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Typhoid Mary

The Sad Story of a Woman Responsible for Several Typhoid Outbreaks

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An illustration of Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary.

An illustration of Typhoid Mary that appeared in 1909 in The New York American.

(Public Domain)

Mary Mallon, now known as Typhoid Mary, seemed a healthy woman when a health inspector knocked on her door in 1907, yet she was the cause of several typhoid outbreaks. Since Mary was the first "healthy carrier" of typhoid fever in the United States, she did not understand how someone not sick could spread disease -- so she tried to fight back.

After a trial and then a short run from health officials, Typhoid Mary was recaptured and forced to live in relative seclusion upon North Brother Island off New York. Who was Mary Mallon and how did she spread typhoid fever?

An Investigation

For the summer of 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren wanted to take his family on vacation. They rented a summer home from George Thompson and his wife in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Also for the summer, the Warrens hired Marry Mallon to be their cook.

On August 27, one of the Warren's daughters became ill with typhoid fever. Soon, Mrs. Warren and two maids became ill; followed by the gardener and another Warren daughter. In total, six of the eleven people in the house came down with typhoid.

Since the common way typhoid spread was through water or food sources, the owners of the home feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The Thompsons first hired investigators to find the cause, but they were unsuccessful.

Then the Thompsons hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause. Mallon had left the Warren's approximately three weeks after the outbreak. Soper began to research her employment history for more clues.

Mary Mallon was born on September 23, 1869 in Cookstown, Ireland. According to what she told friends, Mallon emigrated to America around the age of 15. Like most Irish immigrant women, Mallon found a job as a domestic servant. Finding she had a talent for cooking, Mallon became a cook, which paid better wages than many other domestic service positions.

Soper was able to trace Mallon's employment history back to 1900. He found that typhoid outbreaks had followed Mallon from job to job. From 1900 to 1907, Soper found that Mallon had worked at seven jobs in which 22 people had become ill, including one young girl who died, with typhoid fever shortly after Mallon had come to work for them.1

Soper was satisfied that this was much more than a coincidence; yet, he needed stool and blood samples from Mallon to scientifically prove she was the carrier.

Capture and Isolation of Typhoid Mary

In March 1907, Soper found Mallon working as a cook in the home of Walter Bowen and his family. To get samples from Mallon, he approached her at her place of work. Having a strange man come up to you, to accuse you (who seems completely healthy) of spreading disease and of killing people and then be asked for some of your blood and excrement, well, it does seem it would make just about anybody skeptical.

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.2

This violent reaction from Mallon did not stop Soper. Soper tracked Mallon to her home. He tried to approach her again, but this time, he brought an assistant (Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler) for support. Again, Mallon became enraged, made clear they were unwelcome and shouted expletives at them as they made a hurried departure.

Realizing it was going to take more persuasiveness than he was able to offer, Soper handed his research and hypothesis over to Hermann Biggs at the New York City Health Department. Biggs agreed with Soper's hypothesis. Biggs sent Dr. S. Josephine Baker to talk to Mallon.

Mallon, now extremely suspicious of these health officials, refused to listen to Baker, Baker returned with the aid of five police officers and an ambulance. Mallon was prepared this time. Baker describes the scene:

Mary was on the lookout and peered out, a long kitchen fork in her hand like a rapier. As she lunged at me with the fork, I stepped back, recoiled on the policeman and so confused matters that, by the time we got through the door, Mary had disappeared. 'Disappear' is too matter-of-fact a word; she had completely vanished.3

Baker and the police searched the house. Eventually, footprints were spotted leading from the house to a chair placed next to a fence. Over the fence was a neighbor's property.

They spent five hours searching both properties, until, finally, they found "a tiny scrap of blue calico caught in the door of the areaway closet under the high outside stairway leading to the front door."4

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