Live-In Theater has come up with another interactive, participatory theater experience that is a dramatization based on real past events, in this case, the 1915 apprehension of 45-year-old Mary Mallon, called “Typhoid Mary” by the news media of the time. Reportedly, Mallon infected 51 people with Typhoid Fever, three of them died.

Alas, the one future performance of The Trial Of Typhoid Mary (Dec. 10th) on the online calendar of the Live-In Theater website is presently sold out, and no performances are (so far) scheduled for 2018.  However, your hope of seeing it may not be entirely lost. A stage manager told me that they do this production in “a lot of high schools” as well as “for private groups”. It has been around for a few years, and they performed it at The New York Historical Society in 2016.

Live-In Theater’s promotional materials for the show, “The Trial of Typhoid Mary” say, “Come give Typhoid Mary the trial she never received”. Ticketholders assemble (in this case, in the downstairs room of a Lower East Side bar), and a costumed re-enactor in solemn black who declared himself the judge set the scene, and chose various members of the audience to act the parts of jurors, bailiffs, and, at the performance I attended, a courtroom sketch artist. Another costumed re-enactor handed out golf pencils and notepads, and doubled as a “barker”. Though from the Colonial era to the mid-19th century, it was not unheard of for courts to be informally convened in taverns, (at least in Staten Island) by the end of the 19th century to the early 20th century (the time of Mary Mallon’s arrest for being a public health hazard), court proceedings had acquired a lot more formality and government control, not to mention proper courthouses. However, treatment of suspects under the premises of “innocent until proven guilty” had not advanced as much as it has now. I think the majority of the twenty- and thirty- something audience were properly horrified that Mallon had been arrested without a warrant, and some who questioned the actress who played Mallon on the stand clearly disapproved of the fact that she had not been read her rights (enforcement of this became a 1960s innovation), and had previously been summarily imprisoned on North Brother Island. Motivated perhaps by the role-playing of certain of the re-enactors, the suffragette who claimed to have been Mallon’s previous employer, who stressed that Mallon did not willfully infect others, and the one who played Mallon, who claimed to have nursed the family who got typhoid back to health, doing the more onerous duties, including washing soiled bedsheets, unlike in real life, they returned a verdict of innocent, though Mallon’s understanding of sanitary practices was to clean away all visible dirt, and she didn’t seem too concerned about whether she washed her hands “after she had been to the privy” if they were “not dirty”. All participants in this exercise had entered a time when “The Germ Theory of Disease” was as hotly debated and widely doubted as the phenomena of Global Warming is now, and with pretty much the same class divide between adherents.

Most people there, having undergone the challenges of trying to live and work in NYC, were sympathetic to Mallon’s plea that she could not support herself as a laundress, but her vocation as well as her livelihood was that of cook.  The role-playing suffragette did well convincing people that this was a case of sexism; public officials found it easy to blame and intimidate a woman, when there was a male silent carrier of typhoid who had been publicly known at the same time in history, but who was not subject to the same infamy and public pillory as “Typhoid Mary”. I wish I had had the perspicacity to ask the suffragette re-enactor why Typhoid Mary was not still employed in the same capacity by her household, and the public health official why in the future, Typhoid Mary would resume her profession as cook on North Brother Island, only to infect more people with typhoid, after she had been imprisoned there for having infected people with typhoid involuntarily through her unsanitary practices if not her very touch.

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