- 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
Soper then tracked Mary to the summer estate of Henry Gilsey in Sands Point, Long Island. On June 8, 1904, shortly after her arrival, typhoid felled a laundress who had been on the grounds only ten days. Then three more servants fell ill. Because no one in the Gilsey family was affected, the fever was believed to be rooted in the servants’ quarters, which were separated from the main house. One expert, Dr. Robert L. Wilson, the superintendent of hospitals for communicable diseases in the New York City Health Department, was convinced that the laundress had been infected before coming to Sands Point, but he could not determine how she had contracted the disease.
The next two years in Mary’s past, until she went to work for the Warrens, were a blank, but in December, 1906, Soper broke a fresh trail. Mary had taken a job in Tuxedo, New York, on September 21, only a few days after vanishing from Oyster Bay. Two weeks after her arrival a laundress collapsed with typhoid. Mary left abruptly on October 27.
The evidence of Mary’s implication was now overwhelming: typhoid broke out wherever she worked, and she escaped illness each time and, invariably, ran away when the sickness appeared. Soper was certain that Mary was the innocent victim of her body chemistry—a living culture tube in which the deadly bacilli found a congenial environment, breeding and. multiplying. If forewarned, she could lead a normal life, with only a few restrictions. More important, Mary had to be found before any further outbreaks occurred, and tests had to be taken to prove that she was a chronic carrier—for if she was, then innumerable others might also unwittingly be carriers. Soper needed specimens of her body waste to confirm his theory.
Mary, however, proved an elusive creature, and the search seemed to be at a dead end. Soper, familiar now with her pattern, believed she was probably somewhere in New York City, still working as a cook for some wealthy family. Then one day in March, 1907, he came face to face with her in a private brownstone on Park Avenue in the Sixties. The owner’s daughter was dying of typhoid and a maid was ill with the fever when Soper went by to investigate. He was taken to the kitchen and introduced to Mary.
As she wiped her hands slowly and leaned against the cupboard, Soper calmly began to explain that he suspected her of being a typhoid carrier. It was necessary, he said, to obtain specimens of her blood, urine, and feces. Without warning, Mary grabbed a large carving fork and advanced toward Soper. He fled the house, feeling helpless.
Learning that Mary often spent her nights with a man who lived in a run-down Third Avenue rooming house, Soper decided to confront her again. Accompanied by Dr. Raymond Hoobler, he waited for her at the top of the stairs one evening. Mary got angry the moment she saw him. No sooner had Soper begun telling her that he meant no harm than Mary started shouting that she had never had typhoid nor carried it. She was clean, in perfect health, she insisted, and had no sign or symptom of any disease. There had been no more typhoid where she worked than anywhere else—typhoid was everywhere—Soper was persecuting her. If he knew about Dark Harbor, then he knew she didn’t harm the family but had helped them. Didn’t Mr. Drayton reward her? Nothing Soper said would swerve her. The two men left as Mary stood at the head of the stairs, cursing after them.
Realizing that it was hopeless to reason with her any longer, Soper appealed to Health Commissioner Thomas Darlington and Dr. Hermann M. Briggs, the department’s medical officer. Mary, he said, was “a living culture … a proved menace to the community.” Under suitable conditions, he declared, “Mary might precipitate a great epidemic.” Darlington and Briggs thought that one more attempt should be made to get the specimens peacefully—by someone other than Soper.
On March 18, 1907, Dr. S. Josephine Baker, a Health Department inspector, went to see Mary but had no more success with the unyielding woman than Soper. Mary, her eyes glinting and her jaw set, refused to submit the specimens in a way “that left little room for persuasion or argument.”
The following morning, Dr. Baker returned with an ambulance and three policemen. Her superior, Dr. Walter Bensel, assistant sanitary superintendent for Manhattan, had issued a firm order: get the specimens. If Mary resisted, she was to be overpowered and taken to the Willard Parker Hospital for Contagious Diseases, at the foot of East Sixteenth Street.
Leaving the ambulance at the corner, Dr. Baker stationed one officer in front of the house, a second at the back, and, accompanied by the third policeman, approached the basement entrance under the front steps. Mary, on her guard now, opened the door just wide enough to lunge viciously at Dr. Baker with a kitchen fork “like a rapier.” The doctor fell back into the officer, who then managed to jam his foot in the doorway as the cook fled toward the rear of the house. When they recovered and reached the kitchen, Mary had vanished. The other servants, out of loyalty, denied seeing her.
Dr. Baker and the officers searched the house for three hours and turned up only a single clue: footprints in the snow outside leading to a chair set by the high fence between the brownstone and the one adjoining it. A search of that building proved fruitless, and Dr. Baker called her superior to report that Mary was gone. Dr. Bensel merely replied, “I expect you to get the specimens or to take Mary to the hospital,” and hung up.