Typhoid Mary: The Most Famous Disease Carrier In History

The story of Mary Mallon, or the infamous Typhoid Mary, begins in the year 1906 with a man called Charles Henry Warren.

For their summer vacation that year, the New York banker and his family rented a summer home from George Thompson in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Mary was to be their cook.

Then on August 27th, one of the Warren’s daughters became ill with typhoid fever. She was soon followed by Mrs. Warren and two maids; the gardener and another daughter.

With six people down with typhoid, the owners feared they would not be able to rent the property again without determining the source of the outbreak.

So they brought in George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks.
Immediately suspicious about Mary, who’d resigned three weeks after the outbreak, Soper began looking into her employment history for clues.

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Mary Mallon was born on September 23rd, 1869, in Cookstown, Ireland and came to America around the age of 15.

Like most Irish immigrant women, Mary found employment in domestic service, only in her case, typhoid outbreaks followed her from job to job.

From 1900 to 1907, Mary had worked at seven jobs. Out of the 22 people she’d infected in that time, one young girl died of the typhoid fever.

Soper wondered just how Mary could have transferred the germs, because even if she had handled the food with less-than-clean hands, they would have perished in the cooking process.

The answer was in one of her most popular dessert dishes – ice cream with raw peaches cut up and frozen in it.

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Soper believed that Mallon was a healthy carrier of the disease, a concept that was new at the time. Before he could put forth his case, he needed proof.

One March day in 1907, he knocked on the door of the Park Avenue brownstone where 37-year-old Mary was then employed, asking for a sample of her blood, urine and feces.

Naturally, Mary was not pleased with these demands and came after him with a carving fork.

Realizing it was going to take more persuasiveness than he was capable of, Soper escalated the matter to the New York City Health Department.

After a five-hour search, with the aid of five police officers and an ambulance, they found Mary hiding in a closet and took her to the Willard Parker Hospital in New York.

Just as Soper guessed, typhoid bacilli were found in her samples and she was sent to live in an isolated cottage on North Brother Island.

But Mary believed she was being unfairly persecuted. No one had bothered explaining Typhoid to her. She could have had the fever and never known it.

Naturally, she failed to see how she could have spread disease and caused the death they were accusing her of, saying,

“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?”

After two years in isolation, Mary sued the Health Department in 1909.

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In February 1910, it was decided that she could go free as long as she promised to give up being a cook. Anxious to be free again, Mary agreed.

She tried working as a laundress for a bit, but soon realized that other domestic positions did not pay as well as her previous job.
Feeling “healthy” enough, Mary soon went back to working as a cook.

Then in January 1915, twenty-five people at the the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan became ill with typhoid. Two of them died.
All evidence pointed to a recently-hired cook, Mrs. Brown.

No prizes for guessing that “Mrs. Brown” was none other than Mary Mallon, using a pseudonym.

The Health Department was forced to send her back to North Brother Island to live confinement once again.

Mary Mallon remained a prisoner on the island for about twenty-three years until November 11th, 1938, when at last she drew her final breath.

Since then, “Typhoid Mary” evolved into a term jokingly used to refer to person suffering from a contagious illness.

But Mallon was not the only healthy carrier found, nor was she the most deadly.
And yet, she was held against her will without a trial.

Why was she the only one locked up in isolation for life? Was it lawful to punish her even though it was no fault of hers?

Even if these questions crossed anyone’s minds back then, no one cared to voice them.
Because any sympathy the public had for Mary during her first period of confinement immediately disappeared after her recapture.

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Posted by

Amanda Francesca Mendonça

After spending pretty much all of my teen years waiting for a Hogwarts letter that never came, I gave up and settled for being a wizard with words instead. A hopeless romantic, when I’m not penning down short stories, I’m busy imagining my own happily ever after.

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