nobody cares.
Where once you would have turned your head to cough, you turn no longer. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom? Maybe. If you have time, you’re beyond caring. The people eating your food are abstractions now. Cough or no cough, you know they’ll be back tomorrow, maybe for the Early Bird, the All-You-Can-Eat special. Unwashed hands, an errant cigarette ash, a roasted chicken dropped on a dirty kitchen floor and retrieved on the bounce . . . we’ve been there, you and me and Mary.
The central question when examining the career of Mary Mallon, cook, is always, ‘Why did she go on cooking when she had every reason to believe she was spreading a possibly fatal disease?’ Many of you who’ve worked in greasy spoons, coffee shops, cafeterias, failing, not-very-good restaurants, institutional food services, know the answer already. I won’t blame you if you don’t care to admit it. But you know what the ‘three-second rule’ is. Don’t you?
Cooks work sick. They always have. Most jobs, you don’t work, you don’t get paid. You wake up with a sniffle and a runny nose, a sore throat? You soldier on. You put in your hours. You wrap a towel around your neck and you do your best to get through. It’s a point of pride, working through pain and illness. And in the paranoid realpolitik world of the kitchen it makes a great deal of sense. If you don’t show up to work, someone else fills in for you – either an already overburdened fellow cook, who takes on additional tasks – or worse, an outsider, an interloper, a stranger who might well be considered to do a better job than you – or be less likely to call in sick in the future. When you are working in a kitchen that serves something less than haute cuisine, the likelihood increases that a strong back and the ability to endure are of the utmost importance, a chef or owner frequently passing over the superior technician for the more reliable one.
Mary, it should be pointed out, felt fine. She was strong. She was tough. She could take it – and she was proud of her endurance. She worked, and she went on – and when after a time they told her to stop, she ignored them and went on working. One finds oneself being defined by one’s job. The job expiates us from sin; it excuses us our excesses and our lapses. That we are tired, or ill, or in extremis and yet persevere is all we have, sometimes, to sustain our image of ourselves.
Like Mary, I’ve worked for private clients. Briefly. Had I stayed on, had my boss asked me one more time for ‘an egg-white omelette – and no butter or oil in the pan,’ I would surely have grabbed hold of his skull, squeezed until his eyeballs popped out of his head like pachinko balls. Had I worked in the homes of the rich and silly circa 1906? I would have murdered them in their beds with the nearest available blunt object. I was never tough enough to put up with what Mary put up with. I’m ‘too emotional’; I couldn’t have ‘taken the pressure’; I doubt very much I could have picked up heavy stockpots alone.
Mary learned her trade over time, the same way most of us learn. By watching, waiting, working our way slowly up from the bottom. By repeating the same tasks over and over again. It’s a terrible thing – the worst thing, when a good cook, a proud cook goes bad. When pride and proficiency turn to bitterness and sloth. When outside forces corrupt the desire to do a job well and take pleasure in the doing. It’s an awful thing to watch. It’s awful when it happens to you.
It’s what happened to the cook, Mary Mallon.
Try not to hold it against her.
There’s Something About Mary
It was August 27, 1906, when at the rented summer home of Charles Henry Warren and family in Oyster Bay, Long Island, the Warrens’ young daughter became ill with what was diagnosed as typhoid fever. The same week, five more persons began showing symptoms: Mrs. Warren, a second daughter, two maids, and the gardener. The relatively affluent town of Oyster Bay had never had an outbreak of typhoid before. A popular vacation spot for wealthy urban New Yorkers, it was best known for hosting President Theodore Roosevelt during the summer. The house the Warrens had taken for the season stood on high ground, overlooking the bay, and the circumstances of its occupants were impeccable – a wealthy banker, his family and their servants, living in fairly luxurious style.
The Warren family were not the type of people thought likely to contract typhoid – an illness widely associated with poverty and filth. Charles Warren was the president of the Lincoln Bank. They were the sort of folks who could afford to rent a nice big summer home on affluent Long Island (as well as hire a cook, servants, and gardener to keep things tidy). Rich people just didn’t get typhoid – especially in Oyster Bay – and predictably, there was concern in the area that the town would become a less desirable resort should it be seen as teeming with the disease.
George Thompson, the owner of the house, was particularly worried, concerned that no well-to-do New Yorkers would be of a mind to rent his home the following season if it was associated with disease. The house was very large, and expensive to run. Thompson himself, though the owner of four other homes, could not afford to live there. If the house lay vacant, it would mean disaster. Desperate, he called in experts to track down the source of the contagion, hoping it came from outside the property and eager for someone to prove it.
