Jan. 16, 2022

Typhoid Mary // 93 // Mary Mallon

Typhoid Mary // 93 // Mary Mallon

Mrs. Warren's family came down with Typhoid fever shortly after hiring their new cook, Mary Mallon.  It was soon discovered that Mary was a carrier of typhoid even though she appeared to be healthy.  In the 1900's, people didn't understand germs as well as we do now.  It was difficult to make Mary understand that she was making others sick, so they ended up putting her in quarantine for a few years to study her.  When she was released, she was warned that she could no longer be a cook, but she didn't follow the rules and was sent back to quarantine.


In August of 1906, Mrs. Charles Elliot Warren had just fired her cook. She was staying in Oyster Bay, Long Island and she was very wealthy. Mrs. Warren had four children and five servants that all needed to be fed and she was a social butterfly that liked to attend dinner parties, so she certainly wasn't going to cook the meals. She had very specific demands for her cook though. You can't enjoy your freedom and must be able to work 14 hour days or longer. Mrs. Warren needed someone to be available all the time, the cook must wear a white servant's cap and apron, a plain dress, and thick-soled shoes. You can't leave the house without permission and you may be sharing a room with other employees unless you're willing to sleep in the attic or cellar. Mrs. Warren called up the Servant's Agency and told them to send her a cook. They told her they had a cook named Mary Mallon and she has amazing references, they were sure she'd be perfect for Mrs. Warren. 

Not much is known about Mary's childhood, but she was born on September 23rd, 1869, in Ireland. Or she could have been born in Cookstown, County Tyrone. In 1883, she got on a steamship and sailed to America when she was 15. She stayed with her aunt and uncle in New York City, but they both died soon after she got there. Instead of running back to her parents in Ireland, she decided to stay in America by herself.

Mary Mallon was 37 years old, didn't have a family, and was in good health. Even though her references were great, she never stayed more than a year or two at any of her jobs, but that really wasn't abnormal for this line of work. Mary was Irish Catholic and during this time, there was a ton of employers who flat refused to hire someone who was Irish, but things were finally starting to turn around. Either way, Mrs. Warren hired Mary on the spot. She moved into the home and kept to herself for the most part. People described Mary as intelligent, but she had a very violent temper and could silence someone with a glare. She didn't talk much, but when she did, she never talked about herself or her past. She really just minded her own business. Towards the end of August, 9 year old Margaret Warren wasn't feeling well. She was tired, had a headache and was too exhausted to play with her friends. She was running a fever and had diarrhea and her mom was like, I'm not worried because it's probably just summer diarrhea. 

I had to look this up and I found a case study called The Phenomenon of Summer Diarrhea. This was also referred to as the disease of the season. There was a problem with water filtration, and during the hot summer months, there was a lot of contaminated foods that people were consuming because they didn't have refrigerators. They had a popular advertisement that said, “All that is necessary is a few doses of Chamberlain's Colic, Cholera (col-er-a), and Diarrhea Remedy, followed by a dose of Castor oil to cleanse the system” So, things with little Margaret grew worse and her temperature was sitting at 105 degrees and soon, she had a skin rash. Over the next few weeks. Margaret's older sister, two maids, the gardener, and Mrs. Warren all became ill. They assumed the water was contaminated, so they packed up and went to their townhouse for awhile.

At the end of September, Mr. and Mrs. George Thompson arrived back to their large home that the Warrens were staying in for the summer. They realized there was a typhoid fever outbreak in their home and they were shocked. First off, Oyster Bay was a wealthy area, so typhoid fever wasn't rampant in this area. It was typically in areas where people had poor hygiene, but again, it was blamed on the water. As landlords, they're like, well it's going to be fucking difficult to rent this place now. What if there was a bigger issue going on in the house and it needed to be burned down? This was a real thing by the way. If there was a bad typhoid breakout in the home and the inspectors felt that it was necessary, they would burn your house down. Here's the most common cause of water contamination: A person with typhoid would use the toilet and when they flushed, the bacteria could leak into the water supply if it wasn't draining properly. The bacteria could live for weeks in water or dried sewage.

Inspectors came out to the house and did a series of tests. They poured a liquid in the toilet, then turned on the bathroom and kitchen faucets. If the water turned a reddish-orange color, that would explain the contamination, but the water was clear. They collected samples outside and from the well. They didn't find anything in their tests and this remained a mystery. When the Warren's left the home, they didn't bring Mary with and she ended up leaving. 

The landlords weren't comfortable with just accepting this was a mystery, so they hired a sanitary engineer, George Soper, to do a full investigation on the house. He carefully built a timeline of when everyone got sick and who left the house. He realized that Margaret first got sick 3 weeks after they hired a new cook. He knew immediately that Mary was the one that brought typhoid into the house, but he didn't have a clue where she was now. George called up the agency that Mary was hired through and they didn't know where she was either, but they were able to provide a list of the past 7 families she worked for. George was like oh boy, ok, this is a start. George was the perfect guy for this case because he was a sanitary engineer with an interest in disease prevention. In fact, he had studied the work of Dr. Robert Koch, a famous German bacteriologist. (per youtube videos, this could be Ka, Kosh, or cock like a male chicken) He was able to prove that specific germs caused specific diseases and that germs were contagious. Scientists were realizing that a small percentage of people who actually recovered from diseases such as diptheria, cholera (col-er-a), and typhoid, could still transmit the disease, even if they seemed healthy. This small group of carriers may have no idea they're spreading the germs around. 

In 1902 Dr. Robert published a paper about these healthy typhoid carriers over in Europe and he won a Nobel Prize three years later. This concept of healthy carriers hadn't trickled into the US yet, but here it was. This might be the reason this case is so well known. This was just a theory that George had though, he needed to put in the work to collect evidence. He started contacting the families that Mary had worked for, but things weren't as easy as he hoped for. Most of the families had gone through cooks or servants so often that they didn't seem to remember anything about the quiet cook that kept to herself. However, in nearly every household on this list, there had been an outbreak of typhoid fever. The only house that didn't experience this had two older people and one servant. It's possible that they already had typhoid when they were younger. George had discovered 22 people including the Warren family that had typhoid after Mary was hired. In every case, Mary was one of the only people in the house that didn't fall ill and she would leave soon after. 

George finally tracked Mary down and she was cooking for the Bowne family. By the time he found her, the Bowne family already had Typhoid running through them and their 25 year old daughter ended up dying from it. George knew he had to talk to Mary and figured he could explain things to her so she would seek medical help. He showed up at the Bowne's home and talked to Mary in the kitchen. Unfortunately, George wasn't very tactful and Mary got really upset and defensive. People didn't understand germs in the same way that we do now. Mary appeared to be healthy and took pride in cooking and keeping herself and her workspace very clean. Now she's got someone criticizing her and telling her she's spreading diseases everywhere she goes. George kept pushing and told Mary he wanted to ask her some questions and get some specimens from her. You know, just urine, feces, and blood, no big deal. He also told her he'd pay for her medical expenses. Now remember, Mary has a bad temper, but George didn't know this. Mary started swearing, grabbed a carving fork and lunged at him. George got the message and took off running. 

I think it's clear that George should have turned his findings into the Board of Health, but he wanted to take a different approach. He found out that after work, Mary would often go to a rooming house and she would bring food to a policeman there. George befriended the policeman and took him to the saloon for some drinks. Somehow, George convinced this man to let him wait inside his place for Mary so he could talk to her again. He didn't work alone this time though, he brought an associate who was a medical doctor, Bert Hoobler. George and Bert waited in a dimly lit hallway for Mary. She stops by after work and she lost her shit when she saw the men. She insisted that she had nothing to do with spreading typhoid and she didn't even have any symptoms of it. 

George eventually heard rumors that Mary was going to leave the family she currently worked for and he knew he had to put a stop to this. He met with the New York City Department of Health and explained how Mary was a menace to the community. They were like, your story is compelling, but very circumstantial. Mary looked very healthy and hadn't violated any laws. If she didn't want an exam, the city couldn't force her to do one. They did agree that Mary should be tested and they hoped a woman could try talking her into this instead. Dr. Baker was sent to speak with Mary, but no one briefed her about the difficult case she was taking on. She shows up at the house and she's like, HI! I'm here to take your samples! Mary's like, well you can fuck right off, that's not happening. Dr. Baker called her boss and said Mary refused and he realized he had no choice left. He told her to wait on the corner the next morning and there would be an ambulance and three policemen waiting for her. Mary better give those samples or she was going tot he hospital by force.

