Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Blue Plate Special
Pariahs – those shunned for social evils whether real or imagined – come in many forms. Historically, though, it is women (more often than not) who have been victimized. cast-off as unwanted or railroaded as harmful to society.
The femme fatale (literally, “disastrous woman”) is a character in real life and in literature. Many contrive to ruin those around them. Some are perceived as evil because of a Puritanical, archaic belief system. Others are merely flighty; their impulsivity causes their worlds to collapse around them. Yet others engage in misguided subterfuge, and despite their good intentions are cast off and punished for their efforts.
Mary had the misfortune of being an asymptomatic carrier of a very deadly pathogen, and her work as a domestic led to the spread of the disease among those who employed her. She never got sick herself. But, in the interests of public safety and public health, Mary Mallon – infamously better known as “Typhoid Mary” – would spend the last nearly 24 years of her life as a pariah and prisoner of the state.
Each year after the first crops failed, the Irish population suffered exponentially. This famine ranks as one of the worst in recorded history—over a million Irish died of starvation and diseases of destitution. The immigration wave began in earnest; over 2 million Irish left their homeland for other parts of the world. Of that number, 75% decided America was the place for them. And of that number, the majority settled in the Eastern Seaboard’s metropolitan areas of Boston and New York City, probably lacking the resources to move along farther. They created an underclass of undesirables. However, by banning together, even in criminal enterprises such as the notorious street gangs of New York City’s sinister Five Points slum district, the Irish made a place in America.
The economy and population of Ireland in the immediate wake of the Great Potato Famine never fully recovered. For many Irish, even after the famine ended, leaving their decimated island was the only goal. This was particularly true of Ireland’s girls and young women – if they found their way to America they could make a reasonably comfortable place as a domestic for a family or by getting work in the textile factories and sweat shops. Some, like the attractive 17-year-old Irish Catherine McCarty, worked as a part-time prostitute after her arrival in 1846 – she later gave birth to a son, William McCarty (better known to history as Billy the Kid).
Mary Mallon, later as a young adult woman, was attractive. There is no reason to doubt she was not equally engaging as a teenager. She would likely not have survived the trip on her own. [The mother of Billy the Kid, for example, herself very pretty when she arrived in New York City as a 17-year-old had the benefit of a male protector on her voyage – her husband, William McCarty.]
Research revealed two log entries from two different ships and two different years listing a “Mary Mallon” as a passenger:
There is another ship’s record, however, equally compelling. The Anchoria sailed from Londonderry (in the north of Ireland) on September 25, 1905. One of its passengers was a 34-year-old married woman with no job named “Mary Mallon”. [Though listed as “married” that could be a lie or this woman was abandoning her spouse.] This Mary was traveling alone with one piece of luggage. Her destination was allegedly a relative living at “330 Armat Street, Germantown, Phila. [Philadelphia]” This record also indicates this Mary Mallon had been in the US before, in 1903.
Both of these records may fit the Mary Mallon, cook, born in 1869. Records were dodgy as was her personal history before about 1900. Similarly, she may very well have come to the US as a teen in 1884 and in later years infrequently visited Ireland and England on short trips.
Regardless, this Irish girl hit the shores with little in the way of personal possessions. She would have almost no noted presence on the planet until about 1900. Whether she arrived in 1884 or later in 1895, what she did to survive before finding her first known job as a domestic in 1900 is anyone’s guess. Chances are she may have earned her living, while still young and attractive, as a prostitute. [Mary Mallon as a young adult woman was, while pretty, considered “sturdy”. She was tall and robust, and would have had little trouble enticing men in the late 19th Century.]
Typhoid fever (sometimes called enteric fever) is caused by a bacterium, Salmonella typhi. It is the most serious of all salmonella infections, and it attacks the intestinal tract. Symptoms are flu-like in the beginning: after a roughly two-week incubation period, the infected person develops headache, loss of appetite, and fatigue. Another early symptom is constipation.
Within a week, fever (104°F), abdominal pain, nosebleeds, and a slow pulse develop. Pale rose-colored spots, lasting about three or four days, may appear on the chest and abdomen. Once the fever sets in it may last a week or longer (or until the victim dies). During this time, the sick person may lapse into delirium. And then diarrhea sets in, an unremitting expulsion of the bowels that can cause ulcerations and bleeding of the intestines. The fever, for those who would survive the disease, broke about the time the diarrhea set in, but the continual dehydration and inability to gain nourishment many times led to death, as could peritonitis. The typhoid fever weakened the patient so that other opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia, could take root. Treatment then was limited to watching and keeping the patient comfortable.
The bacteria causing the disease came from eating infected food or drinking contaminated water. Flies, incessantly in contact with feces, were transmitters of contagion. The bacteria break through the intestinal wall and travel through the body – thus, it is everywhere in a person who has the contagion. A primary way of infection is if food and water comes into direct contact with urine or feces.
Like most Irish immigrant women, Mary Mallon found work as a servant. These general positions did not pay well, but through her practical experience she found that not only did she enjoy cooking she was very good at it. Cooks in the homes of the wealthy were highly paid, and Mary’s culinary skills ensured she was always working.
In 1900, the earliest verifiable movements for her, Mary moved to Mamaroneck, New York (just northeast of New Rochelle outside New York City). Within two weeks of her starting work as a cook for a family in her new town many members of the household were sick with typhoid. Mary – either out of fear for her own health or fired (it isn’t known) – left that job and moved into Manhattan, the heart of New York City in 1901.
She got another cook’s job, but the household in which she was engaged almost all took sick. The laundress died of typhoid. Mary moved on to another employer, a lawyer. Within weeks, seven members of his eight-member household were sick with typhoid.
After that, Mary held other cook’s positions; everywhere she went, within a short time of her arrival, the family was sick with typhoid. In 1906, she got a plum assignment as a cook for a wealthy vacationer and his family in Oyster Bay, on the north shore of Long Island. New York banker George Warren, the patriarch, had rented a splendid vacation house for the summer. On August 27, one of his daughters came down with typhoid fever. Then, his wife and two of their maids got sick. Finally, the gardener and another of Warren’s daughters came down with typhoid. Six of the eleven people in the house were infected.
The people from whom the Warrens had rented the summer home were named Thompson. The known spread of typhoid was though bad water or bad food. The Thompsons were afraid the house would get a bad reputation, and they would be unable to ever rent it out again. They hired investigators to try to ferret out the source (checking the grounds, the water supply, etc.). There results were negative.
Then the mystified Thompsons called a family friend known as an amateur scientist. This man, George Soper, was a civil engineer by profession, but typhoid fever was a special interest of his. He noted that Mary had left the Warrens’ employ in mid September, about three weeks after the outbreak started. He made the intuitive connection between Mary Mallon, Irish cook, and the mysterious string of typhoid cases scattered in her wake. This man, George Soper, was a civil engineer by profession, but typhoid fever was a special interest of his. It was he who made the intuitive connection between Mary Mallon, Irish cook, and the mysterious string of typhoid cases scattered in her wake. He dug into her employment history – he learned that between 1900 and 1906, Mary had many jobs, and in seven of the households in which she’d worked members had sickened with typhoid: 22 people had been ill, and one had died. George Soper wanted to meet Mary Mallon very badly.
Mary, meanwhile, had moved on; in quick succession she found three more jobs as a cook.
Mary was flabbergasted:
“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.”
Soper, however, was determined. He pressed his case, and Mary was having none of it. In George Soper’s words:
“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.”
Not so easily discouraged, Soper figured out where Mary lived and approached her at her own home. This time, he brought a friend with him, Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler. Mary was again affronted by his request for her blood, feces, and urine. She screamed expletives at the men, and shouted them out of her house. [These incidents would appear in a paper Soper published in June of that year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.]
Soper had failed independently. He went to the New York City Health Department and turned over his research notes and hypothesis about Mary Mallon’s possibly being the source of a typhoid outbreak in New York City. More diplomatically, the Health Department sent a female doctor, S. Josephine Baker, to go talk to Mary and see if she would be more cooperative.
Mary was on high alert now that Soper had ambushed her twice. When Dr. Baker showed up, Mary refused to listen to anything she had to say. Baker came back a few days later with five of New York City’s finest in tow. She had also ordered an ambulance for transport. The scene took place at the home of the Bowens where Mary worked. Mary was ready for them this time, according to Dr. Baker:
“[She] 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.”
Dr. Baker described Mary’s ferocity as she was pulled 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.”
She was taken to a city hospital in New York first. Medical samples were taken. The results were harrowing for a city that was tinderbox for plague and pestilence – Mary’s feces tested positive for typhoid bacilli.
And, although Mary Mallon was not sick, nor had she ever had typhoid fever, the City of New York couldn’t take any chances with her. The Greater New York Charter had provisions for things such as a menace to the public health and welfare – a person of questionable virulence could be detained under quarantine conditions for up to three years.
Her nemesis George Soper even visited her there. Wanting to capitalize on her notoriety he offered to write a book about her story, and alleged he would give her all the royalties for it. She rejected his proposal in anger as out-of-hand; she then locked herself in a bathroom until he left.
It was once her story leaked out that she gained the moniker for which she would be known ever after: “Typhoid Mary”. A sensational news spread in the New York American in June 1909 made sure every subscriber knew of the diabolical Mary Mallon “…The Most Dangerous Woman in America”. Her image, as a stereotype, was used in health awareness campaign and hygiene posters, and the name “Typhoid Mary” passed into the language as a bringer of death and disaster.
