Literature Annotations


Federspiel, J. F.
The Ballad of Typhoid Mary


Genre Novel (180 pp.)
KeywordsChild Abuse, Children, Death and Dying, Disease and Health, Epidemics, History of Medicine, Infectious Disease, Medical Testing, Mental Illness, Narrative as Method, Poverty, Power Relations, Public Health, Scapegoating, Sexual Abuse, Sexuality, Society
SummaryThe novel's narrator is a widowed 58-year-old Swiss-born physician, Howard J. Rageet, who lives in New York City. His son is a pediatrician, his daughter a medical student. Rageet himself is terminally ill. He is writing a "little biography," of Mary Mallon, the infamous "healthy carrier" also known as Typhoid Mary. Rageet's grandfather, also a doctor, had kept a journal about Mary and his rivalry with his friend, (the real) George A. Soper, whose life's work became tracking Mary and proving that she was responsible for the typhoid outbreaks. Elaborating on the journal, Rageet recounts Mary's life in America.

Born Maria Anna Caduff in the same part of Switzerland as Rageet's ancestors, she arrives in New York Harbor in 1868, aged 13, on a crowded immigrant ship, a fifth of whose passengers had died en route from Europe. The dead include Mary's family. She had been taken care of by the ship's cook, who evidently both taught her to cook and used her for sex. When the ship docks, Mary tries to jump overboard, but is stopped by a physician, Dorfheimer, who smuggles her through Ellis Island and takes her home with him. He is also a pedophile, and he has sex with her. Rageet calls this kidnapping a "humane, benevolent crime." Not long after, Dorfheimer dies of typhoid fever.

Rageet's "ballad" then traces Mary's various positions as a cook (and, often, sexual object), most of which end quickly when the household is infected. She has two relationships that do not lead to the disease. One is with a small girl who has Down Syndrome. Once her connection to typhoid is suspected, the child's family hire Mary to live alone with the child and care for her, hoping the child will be infected and die. The child never becomes ill. The other is with a disillusioned anarchist, Chris Cramer. She lives with him and falls in love with him, but he is not sexually interested in her.

Soper encounters Mary when he is asked by a wealthy Oyster Bay family, her former employers, to investigate a typhoid outbreak in their household. He manages to track her down and eventually, after much resistance, she is arrested, tested, and quarantined. She escapes and continues to work as a cook until her re-arrest. Promising to try and imagine Mary's motives, Rageet breaks off his narrative. He is dying. The novel ends with a postscript written by Rageet's daughter. Implying that her father committed suicide, she tells of Mary's stroke and the last years of her life as a paraplegic, and she provides a final document, the menu for one of the very elaborate meals Mary would have cooked.

CommentaryThe epigraph for "The Ballad of Typhoid Mary" is fitting. It is from Tom Wolfe, whose literary non-fiction is surely an influence on Federspiel: "Life is strange and the world is bad."

This unsettling novel is less an account of historical events than it is a meditation on history itself, as narration, as detective work, and as an expression of complex desires. Rageet's "ballad," based as it is on his fictional grandfather's records, is marked as unreliable from the outset. That this is not a non-fiction biography is made clear by the account of "Maria" as being Swiss (as are Rageet-and Federspiel). Her efforts at passing as Irish Mary Mallon are undermined by a noticeable Swiss-German accent. Soper's publications appear to be the source of all factual material about Mary; the rest appears to have been imagined by Rageet's grandfather and reconstructed by Rageet himself, whose own imagination fails when, in his last passage, he says "I don't need it anymore."

Mary herself is a profoundly enigmatic character, opaque except as a construction of the interests, obsessions, and desires of the various men (including the Rageet doctors) who use her. The novel presents New York society in the late 19th (and the 20th) century as profoundly corrupt. The typhoid emerges as a kind of cathartic, punishing those who abuse the vulnerable. Mary becomes a kind of avenging angel--Rageet calls her a source of "equalizing justice." The rich food she cooks is a fitting way of transmitting the price of poverty to her employers.

Pedophilia underlies the text: when Rageet's daughter reads his manuscript, he worries that she will think, based on the episodes he has presumably invented, that he has "a preference for little girls." She does not allow him room to confess, connecting his interest in children with his work as a pediatrician. We are left to speculate (just as he has speculated about Mary) when he remarks that "every family history is an abyss."

This would work as a fascinating text to read or teach in conjunction with non-fiction accounts of epidemiography and public health in late-19th-century New York, illuminating the constructedness--the role of ‘imagining'--in our apprehension of the social and cultural dissemination of diseases and stories.

PublisherRandom House
Edition1983
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published in German in 1982; translated into English by Joel Agee.
Annotated by Belling, Catherine
Date of Entry 07/21/08