[As I draft this series in late March, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate the United States and the world. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of prior epidemics, leading up to a weekend post that I’ll wait to draft until we know more about where things stand in early May.]
On an iconic and complex figure and her symbolic American contexts.
Just over one hundred and five years ago, on March 27th, 1915, Mary Mallon (1869-1938)—better known as “Typhoid Mary”—was quarantined by public health officials for the second and final time. The Irish immigrant and cook had previously infected numerous New York-area employers, families, and communities with the highly contagious and dangerous typhoid fever; the incidents began around 1900, but it was not until a 1906 outbreak in Oyster Bay that Mary’s role in them was discovered, and she was quarantined from 1907 to 1910 in a clinic on North Brother Island. Upon her release she agreed to change professions, but instead changed her name and began working as a cook once more. Arrested in 1915 after starting yet another typhoid outbreak, this one at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, Mary was taken once again to North Brother Island, where she would remain in quarantine for the final twenty-three years of her life.
Typhoid Mary’s striking story can be contexualized in a number of AmericanStudies ways. The public fascination with her (she was interviewed numerous times during those final decades of quarantine) reflects our longstanding interest in “true crime” narratives and figures, in seeking to understand and perhaps even empathize with those who do horrific or sociopathic things to their fellow citizens. At the same time, but on the other end of the emotive spectrum, the fearful and paranoid responses to Mary (and it is possible to see those responses as extreme at the same time that we recognize her culpability in her arc) were undoubtedly connected to equally longstanding narratives of dirty and diseased immigrants and the threats they pose to our communities and culture: narratives that had long been associated specifically with Irish immigrants; and that in response to the late 19th and early 20th century waves of arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were newly energized in this period. In both these ways, the Mary of North Brother Island—quarantined away from the rest of America and yet forever available for interviews and pictures—could be said to represent a twisted American ideal.
Comparing Mary’s life and history to a more genuinely idealized American story offers another lens through which to analyze her, however. As part of a September 2013 series on Newport’s The Breakers, I wrote a post on Rudy Stanish, the son of Eastern Europe immigrants who would rise to become the “Omelet King,” one of the most famous chefs in American history. Stanish’s Newport experiences began in 1929, while Mary was still alive and quarantined; in that, and even more in their shared profession, social status (as servants of wealthy families), and immigrant background, the two offer a compelling and complex comparison. Each life and identity is individual and shouldn’t be reduced to types or mythic narratives, but it’s hard for me to resist noting that Rudy and Mary represent two sides to the same coin, the American Dream and American Nightmare respectively. Their versions are extremes, of course—few Americans end up in either lifelong quarantine or as a chef to the stars—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be connected to more typical communal experiences. And it’s fair—if more pessimistic than I like to be—to say that more Americans experience the nightmare than the dream; and thus to note that we might understand how such a nightmare might lead to the life and choices of a woman like Typhoid Mary.
Last epidemic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other thoughts on this epidemic or any prior ones?
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