Unknown Murderess: The Truth About Typhoid Mary

By Editorial Staff in History On 11th September 2015

#1 MURDERER OR IGNORANT "CARRIER" OF TYPHOID?

On March 27, 1915, New York City health officials quarantined the 45-year-old woman known as "Typhoid Mary" for the second time after linking her to another typhoid fever outbreak. A century later, the name "Typhoid Mary" remains well known, but the details about her life are not. Here are some surprising facts about one of history's most famous infectious disease carriers.

#2 HER REAL NAME WAS MARY MALLON.

Mary Mallon, now known as Typhoid Mary, seemed a healthy woman when a health inspector knocked on her door in 1907, yet she was the cause of several typhoid outbreaks. Since Mary was the first "healthy carrier" of typhoid fever in the United States, she did not understand how someone not sick could spread disease -- so she tried to fight back.

After a trial and then a short run from health officials, Typhoid Mary was recaptured and forced to live in relative seclusion upon North Brother Island off New York.

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#3 ONLY THREE CONFIRMED DEATHS WERE LINKED TO TYPHOID MARY.

The truth is that health inspectors actually could only pin 3 deaths on Mary Mallon. However, she constantly changed her positions of employment and enjoyed cooking for wealthy families, so the actual number of deaths she is responsible for is still a medical mystery.

However, based on the confirmed fatalities, Typhoid Mary was not even the most lethal carrier of the typhoid germ in New York City's history. In 1922, New Yorker Tony Labella reportedly caused two outbreaks that combined for more than 100 cases and five deaths.

#4 TYPHOID MARY WAS THE PICTURE OF HEALTH.

Although she harbored the extremely contagious bacteria that cause typhoid fever, Mallon never demonstrated any of its symptomswhich include fever, headaches and diarrhea. Immune to the disease herself, Mallon was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen. "She denied ever having been sick with the disease, and it is likely she never knew she had it, suffering only a mild flu-like episode," writes Judith Walzer Leavitt in her book "Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health.

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#5 SHE SPREAD DISEASE AS A COOK FOR AFFLUENT FAMILIES.

Like many single women who emigrated from Ireland, Mallon found work in America as a domestic servant. Perhaps fitting given her birth in a hamlet named Cookstown, she proved adept in the kitchen and cooked for some of New York City's most elite families.

As a summer cook for the Thompson family in 1906, the family began to get ill. It was soon discovered they all had typhoid fever.

Since the common way typhoid spread was through water or food sources, the owners of the home feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The Thompsons first hired investigators to find the cause, but they were unsuccessful.

Then the Thompsons hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause.

#6 A SLEUTHING SANITARY ENGINEER TRACKED DOWN TYPHOID MARY.

Typhoid fever was viewed as a disease of the crowded slums, associated with poverty and the lack of basic sanitation. Concerned that the outbreak would prevent him from leasing out his summer house again, Warren's landlord hired George Soper, a freelance sanitary engineer who had investigated other sources of typhoid fever outbreaks, to determine the cause. Although everything from the house's plumbing to the local shellfish supply came up negative, the dogged Soper found the causeMallon, the cook who had worked for the Warrens weeks before the outbreak. Soper researched Mallon's employment history and found that seven families for whom she had cooked since 1900 had reported cases of typhoid fever, which had resulted in the infection of 22 people and the death of one girl.

#7 A COMBINATION OF PEACH ICE CREAM AND MALLON’S POOR HAND WASHING LIKELY SPARKED TYPHOID FEVER OUTBREAKS.

Doctors theorized that Mallon likely passed along typhoid germs by failing to vigorously scrub her hands before handling food. However, since the elevated temperatures necessary to cook food would have killed the bacteria, Soper wondered just how Mallon could have transferred the germs. He found the answer in one of Mallon's most popular dessert dishesice cream with raw peaches cut up and frozen in it. "I suppose no better way could be found for a cook to cleanse her hands of microbes and infect a family," Soper wrote.

Soper was satisfied that this was much more than a coincidence; yet, he needed stool and blood samples from Mallon to scientifically prove she was the carrier.

#8 THE CAPTURE AND ISOLATION OF 'TYPHOID MARY.'

After several attempts from Soper and health officials to get Mary to submit to testing, they were unsuccessful. Finally, after months of searching for a single clue, They spent five hours searching both her work and home properties, until, finally, they found "a tiny scrap of blue calico caught in the door of the areaway closet under the high outside stairway leading to the front door.

Mallon was taken to the Willard Parker Hospital in New York. There, samples were taken and examined; typhoid bacilli was found in her stool. The health department then transferred Mallon to an isolated cottage (part of the Riverside Hospital) on North Brother Island (in the East River near the Bronx).

#9 CAN THE GOVERNMENT DO THIS?

Mary Mallon was taken by force and against her will and was held without a trial. She had not broken any laws. So how could the government lock her up in isolation indefinitely?

That's not easy to answer. The health officials were basing their power on sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter:

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]

#10 WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST MAY HAVE BANKROLLED TYPHOID MARY’S SUIT FOR FREEDOM.

