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. Typhoid Mary Mallon (under arrest)Credit: pbs.orgTo be a femme fatale and a pariah is doubly onerous.   Such social labeling in an earlier time meant the immigrant dream of freedom could be shattered at any moment.  Minor criminal acts at the turn of the 20th Century could mean a lengthy prison term in a squalid prison.  Life in the New York City slums was bad enough; for one Irish lass, Mary Mallon, her world turned into one of imprisonment, without benefit of trial, for an accident of biology. 

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.

When Irish Eyes…
The Great Potato Famine plagued Ireland from 1845 through 1852 and beyond.  The staple food crop, the potato, was introduced into Ireland only a couple of centuries before; the water mold that turned the underground potatoes into misshapen, blackened gobs of inedible mush had arrived in Europe the same year the rot began. Bandit's Roost (NYC gang area, ca 1890)Credit: public domain

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).

Mystery Girl
The Irish girl born on September 23, 1869, in the village of Cookstown in Tyrone County (now in Northern Ireland) dreamed of leaving as well.  Mary Mallon, with the devastation and slow recovery from The Great Potato Famine still a recent memory for Ireland, probably felt the need to ship out as many did. Almost nothing is known about her childhood in Ireland or her later earliest years in the United States.  What is certain, though, is that somewhere along the line this Irish girl atypically received a formal education. 

Immigrants in steerage (engraving)Credit: public domainArrivals in the United States after 1892 (when it was established as an immigration station) were processed through Ellis Island, New York.  Ships carrying people listed all known passengers (exclusive of unknown stowaways) on a ship’s manifest, a log book that carried country of origin and other details.  Mary Mallon later told friends she had arrived in the United States when she was 15 years old (in 1884).  This is unsupported.  It seems unlikely that a single, unchaperoned teen girl would have sailed on her own to America.  Steerage accommodations on ships were notoriously brutal.  Passengers had no proper berths; they slept on makeshift bunks or on the decks in the bowels of ships, usually near the engines and other machinery.  Although they spent as much time topside as possible, they could not afford dining in the ship’s mess.  Steerage would have meant young Mary Mallon was crammed into close quarters with no ventilation, the sickening smells of human filth, lice, and, worst of all, the threat of sexual assualt.  Violence in steerage was horrific, and an unattended girl would have been raped repeatedly on the voyage over. 

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: Ships' manifests (line items, 1895 & 1905)Credit: ellisisland.orgThe first is from 1895, when a Mary Mallon of “England”, arrived on Ellis Island on June 12, 1895 (over a decade later than the alleged immigration year of 1884).  This woman was 25 years old; the departing port was Liverpool.  The compelling piece of evidence supporting the passenger as the Mary Mallon of interest is her occupation: “cook”.  Combine that with her age and ask how many cooks named “Mary Mallon” might be possible (the name is obviously Irish, not English – as there was no means of confirming country of origin, officials only had the immigrant’s word to go on).  One can reasonably conclude this could be the Mary Mallon of infamy.

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.] 

She Gives Me Fever
Slum living exacerbated poor sanitary conditions already prevalent in America’s cities.  Open sewers ran through streets, contents of “slop” buckets (containing the previous night’s ordure) were casually tossed out windows and onto unwary pedestrians.  Horses accounted for tons of manure dropped on the streets daily. [Ransom E. Olds, the creator of the Oldsmobile line of autos, specifically went into the automotive business because he hated the smell of horses and the messes they left.]  Rats thrived, garbage filled the streets, and personal hygiene was not high on anyone’s priority list. The idea of washing one’s hands after defecating or urinating was almost beneath consideration.New York City (street scene, 1870)Credit: public domain
Various outbreaks of what today would be easily containable diseases raged into epidemics because of the general lack of sanitation and cleanliness.  Influenza thrived as did cholera.  A particularly fearful disease, though, was typhoid fever – its major symptom produced the means of spreading the disease in an unclean society.  That symptom was diarrhea.

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.  

At Bay
The intrepid George Soper tracked Mary Mallon several months later in March 1907.  She was working as a cook in the home of a man named Walter Bowen and his family.  Thinking he might intimidate Mary into coöperation, he went to the Bowen home when she was at work there. 

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.”

On the Lam
The cops and the doctor searched the Bowen house.  They finally spotted footprints leading away from it to a chair near a fence.  She had obviously climbed it and was gone.  The police and Dr. Baker searched the Bowen and neighboring properties for the next five hours. Finally, one of the sharper officers espied a blue piece of calico sticking out from a door of an area-way closet under a high outside stairway leading to the Bowen’s front door. Cleverly enough, she had managed to throw the police off for several hours by making it appear as if she’d absconded over a fence.

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. 

Most Dangerous Woman in America
Mary was transferred to North Brother Island, a quarantine spot in the East river near the Bronx.  She was admitted to the Riverside Hospital complex, and was installed in an isolation cottage.
Riverside Hospital, North Brother IslandCredit: public domain
Mary refused to believe she had caused any typhoid because she failed to understand how she could be a carrier but not be sick herself.  Her denial stood her well throughout her first stay in quarantine. 

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.


New York American (broad sheet, June 20, 1909)Credit: New York American, 1909 public domain

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 Mallon (1st bed, 1909, in quarantine ward)Credit: public domainDuring her time in the Riverside facility, Mary’s intelligence and literacy became clear. In a six-page letter (written in late June 1909) she describes her treatment at the hospital during her stay.  Her handwriting is excellent, her vocabulary is greater than one would expect from an immigrant servant, and her grasp of the medical nuances of her situation belie an underutilized intelligence. 

Page 6 (letter by Mary Mallon, June 1909)Credit: Mary Mallon, 1909One of the more bizarre suggestions for a “cure” was a proposal that she allow doctors to remove her gall bladder.  Her initial refusals (which she detailed in a letter) were met with a different approach.  A man was first sent in (in Mary’s words) to “inveigle her to have an operation…”.  This failed.  Later, a female confederate was sent in to befriend her, and likewise tried to coax her into this operation.  Mary saw through the ruse.  At the end of this letter she drily comments on her own notoriety, asking if a particular doctor “would like to be insulted and put in the Journal & call him or his wife ‘Typhoid William Park’?”

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.

Locked Down
Mary Mallon, however, could not (or would not) live up to the terms of her release agreement.  Part of it was vanity and another part concerned her marketable employment skills.  Under her release agreement, she was supposed to have been adequately trained for another occupation, one in which handling of food wasn’t a requirement. Public Health warning posterCredit: public domain

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 (in glasses) & Dr. Emma Sherman (ca 1931)Credit: NYC Health Dept., public domainMary turned into a minor celebrity, and she was interviewed periodically by journalists.  Sometimes friends visited her.  All visitors were forbidden to take anything from her that had touched her person.  One journalist said, “I couldn’t even accept a glass of water from her.”

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. Mary Mallon (headstone)Credit: St. Raymond's Cemetery, Bronx, NY

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.

Trampled Underfoot
Loose ends for Mary Mallon may never be resolved.  Her earliest years remain fogged in misinformation or no information.  However, her legacy as a femme fatale, the pariah, the female Jonah, will live on for a very long time.

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]. Index card of ongoing feces testing (mid 1920s)Credit:; public domainWhile there, she had stool samples taken routinely for analysis.  She was embarrassed by this process.  Interestingly enough, the test results varied – sometimes they were positive and other times they were not.  This added to the mysterious nature of her condition (although, of 163 samples tested, 120 of them – about 71% – were  positive for Salmonella typhi).

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" Walker (Marvel, Daredevil, 2007)Credit: Marvel, 2007Today the name Typhoid Mary lives on in strange ways. The term “Typhoid Mary” is applied to anyone who, knowingly or not, spreads something undesirable or deadly.  There is a Marvel comic book villainess named “Typhoid Mary” Walker, a very bad girl indeed. 

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.


Mary Mallon (signature, late June 1909)Credit: Mary Mallon, 1909


Trucker Man
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Mar 18, 2016)