The next morning, Dr. Baker did exactly as she was instructed and waited on the corner. Once the police were there, she took one of them inside with her and Mary lunged at her with a long kitchen fork. Oops, they may have forgotten to warn her about Mary's temper. Mary was able to run though the kitchen and vanished. The officers searched the house, but she was gone. When they went to the backyard, they found a trail of footprints in the snow. The footprints lead to a fence and a chair was propped next to it. The search lasted a few hours and they finally had to call it quits. As Dr. Baker was leaving, one of the officers tapped her arm and pointed. There was a pile of trashcans in front of a door and tiny piece of a blue dress was peaking out. They pulled Mary out and she was fighting and swearing and she was forced into the ambulance. 

Mary kicked and screamed the entire way to the hospital and Dr. Baker sat on her. I can't imagine how long this ride was, but the ambulance was attached to horses....When she got to the hospital, she was put in an isolation ward. When Mary used the toilet in her room, the samples were collected and sent to the lab and they took her blood too. There wasn't any bacteria in Mary's urine, but they found cultures of typhoid in her feces. This means that the typhoid had settled into her gallbladder. This only happens to 1% of people that get typhoid and in Mary's case, she didn't recover from the disease, she carried it for life. If you remove your gallbladder which isn't really needed anyway, it can potentially remove the disease from your body. 

George tried to explain everything to Mary and said he wanted to write a book about her case, but promised that he wouldn't use her name. She was absolutely not going to help him and certainly didn't give a shit about his book. No one is quite certain who leaked the story, but two weeks after Mary's arrest, on April 2nd, an article was published in the New York American paper. The reporter tried to get her real name, but no one would tell, so the paper dubbed her Mary Ilverson and gave the wrong hospital name as well. Once the story was out, officials moved Mary to a quarantine hospital located on North Brother Island called The Riverside Hospital. It was on a 13 acre island in the middle of the East River between the Queens and the Bronx. The currents were really strong so it was too dangerous to swim to shore or even take a small boat, so you really couldn't escape. Mary stayed in a small bungalow on the riverbank. She was so stressed about this whole thing, that her left eyelid became paralyzed for 6 months and she couldn't close it. During the day, she had to hold her hand over her eye and at night, she tied a bandage around her head to keep her eye closed. Her eye did eventually heal.

Samples were collected from Mary multiple times a week. Sometimes they were negative and sometimes positive. This means she was an intermittent carrier, so sometimes she sheds the disease and other times she doesn't. Doctors gave Mary plenty of medications, but nothing worked. After 10 months, they just didn't know what to do with Mary, so doctors were like, how about we release her? They asked her where she would go and she said she would just go back home to New York City. Health officials in New York were like, no way, we don't want her back. A nurse told Mary her release was refused, but said she should write a letter to officials saying she would go to Connecticut to live with her sister. Mary didn't have a sister in Connecticut and she didn't want to follow the instructions to lie. The nurse just told her she was a hopeless case then. Mary told a reporter that she was told all she had to do was leave the state and live under a new name and she could have her freedom, but she refused. She wanted to clear her name. 

In July 1908, Mary arranged for her urine and feces to be analyzed by a private lab in Manhattan. She contacted that police friend of hers that she used to cook for and asked him to come see her. On visitation day, he took a ferry and went to Mary's cottage to collect the specimens and he delivered them to the lab. Over the next ten months, he brought at least ten specimens to the lab for Mary and he kept reporting back that the specimen was negative for typhoid. Her specimens tested positive 8 times in those same months at the cottage. She believed that she didn't have typhoid and this only confirmed those beliefs. It's hard to know exactly why this private lab never found typhoid, but Mary figured the department of health was out to get her. They were just using her for experimental research. I'm not sure how long it took for the specimens to reach the private lab or how long Mary kept them or how she kept them before sending them to the lab. Maybe that has something to do with it? When she pushed for a release date, she was told she had to let the surgeons take her gallbladder out first. That's the only way out of this. This didn't really make sense to Mary. Sometimes they say she's sick and sometimes she's not. Hell, the doctors couldn't even agree on where the germs were in her body. They all had different theories.

As Mary was working hard to clear her name, a physician referred to her as typhoid Mary during a lecture and the name stuck, that was it. For a full year, only Mary's first name was known, but that soon changed. One day, Mary opened the newspaper and saw an article with her full name and it included illustrations of her. She was completely humiliated. One person that read the article was 34 year old attorney, George Francis O'Neill. He felt that this whole thing was absurd and he offered to represent Mary. At this time, she had already been locked up for more than two years and she was finally going to have her day in court. Mary certainly didn't look sick when she showed up to court and this surprised people and they figured she must be a witch. She possessed the power to stay healthy while making others sick when they came in contact with her. 

