New York Times Book Review
Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historicalby Anthony Bourdain
From the bestselling author of Kitchen Confidential, a candid retelling of the story of the world's most notorious cook: Typhoid Mary.See more details below
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From the bestselling author of Kitchen Confidential, a candid retelling of the story of the world's most notorious cook: Typhoid Mary.
New York Times Book Review
"[Bourdain] presents Mallon's story as a tale of hot pursuit, with the rude gusto and barbed wit that made Kitchen Confidential such a full-bodied pleasure."—Adam Shatz, The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
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 associatedwith 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 too easy, too 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 no longer 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 still 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 still 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 though 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 how it was said, would set the tone for everything that happened after.
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