Mary, though not sick, spent most of her time housed in a ward with people who actively had typhoid. After she’d been in isolation on North Brother Island for two years, Mary sued the Health Department. To insure equity, for about a year before going to court, Mary had privately sent stool samples off the island to an independent lab. These results all came back negative for typhoid, which fed her belief she was merely being persecuted at the whims of the State:
“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.”
It is what started the course for her freedom in 1910. A more compassionate New York State Commissioner of Health decided that isolation for quarantine patients was inhumane, and he reconsidered Mary’s situation. He made a deal with her: he would set her free on the condition that she never worked handling food again. She was required to sign an affidavit to that effect as well. The affidavit stated that Mary was “prepared to change her occupation (that of a cook), and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection”.
She was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland in February 1910.
The only job found for her by the Health Commission, though, was as a laundress. This paid less than what Mary was used to earning; similarly, there was no glamour in it as there was vicariously as the cook for a wealthy patron. Finally, the more intelligent and sensitive Mary Mallon couldn’t handle the drudgery of laundry work. She worked at other menial jobs, too.
Her freedom lasted but a few years. Bucking the terms of her release completely, she changed her name to Mary Brown. In October 1914 she got a job as a cook in a women’s hospital that treated maternity patients in New York. In January 1915, the hospital experienced a typhoid outbreak – 25 people fell ill, resulting in one death. Public-health authorities had a fairly good idea who was behind it – “Mary Brown” was taken into custody and immediately recognized as the dreaded “Typhoid Mary”. Without ceremony on March 27, 1915, she was returned to the quarantine island in the East River.
Mary Mallon was not always the model patient, however. She was difficult at times. Her physical size occasionally worked to her advantage when she was feeling stubborn. She refused many drug treatments and other suggestions. Often, she would flatly refuse to give stool samples.
She helped out in nursing at the hospital starting in 1922. Considering her tenure, in 1925 Mary was given a job in the facility as a lab technician.
In 1932, she had a stroke which left her paralyzed. She was transferred from her isolation cottage to a bed in the island’s children’s ward where she remained. When she died of pneumonia on November 11, 1938, at the age of 69, the island had been her prison home for the last 23 years, 7 months, and 15 days of her life. Upon autopsy her gall bladder was discovered to still have live typhoid bacteria in it. She was cremated as a precaution, and her ashes were buried in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
As a woman in the early part of the 20th Century, her rights were definitely more frangible than any man’s. In today’s world, such obvious civil rights abuses could not (and would not) be tolerated. Certainly, Mary Mallon, by her refusal to refrain from what she knew could be deadly to others, presented a public health hazard. However, locking her away in quarantine when (as she so bitterly complained time and again) she wasn’t even sick seemed pointless. She was smart enough to realize her situation, and was probably repentant; considering her earlier breaking of her release conditions, though, there was no way anyone was going to set her free.
The two New York City citations used to incarcerate and keep her indefinitely read:
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]
These laws, perhaps well-intended, could not have foreseen a Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of a disease but not herself sick. There was no policy giving direction in handling the unique situation of Typhoid Mary. The health department conceded that, while she wasn’t sick, her condition was more dangerous because she could infect at will while giving all outward appearances of wellness. In the end, public-health authorities, perhaps feeling at an impasse, determined that permanent quarantine was the only way to prevent her from causing significant future typhoid outbreaks.
Mary felt persecuted and alone: “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?” [The Anchoria’s manifest records its Mary Mallon of 1905 as being in “good” health].
Mary Mallon had directly infected 47 people during the years 1900 to 1915. That may seem like a small number (roughly 3 per year on average), but the spread of diseases such as typhoid can be exponential – each one of those people could have infected three others, and so on. Of those known infected by her directly, there were three known deaths. It is unclear, however, how many secondary deaths resulted from her contacts. She was only the first such carrier identified, however; later carriers accounted for many more deaths than she did.
Typhoid Mary’s quarantine gave much food for thought when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s: should such people be sequestered for the public good? Anyone who came into contact with Gaëtan Dugas (the French-Canadian Air Canada flight attendant personally responsible for at least 40 early AIDS cases) probably would have said, “Yes.” But that begs other questions, of course: “Who decides who goes into quarantine? What level of ‘public threat’ is required for quarantine? How do we keep abuses of the quarantine stipulation from happening [meaning, how can one be assured one is under lock-and-key as a true health menace and not for political or prejudicial reasons]?”
Mary Mallon had been freed in 1910. It was not her fault she carried the disease, but then she undermined her own liberty by refusing to accept the reality of her status as a typhoid carrier. Her thinking, of course, was she had been denied due process, was held against her will unjustly, and the situation was an abuse of State authority. The typhoid victims left in her wake – at least the ones who lived – would probably have strenuously disagreed.
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