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Typhoid Mary and other curiosities in Irish biography

Dictionary of Irish Biography
More than 700 contributors were involved in creating the dictionary

The biggest work ever published about the lives of famous Irish men and women has been launched in Belfast by poet Seamus Heaney.

The nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography features more than 9,700 entries and spans 2,000 years of the island's history.

Described by Mr Heaney as "an epoch-making event in the history of Irish scholarship", it is a joint project between the Royal Irish Academy and Cambridge University Press.

Alongside Northern Ireland luminaries from Joey Dunlop to CS Lewis, the historians and writers have profiled some of the more unusual figures from the past. Here are some abridged versions of just few of them.


Typhoid Mary has become a generic term for a healthy carrier of a dangerous disease, but the name originated with a woman born in Cookstown, County Tyrone.

Mary Mallon emigrated to New York at the age of 14, and 10 years later began work as a domestic cook for wealthy families.

In August 1906, she was employed in the Long Island summer residence of a New York banker when six members of the household fell ill with typhoid fever.

At that time the disease afflicted several thousand New Yorkers annually and had a 10% fatality rate.

A doctor who was treating the family pursued the idea that a healthy person carrying the disease might have infected the victims.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney paid tribute to the scholarship involved in creating the dictionary

He worked out that typhoid fever had affected seven households in which Mary had worked from 1900, infecting 22 people and claiming one life.

After rebuffing subsequent approaches by the doctor, and chasing him with a carving knife on one occasion, she was forcibly apprehended by police and detained in hospital, where tests confirmed she was a carrier of the disease.

She was taken to an isolation hospital on North Brother island in the East River where she lived in a one-room cottage while undergoing a series of ineffective treatments.

In June 1909, she came dramatically to public attention through a feature story in William Randolph Hearst's New York American.

Journalists, led by the initial American story, came up with the nickname 'Typhoid Mary'.

In February 1910 she was released from quarantine after agreeing by affidavit to change occupation and take "consistent hygienic precautions".

She was given work in a New York laundry, but resented the lower wages and status of the job and returned to work as a cook in September 1912.

In 1915 she was discovered working under an alias as a cook at Sloane maternity hospital, location of a recent outbreak of 25 typhoid cases among staff, including two deaths.

Amid huge public indignation, fuelled by a universally hostile press accusing her of a deliberate and callous violation of trust while endangering innocents, Mallon was returned to hospital for the remaining 23 years of her life.

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JAMES GAMBLE (1803-91)

Manufacturing giant Procter and Gamble has been a household name for decades, but it is perhaps less well-known that the titular Gamble has its origins in County Fermanagh.

James Gamble was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen before he moved with his family to the US at the age of 16.

Although they were related to prosperous farmers, merchants and linen bleachers, it is thought business difficulties may have led his father to decide to emigrate.

They set sail from the port of Derry and after 47 days reached New Brunswick in Canada.

After this they embarked on a further gruelling journey by boat and wagon with the intention of settling in Illinois, but James became seriously ill in Cincinnati.

The family settled there and after his recovery, James began an apprenticeship as a soap-maker.

He set up his own soap business in 1828/29, and it was in 1837 that he began the partnership that would eventually be known around the world.

William Procter was an English-born candlemaker, and the two men met while courting two sisters, Elizabeth and Olivia Norris, who had recently immigrated from Belfast.

Their father Alexander Norris is credited with spotting the potential of the two men's businesses - both soap and candles used the same raw materials, notably tallow and other animal oils, which were in plentiful supply in Cincinnati thanks to the thriving meat-packing industry in the area.

The rapidly expanding railway network helped Messrs Procter and Gamble to improve their business, and in 1859 sales exceeded $1m.

The advent of the American Civil War provided a further boost for the company, which equipped the union armies with soap and candles.

In 1879, they began the manufacture of ivory soap, which became one of their most important products.

James and Elizabeth Gamble had seven sons and three daughters. While James died in 1891 and Elizabeth in 1888, the family continued to oversee great expansion and diversification in the years that followed.

