In a change of pace from her starring role on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss is going from a depressing tale set in the near future to a depressing tale set in the recent past. She’s teaming up with Annapurna Pictures’ newly launched TV division to develop Fever, a miniseries based on Mary Beth Keane’s novel about the woman infamously known as “Typhoid Mary.” Moss will executive produce the series for BBC America as well as star. “She was incredibly unique, stubborn, ambitious, and in fierce denial of any wrongdoing until her death…she is incredibly complicated, something I seem to enjoy playing,” Moss says in a press release.
Born Mary Mallon in northern Ireland, the woman who would become “Typhoid Mary” emigrated to the U.S. in 1883, where she began working as a cook in the households of wealthy New York City families. In 1906, she became the target of a citywide witch hunt after six members of the Warren household came down with a potentially deadly case of typhoid fever, a disease that loomed large in the minds of early 20th century New Yorkers. Eventually, freelance sanitary engineer George Soper discovered that 22 people across all seven houses where Mallon had worked over the years had come down with typhoid, and one of them had died. The culprit in the Warren case? Ice cream flavored with raw peaches, which Mallon had handled with her unwashed bare hands.
Mallon, meanwhile, had never shown symptoms of the disease, and fought health officials until long after she had been determined to be a carrier and banished to solitary confinement on Brother Island, off the shores of the Bronx, in 1907. In 1910, she sued for her freedom and won, with an assist from William Randolph Hearst. But she found herself back on Brother Island after breaking her promise never to work as a cook again, causing another typhoid outbreak at a maternity hospital in 1915. Public opinion, which had initially been mixed, turned squarely against Mallon after that.
To this day, it remains unknown whether Mallon knew she had the capacity to spread disease—she had a habit of quietly resigning after typhoid broke out in a house where she worked, for one—or if she truly believed herself innocent. One thing we do now know, however, is that she was far from the only typhoid carrier in New York at the time. She died in isolation in 1938.