Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I picked up this book to read for two reasons – first is the author and second is the subject. Susan Campbell Bartoletti is well known in library circles for her previous award winning literature including nonfiction works such as the 2006 Newbery Honor book – Hitler Youth and the 2009 ALA Best Books for Young Adults novel The Boy Who Dared. At a time when many states are embracing the Federally sponsored common core standards with its emphasis on the reading of nonfiction, it is important for teachers and librarians to seek out high quality subject matter to engage their students’ interests. Bartoletti is an author who easily meets all criteria. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America deals with an immediately recognizable topic. Since this name has become a part of our cultural vernacular representing the unwitting spread of a deadly disease, I was curious about the details surrounding her life. After reading Bartoletti’s fascinating account, I can now fill in the blanks of my knowledge.

Mary Mallone was an Irish immigrant who made a decent living as a cook for privileged families in the New York City area at the turn of the century. While her skills in the kitchen were laudatory, she was a carrier of the deadly typhoid virus, infecting each household where she was employed. Using Sherlock Holmes type detective work, George Soper (a sanitation engineer who was hired to track down the cause of an outbreak of the disease in a well to do household) tracked down the culprit. Soper had a theory that certain individuals could be immune to a virus but still pass on the germs to others through contamination by unwashed hands. As a person who handled food, Mary’s prepared dishes put others at risk, especially those who ate her homemade peach ice cream dessert. Dr. Josephine Baker, a famous suffragette and doctor, assisted in arresting Mary when she refused to cooperate with authorities. The New York City Health Department in those days had the legal right to detain and quarantine individuals who were a threat to society without going through proper legal channels. Mary insisted she was healthy especially since she had never been sick with Typhoid Fever. Effectively imprisoned in a small cottage by Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, she resented her loss of freedom and the way she was used as a human guinea pig, especially when doctors filled her with drugs in order to “cure” her of this curious infliction. To add insult to injury, when other typhoid carriers were located, they weren’t sent to a quarantine hospital on a remote island. There was a definite discrimination against Mary Malone especially evident when male carriers were allowed their continued freedom while hers was involuntarily curtailed. While the courts disallowed her release on civil liberties issues, Mary was still allowed her freedom for a brief period before being returned to her Island home for the remainder of her days after violating the terms of her release. Only she had the infamous honor of the title Typhoid Mary, a term noted not just in the US but throughout the world. Her story is a captivating look into life in America in the early 1900s when medical science was on the cusp of some incredible milestones. Eventually an inoculation against Typhoid Fever was created and the discovery of antibiotics helped curb the fatality of this disease, yet Mary was still ostracized. Her life was a tragic, albeit enthralling, saga which should mesmerize any reader.

Despite being a biography, Terrible Typhoid Mary uses a narrative style which reads like a fiction book. The documentation and bibliography represent the incredible amount of research gathered from newspaper articles, letters, and other primary sources, which enabled Bartoletti to accurately recreate the situations surrounding Mary Mallone’s life, also represented in a detailed time line. Mary’s only available written words were those of an unpublished letter to the editor of The New York American, but they provided a rich source of material reflecting her state of mind during the initial trauma. A note from the author about her research techniques, numerous relevant Illustrations and photographs, and a detailed index round out the 240 pages (176 of text). The manner of writing was straightforward, easy to read, and included explanations of various events, often comparing them to current life situations in order to enhance a child’s understanding of these historical times. A welcome addition to any school library shelf. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley and HMH Books for Young Readers for providing this ARC in exchange for a honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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