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The ballad of Typhoid Mary

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For forty years she roamed New York like an angel of death. A typhoid carrier - herself immune but lethal to her unsuspecting victims - Mary Mallon bore her disease over the thresholds and into the kitchens of the elite homes, hotels and hospitals of nineteenth century New York. Always moving on before the authorities could catch up with her, she bought death to untold thou For forty years she roamed New York like an angel of death. A typhoid carrier - herself immune but lethal to her unsuspecting victims - Mary Mallon bore her disease over the thresholds and into the kitchens of the elite homes, hotels and hospitals of nineteenth century New York. Always moving on before the authorities could catch up with her, she bought death to untold thousands. Yet her only crime was her refusal to give up her sole - and deadly- source of pleasure: cooking. From the Typhoid Mary, JF Federspiel has created this bizarre and haunting novel.


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For forty years she roamed New York like an angel of death. A typhoid carrier - herself immune but lethal to her unsuspecting victims - Mary Mallon bore her disease over the thresholds and into the kitchens of the elite homes, hotels and hospitals of nineteenth century New York. Always moving on before the authorities could catch up with her, she bought death to untold thou For forty years she roamed New York like an angel of death. A typhoid carrier - herself immune but lethal to her unsuspecting victims - Mary Mallon bore her disease over the thresholds and into the kitchens of the elite homes, hotels and hospitals of nineteenth century New York. Always moving on before the authorities could catch up with her, she bought death to untold thousands. Yet her only crime was her refusal to give up her sole - and deadly- source of pleasure: cooking. From the Typhoid Mary, JF Federspiel has created this bizarre and haunting novel.

30 review for The ballad of Typhoid Mary

  1. 4 out of 5

    Franziska Nyffenegger

    Eine schnelle Lektüre für / in Zeiten der Quarantäne, die ich bei Erscheinen 1982 nicht zur Kenntnis genommen habe und die heute offenbar zum Pflichtstoff an Schweizer Gymnasien gehört. - Besonders gefallen hat mir der distanzierte Blick des Autors auf seine Protagonistin: Er beschreibt, was sie macht, ohne diese Handlungen zu deuten, ohne Psychologie oder gequälte Innensichten. Der reflexive Raum bleibt klein und dem Erzähler vorbehalten. Gefallen hat mir auch die Textur von Fakt und Fiktion: d Eine schnelle Lektüre für / in Zeiten der Quarantäne, die ich bei Erscheinen 1982 nicht zur Kenntnis genommen habe und die heute offenbar zum Pflichtstoff an Schweizer Gymnasien gehört. - Besonders gefallen hat mir der distanzierte Blick des Autors auf seine Protagonistin: Er beschreibt, was sie macht, ohne diese Handlungen zu deuten, ohne Psychologie oder gequälte Innensichten. Der reflexive Raum bleibt klein und dem Erzähler vorbehalten. Gefallen hat mir auch die Textur von Fakt und Fiktion: die historische Figur der Mary Mallon einerseits, die literarische Figur des Kinderarztes Howard J. Rageet andererseits. - Auch schön, aus aktuellem Anlass, was ein Rezensent im Spiegel vor fast vierzig Jahren über das Buch gesagt hat: "(...) es ist aus einer heutigen Perspektive erzählt, also aus gesundheitlich gesicherten Zeiten."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steven Drachman

    I've read this book a few times and have found it enigmatic and haunting. I think think that readers who enjoy books about 19th century New York, like Winters Tale or The Alienist would really like this one. Federspiel never wrote anything this good again (and didn't write very much at all), which I think explains why this book is mostly forgotten today, in spite of its acclaim back in 1983. It's too bad; it deserves to be rediscovered. I've read this book a few times and have found it enigmatic and haunting. I think think that readers who enjoy books about 19th century New York, like Winters Tale or The Alienist would really like this one. Federspiel never wrote anything this good again (and didn't write very much at all), which I think explains why this book is mostly forgotten today, in spite of its acclaim back in 1983. It's too bad; it deserves to be rediscovered.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    This review originally published in Looking For a Good Book. Rated 2.5 of 5 I bought this book when Ballantine Books first released this edition (that's not my book in the photo, but mine looks the same). I would have to admit that I was first drawn to the book by this magnificent cover (by Larry Schwinger?) and then by the subject matter. I was in my 'dark' period in the 80's - enjoying vampire stories and anything horror related (I was a little ahead of the times, I guess) and so a story about This review originally published in Looking For a Good Book. Rated 2.5 of 5 I bought this book when Ballantine Books first released this edition (that's not my book in the photo, but mine looks the same). I would have to admit that I was first drawn to the book by this magnificent cover (by Larry Schwinger?) and then by the subject matter. I was in my 'dark' period in the 80's - enjoying vampire stories and anything horror related (I was a little ahead of the times, I guess) and so a story about the woman who infect a dozen New Yorkers with Typhoid was probably right up my alley then. The book is historical fiction (which was also a bit ahead of the times since it's become increasingly popular). The idea is that the narrator is Howard J. Rageet, a Swiss-born doctor living in New York. He is terminally ill and he is writing out this story for his children (both physicians). Rageet's grandfather (also a doctor) had a friendly rivalry with George A. Soper - the real-life figure who tracked (Typhoid) Mary Mallon. Rageet uses his 'journal' to describe Mary's life in the United States. This is a clever, and maybe at times a little confusing, story-telling device. We have the author, J.F. Federspiel, writing about Rageet, who is writing about Soper, who is tracking Typhoid Mary. Who are we now? The book is short, with very brief chapters, making it a quick read, but it definitely leaves the reader just a little bit uncomfortable with Mallon's complete denial and lack of concern. Additionally, there are others who recognize, in this fictional account, of Mary's terrible affliction and actually hire her hoping that a Mongoloid child might catch typhus. This is definitely a very interesting book. Because I've been enjoying some historical fiction lately, and as a lot of history books seem to be taking a fictional sensibility (describing what people are thinking when we don't really know [yes, I'm looking at you, Bill O'Reilly]) I took this out of storage, dusted it off, and gave it a read. But I don't really recommend it unless the subject matter is of interest to you. Looking for a good book? The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J. F. Federspiel is a fictional recounting of the search for, and discovery of, the person responsible for the typhus epidemic in America. It is a bit dark, but a quick read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ria

    A fascinating fictionalised and factual account of the life of "Typhoid Mary" an immigrant who tries to find work as a cook and it's her passion for cooking when she arrives in New York that causes her to be an angel of death for Mary is unfortunately a carrier for typhoid. Her mania for attaining jobs where she can cook means she leaves in her wake a trail of death. Forever fleeing and fearful of what she suspects and then knows she is causing, poor Mary has an unhappy life where she suffers the A fascinating fictionalised and factual account of the life of "Typhoid Mary" an immigrant who tries to find work as a cook and it's her passion for cooking when she arrives in New York that causes her to be an angel of death for Mary is unfortunately a carrier for typhoid. Her mania for attaining jobs where she can cook means she leaves in her wake a trail of death. Forever fleeing and fearful of what she suspects and then knows she is causing, poor Mary has an unhappy life where she suffers the humiliation of Victorian immigration, sexual abuse, rough living and apart from one criminal edged friend, utter loneliness. A dark, yet haunting read told through the eyes of a doctor who is ill himself and nearing his own end.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Hulser

    Typhoid Mary a contemporary contamination Invitation to a Dark Roast The gradual veering of history away from the tales of yesterday’s kings towards the tales of yesterday’s serfs hasn’t left the telling of the tales themselves untouched. A passion for mixed truth and fiction has seized the literary hotshots of our day – and to weave their fictions taken from popular culture they are adopting the literary equivalent of junk materials already consecrated in the collage art of the 1910s and 1920s – Typhoid Mary a contemporary contamination Invitation to a Dark Roast The gradual veering of history away from the tales of yesterday’s kings towards the tales of yesterday’s serfs hasn’t left the telling of the tales themselves untouched. A passion for mixed truth and fiction has seized the literary hotshots of our day – and to weave their fictions taken from popular culture they are adopting the literary equivalent of junk materials already consecrated in the collage art of the 1910s and 1920s – data, reports, yellow journalism or illustrated weekly fare. This is not to ennoble them as belle lettres but to resurrect prose, attitudes, voice in their original forms. What’s often funny and contradictory is that it is the most highly schooled raconteurs who have turned to these elements. None of the naïve hype of the Dos Passos school, claiming that because it mirrored the ingredients of daily life it was somehow more daily or proletarian. Not popular with Maoists, renegade CPers or cultural Trots, either. Another trendy social analysis center that lurks around the New York Institute for the Humanities had its original tastes influenced from the French deconstructive zone, which has yet to win a great following on the shop floor. Nevertheless, no matter what the tortured genealogy of taste, the unmistakable allure of a pot-boiler made from and for popular culture hangs around the Ballad of Typhoid Mary by Jurg Federspiel a middle-aged Swiss writer who suffered from diabetes and Parkinson's disease and killed himself in 2007. His heroine typhoid Mary Mallon made her fever-racked way to American aboard a ship whose hold was crammed with typhoid victims. It was there that adolescent Swiss-born Mary learned to cook, a vocation she was never to abandon, even after the NY Board of Health caught up with her and explained a bit of the newly formed germ theory of disease transmission. They threatened her with a second round of incarceration at Bellevue if she persisted in cooking. She did not heed that advice, seemingly unconcerned about her role as a typhoid carrier. Federspiel takes wicked glee in the sketchiness of his heroine’s history, for it gives him license to fill in the details himself. In his version, give a more saturnine turn through the device of alternating chapters of Mary’s tale with chapters of the dying descendent of the doctor who followed her case in the 1890s. While the folktale goes so far as to picture Mary as a foaming witch stirring a diabolical Typhus figure himself into the unsuspecting victim’s soup, Federspiel has a fatal attraction for the sex in history frame. Mary, sexually abused at the time of her passage to America, falls into the clutches of one beastly horny maître d’ after another in her chosen profession. Her revenge, however is modern, chemical warfare. But it doesn’t fall equally on the heads of her abusers. Though the modern Dr.?narrator confesses that he too is interested in Mary’s sexual victimization, the tale holds up because it turns thus Mary, the scourge into the object of our sympathies. Another modern theme that Federspiel sounds with telling effect in the book’s 170 page scope, is Mary’s obsession with cooking. Far from being a trope for sexual/ meddling in the pot, it’s seen without cant, as a justified and stubborn attachment to respectable self-support and a real skill. Mary in Federspiel’s hands is a clever creature but dumb. The dialogue in the book is exclusively between the savvy do and the reader, or at most his daughter, when Federspiel isn’t giving us his own unadulterated view of stinking hellhole immigrant tenements, back-pantry class rancor. Mary is like many a woman in history, a vehicle without a voice of her own. But this may work to not so obvious literary ends, keeping away form the temptation of the explanatory voice. Mary is more resolutely painted as the sum of her actions, finding cooking jobs in hotels and private households, preparing varied meals and nursing the resulting typhoid victims. Mind you, the most evil moment is when a mysterious wealthy individual hires her to look after an unidentified mongoloid child. It’s the deliberation and privilege in the act, the most perverted scene in the Upstairs Downstairs world that Federspiel so skillfully exploits as his setting. A bit facile but also fascinating. Susan Sontag covers a bit of the territory in Illness as Metaphor and even Thomas Mann couldn’t resist placing his famous sickly spirits in a Swiss sanatorium, so perhaps Herr Federspiel has inhaled the air of his native Davos. Our society with its baby bulge of newly greened, eco-minded citizens has become pre-occupied with the idea of contamination. Unlike in the favorite metaphors of the 19th century when the typhoid Mary myth got cooking (sickness then was a symptom of civilization in decay, specifically the breaking up of the aristocracy of spirit which could afford to think about the nuances of feeling) – our contamination is rougher and yet more devious. The creeping pollution of our era’s typhoids, Agent Orange Dioxin, the Love Canal, the Bhopal insecticide mass poisoning, the Ebola outbreaks. The delicate cancerous emanations of piles of uranium tailings and breeze born-e particles of atomic power plant effluvia are the hidden infections around us. Without breathing a word of this, Federspiel makes us compare the social sickness to the realm of ideology, through the figure of Mary. And like a canny wordsmith he makes his Mary work on the tabloid level too, just as she did in her own time when she was immortalized in wax museums and nursemaid’s tales.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kyrie

