- 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
Commandeering two more policemen in the street, Dr. Baker resumed the search. After two hours of scouring every possible hiding place, she was ready to give up, wondering how she could face Dr. Bensel, when one of the policemen spotted a piece of blue calico caught in the closet door in the areaway under the high outside front stairway of the second house. A dozen ash cans were stacked in front of the door, evidently put there by the cook’s servant friends.
The cans were removed and the door pulled open. Mary sprang from a crouch and came out fighting and cursing (“both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigor,” the doctor recalled). A big, strong woman, Mary put up a bitter struggle for her freedom. It took all five policemen to finally subdue her and lift her, kicking and screaming, into the ambulance.
“I made another effort to talk to her sensibly,” said Dr. Baker, “and asked her again to let me have the specimens, but it was 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. … I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”
Mary Mallon was locked away in a bare, stark-white isolation ward, classified as a dangerous patient who might attempt escape. She was the charge of Dr. Robert L. Wilson, who had investigated the Sands Point outbreak in 1904, and Dr. William H. Park, chief of the Health Department’s bacteriological laboratories.
The first analysis of Mary’s feces showed a pure culture of the deadly bacteria. Subsequent examinations for the next eight months disclosed that except for intervals of a few weeks, her body was continually discharging the deadly germs. The tests established, without doubt, that an outwardly healthy person could breed and spread typhoid fever.
Shortly after her arrest, Soper, in a sense her nemesis but with compassion for Mary, visited her at the hospital. She was “fearfully angry-looking” as he spoke:
“Mary, I’ve come to talk … [to] see if between us we cannot get you out of here. … You would not be where you are now if you had not been so obstinate. … Nobody wants to harm you. You say you have never caused a case of typhoid, but I know you have done so. Nobody thinks you have done it purposely. … Many people have been made sick and have suffered a great deal; some have died. … You were arrested and brought here and the specimens taken. … They proved what I charged. Now you must surely see how mistaken you were. Don’t you acknowledge it?
Mary only glared at Soper as he continued, “Well, I will tell you how you do it. When you go to the toilet, the germs which grow within your body get upon your fingers, and when you handle food in cooking they get on the food. People who eat this food swallow the germs and get sick. If you would wash your hands after leaving the toilet and before cooking, there might be no trouble.”
Soper tried to glean some sign in her face that he was breaking through, but Mary remained silent and grim, staring at him with angry eyes. He persisted, saying that the bacteria were probably hatched in her gall bladder and that it should be removed. The operation was difficult and not always successful, but her case called for the most drastic preventive measures.
“You don’t need a gall bladder any more than you need an appendix,” Soper concluded. “There are many people living without them. … I don’t know how long the Department of Health intends to keep you here. … I can help you. If you will answer my questions. … Above all, I want to know if and when you have had typhoid fever, and how many outbreaks and cases you have seen.”
Her eyes digging into Soper’s, Mary rose from the bed, drew her robe about her, walked into the bathroom, and slammed the door. Refusing to co-operate, she thereafter maintained that the operation was only “a pretext for killing her.”
After several weeks at the Willard Parker Hospital, Mary was transferred to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, a bleak, thirteen-acre patch of ground in the East River between Long Island Sound and the roiling waters of Hell Gate. She was eventually allowed to work as a laundress, but otherwise she was cut off from contact with others. Mary Mallon, however, was no spirit to languish without a fight.
Two legal actions to free her were brought against the city. On June 9, 1909, Mary and a lawyer who specialized in medical cases, George Francis O’Neill, appeared before a state supreme court judge. She testified that she had been kept “like a leper,” with only a dog for company. Three times a day, she said, a nurse shoved food through her door, then ran away in fright.
O’Neill argued that Mary was being deprived of her freedom without having committed a crime or knowingly having done injury to any person or property. She had been held without a hearing, he pointed out, and was apparently under a life sentence, contrary to the United States Constitution. Such action was without precedent in law, he declared.
The judge, however, ruled against Mary’s petition. He expressed sympathy but said he was unwilling to take the responsibility for freeing her.
Nearly a month later, on July 22, 1909, another judge denied a writ of habeas corpus, stating that the Health Department had acted within its rights in holding Mary Mallon in custody. As authority he cited sections of the city charter dealing with “imminent peril,” as well as the state’s health law.