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Typhoid Mary (Page 2)

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Baker describes the emergence of Mallon from the closet:

She came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigor. I made another effort to talk to her sensibly and asked her again to let me have the specimens, but it was of no use. By that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her, when she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had never had typhoid fever; she was maniacal in her integrity. There was nothing I could do but take her with us. The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.5

Mallon was taken to the Willard Parker Hospital in New York. There, samples were taken and examined; typhoid bacilli was found in her stool. The health department then transferred Mallon to an isolated cottage (part of the Riverside Hospital) on North Brother Island (in the East River near the Bronx).

Can the Government Do This?

Mary Mallon was taken by force and against her will and was held without a trial. She had not broken any laws. So how could the government lock her up in isolation indefinitely?

That's not easy to answer. The health officials were basing their power on sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter:

The board of health shall use all reasonable means for ascertaining the existence and cause of disease or peril to life or health, and for averting the same, throughout the city. [Section 1169]

Said board may remove or cause to be removed to [a] proper place to be by it designated, any person sick with any contagious, pestilential or infectious disease; shall have exclusive charge and control of the hospitals for the treatment of such cases. [Section 1170]6

This charter was written before anyone knew of "healthy carriers" -- people who seemed healthy but carried a contagious form of a disease that could infect others. Health officials believed healthy carriers to be more dangerous than those sick with the disease because there is no way to visually identify a healthy carrier in order to avoid them. But to many, locking up a healthy person seemed wrong.

Freedom for Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon believed she was being unfairly persecuted. Wasn't she healthy? She could not understand how she could have spread disease and caused a death when she, herself, seemed 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 with only a dog for a companion?7

In 1909, after having been isolated for two years on North Brother Island, Mallon sued the health department.

During Mallon's confinement, health officials had taken and analyzed stool samples from Mallon approximately once a week. The samples came back intermittently positive with typhoid, but mostly positive (120 of 163 samples tested positive).8 For nearly a year preceding the trial, Mallon also sent samples of her stool to a private lab where all her samples tested negative for typhoid. Feeling healthy and with her own lab results, Mallon believed she was being unfairly held.

This contention that I am a perpetual menace in the spread of typhoid germs is not true. My own doctors say I have no typhoid germs. I am an innocent human being. I have committed no crime and I am treated like an outcast -- a criminal. It is unjust, outrageous, uncivilized. It seems incredible that in a Christian community a defenseless woman can be treated in this manner.9

Mallon did not understand a lot about typhoid fever and, unfortunately, no one tried to explain it to her. Not all people have a strong bout of typhoid fever; some people can have such a weak case that they only experience flu-like symptoms. Thus, Mallon could have had typhoid fever but never known it. Though commonly known at the time that typhoid could be spread by water or food products, people who are infected by the tyhpoid bacillus could also pass the disease from their infected stool onto food via unwashed hands. For this reason, infected persons who were cooks (like Mallon) or food handlers had the most likelihood of spreading the disease.

The judge ruled in favor of the health officials and Mallon, now popularly known as "Typhoid Mary," "was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York."10 Mallon went back to the isolated cottage on North Brother Island with little hope of being released.

In February of 1910, a new health commissioner decided that Mallon could go free as long as she agreed never to work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mallon accepted the conditions. On February 19, 1910, Mary Mallon agreed that she "is prepared to change her occupation (that of cook), and will give assurance by affidavit that she will upon her release take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection."11 She was let free.

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