The Unfortunate Legacy of Mary Mallon

Marian Thomas Griffin stars as Mary Mallon, as she is apprehended after being suspected of spreading typhoid fever.
(Photo: Liane Brandon)

By Michele Barber-Perry, Contributor
October / November 2004
By Michele Barber-Perry, Contributor
October / November 2004
By Michele Barber-Perry, Contributor
October / November 2004

Death and disease. Mystery and suspense. A lover’s betrayal with controversial human rights issues in the mix. Nova’s new documentary The Most Dangerous Woman in America has it all. The superbly directed film explores the difficult, painful journey from teenage Irish immigrant to respectable private cook to public enemy number one of Mary Mallon, a.k.a. Typhoid Mary.

Through the combined use of archival photographs and expert interviews with historians, professors – and even the celebrity chef cum author, Anthony Bourdain – the film thoroughly examines the various issues surrounding the medical, legal, and social issues of Mallon’s case, set within the context of late 19th-century New York City.

Overcrowded and disease-ridden, the immigrant enclaves of New York’s Lower East Side were literal breeding grounds for disease, including infectious killers like typhoid fever, which is spread by food handlers. In some of the film’s historical re-enactments, we see the ungloved hands of a stubborn Mary Mallon (skillfully acted by Marian Thomas Griffin) fondling the deadly peaches and carrots she would then serve to her unwitting victims. It is thought that Mary maintained her innocence up until her death three decades later.

Esteemed physician (and Irish America magazine Top 100 honoree) Dr. Kevin Cahill is one of the interviewed experts in the film. Cahill’s father had been the medical director of Riverside Hospital on Brother Island, where Mary spent 26 years of quarantined isolation. Being a first-generation Irish immigrant himself, the senior Dr. Cahill identified with Mary’s experiences and befriended her. As one of the experts in the film, his son offers a defense of Mary. “I don’t think she was ever an evil person,” Dr. Cahill says. “She didn’t intentionally go out to hurt people. She was just incapable of understanding that her carrier state was the cause of death and illness in people.”

Intentional or not, Mary Mallon will always be known as Typhoid Mary. ♦

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