Attorney O'Neill argued that no law justified Mary's arrest and imprisonment and the hospital can't take her specimens without her consent. As of Mary's hearing in 1909, the health department had actually identified 5 healthy typhoid carriers in New York City and they were all left alone. They weren't being quarantined like Mary was. Physicians argued that Mary was singled out due to her occupation as a cook. She was causing a problem, but the other carriers weren't. Attorney O'Neill presented the lab results from the private lab Mary had been working with and this obviously contradicted the information that the hospital had provided. The court proceeding lasted three hours and not one witness testified against Mary. Three weeks later the court decided that it wasn't illegal to hold Mary and she was to remain in custody. They felt that they needed to protect the community. 

Mary remained on the island and she wrote many letters to doctors working on her case and they described the letters at violent and threatening. She vowed that if she ever was released from the island, she would get a gun and kill the doctors. Mary was finally offered a deal. If she agreed not to cook, if she promised to take precautions when it came to hygiene and protecting others, and if she reported monthly to the health department, she could go free. Mary agreed and put it down in writing. After almost three years, she was free. Over the next year, Mary did visit the department of health regularly like she promised. She didn't handle food for other people, she wasn't a cook, and for good measure, she didn't murder the doctors. Mary was working in laundry now, but the pay was very low. She returned to Attorney O'Neill and hired him to represent her in a lawsuit against New York City and the board of health for false imprisonment. She asked for $50k in damages because it was now impossible for her to cook and her chances of making a living were very low. This was dismissed right away and the judge said it lacked merit. Soon after this, Mary stopped reporting to the department of health.

The Sloane Hospital for Women in Manhattan had a huge spike in typhoid and it was out of control. So this is a maternity hospital. 25 typhoid cases broke out in January and February of 1915. 24 of the victims were doctors, nurses, or members of the hospital staff, one patient got it, and two people had already died. The hospital was getting a really bad reputation and people thought it wasn't clean. The hospital's chief physician called up George Soper, the one that started the case against Mary. They knew he was an expert and they needed him immediately. George arrived at the hospital and questioned them about their food and water supplies, and kitchen staff. They were like, well, we just hired a new cook three months ago, Mrs. Brown. The staff jokingly called Mrs. Brown typhoid Mary when the disease broke out because she didn't get sick. George wanted to meet Mrs. Brown, but she was nowhere to be found. The chief physician said, well, I have a letter from Mrs. Brown if that helps. Geroge had been the recipient of many of Mary's threatening letters, so he knew right away that Mrs. Brown was in-fact Mary Mallon. 

On March 26th, 1915, a patrolman reported that a woman wearing a veil had entered a house in Corona, Long Island. The officer recognized Mary's very distinctive walk and saw her carrying a bowl of gelatin and the house was guarded by dogs. The officer was requesting backup. Police were dispatched tot he home, but no one answered the door. One officer found a ladder and propped it against the house. He just climbed up, opened a window and went inside the house. There was a fox terrier and a bulldog waiting for him, but he brought pieces of meat to give them. The officer found Mary in the bathroom and she was taken back to her bungalow on the island.

Doctors did attempt to cure Mary by giving her five or six billion typhoid bacilli. They later found out that she wasn't really taking the pills. She was hiding them. In 1918, Mary wasn't fully released, but she was granted permission to leave the island during the day for work. She got a job as a housekeeper at a hospital and worked her way to nurse and hospital helper over the next seven years. She was later hired as a lab assistant and she prepared glass slides of specimens and kept records. Her co-workers had incredibly positive things to say about her and they noticed right away when she didn't show up on time for work on September 23rd, 1932. A co-worker went to her cottage and knocked on the door. It was dark and the curtains were all drawn. The co-worker heard a loud moan and Mary was lying on the floor, paralyzed on her right side due to a stroke. She was hospitalized and bedridden for the next six years. When she was 69 years old, she got pneumonia. Mary ended up dying on November 11th, 1938. Nine people showed up for her funeral and it's not because people didn't like her, I think it's because she was forced into isolation for so long. People lost touch with her. 

The summer after Mary had her stroke, she requested a meeting with her attorney. She had saved up money from her hospital work and she wanted to make a will. She left $200 to Father Michael Lucy who had visited her and she left $250 to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. She left money to her friends and wanted her clothing and personal items to go to her friend's mother. Mary paid for her funeral, her burial and her headstone and wanted all remaining money to go to a friend. 


w25689.pdf (nber.org)

Terrible Typhoid Mary A True Story Of The Deadliest Cook In America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti