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Over the years, Typhoid Mary’s name has became synonymous with any person spreading an infectious disease, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Today is no different, of course, we use the term today with COVID-19. But there was a real-life woman and a tragic story behind that infamous name. Who was she and had how did she become so notorious?
Typhoid Mary was Mary Mallon, a healthy carrier of typhoid fever who caused several outbreaks in the early 1900s. She infected dozens in the New York City area, at least 3 of whom perished. Once identified as the source, she became demonized by both the press and public. Her nickname remains a disparaging term for anyone who knowingly or unknowingly spreads disease. Medically however, Mary was the 1st ‘healthy carrier’ of typhoid fever recognized in the US.
Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Cookstown, Ireland. She emigrated alone to America in 1883, when she was just 15, living with an aunt and uncle. Like most Irish immigrant women, young Mary found a job as a servant in the homes of the wealthy. Mary realized she had a talent for cooking, which paid better than other positions like laundress or maid. Working as a cook however, she left a trail of disease wherever she worked.
Ignorance, not malice, made Mary Mallon a killer.
Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, which causes a high fever, severe headaches, abdominal pain, and in the most extreme cases, death. In the early 1900’s, it killed about 1 in 10, or a 10% mortality rate. The disease is spread through contaminated water and food, so generally, typhoid was a disease of the poor. Vaccines were still in their infancy at that time in America. No healthy carriers had been documented in the United States … YET.
In the summer of 1906, New York banker Charles Warren took his family on a much anticipated vacation. They rented a lovely summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The Warrens hired none other than Mary Mallon to be their summer cook. In August, one of the daughters contracted typhoid fever. Soon after, Mrs. Warren, 2 maids, a gardener and yet another daughter became ill. A total of six of the 11 people in the household became sick.
The owner of the house hired sanitary engineer George Sober to investigate. They needed to prove the house wasn’t contaminated in order to rent it out again. At first, Sober blamed a bad batch of clams, but some of the victims hadn’t eaten them. Then he checked every inch of the property: the well, the water tank, the pantry, the privy, even the manure used to fertilize the gardens. They all checked out fine so the source must have been a human carrier.
Sober narrowed the culprit down to the cook, Mary Mallon, who’d left the family’s employ at the end of the summer. He even pinpointed which meal had contaminated the victims. Most foods that a cook handles are raised to temperatures sufficient to make them harmless. However, one hot Sunday, Mary prepared a summer dessert which everybody loved, ice-cream with freshly cut peaches.
Mary’s employment history showed that typhoid followed her from job to job.
In 1902, when Mallon worked in the summer home of a wealthy NY lawyer, typhoid struck 7 out of 9 people, leaving only Mary and the owner standing. Mallon had worked at 7 jobs in 7 years in which 22 people had contracted typhoid, including one young girl who died. No one ever suspected the cook. Sober knew this was more than coincidence; but needed stool and blood samples to prove it.
Mary turned out to be a hard woman to find as she moved around so much. In March 1907, after a four-month search, Sober finally caught up with her. What he found horrified him. Mary was working as a cook again in a house on Park Avenue on the east side. The laundress had just been taken to the Presbyterian Hospital with typhoid fever and the only child, a daughter, was dying of it.
Sober met Mary in the kitchen and explained as clearly as possible that she was inadvertently spreading typhoid to her employers. He then asked for samples of her urine, stools, and blood to test. That’s when George Sober got his first glimpse of Mary Mallon’s famous temper. She seized a carving knife and stepped towards him. A shocked Sober ran back down the long hall, through an iron gate, and onto the sidewalk.
The next day, he confronted Mallon again, this time at a sad boarding house where she had frequent visits with a ‘disreputable gentleman.’ Sober tried again to explain that although she wasn’t ill, Mary was spreading the germs that caused typhoid. But Mary erupted, shouting expletives I can’t type here and angrily denied it all. She insisted she’d never had the disease, and was livid at such an unfair allegation.
“Typhoid is everywhere!” she argued.
Sober feared she’d leave her Park Avenue job and vanish into the city again, sickening and even killing others. He convinced the NYC Health Department to take her into custody. A female inspector, Dr. Josephine Baker, paid Mallon a visit and tried to persuade her to cooperate, but Mary slammed the door in her face. The next day, a Health Department ambulance with a police detachment arrived to arrest Mallon.
Mary was ready though, a long kitchen fork in her hand. She poked it at Dr. Baker, who stumbled back, bumping into the policeman. In the confusion, the resourceful Mary disappeared. The police searched the house, eventually finding footprints in the backyard leading to a chair propped by a fence. They spent 5 hours searching the neighborhood until one cop spotted a scrap of blue calico caught in the door of a closet.
Mary came out swearing and fighting, both of which she could do with great vigor. Baker made another effort to talk to her sensibly, but it was no use. She was convinced the law was persecuting her and insisted she’d done nothing wrong. The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and Baker had to sit on her all the way to the hospital.
In custody, Mallon’s stools tested positive for typhoid, yet she remained convinced of her innocence. Sober visited her in the isolation ward at Parker Hospital. He knew she hadn’t been running around the city intentionally making people sick. Nevertheless, bad hygiene caused her to spread the germs accidentally. He offered to set her free if she agreed to improve her hygiene. Mary declined in classic fashion – she rose from her chair, entered the toilet, and slammed the door shut.
