- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Disappearing Cook
Why did people fall mortally ill wherever she worked? She was not about to help the inspector find out
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
On August 27, 1906, the daughter of Charles Henry Warren, a New York banker, fell sick at the family’s rented summer house in Oyster Bay, Long Island. For the first few days the illness was deceptively mild; then the doctor began to note alarming symptoms—ahiefhfeverand low pulse rate, nosebleeds, nausea, and diarrhea. A rose-colored rash appeared on the girl’s stomach, which was slightly distended and sensitive to any pressure.
The syndrome was classic: the girl had typhoid fever, one of the most contagious of communicable diseases. At the turn of the century thousands of people were stricken in typhoid epidemics, and nearly twenty-three thousand died in the United States in the year 1906 alone.
Within the same week that the girl became ill, five more persons in the household, including Warren’s wife, were stricken with typhoid. Experts were brought in to investigate the outbreak and concluded it was due to contagion from the daughter. They could not pinpoint the source of the original infection but said that she had probably contracted the disease from contaminated water or milk, or perhaps spoiled food. There had been no other instance of typhoid in Oyster Bay either before or after the outbreak.
The outbreak might have been forgotten had not George Thompson, the owner of the house, been afraid that it would be impossible to rent it the following summer unless the cause was definitely established. He asked George A. Soper, a sanitary engineer in the New York City Department of Health, to investigate the matter. A well-known epidemic fighter, Soper had been instrumental in setting up emergency health procedures when typhoid epidemics struck Watertown and Ithaca, New York, a few years before.
Retracing the initial investigation, Soper quickly eliminated the usual sources of contamination: the water supply and drainage, the single inside toilet, the cesspools, manure pit, and outside privy. No detail had been overlooked. Frustrated, Soper suddenly sensed that some extraordinary factor had shattered the placid household shortly before the outbreak. He began to concentrate on the possibility of a human carrier, a new theory developed by the noted German bacteriologist Robert Koch. Humans, it was already known, were carriers as long as they were ill themselves and sometimes for several weeks after recovery, when their urine was still highly infectious. Koch, however, believed that outwardly healthy persons also spread the disease, continually breeding the typhoid bacilli within their bodies and discharging the germs in their feces, although they may never have suffered even a high fever. Soper was the first man in America to put the theory to a test.
Because the normal period of typhoid incubation is ten to fourteen days, Soper figured that all the victims in the Warren household were stricken by food or drink taken on or shortly before August 20. He studied the movements of each person without success; no one had left Oyster Bay during the crucial period. However, the Warrens had changed cooks on August 4. The new one, a woman named Mary Mallon, was missing. Mrs. Warren told Soper that she had hired Mary through a New York employment agency that catered to the domestic needs of the well-to-do. Mary was a “pretty good” cook, though not particularly clean and somewhat difficult to talk to. (“Few housekeepers seem to know anything about their cooks,” complained Soper.) Mary left without a word about three weeks after the sickness began.
It was little more than a hunch, but from that time Mary Mallon became Super’s prime target. With the determination of a detective, he began to track her down. He already had a good description of her: Mary was about forty years old, tall, with a buxom figure, blond hair, clear blue eyes, and a firm mouth and jaw. But there was little else to go on. Nothing at all was known about her personal life.
Soper started with the employment agency that had referred Mary to the Warrens. He interviewed dozens of people, collected every scrap of information about her, however innocuous, and with painstaking care, reconstructed a patchy mosaic of her working record for the ten years before she became the Warrens’ cook.
In 1897 Mary began working for a family in Mamaroneck, New York. Early in September of 1900 a young houseguest was stricken with typhoid ten days after his arrival. It was thought at first he had contracted the fever during a visit with friends on Long Island, near an army camp where typhoid was prevalent. Mary left Mamaroneck suddenly a few days after the young man became ill.
During the winter of 1901-2 she cooked for a family in Manhattan. On December 9, one month after Mary arrived, a laundress was taken sick with typhoid and removed to a hospital. There was no investigation, and Mary stayed on for a time.
She next turned up in the summer home of J. Coleman Drayton, a New York lawyer, at Dark Harbor, Maine. The first case of typhoid broke out on June 17, 1902, a few weeks after her arrival. Within the next two weeks six more persons in the household fell sick. Only Mary and Drayton, apparently immune because he had once had typhoid, escaped being stricken. Together they nursed the others. Mary remained until the fever was blunted, and the grateful lawyer gave her a fifty-dollar bonus. The investigators’ report stated that a maid, the first afflicted, had contaminated a water tank that infected the others. However, there was no explanation of how the maid had caught the disease.