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MARY BUTTERS (C. 1770 - C. 1850)

Known as the "Carnmoney Witch", she was born in Carrickfergus near the scene of an infamous witch trial in Islandmagee the previous century.

At an early age she became a practitioner of "white" magic, using herbal and superstitious remedies to cure various ailments.

Her specialised area was curing cows that were suspected of being bewitched.

Because of the importance of cows in Irish agriculture, their vulnerability to witchcraft was feared: it was believed that malevolent 'butterwitches' could cast spells on cows to prevent it being possible to churn butter out of their milk.

One Tuesday evening in August 1807, she was called to Carnmoney by a family called Montgomery to advise on a cow believed to have been bewitched by some Carrickfergus women.

First, she attempted to churn some butter with the milk but was unable to, and some people who drank the milk vomited.

At ten o'clock she sent Alexander Montgomery and a young man called Carnaghan out to the cow-house and ordered them to turn their waistcoats inside out and stand by the head of the cow until called back inside.

She remained in the house with Mr Montgomery's wife Elizabeth, their son David and an elderly woman called Margaret Lee.

There she applied some traditional witchcraft cures, including putting pins and needles in a pot of sweet milk on the fire.

The house was sealed, with all exits blocked, so that the smoke would cleanse the enchantment.

At daybreak, having heard no word, Mr Montgomery went to the house to investigate. Breaking in the door, he found all four of them lying on the floor.

Elizabeth and David were dead, while Mary Butters and Ms Lee barely breathing.

Ms Lee died a few minutes later, but Ms Butters recovered after being thrown on a dung-heap, and kicked repeatedly by the furious husband.

At an inquest, the jury decided that death had resulted from suffocation, caused by a sulphurous brew Ms Butters had prepared to cure the sick cow.

Butters was brought before the spring assizes in 1808 but the charges against her were dismissed by proclamation.

She claimed the devil had appeared in the house and had attacked the inhabitants with a large club.

Perhaps unusually, the story created no fear or hostility in the area, and the "Carnmoney witch" did not suffer from her involvement in the episode.

Ms Butters continued to practice her arts for a number of decades, with locals still coming to her to cure bewitched cows.

She was also popular with victims of horse-theft: people believed that once she was told the name of the person responsible, she could concoct some arcane punishment. The witchcraft act was repealed in 1821.

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Although he grew up to be a fairground performer dubbed the "world's tallest man", there was nothing exceptional about his physique as a child in Killowen, County Down.

At the age of 17, after the loss of the family farm, he found work on the Liverpool docks where his height and weight made him stand out as a labourer.

It is said that he was contracted to do two men's work for double wages.

His increasing size astonished people in Warrenpoint, when he returned after a year or so to stay with his widowed mother.

By his early 20s he had grown to over 8 ft (2.44 m) in height. Sources vary in estimating his height, with accounts ranging from 8ft 10in (2.69 m) to 8ft 1in (2.46 m), although the latter figure from the parish register is believed most likely.

This perhaps made him the tallest man in the world at that time and one of the tallest ever.

One of the interesting features of his case is that he was said to have maintained body proportion and strength as he grew.

His personality was universally considered pleasant and even-tempered. He amused children in Rostrevor by lighting his pipe off the village gas lamps.

In one of the few displays of anger recorded of him in folklore, he hoisted two bickering football players into the air with both arms and knocked their heads together to bring order to a match.

It seems that he showed some initial distaste for exhibiting his person to the curious for money, but at some point in the mid 1850s he was paid to make appearances in a Liverpool public house.

Later he went on a short European tour with an exhibition of curiosities, doing sufficiently well to purchase a small farm in Kilbroney, near Rostrevor, County Down.

Evicted some years later, he resumed work in Europe as an attraction in a travelling circus and reportedly moved in aristocratic circles in France.

He died in Marseilles, of smallpox caught while on tour in the south of France.

Friends brought his embalmed body back to Ireland, and he was interred in Kilbroney cemetery on 18 June 1862.

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The Dictionary of Irish Biography costs £650 if purchased before 31 January. An online version of the dictionary will be an ongoing project, with new biographies being added twice a year.

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