Episode 149: “Typhoid” Mary Mallon

Posted 1 April 2020 by
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New York American 1909

Mary Mallon was a hardworking Irish immigrant in early 1900s New York City. She was strong, determined, and a good cook with both an extraordinary cussing vocabulary and a high concentration of Salmonella typhi in her digestive tract. Because of the latter, which she refused to accept and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, control the spread of, she was imprisoned for the latter portion of her life.

Mary was born on September 23, 1869, in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland. Not much is known about her life until she began to work as a cook in the late 1890s in New York City. The only reason we know about that is because she cooked for the Warren family in Oyster Bay, New York in 1906, and six members of the household contracted typhoid. A private investigation into the source led to the discovery of Mary who was a healthy, permanent carrier of the disease.

A legal battle led to a two-year stay at a quarantine hospital on North Brother Island in New York’s East River; poor decisions led to an additional 23-year stay until the end of Mary’s life on November 11, 1938. In between was a lot of science, a lot of legalities, a bunch of ethical questions, and a very powerful Board of Health.

Mary (presumably) in bed, “healthy’ at Riverside Hospital before she was moved to her own bungalow, 1907


Mary’s bungalow was kind of cute…except for the imprisonment part.

Mary wasn’t “Typhoid Mary, Evil Illness Dispensary,” she wasn’t even the only person in America who was a healthy carrier of typhoid fever…she was just the only one imprisoned for it. Not to say she was entirely innocent of the transmission of the disease, she did cause people to become sick and die, but no story only has one side and we cover all that in the episode.

North Brother Island today, by Riavax via wikicommons

There are a lot of parallels to our current world-wide, modern-day pandemic….and a lot of things that we can learn from Mary’s story beginning with wash your darn hands and ending with this: typhoid was a major, world-wide health issue 100 years ago, now we have a cure, know how to contain it, know how to prevent it. While it still exists, it’s no longer an illness most people in the US and many countries have to worry about. We hope that, long before 100 years from now, COVID-19 is the same.


Wash your hands. Stay safe, our friends!


Time Travel with The History Chicks


By Judith Walzer Leavitt, thorough, well researched, a lot of information


By Susan Walzer Bartoletti: YA, entertaining read (which sounds weird to say about such a serious subject)


By Anthony Bourdain, told from a cooks point of view


What the World Health Organization has to say about typhoid these days.

Our friends, The Bowery Boys, have some resources that relate to Mary: North Brother IslandCastle Garden and Battery Park, and Irish Immigration.

Doctor Who S8, E10: In the Forest of the Night. That’s the episode Susan couldn’t remember the title of.



PBS’ Nova on Mary Mallon there are A LOT of rabbit holes to tumble down.

Video of North Brother Island with photographer, Christopher Payne and an article from Atlas Obscura about the island.

Hell yeah, there’s a Drunk History! It’s a solid two.


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Break song, Irish Lamentation by Musica Pacifica; end song, Bad Sign by Brad Sucks 

Episode 148: Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker

Posted 17 March 2020 by
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Annie Turnbo Post Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone, circa 1920, via wikicommons, fair use

Netflix has created, Self Made, a limited series on the life of Madam C.J. Walker starring Octavia Spencer. This series is only “based on” her life so we figured that a refresher of the facts was important. However, we know that Madam C.J. Walker got her hair care education, her business template, and her professional start thanks to Annie Malone and her Poro college, and Annie entered the Millionaires Club before the woman who usually gets credit for it. We thought Annie deserved a little time in the spotlight, too.


Episode 147: Isadora Duncan

Posted 3 March 2020 by
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Isadora Duncan was a dance pioneer who bewitched audiences during her lifetime and trained young girls in her methods and methodology so that, after her passing, they could teach generations who danced after her. She was a rebel who loved hard, experienced great tragedy as well as great success and, to paraphrase the words of Paul Anka famously sung by Frank Sinatra, she did it her way.


Episode 146: Mary Church Terrell, Part Two

Posted 18 February 2020 by
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Mary circa 1925ish (the photo isn’t dated) Library of Congress

When we last left Mary Church Terrell, it was 1898, she was 34 years old, standing on a stage and receiving thunderous applause after having given a speech entitled, The Progress of Colored Women to an audience at the National American Women Sufferage Association. (You can read her speech here, at blackpast.org.)  (more…)

Episode 145: Not Mary Church Terrell, but Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Posted 3 February 2020 by
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This is not Mary Church Terrell, Part Two. That episode is coming as soon as we can finish it, but Ida and Mary’s lives crossed paths quite a bit and while you wait just a little longer for Mary, Part Two, we thought it would be a good idea to remember the life of this brave and brilliant writer and activist.


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Episode 144: Mary Church Terrell Part One

Posted 22 January 2020 by
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Mary circa 1900, LOC

Mary Church Terrell was born the year that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, she died the year that U.S. schools became desegregated and she worked as a civil rights activist and suffragist in between to better the lives of African Americans. She lived such a full life (and we get to give a lot of background on the issues that she championed) we’re going to break this into two episodes. (more…)

Episode 143: Maria Montessori

Posted 9 January 2020 by
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Maria, circa 1913, early 40s. public domain

Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in Chiaravalle, Italy, the only child of Alessandro and Renilde Montessori. That very same year, Italy became a unified country and her father worked in Rome with that new government. Her mother was from a wealthy family who had bucked convention and “allowed” their bright daughter to become as educated as possible. While conventional society didn’t allow Renilde to pursue a career, it didn’t stop her from raising her own bright daughter to aspire to one. (more…)

Episode 142: Louisa May Alcott, Revisited

Posted 27 December 2019 by
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With the new Little Women movie directed by Greta Gerwig out this Christmas, we thought that we should take a look back at our coverage of the life of its writer, Louisa May Alcott. Louisa wrote the book based on life with her sisters, but how much of that life is reflected in the pages? One way to find out: Learn about her life! (Spoiler: There are quite a few differences.)


For the shownotes for this episode, please follow this link LOUISA MAY ALCOTT SHOWNOTES.


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Episode 141: Rosa Parks Revisited

Posted 9 December 2019 by
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Episode 140: Wilma Mankiller

Posted 26 November 2019 by
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Wilma Mankiller in her home in Tahlequah in 1996. Kelly Kerr/Tulsa World

Wilma Mankiller was an activist, an educator, an author, a mom, and the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She did her part to share the rich, tragic, and resilient history of her people with the world, to improve the lives of her tribe, and speak out for civil and women’s rights. To say “what didn’t kill her made her stronger” isn’t hyperbole. She’s also the most contemporary woman that we’ve ever covered. Maybe if we start by keeping the stories of these smart, brave, and determined women at the forefront they will be household names to future generations. (more…)