R&D Program Director Megan McClain interviews Associate Artist Rebecca Hart about her project with composer David Kornfeld being developed in the Civilians R&D Group. Based partly on their own neurodiverse lives, the work asks questions about creativity, sanity, and what we consider "normal."
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, among 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 probably had learned her lesson. Mary signed an affidavit swearing she would never cook again and thus gained her freedom.
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 – a.k.a. Typhoid Mary. This time around, the City Health Department and the city at-large turned their backs 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, she thought unconsciously that the more she gave to others, the more that 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 often have 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 – by her estimates, the city had actually kidnapped her.
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 before encountered a “healthy carrier,” and because all of it was so highly publicized – if not scandalized in the newspapers of the day – it very possibly got 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. In fact, most people may still have held onto 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 connected directly 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 apparently was responsible for infecting household after household – dozens of sick people – and killing at least two. Why, after promising never to cook again, did she do it? Exactly what she knew about her condition and what she believed has always been a mystery – until now.
I am the creative director for Live in Theater, a company that specializes in making theatrical experiences based on and inspired by real history. I love history, and Typhoid Mary is a subject ripe for exploration. 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” allows audiences to live and interact with Mary and her case before ultimately deciding her fate.
Audiences at Live in Theater productions always interact with our pieces, but this will be our first venture into a courtroom trial. We have turned real unsolved murders into murder mystery experiences for audiences to solve, and we are excited to tackle the trial arena with our brand of interactivity. With “The Trial of Typhoid Mary,” audiences over eight years-old (yes, it’s a family show!) will travel throughout the New York Historical Society Museum’s galleries for an immersive, interactive theater experience. Kids and adults alike will experience the thrill of gathering clues, questioning suspects and trying to understand this woman, before eventually taking the stand and deciding her fate.
“The Trial of Typhoid Mary” is a rare opportunity to live through a fascinating time in our city’s 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 is up to you.
“The Trial of Typhoid Mary” takes place at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West Side.
Sunday, June 5 2:00-4:00pm