Drinking water was analyzed. The single indoor toilet, the cesspool, manure pit, and outhouse were all examined and ultimately rejected as the possible source of infection.
Dairy products were inspected.
An old woman who lived on the beach was considered a likely suspect. She had offered the family clams for sale, and these were scrutinized minutely, but no one else in the town who had eaten shellfish from the same source had fallen ill.
Thompson, unsatisfied with the inconclusive results from local health authorities on the scene and from his hired experts, reached out to friends in New York City, looking for someone, anyone, to help him with his embarrassing problem.
Salvation didn’t exactly ride in on a white horse. Nor was Dr. George Soper hero material exactly. Dr. Soper was not even in fact a medical doctor. He was a sanitary engineer – as one newspaper described him: ‘a doctor to sick cities.’
Called into the fray, he took the train out to Oyster Bay from the city and set immediately to work. After reviewing the findings of the first medical men on the scene, as well as those of earlier experts who had scrutinized the drinking water, trash and sewage, he began questioning members of the household, inquiring about visitors, ultimately receiving a comprehensive list going back an impressive ten years. To the best of his ability, Soper examined the medical histories of each of these individuals, eventually ruling all of them out as possible sources.
This was frustrating. Things usually went pretty quickly in cases like this. Feces in the water supply, contaminated milk, a sickly visitor, and case closed. Not so at the Thompson house. Soper began to ‘walk the cat backward’ in search of an answer.
Typhoid’s incubation period was known to be ten to fourteen days long, so he focused on a time on or before August 20. Soper was intrigued by the news that on the fourth of the month, the Warrens had seen fit to change cooks. More significantly, the new cook, a Mary Mallon, was now missing, having left without notice or explanation some three weeks after the sickness began.
A missing cook! It was the kind of lead that criminal investigators find almost
good to be true; evidence of a kind that prosecutors like to present to jurors as indicating ‘guilty knowledge’, the kind of red flag that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would disregard automatically as being just too obvious. Look at it: A murder or some other felony is committed in a household or place of business, and someone who
used to be
there is suddenly
there. It doesn’t take an investigative mastermind to deduce who to go looking for first. It was circumstantial evidence of the most provocative kind, and Soper was well acquainted with the old saw about circumstantial evidence: ‘It’s like finding a goldfish in your milk. It doesn’t prove anything – but it’s mighty suspicious’.
He went over the facts of the case as they had presented themselves to him. Here he had an unexplained outbreak of typhoid in an area where no typhoid of any kind had been previously. The home was immaculate, clean from top to bottom. All other possible sources of infection had been examined and ruled out. The only new element introduced into the household had been a cook. The cook handled food, which all the afflicted members of the household had eaten. The disease broke out, and the cook was now gone. Had she left under different circumstances, say, the disappearance of a diamond necklace, the cops – or any investigator – would have been looking very hard in her direction.
Soper got a description of the suspect: a woman of about forty, tall, with a buxom build, blond hair, blue eyes, and a firm mouth and jaw. It was remarked that she was ‘a pretty good cook’, though she was observed by some interviewees in retrospect as being ‘not particularly clean’ in her work habits and ‘difficult to talk to’.
Writing later, Soper describes what he did next:
First, I went to the employment agency where I was given the missing cook’s former places of employment and the different people who had furnished her with references. Working from agency to agency I came in possession of little fragments of her history for ten years. What do you suppose I found out? That in every household in which she had worked in the last ten years there had been an outbreak of typhoid fever. Mind you, there wasn’t a single exception.
The question that confronted me now was: Where is she?
Following her trail backward to cases in 1904, I found she had worked at the home of Henry Gilsey at Sands Point, Long Island, where four of seven servants suddenly got the disease. Going back still further, I found that five weeks after Mary had gone to cook at the summer home of J. Coleman Drayton at Dark Harbor, Maine, in 1902, seven out of nine persons in the house contracted typhoid, and so did a trained nurse and a woman who came to the house to work by the day. There had been an outbreak of the disease in New York in 1901, and I had reason to believe that Mary was behind this. In 1904, Tuxedo Park, the fashionable summer resort, was stricken . . . and (I) discovered she had cooked there in that time.
Soper now uncovered ‘other episodes’, as he called them. Provocatively, there was a two-year period for which there were no records available at all for Ms. Mallon’s employment – the period between the Gilsey family incident and Mary’s arrival in Oyster Bay.
