TSD has featured the work of intrepid local author JE Fishman in the past, but you won’t find his latest historical horror novel The Prisoner of Hell Gate, under his given name. Fishman’s newest offering – which he’ll be signing for fans at the Hockessin Book Shelf on July 13 at 6:00 pm – arrives under the pen name Dana I. Wolff.
The book, a harrowing take on the legend of Typhoid Mary, has garnered superb reviews signaling the macabre tale it tells. One New York Times bestselling author called it “an amazing blend of history and fiction.” Another reviewer labeled it “a strong, quick and perfectly upsetting little shocker.”
Surgical mask donned, we connected with Fishman/Wolff to learn about the nom de plume, the bloody (cough) inspiration for his latest tale, and where we can find him on July 13th (Google 7179 Lancaster Pike).
Town Square Delaware: First off, why the pen name? And what if any significance does it have?
Joel Fishman: You’re hoping for something mysterious or at least intriguing, aren’t you? Unfortunately, I have the absolutely most uninteresting explanation. It’s a different genre for me — going from thriller to horror, aka supernatural suspense—and so we decided to use a different author name. For the most part, an author name is a brand, so think of it as a rebranding exercise. J.E. Fishman books have no supernatural element and Dana I. Wolff books do.
Once we’d decided to use a pen name, I gave my agent a bunch of choices, and she chose this one because it was sexually ambiguous and both the protagonist and antagonist of the novel are women. Zzzzz. Next question!
TSD: New York City is a favorite backdrop for your stories – how did you come to write about Typhoid Mary?
Fishman: New York City is a character in many of my books. I love its history, its polyglot nature, its contrasts and contradictions, its exuberance. A couple of years ago, I came upon an internet listicle about abandoned islands of the world — or something like that. It provided lots of creepy pictures and only a little information, but it did mention that the island in New York called North Brother once housed Typhoid Mary.
North Brother is currently off limits to the public, and I immediately imagined a group of twenty-somethings sneaking onto the island in a small boat, poking about where they don’t belong, climbing over macabre ruins. It felt like the setting to a horror novel. I thought about who they might be. Typhoid Mary was famously unrepentant and in fact swore revenge on the man who put her away. What if one of these young people was a descendent of that man, George A. Soper. What if they went to check it out for that very reason? What if it turned out not quite to be abandoned after all?
Fishman: The island lies in an area of the East River known as Hell Gate for its wicked currents. Late in the Nineteenth Century, the city purchased it and relocated Riverside Hospital there from Blackwell’s Island — now known as Roosevelt Island. Riverside Hospital was originally a smallpox hospital; smallpox epidemics being a dangerous and too-frequent occurrence in big cities until the advent of vaccines. Over time it evolved into a quarantine hospital for multiple communicable diseases.
Mary Mallon was a poor Irish immigrant who worked as a cook for wealthy families in their private homes. Typhoid Fever mostly spread through poor sanitation and therefore was pretty rare among the rich. One family asked George A. Soper, a sanitation engineer, to figure out why they’d faced a deadly outbreak, and he learned that their cook had fled the house. Mary. She was an asymptomatic carrier—something only beginning to be understood at the turn of the last century. When Soper went to question her, she fended him off with a carving fork. Eventually she was arrested, tagged with the moniker Typhoid Mary by the New York tabloids, and imprisoned for life in a cottage on North Brother, where she died in 1938.
That part’s all true. The novel sets up an imaginary fabric that riffs off that history.
Although Mary’s cottage no longer stands, many of the old buildings of Riverside Hospital still do, mouldering, engulfed in vegetation, slowly returning to nature. North Brother is now a bird sanctuary, although some noises have been made about turning it into a park and inviting people back. If so, I’d love to be one of the first to visit!
TSD: What, if anything, surprised you about the entire Typhoid Mary affair?
Fishman: About the affair itself, I was surprised to learn that Mary Mallon was not the only known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid in New York, but that she received by far the harshest treatment. This may have been because she resisted or because she was a poor single Irish woman — the bottom of the social heap in those days — or because she repeat offended…or all of those things. They made an example of her.
But the most interesting thing I learned about North Brother was that one of the greatest maritime tragedies in American history took place there, the deadliest single event in New York history before 9/11. Just a few years before Mary Mallon arrived, a pleasure steamer called the General Slocum caught fire in the East River. It was carrying nearly 1400 people — mostly women and children from a German church on the Lower East Side — out for a day cruise. The ship had no functioning safety equipment and it burned to the hull, killing more than a thousand people. Afraid to set piers on fire in Manhattan or the Bronx, the captain grounded the General Slocum on North Brother Island, where many bodies washed up.
When she wasn’t on the job, Mary Mallon lived in a tenement apartment with a German man named Briehof. Departing from known history — but who knows? I imagine Briehof’s sister and her children died on that ship and now haunt North Brother. The event was truly horrific. Like the Triangle Shirt fire, it led to better safety legislation. But on another level, it might have produced a great many unsettled souls, no?
TSD: The name Typhoid Mary has such a common ring to it but probably few people know the real story –
Fishman: Exactly. Most people know the name Typhoid Mary but, in my experience, few know the story. She was first quarantined in 1907 when the Hearst-Pulitzer newspaper wars were going on—the New York World and the New York Journal fighting for circulation using yellow journalism and sensationalism. In a sense, Mary became a victim of that, her name made infamous in headlines. At one point, just to keep the case going and fan the flames, William Randolph Hearst was even said to have hired an attorney for Mary, a pretty cynical ploy.
But the reality remains that Mary continued to cook (or attempted to) after she had been notified she was imperiling people’s lives. She was either in denial or she was so selfish that she wouldn’t stop, cooking being the best-paying livelihood available to her, and damn the consequences. In any case, society made an object lesson of her. And even though typhoid fever can now be cured with antibiotics (at least for the moment), the name imposed upon her reminds us of this cautionary tale for modern times.
TSD: You say you like to write about “dead people.” Who is the next poor dead soul to get the Fishman/Wolff treatment?
Fishman: You know, I think that all fiction — all art — trades in mortality, so to some extent it’s all about death or our futile attempts to avoid death. I’m actually working on several screenplays and a television pilot (all on spec, sadly), and every one features a dead person or two.
On the novel front, I just started (or Dana I. Wolff did) a novel about the only survivor (or so he thinks) of a haunted house massacre, tentatively entitled Bedlam’s Child. And if The Prisoner of Hell Gate catches fire, I may extend it to a trilogy.