    A translation of a fictional account of Typhoid Mary written by a narrator whose grandfather met her. It was odd, disturbing for the way men treated the young Mary, and that she didn't seem to object. Also, the interludes where the narrator discusses his illness and impending death are pretty strange too. A translation of a fictional account of Typhoid Mary written by a narrator whose grandfather met her. It was odd, disturbing for the way men treated the young Mary, and that she didn't seem to object. Also, the interludes where the narrator discusses his illness and impending death are pretty strange too.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Katie Vaclavek

    An interesting fictional account of the original typhoid Mary.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Ideiosepius

    A fascinating, beautifully written story based on the legend of Typhoid Mary. In this book Mary is an immigrant to New York in the nineteenth century. She arrived on a ship devastated by plague without being sick. She is a carrier in an era where medicine is primitive by our standards and carriers are not recognised. She strives to make a living in her new home, as a cook. She has a passion for cooking that is very unfortunate for a Typhoid carrier. That is the plot outline, but it was the deft wr A fascinating, beautifully written story based on the legend of Typhoid Mary. In this book Mary is an immigrant to New York in the nineteenth century. She arrived on a ship devastated by plague without being sick. She is a carrier in an era where medicine is primitive by our standards and carriers are not recognised. She strives to make a living in her new home, as a cook. She has a passion for cooking that is very unfortunate for a Typhoid carrier. That is the plot outline, but it was the deft writing, the excellent character creation and development, the descriptive powers that made this book excellent. It also sets the scene of eighteenth century New York beautifully and I enjoyed ever moment of reading this story.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kjsbreda

    I picked up this novel on a whim and was greatly impressed with the author's sympathetic portrayal of the woman whose name became a byword for the spread of disease. The author meticulously researched New York City from 1865 through the first quarter of the twentieth century. He frequently gave context to the story by referring to landmarks, celebrities, discoveries and events of the time period. All of the major characters in the book are beautifully developed and the reader is made to see that I picked up this novel on a whim and was greatly impressed with the author's sympathetic portrayal of the woman whose name became a byword for the spread of disease. The author meticulously researched New York City from 1865 through the first quarter of the twentieth century. He frequently gave context to the story by referring to landmarks, celebrities, discoveries and events of the time period. All of the major characters in the book are beautifully developed and the reader is made to see that there are rarely, if ever, any villains in reality -- that maybe we are all innocents hemmed in by fate, circumstance and dumb luck.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

    A very short fictionalized account of Typhoid Mary's life in New York City. The story overlays a present day narrator telling the story of researching and writing the book with the underlying tale. The double narrative allows for the inclusion of historical fact about what else was happening in the world at the time, but overall felt stilted and detracted from Mary's story. The book also makes no effort to describe Mary's own feelings or thoughts, which seems like a wasted opportunity. That said A very short fictionalized account of Typhoid Mary's life in New York City. The story overlays a present day narrator telling the story of researching and writing the book with the underlying tale. The double narrative allows for the inclusion of historical fact about what else was happening in the world at the time, but overall felt stilted and detracted from Mary's story. The book also makes no effort to describe Mary's own feelings or thoughts, which seems like a wasted opportunity. That said, it's an enjoyable account that can plausibly be read in one sitting on a rainy afternoon.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ronald Wilcox

