Pity poor Mary Mallon. Born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1870, she came to New York looking for a new life in 1883, but the life she found, from 1909 until her death in 1938, was confinement on North Brother Island, a spit of land between the Bronx and Riker’s Island.
What was her crime? Mary was the first recognized healthy carrier of the bacteria that causes typhoid fever. Though she looked fine on the outside, she caused a typhoid outbreak wherever she went.
Typhoid is marked by increasing fever, mental confusion and finally, intestinal bleeding or perforation. It was the same fever that was the end of poor Molly Malone. The similarly named Mary Mallon did not die when she was infected, nor did she have a serious illness. But unknowingly, she was a carrier.
From what we know of Mallon, she was tall and heavy. She was intelligent with a clear, strong writing hand. She was well-respected and children liked her, but when her “Irish” was up she was said to have an “almost pathological” anger and could use strong language.
Girls such as Mallon who left Ireland in the wake of the Famine had little option but to enter the near-slavery of domestic service. However, her good cooking skills earned her more than other servants got paid.
In the summer of 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren hired Mallon to cook for his family at a vacation home he had rented from George Thompson on Oyster Island. Within a week, six of the 11 people in the house, including Mrs. Warren and two of her daughters, came down with typhoid fever.
Since the common way for typhoid to spread was through water or food sources, the Thompsons feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. Thus, they hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid outbreaks, to investigate.
Soper suspected Mallon, who had left Warren’s employ three weeks after the outbreak. He traced her employment records and discovered that there had been typhoid outbreaks in seven of the eight families she had worked for in the past 10 years. In all, 22 people had gotten sick and two died.
In March 1907, Soper tracked Mallon to a house on Park Avenue in Manhattan where she was working as a cook. Appearing without warning, Soper told Mallon she was spreading death and disease through her cooking and demanded samples of her feces, urine and blood.
Having a strange man accuse her of spreading disease and killing people and then asking for samples of her feces must have been a terrifying experience; small wonder Mallon reacted violently.
Soper recalled the event in a later description. “I had my first talk with Mary in the kitchen of this house… I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood. It did not take Mary long to react to this suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction. I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall, through the tall iron gate…and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.”
Unable to get Mallon to agree to tests, Soper presented his evidence to the Health Department and convinced them that Mallon was a danger. Dr. Josephine Baker was dispatched to talk to her.
Mallon, by now extremely suspicious of health officials, refused to allow the doctor to test her. Baker left but returned with three policemen. By this time Mallon had disappeared. The other servants pleaded ignorance of her whereabouts. Baker and the police spent five hours searching the property and eventually found Mallon hiding in a closet. She came out fighting and swearing, and fought so much that Baker had to sit on her to restrain her. Mallon was taken to Willard Park hospital, where she was tested and found to be a carrier of salmonella typhi, the bacteria which causes typhoid. She refused to believe it then and ever after. “How can I have all these things in my body and not be ill at all?” she asked.
The Health Department placed Mallon in an isolated cottage on North Brother Island. After two years of isolation, she sued. “This contention that I am a perpetual menace in the spread of typhoid germs is not true. I am treated like an outcast, a criminal,” she said. She lost the suit and remained in isolation.
Randolph Hearst and the yellow press picked up the story. “Human Typhoid Germ!” screamed one headline. A cartoon showed her cracking human skulls into a skillet. Hints of a diabolical association were made, and of course, a man in Michigan proposed to her.
In 1910 Mallon was released on the condition that she no longer work as a cook. Not long after, there was an outbreak of typhoid at Sloan Maternity Hospital with 25 cases and two deaths. It was traced to Mrs. Brown, the cook. And who did Mrs. Brown turn out to be? Why, Mary Mallon. This time she was sent back to North Brother Island without reprieve.
She worked as a bottle washer in the Riverside Hospital and lived in a cottage on the island. It’s said that she supplemented her meager income by cooking and selling cakes and cookies! She died in 1938, the only person ever to be imprisoned for being a typhoid carrier in America.
At the time of Mallon’s death there were 237 asymptomatic carriers at large in the city of New York who were being followed by the Health Department.
The name Typhoid Mary lives on. Today, it is the name of a heavy-metal band, a cartoon character, a computer virus and a font. Mallon is buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. Students of infectious disease at nearby Montefiore Hospital make pilgrimages to her grave. ♦