Oh man, my dear readership, you have no idea about the amount of knowledge I am about to drop on you right now. I read this book and ended up Googling so many things, because some of it is just too bizarre to be real! But it is! So great ready to learn a lot about early 20th century New York City.
So the book is this:
Fever by Mary Beth Keane
2013, 320 pages
This follows the life of Mary Mallon, otherwise known as Typhoid Mary, from about 1905 to 1917. Mary, an Irish immigrant, was a cook for many rich families in New York City during the early 1900s. At many of the houses where she worked, people would start coming down with typhoid fever. It is said that she wasn’t washing her hands nearly enough when cooking, so that was probably part of it. Ew.
Eventually Mary was caught and sentenced to quarantine because she was seen as a carrier for typhoid, even though she was never sick. She ended up being pursued by Dr. Soper who ended up having her arrested and quarantined without giving her any say, or possibly a reasonable explanation for what was happening. She ended up spending THREE years!! on Brother Island in New York City. The island is a hospital for tuberculosis, and other contagious diseases, and where everyone except Mary goes to die. She had her own little bungalow and lived there by herself.
It seems that she was the first most public case of a typhoid carrier, just as people were starting to learn things about germs and transmitting diseases and the importance of sanitation. During her time in quarantine, other cases of typhoid carriers were discovered and allowed to continue living among people. The main problem was that Mary was a cook, and so she was getting people sick and some of them died. Hers was not the worst case of a carrier getting people sick though.
Anyway, Mary gets released from the island on the condition that she no longer works as a cook, even though it is what she loves to do most. She agrees and becomes a laundress but can’t resist the temptation to cook. She ends up going to work in a bakery, because that’s not the same thing, right? and gets caught. She eludes Dr. Soper (who is apparently evil, at least in this book), and goes off to live with her drug addict boyfriend (see below). After escaping she gets another job, using a different name, at a maternity hospital. Then a lot of people start getting sick and she is finally caught and sentenced to quarantine. She goes back to her little bungalow and stays there for the next twenty three years until she dies from pneumonia. Holy crap.
Mary was a bit of a badass, really. She had a boyfriend who she never married, very against the way things were done at the time. She clearly didn’t think that certain laws or restrictions were going to get in her way, as she went back to cook. She ran from the police the first time she was quarantined and hid for a while. Dr. Soper claimed she came after him with a knife a few times. She just did not fit the mold that people wanted her in.
So, whose fault is it? Is it Mary’s fault for being sick and continuing to cook, even after she realized she was the carrier? Should something more have been done somewhere? Was the doctor really such an incredible ass? Was she quarantined when others weren’t because she was a woman? Or a woman who worked for prominent New York families?
Ok, time for the knowledge bits:
Oppenheimer Treatment. This is mentioned about Mary’s boyfriend. As an alcoholic, he is given the Oppenheimer Treatment to quit, which apparently works for a while.
According to the book, I could not verify it online very easily, this “cure” for drug addiction and alcoholism involved drinking a lot of quinine. So much, in fact, that the person would then become sick and vomit a lot, which I guess does get rid of the need for alcohol, since nothing is being kept down anyway.
Unfortunately he can’t stay off the booze for long and ends up trying to light a lamp while drunk and it explodes instead. Severely burned, he goes to the hospital where he is treated. What kind of pain medication is available in the first decade or so of the 20th century? Well, let me tell you. Morphine, cocaine, heroin, codeine and opium are easily available and used. Guess what, those are mighty addictive! So, after he gets out of the hospital he is still addicted and the doctors continue prescribing the medicine for “maintenance.” Eventually the government catches on and says whoa, this is not good, and the various narcotics can no longer be prescribed. However, there are still ways to get them, even if not all the doctors will prescribe it. Heroin turns out to be super cheap. Boyfriend OD’s and dies.
In other medical grossness: apparently the way to make vaccines back then was to inject the disease into a horse. The horse was then left to develop an immunity to the disease. The horse was then bled, and out of the blood they took the serum and created a vaccine. It seems that horses had to die for this. And that’s all just gross.
The Triangle Shirt Factory and Titanic feature briefly. Man, not good times in the life of NYC right then.
Now I need to go find a biography of this stuff because how can this possibly be real?! Also, warning. If you are a little bit of a hypochondraic beware. You are going to want to wash your hands a bunch. Mostly because you just do.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 bedazzles