Mary Mallon was born in Ireland on September 23, 1869 and emigrated to America around the age of fifteen. It was usual for female Irish immigrants to enter domestic service, but Mary’s ability in the kitchen not only enabled her to work as a cook, but also earned her higher wages than the majority of domestic servants.
Between 1900 and 1906, Mary was employed in around seven different establishments, but wherever she worked, occupants started to fall ill….
All those who treated were found to be suffering from typhoid fever; an illness caused by a strain of salmonella (salmonella typhi) found in human waste, which could be transmitted through ingesting infected food or water. The symptoms include fever, and various unpleasant toilet-related problems, and the disease was more than capable of being fatal.
After members of one family and their staff fell ill after staying at a rented home where Mallon was working, the house owner employed the services of Dr. George Soper, an expert in this particular disease, and he soon began to unravel the unpleasant pattern of events. His suspicion was aroused because typhoid normally only occurred in areas where poverty and unsanitary conditions prevailed; but Soper soon found example after example of people either in or working for more well-to-do families being affected.
Soper’s investigation uncovered one common denominator: Mary Mallon.
She wasn’t an easy person to find... she never left a forwarding address when she changed jobs. But Soper tracked her down and went to interview the clearly unimpressed Irishwoman, who replied to his suggestion with a torrent of abuse and greeted his request for a stool sample with a carving fork!
Unsurprisingly Soper beat a fairly hasty retreat.
Notwithstanding the fact that being asked for a stool sample by a stranger is hardly an everyday occurrence (it’s never happened to me before), Mary Mallon was (outwardly at least) fit and well, and certainly didn’t display any symptoms of typhoid. A second attempt to persuade Mary to part with a sample failed miserably, and Soper therefore asked the New York City Health Department to intervene.
In scenes that would not look out of place in a Mack Sennett two-reeler, Mallon was again armed with her trusty fork when the authorities arrived. Mallon somehow managed to evade five police officers and flee her home, before being tracked down (some five hours later) to a closet in a neighbouring property.
This is the account of what happened next: “She came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigour. 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.”
The required samples were apparently taken by force (not a pleasant image…), and the results revealed typhoid bacteria in her stools. The State offered to pay for the surgical removal of the gallbladder (Mallon refused), and on the basis that she showed no inclination to stop working as a cook, “public health enemy no.1” was placed under house arrest – effectively imprisoned without trial.
“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?” Mallon was reported as saying.
After being held for two years (during which time she had worked as a hospital laundress), Mary Mallon sued the health department. She had been getting stool samples routinely (and privately) tested, and as the results kept coming back negative, she clearly felt it was time for positive action: “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 defenceless woman can be treated in this manner.”
To be a “healthy carrier” was highly uncommon. The chances are that Mary Mallon had suffered a fairly minor bout of typhoid fever, something akin to flu, and she genuinely did not realise (and hence refused to believe) she could be a carrier, and have been responsible for the illness – and at least one death – that she had undoubtedly caused.
Her appeal was unsuccessful, but the following year, she was offered the chance of freedom, in return for signing an affidavit stating she would never again work as a cook, and would do all she hygienically could to protect others from infection.
Whilst she did try other jobs, Mallon returned to cooking, which understandably led some to think she deliberately intended to pass on the disease. In early 1915, twenty-five people fell ill at Sloane Maternity Hospital (two of which subsequently died); and it didn’t take long for the recently hired cook Mrs Brown to be revealed as Mary Mallon… the pseudonym simply adding to the appearance of guilt.
On this day, one hundred years ago, Mary Mallon was dispatched back to the same isolated cottage, where she would spend the rest of her life. Seemingly she was able to work within the adjoining hospital, but in 1932 she suffered a stroke that left her paralysed. Her final six years were spent in the hospital’s children’s ward, where she died in November 1938.
Mary Mallon is now far better known as “Typhoid Mary”. Was she persecuted? Was there prejudice against her because of her nationality? Her sex? Her attitude? Did she knowingly infect others with typhoid? Or perhaps she was genuinely unaware... but wanted to gain some sort of perverse revenge on the authorities who had taken away her liberty?
I certainly wouldn’t profess to know. Popular opinion is that “Typhoid Mary” was a malicious woman; but whatever the truth, it is a remarkable story where there were a significant number of very definite victims... and perhaps one slightly less obvious?
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