    Surprisingly enjoyable "biography" loosely based on the known facts of Mary Mallon's life with a lot of fictional accounts to fill the space between the facts. Mary arrives in New York, coming as an orphan who just arrived on a transAtlantic ocean ship with about a 20% mortality rate among the passengers. She then starts getting those around her, such as her employers, sick with typhoid. As a physician I thought it enjoyable and worthy of reading just as an indication of medical services availab Surprisingly enjoyable "biography" loosely based on the known facts of Mary Mallon's life with a lot of fictional accounts to fill the space between the facts. Mary arrives in New York, coming as an orphan who just arrived on a transAtlantic ocean ship with about a 20% mortality rate among the passengers. She then starts getting those around her, such as her employers, sick with typhoid. As a physician I thought it enjoyable and worthy of reading just as an indication of medical services available in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Antonia

    Well, this book was different. A historical fiction story about the woman Typhoid Mary, who spread (both unknowingly and unknowingly) typhus to potentially hundreds of people along the east coast and NYC. I wish the book had gone into more of her motives, her psyche, and how the situation affected her, although I suppose most of that would have to have been speculation. Still, as the book was fiction, I would have liked more of a psychological side to the story.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Marigny777

    An overall odd combination of vladimir nabakov and erik larson...??? An easily accessible text on the typhoid mary phenomenon and the immigrant panic around the turn of the century. While the book was in reach of touching on some very interesting social problems such as the medicalization of deviance, it did not seem have the fortitude to follow the themes through. Still a fun read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    I didn't realize it was fiction at first. A dying doctor spins little vignettes of the life he imagines Typhoid Mary has lived, and eventually reveals his specific world view. It's an anti-Horatio Alger novel, where rich obnoxious people get punished, but the poor never really manage to make good. The chapters are short and it's an easy read. I'm glad I stumbled across this book. I didn't realize it was fiction at first. A dying doctor spins little vignettes of the life he imagines Typhoid Mary has lived, and eventually reveals his specific world view. It's an anti-Horatio Alger novel, where rich obnoxious people get punished, but the poor never really manage to make good. The chapters are short and it's an easy read. I'm glad I stumbled across this book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Sammis

    September 26, 2005 What an interesting book! While it is a fictionalized account of the events of Mary's life after she landed in New York, I come away from the book having learned quite a few things. For more information on typhoid fever check out the CDC site. September 26, 2005 What an interesting book! While it is a fictionalized account of the events of Mary's life after she landed in New York, I come away from the book having learned quite a few things. For more information on typhoid fever check out the CDC site.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kally

    Read this in German class... It's a cool story and it's also written very well. Very short chapters but made it more interesting for me personally. Some characters were awfully odd (Mr.Spornberg, etc), but overall a quite good book. Doesn't take that long to read either. Read this in German class... It's a cool story and it's also written very well. Very short chapters but made it more interesting for me personally. Some characters were awfully odd (Mr.Spornberg, etc), but overall a quite good book. Doesn't take that long to read either.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Parson

    fun historical novel about an intriguing person

  18. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    An interesting and haunting read...

  19. 4 out of 5

    Darcia Scates

    I loved reading this book. It inspired me to dig deeper into the historical context of the story. It was a good read. I highly recommend this book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Fishface

    Haunting, elegaic biography of Marry Mallon, the infamous Typhoid Mary. Makes you almost -- sort of -- maybe -- understand why she did what she did.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sabine

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  23. 4 out of 5

    A

  24. 5 out of 5

    the_argus

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ursina

  26. 4 out of 5

    Xenia Hartmann

  27. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alana Cash

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sara

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ania Greiner

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