Typhoid Mary was a woman who infected 51 people with typhoid fever while she was actually healthy. The case had shown that people could be dangerous carriers of infection while suffering from no symptoms. Typhoid Mary had become a nickname given to people who spread diseases, either accidentally or intentionally.
5 Fun Facts was interested in the life of a woman who truly believed she wasn’t guilty but was forcibly isolated and in total, spent 26 years on an island.
A cook with a deadly infection
Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in one of the poorest districts of Northern Ireland. When she was around 14-15 years old, she migrated to the United States where she started working as a cook for wealthy families. Mary cooked very well and her employers had no reason to complain.
From 1900 to 1907, the woman had worked as a cook for 7 families. She worked in Mamaroneck where within 2 weeks of her employment, people developed typhoid fever. Mary moved to Manhattan, where members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. The disease followed her everywhere: to the family of a lawyer where 7 of the 8 people became sick, and in another house where 10 of the 11 people living there came down with typhoid fever. Mary helped take care of sick people, having no clue she made things even worse. She moved onto working with 3 more families, but the situation kept repeating itself again and again.
Mary faced problems in the house of Charles Warren, a wealthy New York banker. Warren rented a house in Oyster Bay, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill. He took Mary there.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, a National Historic Site on Long Island
When 6 people came down with typhoid fever, society was shocked. The disease at that time was common in Oyster Bay as it was considered to be a disease of slums and poverty. The home owner was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to lease the house and hired a typhoid researcher named George Soper to investigate the case.
The insidious ice cream with peaches
Soper investigated the water supply system and studied the shellfish that was served for dinner, and concluded that nothing could have caused the disease. He started thinking that Mallon might be the source of the outbreak. However, since the elevated temperatures necessary to cook food would have killed the bacteria, Soper couldn’t find any evidence that was 100% conclusive. He found the answer in one of Mallon’s most popular dessert dishes — ice cream with raw peaches.
At that time, it was a sensational discovery since no one knew that a healthy person could be the source of an outbreak. To make sure he was right and prevent the further spread of infection, he tried to find the woman.
Mary always changed her employers, leaving no address behind so it was really difficult to find her. Soper managed to do it only after a second death. It was a young woman from a wealthy family.
Catching an “angry lion” called Mary
Soper went to Mary and tried to convince her to take tests. But the woman attacked him with a big kitchen fork. Soper had to run away and when he returned back, accompanied by a doctor, they were turned away.
With the help of 5 policemen, Mary was hospitalized. She was sure she was illegally persecuted and that she hadn’t done anything bad. A doctor who took part in her custody said that sitting next to her on their way to the hospital was like being in a cage with an angry lion.
Samples were taken and examined and typhoid bacilli were found. During the interrogation, it was revealed that Mary didn’t have a habit of washing her hands before cooking as she thought it wasn’t that important.
First quarantine on the island
An annoyed Mary Mallon lying in a hospital bed, 1907
Mallon was held in isolation for 3 years at a clinic located on North Brother Island. The only creature she lived in a bungalow with was a dog. 2 years later, Mary sued the health department, but the court didn’t satisfy her claim. The woman had strong reasons to be angry since her samples that were sent to a laboratory didn’t show any signs of the disease (apparently, she was in remission). In this case, the quarantine was illegal.
3 years later, it was decided that she could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook. Mary agreed.
Upon her release, Mallon really worked as a laundress which paid less than cooking. So she changed her name and returned to her previous job. She managed to spend 5 years spreading the disease until she got to a maternity hospital. After 25 people were infected and 2 died, the deception was revealed, and Mary found herself in custody again.
The second and last quarantine
The abandoned Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island where Mary spent the last 6 years of her life after suffering a stroke of apoplexy in 1932
The last quarantine on North Brother Island had lasted for 23 years up until her death. The woman was allowed to work as a nurse and wash test tubes in a hospital with tuberculosis patients. She became somewhat of a celebrity and was often interviewed by the media. They all were told not to accept even water from her.
Mary died of pneumonia in 1938.
As the woman used to change houses of employment and adopt different names, it’s still unknown exactly how many victims of Typhoid Mary there were. Many sources claim that she infected around 50 people. But according to Soper’s notes, there were 122 infected and 5 people that died.
A historical poster depicting the process of transferring typhus from carriers — all the food that hadn’t undergone thermal processing was infected.
26 years of isolation on the island could have been acquitted if it weren’t for some aspects.
First, by the time Mary died, health workers had found 400 asymptomatic Salmonella Typhi carriers, but none of them were sent to a forced quarantine.
Second, doctors didn’t even try to explain to the woman how dangerous she was, but she was forced to undergo examinations regularly and encouraged to have her gallbladder removed. This surgery could lead to death and wouldn’t make the patient any less dangerous to society.
Bonus: How the forcibly detained woman really felt during her quarantine on the island
A scene from Typhoid Mary, 2019
As we already mentioned, in 1932, the woman experienced a stroke of apoplexy and was paralyzed. In 1907, when Mary came to the island for the first time, she experienced problems with her eye. She described her condition in her notes:
“When I first came here, I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch, and the left eyelid became paralyzed and would not move. It remained in that condition for 6 months. There was an eye specialist [who]visited the island 3 and 4 times a week. He was never asked to visit me. I did not even get a cover for my eye. I had to hold my hand on it whilst going about and at night tie a bandage on it.”
“I have been, in fact, a peep show for everybody.”
“Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.”
Do you think Mary Mallon was a criminal or just a victim of circumstance? Were people fair to her?
Preview photo credit Lupo / Wikimedia