Based on Soper's sleuthing, the New York City Health Department took Mallon into custody in 1907 and placed her into forced confinement inside a bungalow on 16-acre North Brother Island, off the Bronx shoreline, with only a fox terrier as a companion. "I never had typhoid in my life and have always been healthy," Mallon wrote. "Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?" Armed with test results from a private laboratory that came up negative, Mallon in 1909 sued the health department for her freedom, but the New York Supreme Court denied her petition. Where did Mallon get the money to hire a lawyer and pay the legal bills? Leavitt says speculation has fallen on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who "had done so for other people whose stories interested his newspaper's readers." In 1910, new health commissioner Ernst Lederle agreed to release Mallon if she pledged never to work as a cook again.

#11 SHE BROKE HER PROMISE TO STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN.

In 1915, an outbreak of typhoid fever at Manhattan's Sloane Maternity Hospital struck 25 workers and killed two. The epidemic was traced to the hospital's cook, whom the staff had nicknamed "Typhoid Mary." Little did they know that it actually was Mallon, who had taken the assumed name of "Mary Brown." The health department had lost track of Mallon after her release, during which time she cooked in hotels, restaurants and institutions. After her capture, Mallon was once again confined to North Brother Island.

#12 SHE LOVED TO COOK.

Some people believe that Mallon never had any intention of following the health officials' rules; thus they believe Mallon had a malicious intent with her cooking. But not working as a cook pushed Mallon into service in other domestic positions which did not pay as well. Feeling healthy, Mallon still did not really believe that she could spread typhoid. Though in the beginning Mallon tried to be a laundress as well as worked at other jobs, for a reason that has not been left in any documents, Mallon eventually went back to working as a cook.

In January of 1915 (nearly five years after Mallon's release), the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered a typhoid fever outbreak. Twenty-five people became ill and two of them died.

Soon, evidence pointed to a recently-hired cook, Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown was really Mary Mallon, using a pseudonym.

If the public had shown Mary Mallon some sympathy during her first period of confinement because she was an unwitting typhoid carrier, all of the sympathy disappeared after her recapture. This time, Typhoid Mary knew of her healthy carrier status - even it she didn't believe it; thus she willingly and knowingly caused pain and death to her victims. Using a pseudonym made even more people feel that Mallon knew she was guilty.

#13 THE CAPTURE AND ISOLATION OF 'TYPHOID MARY.'

North Brother Island, where Mary Brown/Mallon lived out her life.

After her second apprehension, Mallon spent the last 23 years of her life as a virtual prisoner in forced isolation, adding to the three years from her first stint on North Brother Island. She later got a job working with her hands in the hospital lab, where shoe could not spread any more diseases.

#14 MARY DIED IN 1938 AS THE INFAMOUS "TYPHOID MARY."

Although hundreds, if not thousands, of asymptomatic carriers who had been identified walked the sidewalks of New York freely, Typhoid Mary alone lived in exile in large part due to the public opinion that turned firmly against her after her failure to stay out of the kitchen. She was fated to cook only for herself until her death on November 11, 1938.

Since Mary Mallon's death, the name "Typhoid Mary" has grown into a term disassociated from the person. Anyone who has a contagious illness can be termed, sometimes jokingly, a "Typhoid Mary." If someone changes their jobs frequently, they are sometimes referred to as a "Typhoid Mary." (Mary Mallon changed jobs frequently. Some people believed it to be because she knew she was guilty, but most probably it was because domestic jobs during the time were not long lasting service jobs.)

But why does everyone know about Typhoid Mary? Though Mallon was the first carrier found, she was not the only healthy carrier of typhoid during that time. An estimated 3,000 to 4,500 new cases of typhoid fever were reported in New York City alone and it was estimated that about three percent of those who had typhoid fever become carriers, creating 90-135 new carriers a year.

#15 SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF TYPHOID.

1 - Constant Fever(approximately 104°F)

2 - Constipation

3 - Headache

4 - Diarrhea

5 - Anorexia

6 - Body Aches

7 - Rash of Rose Colored Spots

8 - Abdominal Tenderness

9 - Fatigue or Extreme Weakness

#16 HOW TO PREVENT TYPHOID FEVER.

1 - Vaccination is a great way to prevent the fever, but not 100%

2 - Being cautious about food or drink resources

3 - Only using clean water

4 - Drinking drinks with ice

5 - Eating foods that are thoroughly cooked

6 - WASH YOUR HANDS!

#17 EFFECTS ON THE BODY.

1 - Permanent Red spots will appear on the torso

2 - May suffer headaches

3 - Loss of appetite

4 - Sore throat

5 - Sore or Swollen Tongue

6 - Long Lasting Liver and Kidney Damage

7 - Loss of Vision

8 - Colitis

#18 TYPHOID LIVES ON AND PEOPLE STILL RECALL THE LADY KNOWN AS TYPHOID MARY.

In the most part of the 1830's most deaths were from the Typhoid Fever. Currently, 21 million cases are detected and 200,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. In Australia, Africa, and Asia, it is estimated that over 800,000 deaths are caused by this illness yearly.

The bacteria that cause typhoid fever spread through contaminated food or water and occasionally through direct contact with someone who is infected.