Sober later described Mary Mallon as five feet six, blond hair with Irish blue eyes, a healthy complexion and a very determined jaw line. She had a fit figure albeit on the heavy side. She prided herself on her work endurance and had a determined walk (and mind). She could read and write in a large, bold hand, seldom missing the daily paper.
The Health Department quarantined her at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island in the East River.
She stayed in a cottage built for the hospital’s superintendent, with a living room, kitchen, and bathroom – equipped with gas, electricity, and plumbing. It was likely the best she’d ever lived in, but she was isolated. The hospital delivered food, she cooked and ate alone in her cottage.
Mary Mallon had been taken by force, against her will, and was held without trial. So could the government lock her up indefinitely? The Board of Health was empowered to “remove to a proper place, any person sick with any contagious or infectious disease.” But this was written before anyone knew of “healthy carriers.” Still, to many, locking up poor Mary just seemed wrong.
Mary believed she was unfairly persecuted. She couldn’t understand how she could have spread disease when she herself was healthy.
“I never had typhoid in my life, and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement?”Mary Mallon
During Mallon’s quarantine, the hospital attempted to treat her, but nothing seemed to work. It seemed she was destined to remain a carrier for life. In 1909, after 2 years in confinement, she sued for release, on the grounds that she’d been denied due process and had never been charged with a crime. “This contention that I am a perpetual menace is not true. I have committed no crime and I am treated like an outcast—a criminal.”
During Mallon’s quarantine, health officials had analyzed her stool samples once a week. The samples came back mostly positive for typhoid (120 of 163). The judge ruled in favor of the health department and Mallon, now popularly known as “Typhoid Mary” in the press, would stay in the isolated cottage on North Brother Island.
In February of 1910 however, a new Health Commissioner decided that Mallon could go free – as long as she agreed to NEVER work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mary accepted the conditions in an affidavit, stating that she’d also take hygienic precautions to protect those with whom she came in contact.
Mallon promised to check in with the Health Department every 3 months. She immediately broke that promise. None of the other domestic jobs available to a woman in 1910 paid as well as cook, and the working conditions for a factory worker was much less desirable. Plus Mary STILL did not believe she carried typhoid fever.
George Sober described a hot-tempered, stubborn person. She never held a job more than a few months, moved often, and had trouble keeping friends. The other servants said she socialized with them very little. Plus Mary possessed that violent temper. She bounced from job to job, finding work via advertisements and employment agencies.
Sober never found any of her relatives in America or Ireland, and Mary never mentioned any. A nurse at the hospital managed to get close enough to learn that she’d had lovers, but met only silence when she pressed for more details. Mary sent for no one when she was incarcerated, and no one came forward after her death.
Doctors tried for years to convince her that, even though perfectly healthy, her body hosted the deadly bacteria, but she refused to believe them. She neglected basic hygiene, even when doctors urged her to wash her hands more often. Mary didn’t run around New York infecting people like some deranged sociopath, she just didn’t believe the science.
Mary had no intentions of following the health officials’ orders. Not working as a cook pushed her into other domestic positions which simply did not pay as well. Still feeling healthy, Mary never believed she could spread typhoid. Mallon tried being a laundress, but eventually went back to working as a cook!
For the next 5 years, she worked under aliases like Marie Breshof.
The agencies that placed cooks in rich households knew Mallon by sight, so she instead worked in restaurants, hotels, and hospitals, where she risked exposing even larger numbers of people. About 84 subsequent cases are attributed to Mary Mallon, but Sober suspects many more went unaccounted for.
In 1915, George Sober got a disturbing call from an obstetrician at the Sloane Hospital for Women. A typhoid outbreak had struck and 25 people became sick and 2 had died. Evidence pointed to a recently-hired cook, Mary Brown. The doctor told Sober the staff had jokingly nicknamed her Typhoid Mary. Sober immediately recognized Mallon’s description and handwriting. When the Health Department came for her this time, she didn’t fight.
The public had shown Mary some sympathy during her first confinement because she was an unwitting carrier. All of that sympathy vanished this time. Typhoid Mary knew she was a carrier and knowingly caused pain and death. Using an alias made people feel that Mallon knew she was guilty and had even acted criminally.
A much more subdued Mary Mallon spent the last 23 years of her life in quarantine on North Brother Island. The city continued to provide her the cottage and food for free. Mallon was even allowed to make regular visits to the mainland to shop. She helped around the tuberculosis hospital, gaining the title “Hospital Helper” in 1922.
Sober said that in her later years, she had lost the energy she possessed when younger. Mallon suffered a major stroke on Christmas morning 1938 that left her paralyzed. She spent the final 6 years of her life in the hospital, unable to walk, and died of pneumonia in November 1938. She was only 69. Her funeral offered a final demonstration of the lonely life Typhoid Mary had led. Only 9 came to her funeral mass at St. Luke’s Chapel, and none of them went to her grave site.
So why is Mary Mallon so infamously remembered? Why was she the only carrier isolated for life? Perhaps her very identity contributed. She received prejudice not only for being Irish and a woman, but also for being a poor servant, unmarried, and childless. Though Mallon was the first carrier identified, she was not the only healthy carrier during that age. By the time Mallon died, over 400 other healthy typhoid carriers had been identified in New York City alone , with none being quarantined.
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