I just finished reading a book by Anthony Bourdain, entitled TYPHOID MARY. It was a quick and easy read about a subject which I found fascinating. No, not the fact that Mary Mallon from Cookstown, Ireland, unknowingly infected many people with typhoid, three of whom died. What I found fascinating was how resilient and resourceful women from Ireland in the late 19th century had to become. Not to say that women from other countries were less so, or had to endure less, but this story about Mary Mallon‘s need to survive seemed personal. Coming from a large family of strong Irish women, this required a bit more research.
Mary left Ireland at the beginning of the devastating potato famine. In only seven years, the Irish potato famine changed the face and lives of an entire country. Unfortunately, this catastrophic event doesn’t seem to be taught or even discussed in schools. But …
Let’s start at the beginning. Potatoes are indigenous to South America … and if you’ve ever visited Peru you know how many thousands of varieties they have. It wasn’t until the 16th century, however, that the potato was introduced to Ireland, after having been brought from South America by the Spanish. It was discovered that not only could this crop grow easily in the cloud-covered, moist Irish climate with its rich soil, it could feed many, many people per acre. As a result, the lowly potato quickly became the staple food for the Irish, and in particular, the poor. With no wheat, corn or grain available to them, a typical peasant might eat up to eight pounds of potatoes each day, providing 80 percent of their caloric intake.
But in 1845 a potato blight, crossing from Europe, began to sweep through the country. A few days after the potatoes were dug from the ground, they’d begin to turn into a slimy, decaying, black “mass of rottenness.” Experts started investigating every means possible to understand where this blight was coming from and how to handle it, but they had no answers. It wasn’t discovered until years later that it was a fungus which traveled from South America. Nonetheless, one-third of Ireland’s population were completely dependent upon this crop for food, and now their source of food was gone.
Over the course of the next seven years, one in every nine people (over one million) died from starvation and related diseases: cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and typhus. As people packed up and took to the roads trying to find food, the highly-contagious typhus was carried with them from town to town. At times, entire families, ravaged by the disease and starvation, simply laid down along the roadside and died. Those that could find a means to leave the country, did so. Another million people emigrated to the United States and Canada. One of those was Mary Mallon.
Many Irish women, leaving their families behind, emigrated to America alone. But once here, they faced huge barriers … among them discrimination and religious persecution. “No Irish Need Apply” was the common sentiment. But because these young women served as the economic lifeline for their families back home, it was imperative that they find work. And because domestic service jobs generally offered room and board, these were their only choice.
“Going into service” as it was called appealed to many Irish women. It had no expenses for food, housing, shelter, heat, water, or transportation and meant that they could live in middle-class neighborhoods instead of the tenements. They knew, however, that they had to delay or forego marriage altogether. Despite the constant discrimination, they clung to each other and their ethnicity with passion and fervor.
Mary Mallon was one of these women … strong, independent, fearless and resourceful. But unknown to her, she was carrying the deadly typhus pathogen. When Mary landed in New York City, she quickly learned to cook (hence, Anthony Bourdain‘s interest). Mary knew that if she could cook, and be a good one, she could at least elevate her status a bit, and not end up as a laundress or housemaid. And she did. Mary was able to find work in some of the most prestigious homes in New York City and Long Island. Although she never exhibited any signs of illness, she innocently left a wake of illness behind her.
Although Mary was tracked down, she managed, many times to get work and avoid capture by changing her name and her residence. Mary was a survivor. It wasn’t until an outbreak of typhoid in a maternity hospital in which Mary was working was she discovered and apprehended. The resulting story, I think, is a sad one, because although many typhoid carriers were walking around the streets of New York City at the time, Mary was forced into isolation for the rest of her life … 23 years.
Mary never knew, nor did she believe, that she was a carrier of a deadly disease. The only thing Mary knew was that she had to survive.
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References: Potatoes, Post Gazette, History, World History Project, Irish Working Women, History.com/Typhoid Mary, History Place/Famine