Now she is called ‘Public Harm Auntie’ – in South Korea. In the 1980s and 90s she was known in the western world as ‘AIDS Mary’, a virulent and reckless transmitter of the HIV virus. In the twentieth-century America she was known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.
These creatures of twisted history and folklore were – and are – said to be spreading deadly disease. In early 2020, Public Harm Auntie is wantonly infecting South Koreans with Corona virus, or COVID-19.
How durable are these mass delusions, the spawn of fear and misinformation? Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1869 migrated to the USA where she worked as a domestic and cook for wealthy households. In 1906, it was discovered that the families she worked for had developed typhoid. It turned out that Mary was a carrier of the disease, and immune to it herself. Authorities quarantined her and later let her free on condition she never worked as a cook again. Unfortunately, Mary did. When she was discovered, she was again quarantined – for twenty-three years until her death in 1938.
Over this period, a worldwide typhoid epidemic raged, killing one in ten victims. Assisted by the press, panic erupted in America centred on Mary’s grim reaper status. Hysteria, misinformation and prejudice did their usually dirty work and Mary became the cause of untold typhoid deaths across the country.
As always, the reality was much different. Mary was a carrier who never contracted the disease herself, as were about fifty others. Mary only infected 33 people, three of whom died of the disease.
AIDS Mary (sometimes ‘Harry’) was, according to popular belief, at least as lethal. But, unlike Mary Mallon, she never existed. And while Public Harm Auntie appears to be an actual person, the alleged number of her infections with COVID-19 is undoubtedly swelled through the transmission of rumour as much as the virus.
Typhoid May, AIDS Mary (Harry) and Public Harm Auntie were [products of the pre-digital era. Now we have the greatest transmitter of falsehood, ignorance and fake news ever invented. The World Wide Web will ensure that this information virus spreads much faster than the disease itself.
David Mikkelson, ‘Did Typhoid Mary Cause the Deaths of Thousands of People?’, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/typhoid-mary/. The Snopes investigative and fact checking site is highly recommended as a vaccination against bullshit.