History On Display: Amazing Grace, the Musical

Earlier this week, My Own True Love and I took a chance on the "pre-Broadway world premier" of a musical by a new composer/playwright based on the historical story of John Newton (1725-1807), the slave trader turned Anglican minister and abolitionist who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace".  At a minimum, we knew there would be at least one good song.

Newton's story--complete with love story--would be a gripper even without the personal transformation that inspired the song.  He was impressed into the British Navy in 1744.  After deserting ship, he was captured, flogged, demoted and eventually traded to a merchantman involved in the Triangular Trade between England, West Africa, and the West Indies.  Dogged by bad luck--often brought about by a bad attitude and questionable choices-- he became the prisoner of a powerful and highborn West African woman, worked as her factor in the slave trade, was rescued,* and almost died in a horrific storm at sea.

Amazing Grace, the musical, turns Newton's story into a powerful drama, with themes of love, redemption, and freedom.  It does an excellent job of portraying the brutality of the West African slave trade, the lesser brutality of the British Navy in the mid-eighteenth century, and the heroism of those involved in the British abolitionist movement.  I suspect that some of the details of Newton's life were tweaked to make a more dramatic story.  For instance, nothing I've read suggests that Newton's father headed the mission to rescue his son or that his life-long love Mary Catlett was part of the abolitionist movement.**  (The production makes up for slight in accuracies by providing an excellent study guide on line.)

Two aspects of the play bothered me, though both made for good theater.  Both Newton and Mary Catlett are attended by loyal family slaves who serve as their owners' consciences, as well as surrogates for parents who are present but inadequate.  The African scenes, particularly those involving the evil Princess Peyai,  had overtones of old adventure movies like King Solomon's Mine.

All caveats aside, Amazing Grace is worth seeing if it comes your way.  If you can stand at the end and sing “Amazing Grace” with the cast tears in your eyes or at least a lump in your throat, you’re a tougher history buff than I am.

* Or perhaps just convinced to come home, depending on which version you read

**And if she was, I want to know more.  Anyone?

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Contagion, Quarantine, Fear

Listening to a recent news report on the quarantine and eventual death of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died last week from ebola in Dallas, the aspect of the story that struck me most was how a single individual stands at the center of a circle of contacts—and possible contagion—many of whom never knew the infected individual.

The idea of a single carrier and contagion made me think of Mary Mallon, the first known “healthy carrier” of typhoid. You known her by the nickname Typhoid Mary.

typhoid maryTyphoid Mary was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1884 at the age of 15. She had never had typhoid and as far as she or anyone else knew she was healthy. Like many Irish immigrants at the time, she went into domestic service, where she quickly discovered she had talent as a cook—a prized position because it was more highly paid than most domestic work. She moved from job to job—not unusual for a domestic worker at the time. What was unusual was that typhoid outbreaks followed Mallon from job to job.

Mallon was first identified as a possible carrier in 1907. New York banker Charles Henry Warren rented a Long Island summer home for his family and hired Mallon as a cook for the season. In late August, one the Warren daughters came down with typhoid fever. She was the first: eventually six of the eleven people in the house became ill. Mary Mallon was not among them.

Typhoid was known to be spread by contaminated water or food. The owners of the home were afraid that they would not be able to find more tenants unless they identified the source of the contagion. They hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in tracing the source of typhoid fever outbreaks. As part of his investigations, he traced Mallon’s employment history and found that between 1900 and 1907, she had worked at seven jobs at which 22 people came down with typhoid.

Soper didn’t think this was a coincidence, but he needed stool and blood samples from Mallon to prove she was the carrier.

Mallon was once again working as a cook in a private residence. When Soper approached her, she threatened him with a carving fork. After a second attempt, Soper turned his data over to the New York City Health Department. Mallon again refused to cooperate, and responded with violence, profanity and the carving fork that appears to have been her weapon of choice. It took the Health Department doctor and five police officers to capture Mallon* and take her by ambulance to a hospital, where specimens were taken and examined.** Having confirmed that Mallon carried typhoid bacilli, the health department transferred her to an isolated cottage on North Brother Island, where they tested her stool samples regularly for typhoid.

Mallon was held against her will and without a trial. She had broken no laws, and did not understand how she could be a carrier of a disease for which she showed no symptoms. She sued the health department, with no effect. The judge agreed that she should be confined for the public good.

In 1910, a new health commissioner decided Mallon could go free as long as she never worked as a cook again. Not surprisingly, she agreed to the conditions if that’s what it took to gain her freedom.

Five years later, typhoid fever broke out in the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan. Twenty-five people became ill; two of them died. Evidence pointed to a recently hired cook as the source of the infection: Mallon working under the assumed name of Mrs. Brown. She was sent back to her isolated cottage, where she remained imprisoned for 23 years.

Mallon was not the only healthy carrier identified in New York in this period. She wasn’t the only healthy carrier to ignore health department restrictions after learning she was contagious. She wasn’t even the most deadly. But she was the only one isolated for life. And the only one to become a synonym for contagion.

*According to Dr. S. Josephine Baker, “I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”
**None of the accounts describe how you get a stool sample from an unwilling subject. The mind boggles.

A History of New York in 101 Objects

New York Times reporter Sam Roberts makes it clear that A History of New York in 101 Objects is not the history of New York City, but his history of New York City, shaped by a 50-year career of reporting on the area. Inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project of the British Museum and the BBC, Roberts established criteria for selection that he describes as highly subjective but not arbitrary. Objects could not be much larger than a breadbox (a criterion he often ignores), could not be a person, and had to still physically exist in some form. Most importantly, objects had to illustrate a transformative moment in New York's past.

The resulting history is charming, idiosyncratic and remarkably comprehensive. Roberts begins with a piece of the rock on which Manhattan is built and ends with a masonry Madonna that survived Hurricane Sandy. Some of the objects and their stories are predictable: the letter documenting the "sale" of Manhattan to the Dutch, the New York Public Library's lions, a subway token. Many are surprising, such as the impact of the mechanized cotton picker on northern cities.

The format of A History of New York in 101 Objects is deceptive. While it is easy to dip in and out at random, Roberts tells a story that is not merely episodic and not solely about New York. The book could alternately be titled A History of the United States in One City.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers