Mary the Typhoid Terrorist

balld-of-tyhI read The Ballad of Typhoid Mary around 1990, before The Alienist, which it strongly resembles. The book evokes the mood perfectly for old New York; creepy alleys, unlit streets, sounds of champagne parties flowing into dark streets were criminals lurk. Into all this come a teenage girl named Mary Mallon, who bewitches men into taking her in, only to have them die mysteriously. She’s  proud of her cooking, and relishes any job that taxes her skills in the kitchen. Nobody can resist her exquisite cooking, nor can they resist the bacteria she gives them with their meal. At least they meet their maker with full bellies, assuming they don’t vomit it all up before they go.

We know this book is fictional. Mary Mallon was from Ireland, not Switzerland. The part about her relationship with an anarchist named Chris Kramer has got to be fictional, but the rest is based on Mary’s real life. It also illustrates the situation for a single woman in 1890’s New York; there weren’t a lot of jobs for a woman who didn’t fancy prostitution, so the best an Irish woman could hope to get was cook or governess.

Typhoid Mary is portrayed as a rather lonely character, friendless  and for the most part alone, only her work to keep her going. Unlike The Alienist, the main character never eats in nice restaurants, never moves in circles of influential people. There aren’t any famous people in this book, just regular rich folks and their servant, who is largely invisible. But it was typical of the era; casual sex didn’t exist, and women didn’t have boyfriends like they do now. If she had her own place, she couldn’t have had her man stay over or the landlord would’ve had her arrested.

It’s a shame this book is out of print. The author made a great effort that works for the most part.


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