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Typhoid Mary: America’s bogeywoman makes new dictionary of Irish biographies

Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Just what does it take to go down in history?

Some people distinguish themselves in medicine, business and the arts.

Others make their name in less edifying ways.

A new dictionary of Irish biography includes around 2,000 Ulster people, some of whose stories will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

While the massive nine-volume work includes all the usual suspects — CS Lewis, Harry Ferguson, Edward Carson — there are also some less likely entrants whose fame has spread beyond these shores for less noble reasons.

TYPHOID MARY (1869-1938)

Most people do not know this dreaded figure of American lore came from Cookstown, Co Tyrone. Mary Mallon emigrated to New York to work as a cook and spread the deadly disease of typhoid to 53 people as a healthy carrier.

The authorities tried to detain her, but Mary went berserk and fought off a health inspector with a carving fork.

She was detained but outwitted her captors, went on to cook again before being captured a second time. Much like the bogeyman in Ireland, generations of American children have been warned to behave or Typhoid Mary will come and get them.

MARY BUTTERS (1770-1859)

Bewitched bovines were the speciality of white witch Mary from Carrickfergus.

In 18th century Ireland mischievous butterwitches were believed to cast spells on cows so that their milk could not be churned into butter. It was during a witchcraft session in Carnmoney in 1807 that members of the Montgomery family dropped dead, apparently suffocated by fumes from the dodgy brew Mary was preparing to cure a stricken animal.

She was put on trial and claimed a ‘black man’ had clubbed the family to death.

She was released, returned to witchcraft and even diversified into apprehending horse thieves.

PATRICK MURPHY (1834-1862) — A giant man who died of smallpox, Patrick Murphy grew 8ft tall and was the most famous inhabitant of Killowen, Co Down, where he entertained his neighbours by lighting a pipe from gas lamps.

He moved to Liverpool, where his great strength enabled him to earn double wages by doing the work of two men.

Reluctant to exploit his height for monetary gain, he turned down an invitation to parade in Dublin. But eventually he gave in to the fascination for freak shows and toured Europe. He died of smallpox in Marseilles.

JOSEF LOCKE (1917-1999)

Dana and her successor Nadine Coyle were not the first warblers to put Londonderry on the musical map.

Singer Josef McLaughlin changed his name to Josef Locke so it would fit on his concert posters — but he never forgot his Derry roots and sang in the accent of the city. He was once a policeman and known as the ‘singing bobby’.

As a full-time singer he enjoyed residencies in Blackpool and performed in panto in Liverpool to entranced audiences.

Sadly, his sizeable income and luck on the racecourse entranced the taxman so he went to ground in the Republic of Ireland, reinventing himself as a farmer, publican and racehorse owner, and settled his tax affairs.

He died in 1999, survived by his wife and six children from a total of four marriages.

The nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography costs £650 if purchased before 31 January 2010. For ordering details see

... and here’s a few omitted from the mighty tome

Robert A McGladdery

The last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland died in Crumlin Road Gaol in 1961 after being sentenced to death for the murder of Pearl Gamble.

Julia McQuillan

The ‘black nun’ of Ballycastle lived in Bonamargy Friary, Ballycastle, in the 17th century.

She was shot through the eye with an arrow, died and was buried near the entrance of the church so that all comers would tread on her grave.

Superstitions concerning the pious sister include that it’s bad luck to stand on the 13th step of the Friary.

Buster McShane

The bodybuilder tragically died in a car crash six months after he coached Mary Peters to a gold medal in the Munich Olympicsin 1972.

Belfast Telegraph


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