The two-year blank was tantalizing to Soper. Where had Mary been? Who had she been cooking for? She must have been cooking somewhere . . . The sanitary engineer’s mind teemed with disturbing images. He no doubt pictured the cook stirring soup in some unknown and very busy cellar kitchen, barehanded, unknowing, infecting untold multitudes of solid citizens with potentially deadly bacilli.
Dr. Soper’s breathless, self-serving, yet ultimately unreliable accounts to newspapers give a sense of how excited he was, how exhilarated by the thrill of the chase and the tantalizing prospect of being onto something really important. At first he had anticipated a case that might last only a few weeks – a little sea air, a few bowls of steamers, some resolution, and back to the city – but now he found himself further drawn into a quest which had already occupied him for a full four months. The Warrens were long gone – back home with the other summer renters. The weather had turned colder, the house now stood empty.
But George Soper was still on the case, sensing that with Mary Mallon’s help, he was about to make medical history.
First of all, he realized the typhoid outbreaks associated with Mary Mallon were unusual in that they seemed to afflict the clean, well-kept houses of the affluent. While the ‘filth theory’ of contagion – which stated that filth, in and of itself, was the cause of disease – had been recently supplanted by the specific identification of disease-causing microbes, there was still a general sense that epidemics were closely associated with dirty living conditions and with marginal, impoverished people who lived in close, unsanitary circumstances. Many
held this notion, including some in the scientific community, where papers continued to be published in 1906 stating that typhoid rose up out of ‘sewer gasses: and the ‘miasma’. Society, for good reason, had been congratulating itself on such sensible collective widespread improvements as clean, feces-free drinking water, carefully monitored dairy products, more effective waste disposal, and new kitchen design and equipment which allowed more sanitary food handling. Congress had passed, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and major food processors like Heinz and Kellogg’s made ‘purity’ of food products a selling point. Sick people and people who were thought likely to be infected – such as immigrants – were routinely detained and quarantined to avoid the possible spread of contagion. This particular situation, the situation of Mary Mallon, however, indicated something new and different. No one in the Warren household had been sick with typhoid prior to the outbreak – nor had anyone, from what Soper could discern, been in contact with anyone actively ill with the disease. To Soper’s excitement, he now found himself confronted by what looked to be a ‘carrier’, a seemingly healthy individual who caused others to become ill.
Carriers were a very hot concept in the new world of epidemiology, a theory unproven in the United States. In Germany, however, the respected bacteriologist Dr. Robert Koch had recently investigated repeated outbreaks of typhoid in a Strasbourg bakeshop. The bakery was clean. The water supply was uncorrupted. Yet well-heeled customers were getting sick. Dr. Koch questioned the proprietor and found that she had, years earlier, contracted typhoid, but had survived the experience and was now, seemingly, fully recovered. After testing her, Koch found that even though she was devoid of symptoms and to all outward appearances a healthy person capable of working and going about her tasks like everyone else, she was in fact still teeming with typhoid germs, exuding them through her bowel movements and spreading them with improperly cleaned hands. This was a revolutionary discovery, and news of it had found its way to New York, where it was discussed with interest. Soper had read the transcript of a speech Koch had given on the subject a couple of years previous.
Dr. Soper had learned of seemingly clean and affluent homes in Mary Mallon’s past being struck with typhoid after her employment. Now he was confronted with similar circumstances in yet another place she had worked. Given that no human carrier such as Koch’s bakery proprietor had ever been identified in America, Soper was suddenly very, very interested in getting his hands on the mysterious Mary Mallon.
That she was evidently not interested in being found only piqued the good doctor’s interest to even greater pitch:
Where is she? Of course I did not know . . . for Mary is clever, and she hardly ever works under the same name at two different places.
At this point, Soper already seems to have formed in his mind a picture of Mary as some kind of Moriarty-esque nemesis, an elusive and crafty adversary with the answer to all his questions, but always just out of reach.
He wanted her badly. His day-to-day work, by this time, had become closer to a detective’s than a microbe-hunter’s, interviewing witnesses, poring over records. He felt good. He was going to make his bones with this case. He foresaw himself as the poster boy for epidemiologists and health professionals, an honored and much-sought-after speaker at all the medical societies, a hero to the afflicted, a newspaper personality, idol to generations of aspiring sanitary engineers.
Furthermore, he knew that his work was important. Typhoid was lethal and, especially in 1906 and 1907, no joke.
