The story of Mary Malone – “Typhoid Mary” – Is the stuff legends are made of. In this case, however, the story of an Irish Cook who begins an epidemic, is entirely true.
This is the story of Mary Mallon
She was born in Ireland in 1869, immigrated by herself to the United States in 1883, where she went to work as a cook for a family in Mamaroneck, New York. Indeed, she was a picture-perfect immigrant – hard working, able, and apparently blessed with some sort of culinary talent.
It was unfortunately for all of those she cooked for that, she did not yet realize that at some undiscovered point in her life she had become a carrier of the very deadly Typhoid Fever.
What is Typhoid?
Typhoid is a bacterial illness, usually spread by exposure to very unsanitary conditions, in the same family of diseases as Salmonella, which is more prevalent today. Usually obtained by eating or drinking tainted foods or liquids, the disease spreads quickly to affect the lymph nodes, liver and spleen, causing fever, rashes, loss of apetite and many other symptoms of general illness. While today one can be vaccinated against typhoid, even unvaccinated people can be treated with generally positive results – one hundred years ago, people were not so lucky.
Prior to the case of Mary Mallon, there had never been heard of a case where a person carried these deadly bacteria, and yet failed to succumb to its symptoms themselves. No one knew it quite yet, but she truly was a remarkable lady in this regard.
The Story of “Typhoid marry”
To add to this fact, it appears that Mary Mallon must also have been suffering from some sort of mental issues, though she was not malicious (at first).
The next step in Mary’s story has her turning into a woman who would be considered by some “the most dangerous woman in America.”
It all began in 1900, when after only ten days of employment with her first family in America the residents there began coming down with typhoid. Probably still not realizing the connection between the disease and herself, Mary escaped the disease and moved on to her next job in Manhattan, where about a week later, several family members again grew ill, and one person died of typhoid. Once again, Mary moved quickly on, to the house of a lawyer, making seven of the eight people in his household sick. Perhaps still ignorant of the situation (or perhaps now realizing the connection but feeling a bit guilty), Mary actually spent time caring for some of the sick in these households, not realizing that by doing so she was only making matters worse.
Mary next moved to Long Island, where once again, she made people sick within only weeks of her arrival, then mysteriously disappeared, onto the next job. She infected a total of four households on Long Island before an epidemiologist named George Soper started to piece together the various New York outbreaks, following a trail of illness wherein the only connection between all of these cases was the cook – a heavy set Irish cook.
Typhoid Mary Turns Malicious
Dr. Soper finally caught up with Mary and rather politely suggested that there might be a link between her and the many outbreaks of typhoid (some of which were still raging in various parts of New York). When he asked her for a stool sample to test for the bacteria, Mary cursed him and ran him out of the house with a meat cleaver.
Feeling as if he had sufficient cause, Dr. Soper had Mary arrested, and forcefully tested.
Sure enough, Mary’s gallbladder was tested and it was realized that she was positively infested with typhoid salmonella. Because she wasn’t exactly a criminal at this point, she was not exactly arrested, but she was not exactly let go either. The state of New York gave her a nice cottage away from people, and allowed her to live peacefully under house arrest, which she did, but only for a few years. Promising never to cook again, Mary was released back to the world in 1910.
Then, for some reason only a psychologist may understand, she went back to cooking.
Mary Mallon changed her name to Mary Brown and started cooking up a storm, and infesting once again as many people as she possibly could. This time, she switched from job to job even faster, knowing that the authorities would be on her trail once again. She started countless more mini-epidemics of the disease throughout New York, infecting countless thousands of people, many of whom died. She was finally captured on Long Island in 1915, and went without a fight. She was quarantined for the rest of her life – 23 more years.
The Celebrity of Mary Mallon
Mary’s last years were spent in Riverside hospital on North Brother Island in New York’s East River as somewhat of a celebrity – though by way of infamy. She gave many interviews (though the interviewers most likely did not stand too close to her while doing so), before finally dying of pneumonia in 1938. Nine people, attended her funeral, though their identities are unknown.
So goes the sad tale of Mary Malon – “Typhoid Mary” as she is better known now. Was she truly malicious in her seeming lack of concern for the health of others, or was she somehow able to convince herself that there was some other explanation for the outbreaks of typhoid?
Surely we will never know.
- Panati, Charles. “Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody.” Harper Collins. 1989.
- Ochs, Ridgely. “Dinner with Typhoid Mary.”
- “Typhoid Fever.” Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia.