Caricature, contestation and the making of ‘Typhoid Mary’

The story of Mary Mallon (1869-1938), reprehensibly branded ‘Typhoid Mary’ by the American press, provides an excellent example of how caricature and animation played an intrinsic role in the dissemination of information in relation to epidemic disease. ‘Typhoid Mary’ was the first healthy carrier of typhoid to be identified in the United States. An immigrant from the shores of Ireland, Mary was a cook by trade and had efficiently been serving up typhoid bacteria along with her food since she first set foot in an American kitchen in 1900. In 1907, the New York health authorities discovered her infective potential: as a result, she was isolated and quarantined for a total of 26 years. Mary Mallon was formally held responsible for infecting 53 people with typhoid fever, three fatally so. However, historian Richard Gordon clarifies that her casualty list was probably far larger than this, there is even speculation that she caused the 1903 epidemic at Ithaca, New York, which had a devastating 1,400 victims.

 

Image 1: ‘Typhoid Mary’, Wikimedia Commons. The image first appeared in The New York American on June 20, 1909.

The negative media portrayal that Mallon was subject to encouraged her forceful treatment by the health authorities. The papers delighted in depicting Mary as a devious cook, out to poison her employers. Mary Mallon was, as Roy Porter so aptly describes, “rapidly demonised”: by 1909, macabre cartoons in the popular press depicted her cracking egg-like skulls into a frying pan. The juxtaposition of such images of habitual domestication with deadly disease generated fear and panic amongst the American public. Mary herself was very aware of the bad reputation she was accruing, stating to the New York Times that she was “treated like a leper”. Mary’s description was not an exaggeration: she was banished to an island, destined to live the rest of her days in enforced solitude.

Mary Mallon’s story sparks social, moral and legal debate that has extensive contemporary societal relevance when considered within the context of epidemic disease. It is a mark of the infamous nature of this case that the phrase ‘Typhoid Mary’ still carries strong connotations, defined figuratively in the Oxford English Dictionary as “A person who… is the source of undesirable opinions, emotions, etc.; an unpopular or subversive person”. The power of caricature was instrumental in rendering ‘Typhoid Mary’ an inextricable part of American popular culture.

 

 

Further Reading

– Richard Gordon, An Alarming History of Famous and Difficult Patients, (United States of America: St Martin’s Press, 1997).

– Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997).

– “‘Typhoid Mary’ Must Stay: Court rejects her plea to quit riverside hospital”, New York Times, July 17, 1909, 3.

– “Typhoid Mary”, Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com.

 

Lucy Havard

Posted in Uncategorized.

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