These were boom times. It was a new century and a new world that Soper lived in. The 1900 Chicago World’s Fair had once and for all convinced Americans that they lived in a great country, a major world power, on a par – at least – with the European monarchies. Any inferiority complex New Yorkers and Americans might once have felt was rapidly disappearing in the light of an increasingly powerful, worldwide naval presence, a national construction explosion, the emergence of a newly affluent and pleasure-seeking middle class, the recent developments of subway systems, mass-produced automobiles, a tunnel under the Hudson River, new entertainments, libraries, an exuberantly sensationalistic press, and the warm glow of having recently drubbed the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines. Great strides had been made in the fighting of disease and the word ‘epidemic’ was now an embarrassment to a city. An earlier epidemic of typhoid and cholera had had New York and Philadelphia pointing fingers at one another, each claiming the other was responsible for the outbreak, both mortified that something so closely associated with the squalor of the old world would be blamed on their fair metropolis.
Soper’s description of an earlier experience with a typhoid epidemic gives a flavor of what a man in his position saw as his responsibility, of what he perceived himself to be up against:
I went to Ithaca in 1903 when one person in ten was sick, and one person in a hundred was dying from the disease. You have no idea of the state of mind I found the people in. They didn’t know what to do; didn’t know where to go; didn’t know whom to suspect and whom to trust . . .
These were the stakes as Soper saw them. Confusion, suspicion, contagion, neighbor pitted against neighbor, panic in the streets, and ultimately, chaos and death.
Epidemics – especially unexplained ones – tended to bring out the worst in people, and the ‘carrier’ theory, however fearful its implications, was far preferable to some of the alternatives. In the past citizens thought to be contagious – particularly if they were members of the minority or underclass – had hardly been taken to the bosom of their communities. Instead the usual outcome was for mob rule to win out. It was not unheard of for those thought to be infected to be run out of town on a rail or set adrift in the Long Island Sound – often at the point of a gun – or worse still. As Soper saw it, he needed a quick and tidy solution to the Oyster Bay problem.
Looking at pictures of Soper – a serious, narrow-faced, whippetlike man with a neat mustache and a receding hairline – one gets the impression of not so much the dogged detective he might have liked to see himself as, but of a timid, fastidious scientist, a man ensconced in reasoned practice and methodology. That he might have been racist, sexist, and far too influenced by the prejudices of his class – as has been suggested by revisionist accounts – a flawed, ambitious fellow who looked for the first likely Irish woman he could clap the manacles on – does not present itself through photography. Nor do we get much of that from his work later in life: tomes with titles such as:
The Air and Ventilation of Subways (1908), Modern Methods of Street Cleaning (1909), Further Studies of European Methods of Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal With Suggestions (1930),
and of course, what proved his masterwork, the story for which he became best known, the pamphlet with a title like a Victorian detective story’s
The Curious Case of Typhoid Mary (1939).
George Soper looks from his photographs not to be a nice guy. He looks like someone who was bullied in high school, a nerd, a geek, an apple-polishing dirt-wonk with an unseemly interest in filth and how to make it go away.
It was not for a good many more months, not until March of 1907, that Soper finally came face to face with Mary Mallon. It was then that reports reached him that a family on Park Avenue in New York City had been stricken with typhoid. Two cases had initially been reported. A maid was ill, and a daughter of the people who owned the house, a beautiful young woman in her twenties, was lying on her deathbed. The family were reportedly beside themselves with grief. The girl died two days later, and soon the nurse who had attended her became stricken as well.
The details of the case as they reached Soper were indeed tragic, another example of bad things happening to people to whom bad things are not supposed to happen; but what particularly excited Soper, got that Sherlock Holmes mojo working again, was the news that there was a new cook fitting the description of Mary Mallon
employed by the stricken family.
Imagine my surprise and my utter joy when I found the famous germ-carrier working as a cook in that household.
The cook in question, and indeed it was Mary Mallon, did not quite share the good doctor’s enthusiasm. She showed true displeasure when Soper, who rushed over to the Park Avenue address immediately upon receiving the news, suddenly showed up at her job, accusing her in no uncertain terms of causing the typhoid which right then was draining the life from one member of her employer’s family.
I thought after I found her all would be easy; shortly I was to be disappointed, for having found Mary I had the greatest difficulty arranging an interview. Finally she agreed to talk with me, and in company with a physician I met her outside the house.
To his dismay, Mary did not see Soper as the answer to some long-troubling question about the series of odd and unpleasant coincidences that had long followed her. He stood an accuser, and she reacted thus, and her reaction seems to have come as a complete surprise to him.
