Parallels between my mother and Typhoid Mary

The Trial of Typhoid Mary, photo credit by Natalia Yadiganova

Maybe it’s my fascination with strong female characters that drew me to
recreating the story of The Trial of Typhoid Mary. Or maybe it was
growing up with the strongest female character I have ever known: my
mother, a fully-fledged international con artist. Or maybe it was that
after some deep and honest reflection, I can see parallels between my
mother and Typhoid Mary that were always there.

Both my mother and Typhoid Mary were immigrant women: my mother
from Peru, Mary from Ireland. Both did everything they could (and then
some) to live the dream that America continues to promise newcomers
coming into the land of milk and honey. Both used aliases the way actors
change roles. At one point after I’d left home, I was so confused about
what my mother’s new name was that when I called home and the maid
picked up, I was forced to ask for “the lady of the house.” Both Typhoid
Mary and my mother seemed determined to live life as they saw fit and
at any cost. In the case of my mother, the cost was an incredibly
confusing childhood for her children; an explosive relationship with her
loving husband; and a ten year incarceration at Chowchilla Prison in
central California — for, amongst many other things, fraud. (More on my
mother’s story here)

But for Typhoid Mary the cost was closer to 20 years on North Brother
Island, an island located on the East River between the Bronx and Rikers
Island. Mary’s incarceration was for cooking — or rather, for continuing
to cook after being told repeatedly that she was a healthy carrier of the
Typhoid Bacilli. Mary was the first carrier discovered in America of the
bacteria that causes typhoid fever and, if untreated, potentially death.
She initially spent three years in quarantine after allegedly infecting the
wealthy families she had worked for as a cook. In 1910, a new health
commissioner decided she had probably learned her lesson. Mary signed
an affidavit swearing she would never cook again, and gained her
Five years later there was another outbreak of typhoid fever, this time at
Sloane Maternity Hospital. There was a new cook, a Mrs. Brown, who
seemed to look a lot like Mary Mallon — aka Typhoid Mary. This time
around, the City Health Department and the city at large turned their
back on Mary and put her away for another 23 years, until her death.
The unsettling similarity between these two women is that both were
initially released and yet both started up again! My mother was still
scamming — yes even after ten years in the slammer — and Mary was still
cooking, potentially infecting more people with the typhoid that riddled
her gall bladder so much so that it earned her nicknames like “Walking
culture tube,” “The most dangerous woman in America,” and of course,
“Typhoid Mary.”
I have spoken to my mother about her shenanigans at length, and I have
come to understand her, as well as one can understand a complicated
character. For my mother it has something to do with equating giving
with loving — meaning, that she thought unconsciously that the more she
gave to others, the more others would love her — and of course the thrill
and power that comes from scamming and getting away with it. My
mother has since been rehabilitated but I cannot speak to Typhoid Mary,
she died a long time ago. But I have often wondered: how would she
have felt? There she was on that little island with only a dog keeping her
company. The New York City skyline of the early 20th century was
starting to rise and seemed just barely within her reach, but not really.
She was incarcerated and held against her will — and very possibly by
her estimates she actually had been kidnapped by the city.
Here is one of the many conundrums surrounding Mary’s case: She was
America’s very first Patient Zero. The city health department had never
encountered a “healthy carrier” and because all of it was so highly
publicized — if not scandalized in sensationalizing and competitive
newspapers of the day — it had very possibly been blown out of
proportion. Typhoid Mary was stuck in the middle of it all. Like most
immigrants of the time, she had little or no concept of germ theory; most people may have still held on to old world beliefs that sickness comes from fouls smelling gasses (as in, “The dead horse lying on the street is gassing up the air, watch out you don’t get miasma and die from typhoid!”). Others may have believed that disease has a direct connection to one’s character and deeds. If that were the case, my mother would have come down with a severe case of leprosy. So the concept of being a “healthy carrier” might have been completely beyond Mary’s reach. But she had been told — perhaps not very sensitively — that she was making people sick, so how could she have not known how dangerous and contagious she was? She was apparently responsible for infecting household after household, dozens of sick people and killing at least two. Why, after promising to never cook again, did she do it? Exactly what she knew about her condition and what she believed has always been a mystery — until now.

As the creative director for LiveINTheater, a company that specializes in making theatrical experiences based and inspired by real history, I love history — and Typhoid Mary is a perfect subject to explore. Here, finally, is an opportunity for us to see the character and dive deeply into the circumstances surrounding her complicated case. The Trial of Typhoid Mary will allow audiences to live with and interact with Mary and her case as well as ultimately decide her fate. Audiences at Live IN Theater productions always interact, but this will be our first venture into a courtroom trial. We have focused on real unsolved murders that become murder mystery experiences for audiences to try and solve, and we are excited to tackle the arena of a trial with our brand of interactive experiences. With The Trial of Typhoid Mary, audiences will travel throughout the New York Historical Society Museum’s galleries for this immersive piece of interactive theater. Audiences will experience the thrill of gathering clues, questioning suspects, and trying to understand this woman, before they will eventually take the stand and decide her fate.

The Trial of Typhoid Mary is a rare opportunity to live through a fascinating period of time in our cities history and a explore a gripping character. Will contemporary audiences decide she deserves another chance? Or will they repeat history and send her away for the rest of her life? The choice will be yours.

See The Trial Of Typhoid Mary 1915 on December 2!

Click HERE to get your ticket.

The Trial of Typhoid Mary, photo credit by Natalia Yandyganova