The infamous story of Typhoid Mary has been told and retold so many times that many people believe they understand the whole story (that she started the outbreak of a disease she didn’t even experience). However, in “The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation,” the Radiolab team paints a new picture of Typhoid Mary, one much more relatable and personal than any I’ve heard before.
How do they make it so intimate? By recreating Mary’s point of view through reenactments of her perspective and weaving in historical documents.
The piece starts in the present, on a now-abandoned island that once quarantined victims of contagious disease, including one Mary Mallon. It then transports us back to the turn of the 20th century to Oyster Bay, New York, where several cases of typhoid emerged, all leading back to Mary Mallon as the carrier. What then ensues is a harrowing battle of wits as Mary desperately tries to convince the government that she is not, in fact, contagious.
The fact that it begins in the present elevates the listener from a mere passive bystander to being a thoroughly engrossed participant -- you’re there with the producers on the island. One of them has very same view that Mary Mallon experienced, while she was quarantined. “Holy Moly!” he says, “If this is where her cabin was, then one window of it looked exactly onto Manhattan… you can see the traffic on the streets.” And by reenacting Mary’s perspective, he is recreating her point of view, giving listeners a chance to stand beside her and see what she saw all those lonely years.
Seeing what Mary saw helps listeners to begin to understand what she might have been thinking, but historical documents show us exactly what she was thinking. For example, after she is first placed under quarantine, she fights for her own release, and in the piece, an actress reads Mary’s letters to her lawyers. “I have in fact been a peep show, for everybody,” Mary’s letter says. At this point, it’s as if Mary is telling the story herself. This correspondence helps us visualize the people around her, and the time period, the way they talked.
Every story happens in a specific time and place, and in this story, the historic documents take us to the time and the reenactments take us to the place.
By the end of the story, I didn’t feel like a detached spectator, but rather an involved witness and confidant to the trials of Mary Mallon. So what actually became of her in the end? It wouldn’t do much good for me to tell you - better to let you go there yourself, and get the story straight from the source.
"The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation"
by Sean Cole, Lynn Levy, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich in 2011 for Radiolab