Here, at this first meeting between pursuer and pursued, is where things began to go terribly wrong – at least for Mary Mallon and any future she might have had. What was said here, and
it was said, would set the tone for everything that happened after.
Typhoid: Until the mid-nineteenth century, no one even knew what it was. All that was known for sure was that lots of people were dying from it – and had been dying from it for a long, long time.
As far back as 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia, where typhoid would retroactively be credited with wiping out 6,000 settlers, officials knew something was devastatingly wrong. But people died of so many things in those years: typhus (a different disease entirely – spread by fleas and lice), cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, measles, throat distemper, influenza, scarlet fever, as well as typhoid – most of them indistinguishable from each other in eras marked by unwashed, undernourished, maltreated, and poorly housed folks who tended to die young anyway. Against a backdrop of frequent epidemics, famines, plagues, abject poverty, and rudimentary to nonexistent health care, it is no surprise that it took so long to even give the thing a name.
But in 1880, only twenty-six years before Mary Mallon went to work in Oyster Bay for the Warren family, a man named Karl Erberth isolated the particular organism associated with typhoid fever, identified it, and allowed future doctors to at least differentiate between typhoid and all the other microbes that were likely to kill you before you hit middle age. Erberth’s discovery was the first step down the road to a vaccine (as opposed to a cure).
Even so, typhoid continued to be a serious problem – not the least for the military. In the war against South Africa, Britain lost an incredible 13,000 troops to the disease, a staggering body count, especially when weighed against total battlefield losses of only 8,000.
As recently as 1948, there was virtually nothing a doctor could do against typhoid, other than put the patient to bed and hope for the best. There was by then a vaccine extant, but that was like shutting the barn door long after the mad cow had wandered off to do his business. As late as the midteens, medical practitioners were still not certain that the vaccine even worked (it did). Antibiotics had not yet been discovered. So before 1948, it must have been pretty terrifying to recognize the all-too-familiar symptoms of typhoid. And they were familiar: outbreaks in 1865 and 1885 had decimated residents of major American cities. An earlier incident, when heavy rains flooded Lake Michigan, commingling sewage with drinking water, had left an estimated 90,000 dead of cholera and typhoid, so people tended to take outbreaks very seriously. In New York State alone in 1906, there had been over 3,000 cases reported, with more than 600 fatalities.
First came a sudden and prolonged high fever – brain-boiling temperatures that could reach 104 to 105 degrees. Powerful headaches followed, accompanied by gut-roiling nausea and the disappearance of appetite. Victims often developed a bad cough, hoarseness, rampaging diarrhea or constipation. Frequently adding to their discomfort and misery were skin rashes, inflammation, and tenderness in the abdomen. Until antibiotics hit the market in the late 1940s, about 10 per cent of typhoid sufferers died from the disease. Even after antibiotics, about 1 per cent still never recovered and eventually succumbed. As late as 1997, there were 17 million cases of typhoid reported worldwide, with about 600,000 deaths resulting.
Even today, in underdeveloped countries like Vietnam and Mexico, where antibiotics at first seemed to be working wonders, 75 per cent of typhoid cases are now said to be drug-resistant.
Typhoid is an infectious disease caused by a bacillus called
. Simply put, typhoid fever is transmitted by food and water that has been contaminated with human feces or urine. Polluted water is the most common source of infection. When water from toilets and outhouses drains into water used for bathing and drinking, you start seeing cases of typhoid. Shellfish such as clams, mussels, and oysters which have been taken from contaminated beds can give you typhoid. Likewise, dairy products which have had close encounters with sewage, can be – and have been – linked with the spread of the disease.
And, of course, people can give you typhoid, as long as the bacteria exists in their systems. For most people sick with typhoid, this means that for the week prior to their being bedridden (during which time they probably have not yet been diagnosed), until about a week after, they are infectious. Many (about 10 per cent) will continue to exude bacteria in their stools for about three months, and about 2 to 5 per cent will become permanent carriers, the bacteria settling comfortably into their gallbladders and digestive tracts like rent-controlled pensioners. This last statistic is important, because the beleaguered Mary Mallon was believed to be one of these unfortunate few – a carrier for life, a one-woman bacteria manufacturing machine, an endless supply of very bad things.
If you want your city, town, or prefecture to remain free of typhoid, experts recommend that you endeavor mightily to protect and chlorinate the water supply – basically keeping it sewage-free. It is suggested that human waste be disposed of in a safe and sanitary manner and that latrines be kept fly-proof. And you don’t want typhoid carriers handling your food. Particularly raw food.